by MURIEL VAN TUYL TRIGG
IT WAS dark in the Mojave Desert when my husband and I bumped over forty miles of liverstirring roads and deposited our camp equipment at the oasis of Twentynine Palms. We Idled our buckets at the spring under the palms and cottonwoods and filled our lungs with the pure, dry air. We were on a short outing, taken by perverse choice in January instead of June, and on this first trip into the desert we were seeking only peace and the perspective of space. All night we listened at wakeful intervals to mysterious marauders who came to the spring to drink and paused long enough to sniff at the hitman beings who might prove foe or friend.
The dawn revealed to us an artist’s paradise, and when I was able to bring my attention back from heaven to earth, there it was: a road not fifty feet from our camp, just two faint tracks really, snaking away among the sagebrush toward hills four or five miles to the northwest.
Unmarked roads have always been my undoing. After breakfast we set out on foot. The road led us through a maze of fragrant sagebrush and greasewood, through deep sandy washes where the smoke trees were tall enough to play hide-and-seek with the view. The road changed direction so subtly that we would look up from the path — which we watched for the huge holes of rabbits and turtles, so cleverly camouflaged that a careless walker might break a leg — to find an entirely new arrangement of dunes, hills, and background of mountains.
When we reached the foot of the hill we were to climb, we realized that distance had dwarfed it and it was a good 500-foot rise. Cloudbursts had washed gullies to the dignity of small canyons, and we found moonstones and rocks of exquisite coloring. Dried cow dung and an old stone skin-scraper set us to wondering about the Indians and the herds of wild cattle once living here.
We followed the rise up the wash, fascinated by the large dike which cut diagonally through the hills. We paused on a promontory to take the sweaters from our shoulders and tie them around our waists — and there, looking back, we saw the treasure. Through the V of two overlapping hills was the concentrated view of the “Twenty-nine Palms.” Not even “Government Surveyor Washington” who named them could have been more surprised and pleased than we were as we feasted our eyes on the beauty of the scene and the promise it held of cool water and shade when we should return in the afternoon.
But we were not yet at the top, and were unprepared for the sensation we experienced when we reached it and stood high and free, startled by the transition from possible human contacts to absolute privacy. No sound reached us from the habitations scattered over acres and acres and acres of sand, and seen as isolated dots. No movement interrupted our clear vision of a panorama I shall never forget. On one side lay the Pintos, and Gorgonia raised a snow-white head sixty miles away. The Bullions lay due north, splashed with shadows; and beyond them, the Sheepholes.
Wallace, too, was absorbed in abstraction. What message he was gaining from the pressure of silence I didn’t find out, for he turned to me and said, “Let’s eat.”
Actually, he shared my enthusiasm, and before the end of our vacation we determined to rent our home in Pasadena, turn our languishing business over to a partner, and settle on our hilltop. We bought a “relinquishment” so that we might file a claim on a 160-acre homestead, and within a year we had stepped out on a desert adventure which today is evidenced by our guest ranch, Singing Sands. Its three houses are built of adobe brick, and we built them.
IT WAS my idea that it would be romantic to make our own adobe brick and build every bit of our house by hand, ourselves. After all, we didn’t possess a cement mixer and didn’t feel justified in investing in one. Back in Pasadena, while Wallace studied such practical things as sewer pipe and bulletins on “How to Build a House,” “How to Make a Fireplace,” I was visiting every adobe house built by the Spaniards within a radius of twenty miles. The historic old Adobe Flores building where California had been signed over to the Americanos was the most inspiring. I’m sure that Mrs. Noyes, who was at one time its owner, won’t mind my relating a bit of our conversation.
“What do you know about making adobe brick?” she asked Wallace and me. “I wouldn’t have any but Mexican-made brick myself. Are you intending to mix manure with yours ?”
We admitted we had intended to use straw.
“Well,” she said, “the Mexicans, who really know how to make brick, always use manure with theirs.”
I could hardly wait until we were outside to ask Wallace why he had looked as if he would explode when she said that. “Because, my dear,” he explained, “she apparently didn’t know why the Mexicans use manure in their brick mixture. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the Mexicans are too lazy to cut up the straw themselves, so they let the donkeys do it.”
At the risk of getting ahead of my story, let me assume that you don’t know any more about making brick than we did. Here is how we began. First, we made a wooden form. Not to be outdone by the Mexicans, and being at that time as ignorant as the donkeys they employ, we decided on the backbreaking, standard-sized brick. We consequently built our forms twelve by eighteen by four inches. These forms must be soaked, and when thoroughly wet they are filled with the mixture of clay (adobe), straw, and sand. Just as children make mud pies by filling various containers with wet mud and then carefully lifting the containers from the mud, which retains its contours, so we filled each wooden form with mud, being careful to pack the corners well. Then, while it was still wet, we slowly (and prayerfully) lifted the form from the mud, leaving a perfect brick lying on sand which had been leveled.
