The first thing we packed is Coors. About two cases. Then guns and things that explode.
“I'm bringing my shotgun, and the .22s.”
“Mike has a handgun he says he'd bring”
“I wanted to bring some of the propane cans so we use them for target practice.”
There's a slight pause.
“Yeah, we should probably bring some food or something, too.”
The destination is the West Colorado Desert, 90 minutes east of San Diego, bounded by Highway 78 on the north and the Mexican border on the south. It's a patchwork of some 50,000 acres of land controlled by the BLM.
“BLM stands for ‘Do whatever the hell you want,'” says Steven, organizer of our trip and connoisseur of all things explosive.
Of course, BLM doesn't really stand for anarchy. It stands for Bureau of Land Management, which oversees more than 260 million acres of public land nationwide, including most of the state of Nevada. It's in charge of mining and mineral extraction, wildlife preservation, land-use planning and, increasingly, recreation-everything from mountain biking and hang gliding to the growing popularity of Off-Highway Vehicles, or OHVs.
Trips to the desert have been a longstanding tradition for Steven and his friends. Together they resemble the cast of a buddy movie, possibly one directed by the Coen Brothers. There's Steven, the ringleader; John, the chemical engineer who makes things explode; Kevin, the mechanic who can change a tire faster than anyone I know; and Mike, the newcomer who brought some guns. There are also two girls-Kelly and Jane-and Kevin's cousin Harun, a recent immigrant from Iran.
This weekend is an important one for the guys. It's the inaugural run of their newest project, the Booger. The Booger used to be a Geo Metro. The crew cut off the roof, the doors and all the paneling, pulled out the dashboard and built a roll cage and harness system, making a strange but street-legal dune buggy. It's neither smooth nor especially powerful, but it's so light someone can lift one end of it with one hand, and it has an undeniable bad-ass charm. It's also a prototype. Steven has visions of a grand fleet of off-roading Geo Metros.
The weekend would also mark the end of the road for Steven's long-suffering, bullet-riddled Explorer. He's planning to put it down in the next few months. But now, for the first time, the guys will have two off-road vehicles operating simultaneously.
We roll into camp by 10 in the morning, passing other off-roaders on the way in. Those riders are decked out in strange space-age suits with matching helmets, and their rides are shiny and clean. The Booger makes an odd contrast, not least because the guys riding in it are all wearing ski masks to protect themselves against the early-morning chill. They look like a gang of terrorists driving a bumper car.
By some strange thermodynamic mystery, we're still freezing cold but the beer is already warm. Everyone cracks open a can.
Then the guns come out.
“Let's blow shit up!” someone yells.
People begin shooting into the far side of the ridge wall, not aiming at anything in particular, just enjoying the bang and the kickback.
Shooting at rocks turns out to be somewhat unexciting, since they neither move nor scream. Shooting at beer cans is marginally better. After a few minutes, though, everyone is bored enough to bring out the real targets of the day, a case of green propane cans-the kind used for camp stoves and lanterns. The girls grab a few and hide them in their bags so that there will be something to cook on that night. Then the guys go to town.
John teaches me the basics of propane-can shooting. If you're lucky, a propane can will explode when hit by a bullet. If you aren't lucky, it will just get a hole in the side and shoot off like a rocket, spraying a train of burning gas behind it for several minutes. More often than not, we are lucky.
Steven's favorite word is “awesome.” Big explosions are awesome. A fleet of off-roading Metros would be awesome. Guns are awesome. The desert-which, to the people I am with, is a no-man's land without rules or hassles-is definitely awesome.
Most people would consider the stuff he and his buddies do out here crazy or possibly criminal. But these weekend retreats aren't about personal responsibility or preparedness; they're about a vicious, white-knuckled, balls-to-the-wall pursuit of fun. And out here in the desert, fun means Bang!
The guys' regular camp is at the north end of the West Desert, in an open area, meaning we can off-road anywhere we want-provided we don't destroy plant life. Neither Steven driving the Explorer nor Kevin in the Booger takes much notice of that rule. We crash through the desert underbrush, plowing around big bushes and flattening the smaller ones.
Coming around the bend of a wash we spy a jackrabbit.
