In the summer of 1950, we lived on Poppy St. Neighborhood kids rode bikes past bright patches of California poppies that proud neighbors had planted. In the August fog, poppies smelled like cut cucumbers on newly cut grass, the same scent as wet afternoons in Houghton Park, our bike destination. The park, over 30 acres and just outside the Long Beach central district, was scratched by miles of bike trails into the bush.
Sandstone channels cut through the night-blooming perfume-rich jasmine. Bike rides through the flowering bushes meant well-scented eight and nine year old boys who reeked of perfume, but who hadn't the faintest idea what that suggested to their mothers.
My mom said: "Son, who have you been seeing at the park?" Then, she smiled. "The smell on your shirt is a sure give-away. You better throw it in the wash."
"Yuck," I said.
In early October that year I would leave the jasmine of Houghton Park. Sadly, Mom had lost a two-year baby boy to leukemia two years before. Dad wanted to get relief for her from the city and its memories. He looked at property in the desert: abundant, cheap and far away. We ended up with an old fruit and date shop in a distant desert town, Cathedral City. He said we would like it, though it would take a little getting used to.
Here, Mom would be able to empty herself of grief.
About 100 miles from the perfumed bushes of Houghton Park was a desert hole, our new home. It was October and it smelled dry to the bone. While my city park began its mornings in fog, the desert would only now begin to shake off the residual heat of sun-embedded stone. It would be a month before I could smell the moisture in the fall air.
Our new home, ten miles and twenty years south of Palm Springs sat in a settlement called Tramview, a 100 yard stretch of asphalt called Highway 111, a mile west of Cathedral City and the Whitewater River wash. In late September when we arrived with our 25-foot trailer, the asphalt began to scream heat as early as mid-morning. Early on, I stood out on the asphalt highway at high noon and looked toward Cathedral City. I saw a shimmering mirage past the wash on the edge of town. I imagined a hot steam iron rose in the air, the smell of Highway 111 at noon on a September day.
I brought my bike from Long Beach. I did dry wheelies behind dad's shop, but didn't dare ride into the snake-filled hills behind us. In the city my buddies and I used to chase squirrels up trees with our bikes. In the desert by myself, I chased jackrabbits into holes that pocketed the desert floor. In the city, a squirrel might mess up and lose the chase. Not a chance with Jack, the Rabbit, as I called him. He was sleek and quick.
Often, Jack came to sniff around the shop where dad sold an odd mix of grapefruit and nuts. That October afternoon, I saw Jack snooping around the date crates. The sweet, sticky residue of the Deglet Noors had captured him, lured him out of his hole, teased him into making the big dare. He glanced at me. I grabbed a branch from the creosote bush.
"Catch me if you can, Mr. Boy”, Jack sniffed.
I flailed the branch. He hightailed it past a creosote bush, past the ocotillo, past the smoke tree, past the tumbleweed that suddenly snapped its roots and rolled toward Highway 111. Fat chance the weed would make it intact across the road. This was October, the beginning of tourist season and the cars steadied into a stream from mid-morning on.
Jack was long gone into the bush.
It was late afternoon now. He'd be back at night but by then, Dad would have secured the date crates in the shop. No dessert for Jack.
The sun slipped behind Mt. San Jacinto, the peak that rose from the desert floor to crest on a razor precipice. The sun abandoned the place completely about seven o'clock and left little moisture to reconstitute itself. By morning the dry, vacant air of the previous afternoon would become cool again to emerge as a catalyst for the aromas imbedded in the desert floor.
In yesterday's heat, Jack's scat dried odorless but regained its pungency through the night.
At sunrise, the prickly pear flowers perked up, suggesting how seductively sweet its bulbous fruit would be. The purple verbena became freshly cut daisies sprouting from a vase on the dining room table. The sagebrush, not really sage, smelled of Thanksgiving dressing.
But the morning air also brought a stench, a definite stench that pervaded the desert, stretching from our 1940s trailer house to the sand hills across the valley. A visitor might have pointed to our outhouse, just behind the shop. But, no, the morning dew securely contained that odor and left it to bloom in the late afternoon sun.
The odor of distinction came from the gangly creosote, its branches and shiny leaves, which were the size of fly's wings. Its glistening, olive-green leaves stuck to my fingers and left a strongly scented resin that permeated the air, always in the morning hours, but especially after rain. The gnarled, gray, sparsely foliated offshoots branched out like lightening from a plasma ball. I had used one of its branches to threaten Jack, long-gone.
The creosote bulb produced yellow flowers almost all year round, but primarily in spring, followed by a silver-furred round berry, easy to pick and adventurous to chew. The silver fuzz ball, dainty and cute, was nothing but a beast that harmed. Jackrabbits survived its sting when eaten, but, strangely, mountain goats and sheep did not. Sheep died; mountain goats staggered off to find a place of rest to relieve the pain. Dumb cows, however, were smart enough to ignore it.
When planted in a garden with abundant water, the creosote bush reached twelve feet in height, but why would anyone want to unleash this noxious beast?
The creosote was a bad neighbor. Root the creosote next to a healthy plant at its peril. The foul-smelling greasewood, another of its names, does not tolerate company and, if the company overstays its welcome, pain and suffering, if not death, followed. I knew a man up in Cathedral Canyon who grew large creosote, near which thrived his treasured boxwood hedge. The creosote suffered the hedge for five years. Then, the once healthy boxwood became yellow and sickly. Its neighbor, the creosote, remained green and triumphant.
Desert rains pumped up the pungency of the resin. Rain was so rare that anything associated with it was memorable. Get close to an old telephone pole and smell the real creosote: acrid, a little gassy, like melting tar. The pole won't evoke memories. But creosote forges indelible ones. They pervade the desert landscape and, as all noxious creatures, call attention to themselves: the smell of burnt resin, the hard sticky touch of their leaves or their gangly body, branches electrified.
For some, the desert is nature in its purest state. The primeval forest, however, reeks of decay in its fecundity. Dead fish and seaweed putrefy the beach. The desert, by contrast, is pristine, clean, and brisk in the winter, white hot in summer. It is nature in its Edenic state without the sin of human flesh, a place where human flesh does not survive the summer, anyway.
But that is not our Eden; it is Satan's and his viper's.
At first whiff after a rain, the smells of the desert seem pure, then fall into an aroma of decay. The scent attacks nostrils with hot resin irritation. The creosote deadens feeling, yet makes vulnerable the sinuses and stings them with a scorpion's hook.
The purity of a summer morning breeze, hot, pristine, skin boiling is cast against the acrid bitterness of a bush.
As a Boy Scout, I encamped one night under the stars next to large creosote. I could not sleep. While the jackrabbits foraged on the desert floor for crickets, I fidgeted. I inched my sleeping bag north a few feet, then east, then west to escape the smell.
I could not rest.
Creosote was everywhere.
I could not find a place to hide. Jack's hole was too narrow.
When I returned home, my mother thought I was sick.
- Don Mayfield