At this writing, I’m reading Signal by Patrick Lee. This isn’t a review, or even a recommendation as such, though I’ve read a couple others by him and have to say he’s a good writer.
I guess this is more like a reminisce.
The book opens at the site of a freshly burned trailer south of Barstow, California, out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at something like four in the morning. An FBI agent has been called to the scene because it has to do with a child predator she’s been tracking for some time now.
As she steps out of her car, she’s assaulted by the smells, one in particular reaching out to her: burnt flesh. Before she approaches the trailer, however, she takes a look around, seeing the smudge of lights that is Barstow to her north, and to the west, the lights of Edwards Air Force base and the foothills of the San Gabriels outlined by the glowing haze of LA. Other than that (and the crime scene, of course), these are the only lights she sees. The desert night is pitch black.
Reading this, it took me back. I’ve been to the Mojave on two different occasions, and I don’t think I’ve seen a blacker night than you see out there. Of course, the smells are different for me, since I’ve never had to investigate a trailer fire with burnt bodies inside. I remember the dry, dusty desert smell that eventually permeated everything.
I went in August of 1985 and again in January of 1986 to Fort Irwin, thirty miles south of Death Valley, and a little less than forty miles northeast of Barstow. Back in those
days, Fort Irwin was the home of the National Training Center, or NTC (the military do love their acronyms and abbreviations), and we went out there for a month at a time. August, as you can imagine, was hot, while January was cold, this being high desert.
And those are the things I think about when I remember that time: the dusty smell everywhere—a scent that’s impossible for me to describe and one I’ve never encountered anywhere else—and the black, black nights.
I grew up out in the country, so I’m used to nights with little or no light pollution. Nights where you can see the Milky Way like a mystical trail across the sky, the stars scattered across the grayish black hard points of light twinkling and beckoning to you. Trees and hills outlined in black against the heavens, letting you know just where you are while you listen to the noisy insects of summer or the almost dead silence of winter, broken only by the soft whisper of a cold breeze. Or, on those nights when everything is black, the hiss of falling snow.
I remember one night—and I think I’ve written about it here before—during my January visit to NTC. It was dusk, and we were looking for a place called Hidden Valley, or maybe it was Lost Valley. The convoy had stopped while the sergeant major and his driver went ahead in the jeep to see if we were close. To my left, there was this large stand of rocks sticking up out of the desert floor, with another, smaller one ahead of me. We were facing east, and the moon was just coming up, huge on the horizon, butter yellow, hovering over that smaller lump of rock. The air was so clear it felt like I should be able to reach out and touch the moon, maybe even balance it on the tip of one finger. I stared at it, mesmerized, knowing I was seeing something I’d remember for the rest of my life.
The night wasn’t black that time, for the moon was full. We went on to bivouac a few minutes later, and I fired up my truck and drove off reluctantly to the site. But I kept that moment in my heart, just as I did some sights I saw in Germany a little over a year earlier when we went there for forty-five days.
These days, thirty years later, I have to write lists to remember a lot of things. I have to put my shopping list on my cell phone because otherwise I’ll write the list of things I need, then go off and leave it at home—forgetting it, of course. I have to do things in routines so I don’t forget to do or take something important with me. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s just me being me.
But I can crack open a book, see a passage talking about somewhere I’ve been, something I’ve experienced, and I can see it in my mind’s eye as if I’m standing there with the character.
That’s the beauty of books. They can take you anywhere, and sometimes anywhen. I’m not talking about the usual thing of reading about a time period from the past or future, though that’s a treat within itself. No, I’m talking about those rare occurrences like this, when a book or a scene is set somewhere you’ve been, somewhere memorable, and even though the scene isn’t in the time period when you were there, it still takes you back, makes you smile as the visions from the past billow up in your mind.
For just a moment, you’re back there, younger, feeling and experiencing everything in ways your older self can only barely remember and can’t really live through again.
That’s the power of books, and the power of imagination.