“Hot damn.” Steven floors the accelerator and spins the wheel, taking off in hot pursuit. The rabbit flees in terror. In the back of the Explorer, the girls start screaming at Steven not to kill the bunny. Steven laughs and speeds up, and we tear over brush and bumps.
“I'm gonna get it,” he yells.
But the rabbit is faster than a rundown Explorer and has the home-field advantage. It doesn't take long for it to shake us, ducking behind a ridge the Explorer can't cross. From behind us the Booger flies by, taking up the chase where we left off.
Steven slams on the brakes, and there's a loud banging noise. Suddenly, everyone in the car is soaking wet. For a split second, we're sure that it's gas from the spare can in the trunk, and we're all about to die. But common sense returns, and we realize one of our spare jugs of water has burst.
Because these desert trips are pretty dangerous, it's easy to get into the mindset that everything that happens has an element of peril. You get wet and it's gas, not water. You here something fly past your ear and it's a bullet, not a bug. It's easy to chide yourself for being paranoid, until you turn around and see the people you came with skeet shooting Molotov cocktails for target practice. Alcohol, explosives and irresponsible speed are heady combinations.
The Explorer comes to a shuddering stop, and we wait for the Booger to reappear. Kelly turns to Harun. “How do you like it here?” she asks.
“Very nice.” He stares at us from the corners of his eyes.
“Well, welcome to America,” says Kelly. Then Steven guns the engine again, and we're racing over rough tracks and creosote.
Five minutes into the off-roading the Booger gets a flat tire. Kevin changes it with professional ease. Then the Explorer gets a flat. Then the Booger. About as much time is spent changing the tires as off-roading. When we get down to the last spare tire for the Explorer, Steven decides to follow the Booger so I can snap pictures of it out the Explorer window, a task complicated by the walls of thick dust both vehicles are kicking up.
I lean out the window trying to frame the moving Booger and the mountains as Steven makes another sharp turn. My finger hits the shutter and obscures my view just as the Booger leaps high and sideways then disappears into a mushroom cloud of dirt. Everyone in the Explorer screams.
“Where'd they go?”
At first, I think they've rolled the car, but in a few seconds, as the dust settles a little, we find them stumbling out of the car, covered in dirt and cursing through their laughter.
“Jesus! Did you see that? Did you see that?”
They'd hit a jump going too fast. The Geo had lifted several feet off the ground and then nose-dived, carving a deep crater in the sand an impressive 15 feet from the edge of the jump. The radiator is busted and the horn broken. One headlight swings by its wires.
This is miles away from our classier counterparts this morning in their strange spandex suits and matching helmets. But that's what makes it a little appealing. These guys basically construct their vehicles themselves, and if they're mostly held together with caulk and bailing wire, it seems an accomplishment of ingenuity and redneck masculinity. Compared to them, the traditional OHVers with thier $5,000 four wheelers seem a tad effete.
Let's make one thing clear: It isn't that BLM land is actually lawless. State and federal laws apply here as much as anywhere. And there are rangers in charge of enforcing those laws. Ranger Jade Beal is one, and the West Desert is his beat. He's been patrolling this area for the past 15 months.
“I see myself as a steward to the land, and also an educator,” he says when asked how he'd define his role in the frenetic environment around him.
For a place that looks as barren as the West Desert, there's a staggering amount going on. For starters, there's the network of drug runners and undocumented immigrants who cross the border, the attending Border Patrol and an occasional visit by the Minutemen. There are the military's bombing ranges, the Borrego Springs state park and the BLM, each with their separate offices and patrols. There's the weird, slightly sinister Plaster City, home of the American Gypsum Company, which rises out of the desert like some grim, industrial Emerald City. There are mines and illegal dumping and ATV races. Nearly every weekend someone drags a car out here and sets it on fire. All of this comes under Beal's eye.
Beal is a park ranger, not a cop, and he doesn't carry a gun-which probably puts him in the minority out here. Lots of people are armed, and almost everyone has copious amounts of alcohol. That means Beal is careful about the groups he approaches. “You have to be cautious,” he says. “But that's true for every officer. Having a sidearm isn't a guarantee of safety.”
The West Desert can be a dangerous place, and though all the weaponry doesn't make it any safer, it doesn't seem to make it much more dangerous, either. Since the beginning of the season in September, four people have died, all in OHV crashes, one a 12-year-old girl.
