Is there anything more bittersweet than the end of a good adventure? Find out what Edna and Charlotte took away from their desert experiences and what they did next as we close out the final chapter of The White Heart of Mojave.
This episode was recorded and produced by Lisa McNamara. Supplemental text is by Lisa McNamara and original text is by Edna Brush Perkins. Music by Nesrality and Lesfm, and sound effect by SSPsurvival, all from Pixabay.
This is Backtracks, a special series brought to you by Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa.
This is chapter twelve, the final chapter of The White Heart of Mojave by Edna Brush Perkins. If you haven’t listened to the earlier chapters yet – what are you doing here?! 23 Skidoo back to where you found this chapter and start there!
Chapter 12 – The End of the Adventure
It was April when we returned to Silver Lake. Spring was walking on the desert. The sand and the stony mesas were decked with flowers. Great patches of California-poppies bent on hairlike, invisible stems before the wind, little floating golden cups. Blue lupins, like spires of larkspur, glistened in the sun. A four-petaled, waxy flower with a shining, satiny texture spread in masses on the sand. Daisies with yellow centers and lavender petals clustered beside rocks. A little plant like the beginnings of a wild rose tossed tiny pink balloons in the air (LM: this is probably the Desert Five Spot, my favorite desert wildflower in Death Valley). The shoots of the purple verbena ran over the ground, sending up little stems to hold its many-floretted crowns. Even the thorny cactus bloomed with a crimson, poppy-shaped flower.
When we went on excursions to the mountains the bayonet-leaves of the yucca guarded tall spikes which bore aloft white, shining blossoms, and the grotesque branches of the Joshua palms were tipped with brightness like lighted candles. Everywhere high clumps of yellow coreopsis rivaled the sun. Beyond the dry lake at the base of the sand-ridge which had been so terrifying on our first drive through the desert stood stately Easter lilies hung with great white bells. Easter morning we went over there and gathered armfuls for our kind German hosts. Their house and ours were abloom during our stay, for we could no more resist gathering these amazing flowers than we could resist picking up the many-colored stones. Every dish and bowl was full and tin cans rescued from the dump were promoted to be vases. (LM: Ack! I understand the urge, but this is painful to read today. Those rare flowers were prevented from sowing their rare seeds.)
The gallant little flowers in such a stern environment! They were touchingly lovely, blooming wherever they had the smallest chance and looking trustingly at the sun. It was as though we had never seen flowers before, never really seen them.
Indeed, until we went on pilgrimage to the White Heart, we had never seen the outdoors, never really seen it. How could we not see it when the outdoors is always on the doorstep? We had thought we saw it, we had talked about it, a place for pleasant dalliance when work inside the walls was done, or a sort of glorified gymnasium to make the blood race and the heart beat faster. The outdoors is the awe-full, magnificent universe moving along, inexpressibly fearful and beautiful!
And we might have seen it anywhere! The drama is always going on with its terror and beauty. The gentlest countryside is a part of it. Everywhere the grim touches hands with the fair, storm alternates with calm, flowers grow out of death, and the fairness, the calm and the flowers are the stronger. Poets and artists know this when they step across their thresholds in the morning—whence their unreasonable joy at being alive—but most of us have to be shaken awake before we can see what is in front of our eyes.
The desert shook us awake. We had come looking for mysteries and “terrible fascinations” and found only the mystery of the old outdoors and the terrible fascination of the old outdoors. Beauty pressing around sorrow—the desert is simply a very forceful statement about that.
For the adventure with the outdoors is the adventure with beauty. And when you have that adventure the jealous walls, however engrossing their contents, and they may be very interesting and amusing and serious and exciting, can never bully you again. They have doors and windows in them and beauty is around them like a garment. You and I, unaccountably split off from the vast drama and blessedly able to be aware of it for a little while, shall we let the din and bother inside the walls, the frantic lunging at the still face of time, raise such a dust in our eyes that we cannot see?
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”
(LM: from Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn)
Every day while we rested at Silver Lake we looked the length of the barren lake bed to the bright mirage at the base of the black mountain that was no mountain at all, and northward over sandy emptiness to the enchanted pathway leading behind the Avawatz. Fourteen of the still, bright days of the desert were strung on the endless string before we had to say good-by to our hosts and to the Worrier.
