Desert Death

It was like a giant celestial radio tuned between stations. An incredible buzz, a drone that ebbed and flowed but never disappeared. A constant mantra produced by millions of beating wings. Every now and then, a single individual hum would separate from the mass and skim close. All I could think about were Stuka dive bombers while I cowered under my rain poncho. The air had a faint rubbery taste and was slowly being depleted of oxygen.

“You’re using up all the air,” I whispered, as if I could be heard with the ever-present droning.

“I am not, besides, I have to breathe the same as you. Did you hear that? I think one got underneath. Listen…” my partner said as he began thrashing at the poncho, causing it to bounce several times off my face.

“Hey, watch it, you’re going to let more of them in,” I warned. Outside, the bloodthirsty mob hummed even louder, stirred on by the momentary movement. Our only hope was to lay quiet, still as two corpses under a rubberized shroud.

It had only been two days since we left California, heading east by our own wits and the kindness of strangers. It was 1968, and we were hitchhiking to discover America, or maybe for America to discover us. My road partner, Clay, was a good-looking young man with clear blue eyes and a drooping handlebar mustache with carefully waxed and uplifted ends. We had spent a week or so traveling together in the spring and had enjoyed each other’s company so much that a longer trip was planned for the summer. I’m not sure we even had a defined destination; just heading east, perhaps New York, perhaps not. We were free for the whole of the summer, so we had little concern for timing, direction, or destination.

After a slow start, our growing concern was that we were becoming a little too successful in hitching rides. The last ride picked us up just outside of Reno and wanted to take us all the way to Salt Lake City. As we sped through the desert, we began to realize that things were moving a little too quickly, and we would leave Nevada behind before we could experience what she had to offer. Of course, the other factor was that the ride itself was in a MGB sportscar with two guys already sitting in the proper seats. I was in the boot, wedged behind the seats; Clay was curled on the back shelf, looking like an overlarge Cheshire cat, grinning with his drooping mustache. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the four of us managed to stay within the confines of the car, although just barely.

“Tell you what, this will be fine right here, we just want to spend a day or so in the desert before leaving Nevada. Thanks for the lift, though. See ya,” I said, even though I knew we never would. Persuading them to stop in what looked like the middle of nowhere was no easy task. We untied our packs from the luggage rack and the MGB roared off to Salt Lake. Clay and I headed off at right angles to the highway, straight towards the Black Rock Desert. The Humboldt River was somewhere ahead; in the falling light, I could just make out a patch of green in stark contrast to the dry desert.

We made our camp not far from the tule-lined river. The highway was three or four miles behind us, far enough that no sound reached us, not even from the 18-wheelers. As the sun set and the sky went from blue to pink and then blue-purple, we ate our evening meal and talked of our day’s adventure. It became a sort of ritual that lasted the whole of our summer. We would go over the day, retelling events from our own perspective, and as it turns out, we rarely saw the same thing, even when we were standing next to each other. One thing neither one of us saw was the danger of our present campsite.

This pleasant little area, tucked away in a little depression by the slow moving Humboldt River, became Ground Zero for the largest air attack in mosquito history. The onset was quick and deadly. In the middle of our evening discussion, groups of four or five began diving on us; we soon found that we didn’t have enough hands to swat effectively. While our attention was on our necks or face, another group had landed on our arms or thighs. Only a minute or so had passed from the first faint buzz, and now a full-fledged attack was in progress. Even in the starlight, you could see the carcasses beginning to mound up at our feet. Wounded survivors were looping crazily towards the ground, still hoping for one last chance at a piece of exposed flesh.

Giving up attempts to fend off the swarm, we tried to cover ourselves with heavier clothing. This failed on two counts: one, this was still the desert and we were overheating, and two, this particular breed of mosquito had, through evolution I suppose, developed a bloodsucking hypodermic capable of penetrating a half an inch of cowhide. Under the circumstances, the wise thing to do was retreat under our ponchos.

We lay still in the desert, listening to millions upon millions of creatures whose only desires were to suck our blood. I had begun to take the attack personally, then I realized, what choice was there? What other life was around here? How much blood did a scorpion or sagebrush have? We were probably the only living thing that had any blood within ten miles. Eleven miles away, there had been a small herd of cattle, but now each one was only an empty leather bag filled with bones, sucked dry of any fluid by the beasts flying above us. At least, I so imagined.