“It's so unfortunate,” he says. “The young ones are the ones we try to watch out for. I mean, we don't want to see anyone get hurt, but when it's a kid, it's really hard.”
Over the ridge of dunes we can see the bright blue and gold jets of the Navy's Blue Angels practicing synchronized flying for an air show. The show's usually held in Florida, but during the winter they come out to El Centro to train new members. People sit in the shade of their RVs with cold beer and watch them do their dives and barrel roles.
The West Desert isn't a stranger to the military. Gen. George Patton used these deserts to prepare for battle in Africa, and areas of it were used for bombing practice throughout the Korean War. The place is littered with old bombs. Most are dummies that were used only for target practice, but some are live and unstable after having sat in the heat and cold for decades. If you find one, it would be best to leave it alone.
Steven found one on our trip. He immediately loaded it into his car and took it home. He's now experimenting with different ways to make it fly.
There are still bombing ranges out here, surrounded on three or even four sides by BLM land. Drunken off-roaders frequently ignore the signs warning that these fields are filled with possibly live ammunition and the remote possibility of getting hit with a 15-foot bomb.
We drive past one of the ranges on the way to Plaster City and see a long plume of dust from some OHV off in the distance.
“Look at these guys,” says Beal. “I don't understand why anyone would drive through a bombing range.”
“Are there any fences to keep people out?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “It such a huge area, thousands of acres. And it's surrounded by signs: ‘Don't drive here. There are bombs.'”
I remark that sometimes it's too expensive to protect people from their own stupidity.
Beal laughs. “I didn't say that; you did.”
In addition to the bombing practice, there are other, more immediate wars happening in the West Desert. The flow of drugs and human traffic across the U.S.-Mexican border is more or less constant. The presence of their natural predators, Border Patrol agents, is constant, too.
Then there's the ever-present battle between the environmentalists and the OHV community. Off-roading's environmental impact-erosion and plant destruction-is massive. Those factors can be mitigated if people stay on the trails. But while many, perhaps even most, off-roaders follow the regulations, some don't, and their impact on the land is noticeable even to the casual observer.
“Those few people are going to ruin it for everyone,” says Beal, pointing to the deep tire marks that mar the rises and gullies of the Yuha.
The Yuha is in the southernmost part of the West Colorado Desert. It is designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC, meaning it's home to endangered or threatened species. But seeing the Yuha, it's difficult to imagine there's anything of significance there. While most of the other areas of the desert are dotted with creosote and the occasional wild flower, the Yuha is largely-eerily-barren.
In 2003, the BLM finalized the trail routes for the Yuha. Since it's an ACEC, unlike the more popular open areas farther north, riding is permitted only in certain areas, and only street-legal vehicles, as opposed to four wheelers, are allowed on most of them. The BLM set about restoring the areas that had been destroyed by the previous off-trail riding. Three years later, they're still at it, not helped by the off-roaders who often drive through their work right in front of them as they stand disheartened in the desert heat. Then the area has to be restored again, sometimes a third time.
“No person out here who has ever driven in an unauthorized area, destroyed a sign, dumped their garbage illegally-none of them have a right to ever complain about the government,” Beal says. “They are wasting their own tax money.”
In addition to erosion, riding off the trails can do serious damage to archeological sites. Like many deserts, the West Desert is a goldmine of ancient debris. There are areas littered with fragments of pots and grinding stones that can be easily destroyed by careless off-roaders.
Beal takes me up to the Yuha geoglyph, a large pattern cut into the dirt by the Native Americans, back when the Colorado River used the West Desert as an overflow basin. In 1975, the glyph was almost completely destroyed by motorcyclists, and though it was restored in 1981, the tracks of the vandals are still far more visible than the geoglyph.
“It probably isn't deliberate,” says Beal. “They probably don't even know it is here. But just because you don't notice something doesn't mean it isn't valuable.
“I think this is the toughest desert in the country. It's rocks, and ocotillo and creosote, and that is it. But it's more fragile than people think. It takes a long time for the land to recover. Back in World War II, when Patton was using this area to train for Africa, he left tank tracks. Those are still here.”
Back at the guys' camp, after John has done a quick fix of the busted radiator, he, Steven and I head back out in the Booger. Coming around a bend, we hear the popping of gunfire in front of us.