Sand makes a splendid place on which to form the bricks, for it helps suck the moisture out of them. This process is called “curing.” For several days the bricks are left to dry until they become hard enough to handle without breaking. Then they turn quite gray and crack, because of the release of the salt content and the contraction of the clay. After that they are turned up on their sides, where they stand until the cracks disappear again and they resume their mud color. Next they must all be scraped to remove any loose sand which has clung to the bottom or sides, and when that has been done they are ready to stack.
At this point the amateur learns that each eighteen-inch brick weighs sixty pounds! A twelveinch brick would have been twenty pounds lighter to carry. By cutting off one third of the length, the weight is proportionally reduced. I can see Wallace’s tired back arch when he reads this, but he knows how much the beauty of line of the longer brick means to me; and even had we known ahead of time that the smaller ones would have been so much easier to handle, I doubt if he would have spared himself. I have never known anyone who could grumble so much about someone’s unreasonable demands and then, having won his release, deliberately fulfill them! For months he drove himself mercilessly, regardless of such wind as only the desert has, such cold as only one winter in twenty on the California desert brings, pulling with a hoe a load that wears out cement mixers—for adobe mud is heavier and has more suction than cement. Each day he lifted more than a hundred bricks weighing sixty pounds apiece — stacking, lifting, placing them often with his eyes closed against wind and blowing sand.
In stacking, the bricks are piled on top of each other and on edge, in stacks three to four bricks high, and left to cure until they ring like a good cement tile when tapped. It depends entirely upon the climate and weather conditions of the place in which they are made how long this takes. We have had bricks made in the spring cure perfectly in one month, while those made in winter took several months. Always you must keep them away from moisture until they are baked by the sun through and through. The desert is a better place than many, but its moods are not always predictable, and cloudbursts occasionally blow up from nowhere without warning. A neighbor of ours had two thousand newly made bricks still flat on the ground when an unexpected shower ruined the entire batch.
But before we could even make the bricks or build our house, we had to file our claim. We found to our dismay that our claim obliged us to take occupancy of the 160 acres during August. Wallace left Sonny and me behind in the relative cool of the city and went forth to write our names in the sand. In his letters he wrote that the tent he put up was too hot to use, that the temperature rose to 124°, and that the drinking water he had bottled turned so hot that he could not down it. He wrote that he worked in the early morning and in the cool of the evening, but that he had to lie flat in the car, all windows open, from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. Things, he said, would be better when we arrived in the fall.
AM I going to be big enough to meet these new demands?” I asked myself on our way out to our homestead. There I found the eight-by-twelve shack which, battling against unbelievable odds, Wallace had built. There were no screens on the two windows, and as I entered I did not think there was room for me and the flies too. Under one window was a wardrobe trunk. There was an ancient kitchen table which Wallace had picked up at a secondhand store, a three-burner kerosene stove, two straight chairs, and a box— and that was all! No curtains, no comfort, no room. Somehow I managed to get together a fairly creditable meal, and after it Wallace helped me with the dishes — no running water, no sink, of course; just two filled pans on the stove, one for washing and one for rinsing.
Did I say there was no room? We stepped from the shack onto the eight-by-ten porch and right into the welcoming arms of a desert evening. Space — quiet — peace. Fresh, clean air forced the chin up and the chest out. The Star of Bethlehem shone no brighter than the one which hung low over our shack that night. This acreage, four city blocks square, was to be ours if we lived on it and improved it by building on it! I looked at my boy and I was genuinely glad that he was to have the experience of earning the land which was now to become his home, and of taking an active part in making from that land the bricks with which he and his father were to build a house.
Breakfast was a bit gritty, but satisfying, and soon my son was standing on top of the hill looking with shaded eyes for the tiny black spot which would finally take on the proportions of a pickup truck belonging to a “neighbor” many miles beyond. The lively load of yelling youngsters would stop to add my lusty offspring to the school transportation. The county allowed each homesteader so much a mile for this privilege, and for the accumulated amount the farthest citizen had agreed to make the trip in for mail and groceries and to furnish transportation. The pupils walked home through the sand, finding ever new interest s in snakes, lizards, and Dipodomys on their winding routes.
After Wally had left, Wallace and I gathered up surveying chains and equipment and started out to establish the corners of our land. The government had placed cement markers, two of which had not been located for some time, and we were eager to find them. I must have been a constant irritation to Wallace, who, from his site a block away, would patiently give me signals to move a hair right or left, and then wait for me to drag my eyes away from the horizon of my new possession.