Never can we forget any of the people whom we met during our adventure with the outdoors, neither the few whom we have mentioned in this inadequate telling of it, nor the many whom we have not. They were all unfailingly kind. It was very hard to part from our guide, and nothing reconciled us to it except his cheerful promise to act as Official Worrier again. Our hostess invited us to come any time and stay as long as we liked, an invitation of which we have gladly availed ourselves.
We piled our baggage into the automobile, abandoned so long at Silver Lake, and through a whole sunny day drove away from the White Heart. The dim road led past sinister little craters that long ago spilled ugly, black lava over the hills, through acres and acres of blue lupins blown to waves like a sea, across two ranges of enchanted mountains and down into and over the white Ivanpah Valley where the heavy sand made the engine boil. Several times we left the car to walk on the savage, torn-up hills made gentle by flowers. When the noise of the engine was hushed the silence was full of the singing of birds.
In the rose and orange of evening we reached Needles on the bank of the red Colorado River, and came out of the wild and lonely place onto the great highway that joins the Atlantic and the Pacific. The sand and rock trail follows the steel road of the Santa Fé. Transcontinental trains roar past and pennants flutter on automobiles from Maine and Florida, Michigan and Texas, Oregon and California. Dust clouds roll over the edge of Mojave as America goes by. Some travelers look at her curiously, some look longingly, some shudder, some pass with the window shades pulled down. All the time she is singing on her rosy mountain-tops and in her deep, hot valleys where the blaze of the sun is white.
(fade out music)
That’s the end of chapter twelve and of The White Heart of Mojave. Like many stories, it ends without providing any satisfying answers about what happens next.
I wish Edna had told of their stopover back at Beatty – how did the townspeople who watched them leave with bemusement greet their return?
I wish Edna had told of the train ride from Beatty to Silver Lake – were their interactions with the miners on the return trip different, now that Edna and Charlotte really knew the valley themselves? Now that they had seen H. and L.?
I wish Edna had told of their train ride home to Cleveland – what was it like traveling in those luxurious accommodations after all they’d been through? How different did the countryside look as they headed back east with fresh desert eyes?
Throughout her story, Edna hints at future return trips to Death Valley, but we will never get to hear about them. She mentions that she and Charlotte both kept journals, but those journals haven’t been published – perhaps they were destroyed, or the family wishes to keep them private, or they don’t realize how interested some people are in what they have.
The trip does seem to have permanently changed Edna and Charlotte, like all good trips do. They remained under the terrible fascination long after they left. Shortly after their return from Mojave, they went to Algeria to see the Sahara, the “true” desert. They trekked across the Sahara on camels, traveling from oasis to oasis and camping on the red sands. Edna wrote A Red Carpet on the Sahara upon her return, in 1925. And Edna took up painting for real, eventually having studios in NYC and Provincetown, MA and exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art to make her a real artist, not just a pretend one.
But just a few years later, in 1930, Edna would die – only eight years after returning from Death Valley, only 50 years old (which was young even in those days), with so many more adventures left in her. According to Peter Wild, she died of ovarian cancer. Charlotte and her husband divorced in the early 1930s and after that there isn’t any readily accessible record of her post-husband existence. We can only fill in their endings, happy or sad or mundane, based on our own biases, hopes, dreams, and assumptions.
I visited Edna’s gravesite in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery late in 2021. Like the rest of her family members resting there, she has a small headstone in the Brush family’s serene plot at the edge of a steep ravine. In that peaceful place I could feel her unfinished adventures still boiling. They were the tingling left on my skin when I grazed her gravestone with my fingertips. I took some of those adventures with me. We’ll see where they take me next.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this revisited adventure with the outdoors of the desert. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading it to you and having an excuse to think about Death Valley so much. I hope you’ll also be inspired to take an adventure of your own – whether into another historic travel narrative or into the beauty of Mojave itself.
If you want to hear more of me talking about Death Valley, check out episode eight of series two of the Road Tripping in America podcast, where I recount some of our own Death Valley misadventures that I didn’t include in the add-ons to this story, like my very own experiences climbing (and failing to climb) Telescope Peak, having my tent get blown away by a storm by the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and more…some things truly never change.
Thanks again for listening!