The Death of the Cowboy Angel & A Chat with Gambel’s Quail

Last week I saddled up my US Airways pony and headed to the left coast in search of something. That something started to take form over the milk-topped mountains of the Rockies, and it gained profundity as we glided over the drained ocean floor of eons ago that became the red skinned desert of Arizona, California, and the great and wild west. I came back to earth in Los Angeles, but only for a moment. As my gracious host talked about studio outtakes with Donovan and travels to Germany, I felt like I was shedding my cold Chicago skin and being warmed to the ways of L.A. I kept one foot in the present and with the other stepped into a daydream where black-tailed jackrabbits mixed tapes for the Grievous Angel who was laying down tracks in his mystical desert hotel.

The next day I spent in Los Angeles meeting some very pleasant shop owners. We commenced to talk shop about my wares and their shares of these wares should they sell , and after a full day of selecting only the best of these design savvy depots, I was ready for a new landscape. I changed my diet to Reese’s cups, Negro Modelo, and Vitamin Water, repacked my bag, combed my hair, and washed my face before my buddy and I climbed into my white boxcar and headed back east towards the lost civilization for a greater realization of the temperature extremes of the desert. We coasted into Joshua Tree, gliding past our hotel - the Joshua Tree Inn - which gained notoriety in 1973 when Gram Parsons took things that made his soul leave his body and it never returned. You can read the full account here.

I have never been in the desert. At least, I had never been in the desert before this journey. I’m 32. Growing up in Virginia, I always had visions of the desert as being overgrown with giant saguaro cactus which were poking through the giant carpet of fine grained sand. Too many Client Eastwood movies and too many photos of bleached cow skulls had overloaded the “desert” area of my brain; I was not prepared for what, in all actuality, was a prolific spread of multicolored succulents and geologic formations sprinkled over a landscape that was quite the opposite of barren. The Mojave Desert gives birth to some 2000 plant species, about 500 of which are endemic to that desert area alone. I was in the desert for a day and a half, and was only able to focus on about 25 separate species. My eyes weren’t big enough to take everything in.

We explored over the rocks and into the mesquite lined ravines, out into the California Juniper, marveling at the Creosote bush, whose laughing limbs are 900 year old sun cracked smiles. Red barrel cacti dotted the landscape like little plump desert Buddha trail markers, motioning for me to sit and meditate. We hiked up into an area I named the Devil’s Knuckles, thinking about all the Louis L’Amour painted book covers I mentally cataloged from dad’s bookshelf. I paused for pictures with the Teddy Bear Cholla, named the Jumping Cholla for its desire to hitchhike on passersby. The coral-like arms of the Pencil Cactus were yet another nod to the previous life of the desert floor when it was filled with other creatures and plants thriving under salt the water. 

As the sun relaxed in the western sky and the last colors of the day released themselves from all the rocks to paint the desert with a buttery brush, we walked back to the trail. As we cruised by a large brush, an animal I thought to be a stray dog shifted its feet in the sand, betraying its camouflage. While I tried to focus my eyes on its form, it lifted from its crouched position and danced zigzag over the red rocks, waving its tail that looked like it had been dipped in black strap molasses. The Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Its ears were longer than my forearms, its feet like giant paddles, its composition of soft and delicate fur draped over a body that stiffened like settling concrete. 

I discovered that the ghosts of the desert appeared appropriately out of thin air and then disappeared back into that same ethereal mist leaving me with a chest tight with adrenaline and excitement. Our staccato chit chat as we neared the trailhead startled two small grey birds shuffling towards an outcropping of rock. I grabbed my pal’s arm and pointed as the birds exploded into balls of feather, diving into two thick masses of shrubbery and rock. Gambel’s Quail wears an unmistakable mask of black and a topknot headdress. Its small plump silver body making it apparition-like in the fading desert light. 

We tossed our bird calls at the rocks and caught them in our ears as they mixed with the quails own chatter, and as the moon finally pulled a blanket over the desert’s eyes, we stepped out of the dream and onto the blacktop.