(Another old one, written a good decade ago at least.)
We were heading west on the 18 driving through Adelanto–that’s the upper desert, between Apple Valley and Pearblossom*–and pulled into a brand new mini-mall to pick up some cold drinks. There was new all over the upper Mojave back then, the nineties boom was underway, credit was easy, cash plenty, and the L.A. megalopolis was overflowing its basin and spilling into the surrounding desert. Here on the edge of Adelanto you could see it. One side of the highway was scrub, creosote mostly, a few poppies, an abandoned farm house with the roof burned away. And the other side was a shiny new mini-mall. Homes were going up by the hundred just down the road, and we’d passed a big shopping center a little ways back. There wasn’t a patch of land anywhere in sight that didn’t have a for sale sign. The lot across the street did. A couple hundred acres. I can’t remember how much they wanted for it but it seemed like a lot of money for a dusty patch of desert.
That’s when I saw him, the spectre. A man on a horse. A cowboy, a real cowboy, all dusty and weathered and leathery. He trots up, boots, jeans, cowboy hat, no shirt. He got off the horse and was bowlegged like you can’t believe, like he never got out of the saddle. He walks into the store, the lady says he has to put a shirt on. He’s got one in his saddlebag, throws it on, goes back in. Buys a coke. Says thank ya ma’am and gets back up in the saddle and trots off again, across the 18. I watched him disappear into the desert.
Somewhere up there in the foothills he worked a herd of cattle. They were invisible. He was invisible. Maybe I dreamed up the whole thing. But I didn’t. He was there, alright, bowlegged and all. He always was there, if not him then cowboys just like him. Their herds ate up the springtime grass and come summer they drive them up to higher ground. It was just lately all this civilization popped up, filling in the lowlands with houses and Walmarts and cars. With people and sidewalks and police. Weird how you drop a megalopolis into a desert and it’s the desert dwellers that look strange. But they aren’t the ones.
I snapped out of it. We slipped back into traffic and drove off in air conditioned comfort past row after row of brand new houses, feeling as out of place as you can be.
* actually it’s between the more prosaic Victorville and Llano.