From Berkeley to the Basin

By Chris Clarke

Author Chris Clarke is a journalist, writer, activist, and co-host on the new podcast, “Ninety Miles from Needles.” Clarke has been interpreting the desert for more than 30 years. He is joined by co-host, Alicia Pike, a talented co-conspirator, and by the community of activists and others working to keep the desert whole.

Twenty-five years ago, I quit my job at Terrain, a monthly environmental publication of the Berkeley Ecology Center of which I was the sole full-time staff person. Editor, reporter, layout and designer, and publisher. Too much bad environmental news had sent me into a depressive pit of burnout. I came from the Bay Area to the Mojave for four weeks or so. I spent a lot of time looking at the night sky from Cima Dome, watching Orion chase the bull, watching Canis Major come to Orion’s heel.

I arrived in the Mojave by way of Sonora Pass, admittedly not the most direct route between the Bay and the Mojave. I camped that night beneath Jeffrey pines at the headwaters of the Owens River. It was cold, and so I lit a fire and cracked open eight or nine beers. There was only one other party in the campground, two young couples up from Los Angeles, and I joked that they knew who to talk to if they accidentally caught too many trout.

Two hours later, one of them walked into my site with two fresh trout, gutted and cleaned. Just the day before, my best friend Matthew had given me a box of camping food nearing its expiration date – it needed to be eaten or discarded soon. I rummaged and found a plastic bag of slivered almonds. Olive oil and cast iron, and the maple cutting board in the shape of a pig that my grandfather had cut on the jigsaw 35 years previously, and fingers numbed with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and 37-degree nighttime mountain air, and I was happy.

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I had brought copies of every single issue of Terrain I had edited, save the most recent. That one was still at the printer. I took the stack and considered it, then leafed through the oldest issue, from five years previous. The half-remembered bad news and the embarrassing typographical mistakes and odd layout decisions leapt out at me.

It caught fire nicely.

So did the next issue, and the issue after that. I started another beer and put the subsequent issue on without even opening it.

Terrain was a monthly newspaper, and then a monthly magazine, and I had spent a minimum of 250 hours putting each one together. You do the math. Each issue was a month of lost sleep, of arguments with coworkers over budgeting, of waiting for 11 by 17 page spreads to render in Quark on said Mac II with four megs of RAM, of pleading with writers to allow me to reprint their articles from Usenet, of propping my eyes open to get just one more page of corrections entered before I crawled into bed, of bending over the light table to paste up page spreads. I had hauled each of these issues back from the printer. I had hauled each of them to the post office.

Each one caught, flared, burned to ash in less time than it took me to typeset three paragraphs. I watched the pages curl, friends’ bylines backlit and consumed.

The hangover the next day was formidable. I drove down Hwy 395 and then east to Death Valley. A few days later it was October 23, 1997. Eyes on the Pleiades from my perch on Cima Dome, I toasted the planet earth on its 6000th birthday as defined by James Ussher, who had decreed that the earth was created on that day in 4004 B.C.

My resolve to move to the desert permanently dates back to that trip. It took me about ten years to make it happen, to become just one more goddamn San Francisco environmentalist parachuting into the Mojave to drive the local housing prices up. Though I have done my best to give something back to the desert here and there.

This morning, January 20, I had a chance to have coffee in the Coachella Valley with a friend of mine from the Terrain days, who I hadn’t seen for about 20 years. It felt like no time had passed, despite the fact that he’d had two daughters since we last saw each other, the oldest of whom is now graduating from UCLA. It was like inhabiting a coastal Californian self I’d long thought I’d cast off.

Which leads me to think that if I’m still in some sense that Bay Area Tourist, whose last visit just hasn’t ended after 15 years, and I’ve developed a bit of a resume of having fought for the desert, it stands to reason that others could do the same. We’re about to see an influx of visitors as the rains generate a new “superbloom,” to use a word I kind of loathe. Let’s see how many of their hearts we can capture and set them to work protecting the desert we all love.

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