“Shit. Shit.” There's an edge in John's voice. “Sound the horn. Sound the horn.”
“I can't,” Steven says. “It's busted.” We hear more shots.
“Back up. Back the fuck up!” John's yelling over the gunfire now. Steven attempts to shift gears.
“We're stuck,” he says.
“Alright. Get out of the car. Shit. Out of the car.”
I fumble with the straps on my harness, driven more by the fear in their voices than anything else. The gunshots sound small and too much like a firecracker to be taken seriously. I don't think we have much to worry about.
As it turns out, I'm wrong. Steven and I bolt out of the car at the same time, yelling, “Stop shooting. Stop shooting. We're down here.”
Free of the harness, I'm able to look up. On the ridge of the wash, about 150 feet away, is a small group of guys with guns. Between us and them, eight feet above, is a red gasoline can they had set up for a target.
“Hey. It's OK,” yells the tallest of the shooters. “We see you.”
Neither Steven nor John reply. John pushes the car out of the soft spot and we re-harness ourselves. As we drive past the shooters on the ridge, the tall guy raises his hand in a wave. Steven begrudgingly raises his hand in reply.
I can almost feel sorry for Steven. The Booger isn't a quiet car, but it doesn't make the non-mufflered clacking of an ATV. From the tall guy's perspective, we must have appeared around that bend from out of nowhere. Steven and John chose their campsite because it's secluded and not visible from the road-which is good for shooting your own guns but not so good for avoiding becoming the victim of someone else's.
Later that evening, Steven and Mike introduce me to another desert weekend tradition, the nature walk. Each member of the party grabs a gun, a beer and a pocketful of bullets. They fan out in the valley, desperately seeking anything alive to shoot. Most of the time it's a moot exercise-there isn't a whole lot out here that's unable to avoid a pack of gun-wielding, hung-over hikers.
But there are exceptions.
One time, Steven tells me, a bird circled low overhead and everyone started blasting away. Someone-it's impossible to know who-managed to clip it in the wing, and when they gathered 'round, they found a raptor of some sort, very young.
“We were all, like, ‘Oh, shit,'” Steven recalls. “There [was] no doubt it [was] something. Something endangered, you know.”
The bird was dead, or dying, so thoughts turned to covering their tracks. A couple of the guys went back to camp and brought back the shotguns.
“We just blasted away until there is nothing left,” Steven says. “No trace. God, that is bad.” He looks a little haunted. “Really, really bad.”
(Steven is probably wrong. Ranger Beal says there are no endangered raptors in the area.)
Steven rallies. “God dammit!” he barks, pointing to a small creosote bush at the entrance to the camp. “I want to burn down that bush. It's pissing me off.” He goes over and picks up the gas can.
It turns out creosote bushes are pretty hard to burn. Daylight fades as the guys refine their technique. At first they try simply lighting the creosote on fire. That doesn't work. Next, they try dumping gas on the uncooperative plant, but that only works until the gas burns off. By the fourth or fifth bush, they come up with the idea of circling the creosote with a ring of burning gas then throwing propane cans inside and shooting at them until they explode. With this technique, they manage to set a few really big bushes afire. In minutes, they have a roaring inferno, which they gaze upon contemplatively, rifles slung over their shoulders.
I look on nervously, trying to determine at what point I should call the fire department.
Fueled by gas, the fire smells like burning tires, so I wander back into camp. Kelly and I are hovering over a camp stove when the sound of an enormous explosion rocks the camp.
“Holy shit!” someone yells. Seems one of the propane cans had sat in the bonfire until it got hot enough to explode. And so it goes.
After the bushes are mostly burned out, the group realizes they're almost out of beer.
“Night ride,” Steven says.
Jason, Harun and I pile into the passenger seats. Jason directs a huge floodlight over Steven's shoulder and out of the windshield. Mike sits up front clutching the shotgun, looking for something to shoot at out the window.
Halfway up the wash, Steven pulls over. “I can't see anything with the light back there. John, get in the front with the light.” The guys switch seats and we roll on.
“How do you roll down your window?” Mike asks.
“Can't,” Steven says. “It's broken.”
“I don't think I can shoot stuff out of a closed window,” Mike concludes. “Can we blow it out?”
“Sure.” Steven stops the Explorer again and we all pile out and stand a careful distance away while Mike fires three slugs into the back passenger-side door.
