Saturday, April 16, 2011

The White Heart of Mojave


I've just finished reading a lovely desert memoir, "The White Heart of Mojave," written by Edna Brush Perkins in 1922. It's the chronicle of a journey she took across Death Valley with her friend Charlotte Hannahs Jordan. These two women of privilege from Cleveland went to California on a vacation with no particular destination in mind. They saw the Mojave Desert from the train and were hooked.

At the time, virtually no one took pleasure trips to Death Valley. Perkins writes: "We went to the Automobile Club; they received us with enthusiasm and told us about all the places California is proud of and how to get to them, but California seems not to be proud of the desert, for when we mentioned it our advisers became gloomy." The women persevered and ultimately ended up traveling across Death Valley, and up the surrounding mountains, for a month in this grocery wagon pulled by Molly, a white mule, and Bill, a red horse. ("They were absolutely desert-proof, they could live on nothing at all and drink soda-water forever.")

Their guide was Julius Meyer, an old-timer who had lived in the desert for 20 years. Perkins describes him thus: "He had a fine face, very somber in repose as though he had met with some lasting disappointment, but wonderfully lit by his occasional smile. His eyes had a hard clearness which living on the desert seems to produce. They looked straight at you. He said little, the kind of man who announces his decisions briefly and carries them out."

Perkins waxes poetic about virtually everything she sees and feels:
"We walked on and on, full of a strange, terrible happiness...every link with mankind was gone. We stood still listening to the silence. It was immense and all enveloping. No murmur of leaves, nor drip of water, nor buzz of insects broke it. It brooded around us like a live thing. 'Do you hear the universe moving on?' Charlotte whispered."

If you would like to read this book, you're in luck! The entire text and illustrations are available online, click here There are also several later editions available on amazon.com, including one edited by Peter Wild (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) with bonus material like the photos of Edna Brush Perkins and Julius Meyer reproduced above.