Time passed very slowly, I don’t think we slept that night. I know that when the first light of dawn crept over the horizon, we, likewise, crept out from under our ponchos. The mosquito cloud descended upon us and we packed, and swatted, and dressed, and swatted, and finally, we fled as no defeated army had ever fled. The sound of feet thumping on desert sand, canteens clanking, and pack-frames creaking with stress filled the morning air. It was then that I looked over at Clay, running some ten yards beside me, and saw that a portion of the cloud still followed him, two or three yards to his rear. The morning sun had by now done an excellent job of highlighting the hoard. And I suppose our running through the bushes alerted every mosquito in the area, who simply turned on their heat-seeking radar and joined the attack. The cloud had taken on a gestalt quality, millions of mosquitoes creating a single powerful entity.

“Clay, they’re still behind you. Cut to the left,” I yelled. I figured that if he didn’t lose them, they would follow us all morning, and we might not have enough blood in us to get to the highway. Clay was doing some nice open field running when he signaled to me that I had my own cloud to worry about. “Great,” as I glanced back, “two entities.” I could see a dense, swirling mass two or three feet behind me. We knew that we couldn’t outrun them, so we both stopped and turned to face the onslaught. Within seconds, hundreds landed and began to bore through our clothing. Swat, swat, smack. Minutes passed. Arms windmilling, casualties mounting, a quarter of the cloud piled at our feet. “Run away,” we both yelled. We started again for the highway, crisscrossing in front of each other, hoping to confuse our clouds or at the least cause some deadly midair collisions.

Every 50 or 60 yards, we would stop, spin around, wreck havoc with hand slaps and swats, resulting in another quarter of the cloud missing in action.

There was almost a symphony being played in the desert air. Two pairs of feet pounding out a rhythm on the dry sand, with the scratching of clothes on sagebrush as an accent. Of course, there was the random crater of two packs bouncing when they were never supposed to bounce. And finally, there was the double-handed slapping to an entirely different measure. It was a epic cacophony.

Over and over, this deadly little play was acted out until finally the cloud diminished, the casualties finally outnumbering the replacements. By the time we reached the road, not one mosquito was with us.

I have no idea what those early morning travelers thought as they looked towards the river that June morning. They saw two young men running madly through the sagebrush, turning towards the sun every 50 yards, beating themselves about their heads and shoulders, striking their breasts and thighs, then running crisscross to repeat the pattern all over again. A morning wakeup ritual? Flagellating sun worshippers? Or just desert madness brought on by chewing loco weed?

No…just two young men experiencing the Nevada desert. Safe in their air-conditioned cars, the passing travelers probably didn’t understand. I know they didn’t stop to ask for an explanation. 

Bone Dance

Life in and around the camp had become a little too citified, so Clay and I decided to head out on a couple of extended day hikes. On one of these trips, we had probably gone about four or five miles into the interior of Yellowstone when we came upon a gigantic dead tree, toppled over in the middle of a grassy, verdant meadow. The gray tree lay in stark contrast to the green of the meadow, ringed by the darker green of the pines several hundred yards away. When this one was alive, it must have been an impressive sight, standing alone, lord of the meadow. It was an impressive sight now, dry as bone, gray as bone, with huge branches still reaching out from the fallen trunk. Clay leaned against a branch and it snapped off, shattering into a dozen pieces. 

Looking at the pieces on the ground reminded me of something. They looked like the backbone of a dinosaur, loose stegosaurus vertebrae, scattered on the meadow’s carpet.

In circling the tree, I came across a curious collection of real bones. We decided that it must have been a bison or elk that had died there during a hard winter. No flesh, just bones, like the tree.

Suddenly, Clay started tucking rib bones in his belt, eventually making himself a bone skirt. He looked a little like a New Guinea native. The rib bones had a nice curve that gave the skirt a little flare. Then I began collecting bones, tucking them in my belt. Pretty soon, our shirts were off, our shorts were off, we were dressed only in our bones, our belts, and our hiking boots. Dressed as we were, it was only natural that we should perform the “Bone Dance.”

We had each taken a tremendous thigh bone from the pile, and armed with this, we descended upon the tree. Coupled with grunts and shouts, we counted coup on the old dead tree. Spinning in circles, weaving cross-steps, then advancing with a shout, we struck the upright branches and they fell shivering into hundreds of pieces. Crack went bone of animal upon bone of plant. Crack! Branch by branch they fell, backbone by backbone, while we hollered in our bloodlust and danced. Viking berserkers, running amok, tribal shamans, exerting power and influence.

In the end, the tree lost. The branches were all shattered, strewn about our battlefield. Not one spine was left intact. Our hands ached; our bone clubs had cracked. Completely exhausted, we replaced the bones in the bone pile, put our clothes back on, and observed the truth. The piles of broken branches would disappear by next winter, the tree was becoming soil, the bones were becoming soil. Nature was at work here; our impact was momentary and fleeting. The real victor was the meadow.


For all installments of “On the Road Again,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1