By noon I was thoroughly weary, and the enthusiasm of the morning seemed a thing apart. If we had the money to put down a well, and if wehad some trees, and if we could just start building a house without leveling a hill with shovels and a wheelbarrow, and if we didn’t have to spend days going after rocks and picking up two at a time and lugging them in the trailer to fill the great ditches necessary to assure a firm foundation for the weight of adobe brick which must be safely supported, I should feel more confident of my helpfulness through it all.
By the time the sun had set in its customary glory and I was faced with the problem of preparing a substantial and attractive meal for two hungry male dependents, I had developed a splitting headache. Whether my unaccustomed eyes couldn’t take the glare of the undiverted light reflected from sky and sand, or whether my city contacts with wind had been more protected, or whether my effort to keep food by wrapping it with wet cloths and letting the action of evaporation be my refrigerator had failed, or whether I had drunk too much of the odd-tasting water from the desert bag, I don’t know; but I do know that when I crawled into bed that night, I realized I couldn’t keep my churning stomach a secret from my family much longer.
Fortunately they were both asleep by the time the butterflies left my stomach and rose to my throat. I finally slipped out of bed and realized in panic that I was afraid to go through the pitchblack night to reach the outhouse; so grabbing the shovel parked near the bed, I paced a few feet and hurriedly dug the hole which was to conceal my sickness.
THE first week was busy and profitable. Wallace and I had agreed on a site about a third of the way up our hill on the east ridge, and he had made a road to it by putting burlap under the car wheels and then following them up with adobe which he hauled in his homemade trailer from the dry lake six miles north. By deflating our tire pressure and going very slowly, never spinning the wheels, we usually managed to keep from getting stuck in the sand.
Wallace had made five test bricks of varying “richnesses” of mixture and had found a good gravel pocket not too far from the proposed house. We had run levels and established the foundation ditches and forms. I had changed the original plans I had drawn in Pasadena now that the location, chosen for wind protection, offered views where previously I had not planned windows. I had specified a fifteen-by-twenty bedroom with a vast fireplace which I saw as a thing of beauty and Wallace saw as a headache. I had also come to realize what a part the winter sun was to play in patio comfort. The living room must have a four-by-five window framing the snowcapped Gorgonia, and the corner hearth must be where it would be the first note of welcome as one opened the front door. The covered loggia must face east or the west wind would make it uncomfortable a good many months of the year. Above all, our house must be livable.
Since the shack was to be our home for many months, it did not seem a waste of time to make even so temporary a camp as attractive as possible. I put up gay little curtains, set candles in pewter saucers, and opened out the wardrobe trunk so that the pretty flowered covers of the drawers would add jollity. Our good neighbor a mile away stopped in often. “You’d never know it was the same place!” he’d say.
As soon as he had a few hundred bricks curing, Wallace had promised to build a lean-to to protect our beds, which now were entirely out in the open. Vacation camping is one thing, but permanent winter residence is quite different. It had become alarmingly cold at night, and we watched the thermometer carefully before going to bed, draining the car whenever Wallace thought it necessary. We were to learn that our hill is normally safe from freezing because our height and hill protection give us an average of eight degrees warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the desert flatlands. But that first winter, as though to test our endurance, was the coldest in twenty years. Our hastily built camp shack had no foundation, for it was our intention to tear it down in six months; but although it waved with the wind many a time, we were always cozy and warm inside.
We still slept outside — and each night with the inescapableness of death there came that awful moment when we rushed forth in bedsocks and sleeping hoods and robes, to lie with chattering teeth and shaking limbs until we manufactured enough body heat to warm our frigid beds. We even warmed stones and flatirons and wrapped them in newspaper as bed warmers. But once the chill left, even the wind tearing at our caps didn’t keep us from that good sleep with which healthy outdoor work and pure, dry air always rewarded us. And the night smells and sounds of the desert and the intimacy with stars still make our hearts cry out, “Oh, this is good!”
But there came a night when I awakened to feel what I thought at first must be rain on my face. When my eyes became accustomed to the night, I woke Wallace.
“Wally, it’s snowing!”
He awakened enough to pull up the tarpaulin and then went back to sleep, but I was too excited for that and I lay there straining my eyes to watch the soft flakes. Having lived twenty years in Chicago, I was to experience my first sleeping out in the snow on the desert of California!
In the morning I opened my eyes to have them automatically close again. Nor could I open them and keep them open for more than a few seconds. Without a building or a single tree or anything high enough to cast a shadow for relief, the sun scattered snow diamonds lavishly over hundreds of acres, dazzling me to blindness. I couldn’t stay outside and be comfortable, even with dark glasses. By noon I had a headache. But what a sight it was! Pure white as far as the eye could see, and the mountains unearthly in their beauty. An entire valley made holy overnight. The sunset turned the peaks into pearls, and when the moon rose in her full dignity we witnessed another world. Red Mars became a ruby on the clear throat of the sky. The Dance of the Snow Fairies was all about us and we were bewitched.
