Dust and Mud - Photography by Dana Thomas

Here in California

The fruit hangs heavy on the vine

There's no gold, I thought I'd warn ya

And the hills turn brown in the summertime  - Kate Wolf

I live on the edge of town, with my back to my neighbors and my face to the Badlands. Behind me are views of spires, trees, lawns and lights. In front are thousands of acres of open and harsh land.  A land of poor soil, severely eroded arroyos and abandoned dreams. When I was younger, with good knees, I ran through the badlands, but today I walk.  

In the depth of summer when the badlands are baked by a triple digit sun, the walks are best in the morning or evening.  The dried brown grass and hard baked ground reveal the foundations and trash from forgotten homesteads and ranches. In the canyons, where the air is still and silent, weathered concrete, eroded earthen dams, broken glass and rusted metal speak of hard work and eventual defeat.  Testaments to people who believed that the badlands were their future and fought to pull an elusive dream from little soil and less water.  

Summer walks also provide surprises.  A cool breeze on a ridge top. Hawks riding thermals in the evening light as they search for a careless squirrel or mouse. Deer beginning to stir from their day beds in the shade of a dense sugar-bush in deep ravines. Summer walks are bittersweet, filled with the expectation of cooler days to come.

My walks during autumn cover the same ground as those of summer. The earth is just as hard and the grass is drier, but the feeling I bring back from these walks is one of hope. Breezes are easier to find and in the morning the canyon air has a briskness that promises to end to the blistering heat of July, August and September.  Also arriving with cooler weather is a nervous anticipation of rain.  Each autumn I wait for rain and let myself believe that this will be the year when the rains will start early, arrive regularly and stay late. I watch the clear blues sky with faith and hope.  Winter rain in arid lands is not assured and as I grow older, every rain storm is appreciated as a gift.  When rain arrives, whether it is a soaking mist, a downpour or a light shower, the scent of wet, dry grass causes me to celebrate. 

If the rains arrive in winter and the badlands experience a metamorphosis.  The earth accepts the water, seeds swell, roots gather moisture and green shoots and sprouts emerge.  The cold of December and January delays growth until late February or early March when the badlands produce, on backdrop of emerald green grass, a kaleidoscope of blue ceanothus blossoms, yellow fiddle-neck flowers and the white blooms of sugarbush, all accented by the yellow of mustard and a multitude of purple, red and blue flowers I cannot name.  

Spring in the badlands is a time for walking through knee high grass with flowers and breezes for company. The growth of plants in spring also covers up the detritus of human failure and allows me to forget about the dreams that have ended in the ragged valleys. Walking through the green of spring, it is easy to forget that you are in the badlands and in a month the softness of spring will be gone. As summer arrives the grasses will mature and release foxtails, filling boots and socks with hundreds of spikes to be individually pulled after each walk.  The foxtails will be followed by heat, drying out the grasses, ushering in the realities of another, long, dry and hot summer.  

I walk in the badlands for both body and soul.  The long walks up and down the ridges, over faint game trails keep me in shape and bring me home tired and sore. The badlands also serve as a salve for my spirit.  My walks have seen me through losses and difficult times. The simple act of walking over these eroded hills has allowed me to come to terms with difficult choices, accepting what I cannot change and understanding what I can. The cool breezes and hawks allow me to return home more tranquil than when I walked out the door.

I live at the edge of town, my back to my neighbors and my face to the badlands. I admit that I do not read the local paper, know the name of our mayor nor can I address the latest civic controversy.  I do however, know where game trails begin and end, am able to discuss the coyotes howling at night, describe a circling hawk and embrace the changing seasons. I will continue to walk out my door, cross the road and take long walks along the ridges and into the arroyos of the badlands.