“Right,” he says, sweeping the broken glass off the seat.
We jump back in and drive along the railway tracks. Up ahead we can see people walking, a man and two small boys. I wonder idly if there's any place I would be less inclined to let my children walk in the dark.
“I'm going to give a yell to this family,” Steven says as we race along the tracks. He slams his brakes and grinds to a halt right next to the group, which has stepped to the side, waiting for us to pass.
“Hey there.” Mike is still holding the rifle out the window.
“Hi,” the dad counters, jovially. Then he catches sight of the gun and his tone changes a little as he sizes us up. “What're you guys up to?”
“We're shootin' shit,” Steven says. The kids' eyes grow large. We roll off into the night.
A few miles down the road, we come to a small, brown trail marker.
“I want to shoot that sign,” Jason says. But Steven is driving too fast, and by the time Mike has passed up the gun, we're practically on top of it.
“Back up,” Jason says. “It's too close. I can't even straighten my gun.”
Steven reverses a few feet, and Jason fires a few rounds at the sign. It bursts apart into shards.
“Awesome,” Steven says, stepping on the accelerator. We hurtle off in search of beer.
I wanted to find out from Ranger Beal how much of what Steven and his friends do is illegal. So I ask him a series of what must have sounded like oddly specific questions, which Beal fields good-naturedly.
“So, do people shoot those signs?”
“Shoot them, dig them up, drive over them.”
“Do they burn down the bushes?”
“Yes, and that's very illegal.”
“Do people accidentally shoot each other a lot?”
“No.” This surprises me. With all the beer and all the guns, it seems like accidental shootings would be inevitable, but almost all the injuries out here result from people driving into each other or large, stationary objects.
It isn't until I get to the part about the propane cans that I get any kind of reaction out of Beal.
“Do people blow things up out here?”
“Blow things up?”
“I know these guys who shoot at propane cans with rifles.”
“That's an amazingly stupid thing to do,” he says kind of angrily.
“Well, yes, I know. But is it illegal?”
Beal thinks it over and decides it's probably illegal because of the release of toxic gasses into the air. The explosions themselves are fine. Doing things that are profoundly dangerous and illogical isn't necessarily illegal. There's no law against accidentally killing yourself.
I tell him a story I'd heard from Steven about a group of teenagers who'd recently hauled a refrigerator out here and set fire to it.
Beal sighs. “Yeah, anything happens out here.”
Beal spends a lot of time cleaning up after people. The desert's a popular spot for illegal dumping-everything from old cars and tires to toxic waste. “I've seen it all,” he says.
There's constant vandalism. The visitors' kiosks are riddled with bullet holes. The outhouses, developed camping areas and long-term visiting areas suffer their fair share of abuse. Beal estimates he spends a month in the off-season just repairing damage.
“Those little signs that mark the trails, they cost $40,” he says. “If I have to replace six or seven of those, you know, that's a lot of money going into the ground.”
A major cause of the perception that the West Desert is a no-man's land is the fact that the BLM is understaffed. The 1.5 million acres of land-including the West Desert-overseen by the El Centro office are patrolled by seven officers. That's one of the highest officer-to-acre ratios of all the BLM lands.
Beal is committed, conscientious and has a good sense of humor. But he shows the unmistakable strain of a man whose fingers are plugging the dam. Forty miles west, the Imperial Sand Dunes, the largest tract of recreational land overseen by the BLM, gets 1.5 million visitors a season. Now the overflow from those crowds is finding its way to the comparatively calmer West Desert, bringing trouble. “It's just getting tighter and tighter out here. OHV is the fastest-growing sport in America,” Beal says.
“No one is making more land. This is it,” he says. “But more and more people are using the land, and so more and more people have to step up and talk about responsibility. What it comes down to is that the BLM is short on staff. We can't do everything. So everyone has to take care of the land. Everyone has to be a steward.”
Looking at the West Desert, William Lloyd's parable, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” popularized by Garrett Hardin in the 1960s, comes to mind. Hardin explains that a resource used by everyone and owned by no one will degenerate because it is in no one's interest to sustain it and it is in each individual's interest to exploit it-it's the inherent tension between an individual's self interest versus the common good.
“Therein is the tragedy,” writes Hardin. “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his [claim] without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”