In my travels across the U.S. I’ve spent a good deal of time looking out a window watching the desert scenery whirring by. Let’s just say I’m not a desert person. It could be growing up in Nova Scotia with a topography so different from the Mojave, or the fact that I wilt in extreme heat like ice cream in the microwave. No answers here, just the way I feel about it. This does not stop me from an appreciation of the stark beauty the desert has to offer. I love the varying shades of the mountains, the chill that swoops down as the sun sets behind them, and the brave colorful flowers that choose to bloom despite the prickly arms of the cactus. However, was I looking for a place to move, the desert would be situated on my list of choices just above Siberia in January.
My ex-husband and I undertook a grueling trip from the Bay Area to Ashdown, Arkansas twenty plus years ago. We had two vehicles, his old beater Ford truck and my four door sedan. The sedan was in better condition than the pickup, but then most any vehicle on the road at the time could have made that claim and backed it up just on a visual inspection. No air conditioning blew through the cab of the Ford save the breeze generated by the perpetually open window, the glass of which had been stuck inside the door for easily eight years. Virtually no shocks existed in the undercarriage so it creaked, groaned, and sighed as it rose and fell along the asphalt like an old man attempting to lift his tired body from a deeply padded chair. To add insult to injury, the rusted bed of the truck was piled in a Ma and Pa Kettle kind of way to far past the maximum capacity, and jiggled and jostled as we made our way along looking like a well padded bottom running in a pair of Spandex jogging shorts.
That morning we had stopped in Elko, Nevada for a cup of the singularly worst coffee I have ever been served in what was touted as a 24-hour bar and grill. The coffee had the consistency of tar, and although I’ve never tasted tar, I would guess the flavor wasn’t far off the mark. “Bar” seemed to be the optimum word in the “Bar and Grill” blinking on the sign. Ninety percent of the clientele were bellied up to the bar enjoying an early morning wake up of a stiff shot of whiskey, or an iced cold beer with a side of toast or a donut just to round out the food group. A friendly, but somewhat less than healthy looking bunch, they offered us some suggestions of how to proceed to Salt Lake City. I believe I got a marriage proposal, an offer to seek redemption, and some ideas of what to expect on an already predicted very hot day on the desert floor. I was sweating already. It always takes my mind to pondering how people end up in these scruffy, lost, desert towns where it seems at times the only movement comes from the circling buzzards overhead and an occasional jack rabbit scurrying to keep from finding himself the next item on their menu.
Traveling down Highway 80 we crossed the state line into Utah. Heat had descended with a vengeance over us and I had to alternate turning my air conditioning on and off to keep the car from overheating. At the junction where we veered off towards the Bonneville Salt Flats we stopped at a cafe/convenience store and grabbed lunch to go, purchased numerous bags of ice, water and sodas. Aside from myself, I was transporting Kitty, our gray cat of fourteen years, as well as Sushi, a Shih Hsu several years her junior. As even the cat had begun to pant, I made them two beds in the back seat using a bag of ice under each and padding the bags with blankets and wet towels. For once during their time together they didn’t argue the point and laid side by side on the cool bags and suffered in silence.
My husband loaded several bags in the cooler in his truck and I kept the remaining ice in my cooler on the front seat. Quickly the temperature gauge began to rise on my dashboard. I opened the windows, shut down the A/C and took a small bag of ice and laid it across the back of my neck. I understood later that the temperature on the floor that day was probably hovering around 130 degrees. Down into the valley of death rode the six-hundred. Oh, sorry, I believe these are the words I was thinking as we caravaned along becoming more and more claustrophobic as the heat simply suffocated all intelligent thought out of my brain.
Just before the Bonneville Salt Flats, around 3:00 in the heat of the afternoon, my husband signaled right and pulled over to the side of the road. A flat tire. Are you serious? Panic set into my legs to the point that Gumby was stiffer in his lower limbs. Ach. No choice but to change the tire, and nothing in sight but white sand and rippling heat waves emanating from the asphalt I wet down the now miserable animals and went to help.
My husband got the worst of it. Lying prone on the asphalt which was now so hot it was actually liquefying he managed to get the jack up, release the lug nuts and replace the tire without passing out. I had begun to hallucinate, yes more than usual, and was roaming about like I’d been searching for water for days and just buried my horse. I poured water over his head and over mine, and began to think we were just going to become additional salt masses in what seemed like an already endless supply.
Finally we got back on the road. I literally took the shirt off his back and it dried later as stiff as the pieces of road left on it. When we arrived in Salt Lake City the color from the seat back of my car had dyed both my shorts and my shirt and Kitty and Sushi were on Facebook looking for new owners. For me, I’ve had enough of the salt flats. I’m sure they’re amazing but find I can satisfy my curiosity with a picture these days.
I too, am going to step out on a prickly limb and offer this up. It’s surprisingly good. The nopalitos can be purchased at a Mexican market.
Chile Verde with Cactus Sauce
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 1/2 lbs. pork shoulder, cut in 2″ cubes
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp. dried oregano
3 jalapenos, seeded and chopped fine
2 cups canned tomatillos, drained
1 cup vegetable stock
1 11 oz. jar of nopalitos, drained (pickled cactus paddles)
salt and pepper to taste
Flour or corn tortillas warmed, and sour cream and chopped scallions for garnish
Heat oil in large skillet. Add pork and brown over high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft. Add oregano and chopped jalapeno. Cook for 2 mins.
Place the canned tomatillos in a blender. Add stock and process until smooth texture. Add to the pork mixture. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 mins.
Soak the cactus paddles in ice water for 10 mins. Drain. Add to pork/tomatillo mix. Continue cooking for 15 mins. or until pork is cooked and tender.
Season as desired with salt and pepper. Serve with warm tortillas.