In the desert, you can see it coming. Time sits on the horizon like rain clouds,
holding out. In the cities, you carry it around in your pocket. Time is organized around
where you have to be. You dash blindly around busy corners, always racing against it. But
in the desert, the world sits on the horizon, refusing to move. Before I moved to the
city, I used to know what that meant. Now I found myself trying to remember, waking up
every morning to look at the mountains and see what they held. If there were clouds there,
you knew there might be rain. It could pour down like a dropped bucket minutes from your
house, or evaporate right over your head before you could lick it on your lips. But you
knew there was something to wait for. You could watch time coming.
I came back home because my father was still waiting for the clouds over the hills; I
thought he needed me. He was losing his memory, as the city had made me lose mine. So I
came back for both of us. My father said he would look down at his feet, which would look
the same, but the ground was different. I don't know if he was forgetting things, or
remembering them too well. He remembered the names of World War II bombers, the orange
groves in L.A., the way Morocco looked in the rain. He could tell you what the valley
looked like in 1945--he remembered who lived down the street during the war, but it was as
if his memory didn't have room for anything else: his kids' names, where he lived now.
The doctors said it was transient amnesia, but I think they said this to protect us
from the word we were all dreading: Alzheimer's. My father carried his disease around in
his shirt pocket, so he wouldn't forget. When people asked about his health, he would
bring it out and laugh. He was proud to own this name. My sister and I needed our father
to hold together our memories, to hold together the world before we were born. When he got
sick, this stopped happening and I began to realize for the first time that I was mortal--
as if, when I faded away in his mind, I would fade away in the world.
My dad remembered a lake in the Mojave, just outside our hometown. He would point at an
empty lake bed, filled with alkali salts, and see steamships crossing. He said that in
"the days before Los Angeles" there had been a lake that was more than a hundred
miles around. He saw things like that, that sounded like unicorns to me. I would try to
picture steamships in a Mark Twain fashion, but was confronted by the reality of miles and
miles of white sand, dust devils racing across the surface.
So when I came home, I brought my dad to the lake, looking for a cure. Anyone who lives
long enough in the desert begins to be infected by a search for water. You look for it
everywhere because it is life. After a while, you can feel it in the groundwater beneath
your feet, the springs in the back canyons, the clouds over the hills that may never come
by. You know that water is always coming down somewhere, even if not on you, or else you
would not be alive. Papago Indian children insist that "the desert smells like
rain"- -scientists tried to explain that this is because the creosote bushes exude an
aromatic oil that fills the air when it rains. But I do not think that this is what the
When I left for college, I let that place evaporate; embarrassed, I gave it up. I
didn't believe in water yet. I thought the desert was a drying-up old woman; I thought she
had betrayed me by making me different. It would take the blank look on my father's face
to bring me back home, to make me start looking in the cracks of the desert, at the places
he was pointing to with his memory. We would walk the surface of that empty lake, walk to
the aqueduct which was carrying his life away to Los Angeles. I would face it, this time,
with him. I would return to the truth of the stolen water.
I used to drive around at night, in the days when I was desperate to leave. I wanted
L.A.--I wanted to dress like them, taste their food, be in their manicured green back
yards. Where I lived, there were only smashed snakes on the road and skittish coyotes,
reminding me of the desolation of the place. But every now and then, a white owl would
make a wild dash past my windshield like God. And I knew the white owl was bringing me
home. White owls aren't supposed to exist out there, you see. The Indian children write
about them, but only as a myth. When I left for college, this one bird was implanted in my
mind, making me late for work, making me remember my father.
I came home, more for myself than for him. I came home to learn the names of things, to
remember places I'd tried to forget, to look for the springs. I knew that if you waited,
they would come, trickling over your shoes at night, tugging at your hair. The fingers of
rain and owls and moonlight would wrap themselves around you.
Water is the religion of the desert. It insinuates itself into the cracks of
consciousness and allows the mind to move.
The doctor said that, in aging, the fluids of the brain begin to dissolve, making brain
cells shrink slightly. This is why, when my father's brain began to dry up, I wanted to
search for the water again. We used to go to the lake when I was young and thought that
desert oases only existed on television. Los Angeles had sucked the water away and put it
on TV, took it away for the pulse of the city. I feel now that they took my father's
blood, eliminated his history, his memories, to support the city's life. My father's blood
and brain fluid is flowing through the streets of Los Angeles, watering their lawns and
filling their glasses. It's hard to say what it is to be forgotten.
