It's not the World I Remember

It's not the world I remember

View from Cima Road in the Mojave National Preserve

Martin Banks
October 19th, 2020

Have you had the opportunity to do some local travel lately, like within the last eight months? Even local travel, such as around your state or region, has been discouraged during the pandemic. Since March, I have clipped my own wings and uncharacteristically stayed close to home. That ended with a ten-day journey I recently took around southern California. It was a real eye-opener.
The reason for my trip was to separate myself from my family and others on the chance that I had picked up the Coronavirus on a day trip to Mexico. What better way to isolate than to head to the desert, the Mojave desert in fact. Over the years, I have spent time in Joshua Tree and Death Valley. I thought I knew what to expect with the Mojave being situated between the two. And for the most part, it was what I expected, except for my third day there. I had explored the sand dunes and the lava tubes and wanted to head for higher elevations and more vegetation. I mean, pretty much nothing grows in sand or lava rock, right? So I hit the highway east and re-entered the park at a few thousand feet higher in elevation. Yes, Joshua Trees everywhere! It was magic. My glee turned to despair in only a few minutes as the devastation from recent wildfires bore a charred and barren landscape.
The above photo is of all that remains of tens of thousands of acres (40,000+ acres) of Joshua trees and their underbrush. But that's not all. While we have been quarantining from COVID for the last eight months, climate change has continued its pace. It is continuing to devastate our home planet. In many ways, it has been easy to move climate change to the back burner. Front of mind has been the novel coronavirus, social justice, and politics. Rightfully so. The first two of these are literally a matter of life and death in potentially short order. Politics has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and doesn't seem to do much good. That's all I'll say about that.
When we recover from the virus, it will take time, but we will recover and begin to move about the world; it will be a different place than we had in 2019. I was near tears, looking out on all those burned Joshua trees. But I thought, "things burn." "This is how nature cleans itself." That's a BS excuse we tell ourselves to feel better. A chared interpretive sign along the road laid it out: Scientists believe that Joshua Trees grow here because the area hasn't burned in thousands of years. Well, okay then, this really shouldn't be happening.
Two nights later, I spent the night in a campground that had burned several years prior. The undergrowth had recovered, shaded only by the skeletons of trees that will never heal. That was my last night in the desert. I decided to go west into the mountains and toward the coast. I quickly decided to skip the mountains since the forecast was nearly 100-degree temperatures and extreme fire hazard. I made my way to the coast and back to civilization to find empty hotel parking lots and lines outside the grocery stores. Traveling up the coastline, the further I went, the more closed off things became. The California Rt 1 between Morro Bay and Phifer State Park was open to driving, and nothing else. Fire crews were camped out in the public campgrounds. Parking lots at beach trailheads were staging grounds for the fire crews and equipment. Signs of just how bad the situation had become grew as I drove further north. Turn-outs along the road were closed with traffic cones, campground gates were padlocked closed, trails to the beach were closed with "caution" tape. It was depressing.
Driving home a few days later, I thought about how global warming was changing the climate and how we are living with that now. Traffic in Los Angles is usually reason enough to drive around the city. On this Thursday morning, like many in the past eight months, traffic in LA was light, so I choose to go through the city center. Nearing the city limits to the north and approaching the Getty Museum, charred hills surrounded the freeway. The recent fires that threatened the city of LA had come perilously close to the northern outskirts of town. The reality is stark.
We will soon overcome this virus we are living with. Maybe it will take a year or two. When we emerge from our quarantine and begin to move about, it probably will not be the world we remember. In some ways, the change could be for the better. Hopefully, we will make some progress on equality in the justice system. That would be great. Maybe we can sort out capitalism to have more winners and fewer losers. That would be great also. All of that aside, the most remarkable change I have witnessed in the past eight months is the rapid deterioration of the planet's climate. As a species, it is within our power to save our collective home. Maybe it's the shock we experience when we all venture out again, once we have ended the pandemic, that will be our global wake-up call. I felt lucky that my family was not evacuated during the recent fires. It was someone else's problem. To think that way is a mistake. As climate catastrophes swirl in neighboring areas, it is our problem as well. This virus is only a warmup for the challenges we will all soon face.

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