You know what I hate? I hate when Fox News notices my favorite slightly secluded campsite in the Mojave Desert. They attract pest organisms. There you’ll be sitting quietly among the Joshua trees, enjoying the company of Mojave green rattlesnakes and tarantulas and kissing bugs and other such perfectly honorable animals, and then suddenly a chill wind will blow up the back or your shirt as the television news trucks arrive and some putrescent individual like Sean Hannity steps out into the sunlight, pasty and blinking and malignant. You can actually feel the cacti wither in revulsion.
Since October 1997 I’ve spent probably more than a hundred cumulative nights camping at a little spot about a quarter mile off the pavement at Cima Dome, a large rise in the Mojave National Preserve. It’s a great place, generally pretty quiet aside from wind and cactus wrens. It’s comfortable in the summer, cooler than much of the surrounding desert at around 5,500 feet /1650 meters in elevation. My friend Matthew and I camped there during a heatwave in August 2005, watching thunderstorms, and it actually got down to 90°F or so at night, cold enough that we left after a couple days for Death Valley, where it was a slightly less chilly 117°F on the valley floor. It’s not a bad place for desert winter camping, either, with only occasional snow, and plenty of dark sky to watch the Hunter and his Dog chase the Bull across the night sky.
That’s not what started me going there, mind. The thing that recommended Cima Dome as a place I wanted to visit back in 1997 is that fact that it’s home to the world’s most extensive forest of Joshua trees.
And as a large swath of Joshua tree forest that is protected from most further disruption and dismemberment by the National Park Service , the landscape of Cima Dome turns out to be a great place to watch the mid-elevation California Mojave Desert ecosystem at work. It’s a beautiful, diverse landscape in which I see something new each time I visit.
Where does Fox News come into this? In 1934 a local miner, John Riley Bembrey, put up a cross atop Sunrise Rock as a memorial to World War 1 vets. A lot of shell-shocked, lung-damaged veterans had come to this part of the Mojave to try to put themselves back together after they’d seen Paree, and phosgene. Riley was a medic in the war, and his memorial meant a lot to him. When he died in the 1980s he asked local John Sandoz to keep the memorial going. John and his wife Wanda have since repaired and replaced the cross a few times.
When the California Desert Protection Act was passed in 1994, the land surrounding Sunrise Rock became the Mojave National Preserve. The Mojave Cross was suddenly an unambiguously Christian symbol on National Park property. Former Assistant Preserve Superintendent Frank Buono sued with the ACLU’s help to get the cross declared a violation of the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution. A surprisingly complex series of court proceedings followed, the result of which was that the Congress and SCOTUS essentially colluded in a bit of sleight of hand: the most recent iteration of the cross would stay, and an acre of land surrounding it would be transferred to a local veterans’ group. People would still see a cross in a prominent spot in the Mojave Preserve with no obvious explanation of the thing’s history and no obvious sign saying “this isn’t Preserve property,” but the letter of the Constitution would be obeyed.
That decision came down in 2010. Two weeks later the cross was stolen, which act sent wingnuts nationwide into a media-fueled meltdown. Fox News led that charge: it was a War On Jeezis, and the sheer bullshit flung about in defense of the fundamentalist Yeehawdis’ position was formidable indeed.
A few days ago the stolen cross was found in the San Francisco Bay Area. This weekend the local VFW reinstalled it at Sunrise Rock with a Veterans’ Day ceremony. And so things rest until it gets stolen again. Which is inevitable.
I have to admit that before the ACLU lawsuit went very far, the cross didn’t bother me much. I wished it was gone, of course, but there were a lot more pressing ways in which wingnuts were threatening the landscape of the Preserve, like, say, giving the National Park Service a dollar as an annual budget for running the entire 1.6 million acres. Having a sense of the cross’s provenance helped me regard it as a historical part of the landscape. Of course, there are limits: the cross’ defenders claim it’s a secular memorial symbol, which is about five different flavors of bullshit, especially considering the traditional Easter Sunday services held on the site. Still, having it there didn’t seem horribly egregious.
But I can’t shake the weird ooky feeling that comes from having the national wingnut movement focus its dim, beady eyes on a landscape that I love. The media attention this time around seems more limited, less desperate, but also far more smug.
Empirical materialist that I am, I still find it tempting to describe my feelings for the Cima Dome landscape with words like “sacred.” Spending time there renews me. Friends I’ve shared it with say the same thing. It feels as much like home to me as any place on Earth. Having it become a cause celebre for some of the most destructive people in our society, people who’d just as soon mine the place and pave it as protect it, still galls me. And now a neat 1-acre enclave has been carved out of the Preserve for just those people to run as they see fit. With a cross on top.