My dad and I returned to the lake, and walked across it to the aqueduct that
intercepted its water, to the captured rain that made its way past our feet encased in
concrete. To us it was a vial of precious liquid, and our mouths watered at the sight. The
lake was behind us, a strange moonscape of salt formations in a valley that seems to end
only at the snow peaks of the Sierra. After it was drained in 1912 by the Los Angeles
Department of Water and Power, the lake started producing dust storms, an eerie reminder
of something gone wrong. Before Los Angeles, the valley sustained deep saltgrass meadows
and marshes filled with everything from willows to brine shrimp to tule elk. Now Los
Angeles looms always over the horizon, like a hallucination. My father knew what Los
Angeles meant and tried to teach me. The city was everywhere, he said--the city was coming
to get us. When you stand in the center of Owens Lake, history declares you dead.
The lake didn't go without a fight--the Owens Valley residents bombed the L.A. aqueduct
over and over, trying to stop construction. If you walk out onto the lake now, you will
not hear the explosions, you will not see the tourists, you will not feel the shadows of
waterfowl overhead. The lake is silent, silent as the aqueduct waters that run down
smoothly cemented passageways, diverting the river away from the lake toward its new
destination. The desert becomes the haunting of Los Angeles, though the citizens of Los
Angeles have not been told to listen. They will pour it out of their faucets into their
blood, pour the desert as life into their veins.
We used to go there to walk the surface, play with the rocks that looked like they were
from the moon, imagine the Star Trek episodes that were shot there. The Department of
Water and Power passes out booklets at the Owens Lake visitor center claiming that this is
a "prehistoric" lake, whose salt waters were completely useless even before its
disappearance. "Prehistoric," in this case, obviously means "before Los
Angeles." Anyone in the valley will tell you when the lake really disappeared, that
history was diverted down aqueduct channels toward L.A. Scientists are proposing that the
only solution to the dust storms created by the lake may be to set up a sprinkler system
to stabilize the surface. The dust is a health hazard of unknown proportions. My sister
has lupus--like so many others in my town--and my father is losing his mind. They have not
yet defined the dimensions of this hazard. Sometimes we would pick up rocks and suck on
So I brought him here again, looking for the cure. Nearly 80 years after the water had
gone, my father and I stood on the banks of that stolen river and tried to remember,
dreaming of the forgotten lake as if our mere reverie would make Los Angeles sink back
into the ground. I had lived in L.A. for four years, but I came home because to him, water
didn't come from the faucet. I went back to its source, to my memories. My father knew we
could have life again if the water stopped going to L.A. I couldn't stay there, betraying
that dream. I had to start imagining, like him--to look at the ground and see something
different. We looked across the lake and saw heat waves, dousing the lake bed in imaginary
water. My father tried to fill in the blank spaces in his mind, while I tried to fill the
lake with water. I tried to remember a lake I had never seen. I knew that it had existed,
and I knew that the remembering was sweet, and tasted warm like water.
The lake stands forgotten but will not go away. I dream of a time when the water will
spill over its banks again, bringing back life. I dream of a time when the relationships
that were destroyed through its disappearance will feel that first drop of fluid binding
them together, steadily, like flowing blood. And then my father will not have to work so
hard to hold us together, to keep us alive in the desert. The first green grass will
sprout from the banks, and the first tule elk will creep down to the marshes, and the
first shrimp egg will open back to life. The desert is not dead, is not brown, is not
desolate. It is only that it has temporarily forgotten itself, forgotten where the water
The birds have stopped coming here on their long migrations because the desert has lost
its watering hole. These things are still there, just waiting to be remembered. My father
and I once stood on the banks and stared that forgetting in the face, trying to remember
the scent of where we lived.
Our trek to the aqueduct had been a long one, and we were greeted with a sign that
warned: "These waters are the municipal water supply of the City of Los Angeles.
Trespassing-Loitering Forbidden by Law." The sign was filled with bullet holes. I
glanced around in the falling darkness and saw no one. Stepping over the dusty, concrete
banks of the aqueduct, I took my father's hand, and led him in. The water was cool as ice
in the night and the shock of life was waiting for us there. Watching the clouds over the
horizon, we knew the rain was coming. We knew the mud and dust would be washed away with
time. And I led him down to the source, like his first baptism. He smiled, white as an
owl, and drank.
Karen Piper, a native of Ridgecrest, California, is currently completing a
doctorate in comparative literature and a master's in environmental studies at the
University of Oregon in Eugene.