We felt snug even when that storm closed the pass and completely isolated our valley. The bread truck couldn’t get through, so we enjoyed an excess of corn bread and biscuits from our little portable oven. The cold lasted long enough for the water pipes to freeze and burst all over the valley. Our pipes stayed intact, although we had to wind parts of them with burlap soaked in kerosene and set fire to it to thaw them before the water would run. We hauled our water (as we still do), but Wallace had put up a tank and run his pipes underground and downhill, so we had good pressure. (The tank which supplied us then looks tiny beside the 2000-gallon storage tank which now supplies our three houses.)
I CAN see now, in the light of later learning, why, as I flitted about, that first year, between stakes which designated where rooms were to be eventually, chattering, “Now we’ll have a corner fireplace here, a Mexican one in the dining room, and one with raised hearth in the bedroom,” my patient husband followed me in body, but not in spirit. While I had been drawing plans wholesale, Wallace had been studying bulletins from the experiment stations and government bureaus on “How to Build a Fireplace.”
“Oh, we will, will we?” he answered in that particularly deadly quiet tone he uses when he is about to pull me off my rainbow and make me put on my rubbers.
“But, Wally, a home is built for comfort and coziness and contentment, and a fireplace in each room adds so much.”
“It also subtracts about ten years from my life. Honestly, Peg, sometimes I believe you lie awake nights thinking of things for me to do.”
“But why? Surely there isn’t any very great overdraft on your time just to build a simple fireplace. After all, it’s just a hole with a chimney.”
In silent scorn he handed me a bulletin.
“Study that before you talk on a subject you know nothing about.”
Know nothing about! Why, I’d lived so intimately with fireplaces all my life that I knew them upside down!
But in all fairness I focused my mind on the bulletin in my hand. There did seem to be more to this building game than first met the eye. I humbly followed the arrows indicating air currents through a maze of smokeboxes and mathematically proportioned secret chambers designed to fool the downpouring cold air and rain into traps where they would be caught by the rising smoke. So that is why heat comes into the room instead of escaping up the chimney: a sloping back and a narrow throat,
“Well — we have to build one fireplace at a time anyway,” I remarked as I handed back the regulations, “so what are we waiting for?”
Within a week we had two caustic discussions, one involving the homemade “heatilator” which Wallace was determined to have to conserve heat, and which I was equally determined not to have if it would spoil the beauty of my fireplace design; and the other a lollapaloosa about that very design, which Wallace said would be impossible to build safely, since my curved surfaces didn’t give him room to put in his supporting iron which was to carry the weight of an adobe chimney.
The first argument ended in a charming compromise in which I think I won. At least I got my raised hearth of natural stone which conceals the heatilator that he got. The second debate went on for days, but finally was decided in favor of a smaller chimney, less scrap iron (we were the only ones at war at that time), and modified curves. We were still on speaking terms when we rounded the first one together. I was doing the “follow-up” work known as pointing. After each brick had been settled on its bed of mud and squared three ways, I would scrape the excess mud off the joints and smooth or “point” with a special trowel.
I have a supersensitive skin and was developing a swelling of the hands and a maddening itch from my daily contact with the adobe and sand. That, plus the fact that disagreeing with Wallace always upsets me, had put my nerves too close to the surface. The night the pet trowel was missing and he accused me of carelessly disposing of it, we both jumped at the little trowel as an excuse to say all the things which let off steam. A shower bath and supper softened our shells of silence, and the desert moon heard us apologize to each other before we fell asleep. But the damage had been done, and the next day only Sonny sang as he cast some small firebrick, mixed with ashes, for the back of the opening.
Some years later, when we were sitting on the hearth one evening, Wallace, scrutinizing his handiwork, suddenly assumed an attitude of attention.
“A penny for your thoughts,” I coaxed.
His eyes, which had been riveted on a rough area of cement underneath the fireplace hood, began to twinkle. He ran his finger along a sharp ridge before he said with a mock bow, “I apologize, Mrs. Trigg, for I have found the trowel.” There it was, imbedded in the cement of the hood. Wallace must have pushed it off while setting a brick in position, and it had lodged at the bottom of a form, where it had been covered with mortar. When the form was pulled, the unmistakable trowel edge betrayed its hiding place, but we hadn’t happened to look up underneath until then.
If the next war wipes us all out, the beings who will inherit the earth may stumble upon our adobe some day and the little trowel may start another argument — this time as to whether we built our houses with it, or ate with it, or planted it so that we should have something to build with in heaven.
(To be continued)