By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“They’re in the outlet stores,” she says.
This seems like her final answer, so we go to the Internet.
We find the address of the nearby district headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management and decide to drop in. The building is standard-issue Western-state modern bureaucracy — A-frame, earth tones and glass. A big flag flaps in the wind out front. The parking lot is empty. The streets are empty. Everything is still except for the wind, which whistles hot and empty through our ears. It’s as if a neutron bomb has gone off in this town.
Oh, yeah, it’s Sunday. The BLM office is closed.
We set out for a pet store in a mini-mall just down the way. Surely some granola-eating pet-store person with a heart of gold will know what’s up with these tortoises. But the pet store is also closed.
So we head down I-10 toward Needles, where there’s an animal-rescue center. Surely here some granola-eating animal-rescue person with a heart of gold will be suffering the tortoises. And, in fact, the rescue center, in a bleak strip next to a gravel quarry, is staffed by an attractive young woman who fits the bill ... but she doesn’t know shit about tortoises, and rightly thinks we’re fools. When we ask for directions to the Desert Discovery Center, which supposedly has some tortoises in a man-made habitat, the woman looks like she wants to kill us with contempt. Then a tatted-up young gangbanger in a black bandanna hauls in a couple of frothing pit bulls ... it’s time for us to be going anyway.
Back out on 40 East, in search of the Desert Discovery Center, we see the Marine Corps Logistics Base. Surely there are no granola eaters with hearts of gold, but we decide to take our chances. At the gate, a guard who is all business asks what ours is. We tell him we’re looking for the tortoises being relocated — does he know anything about it? Weirdly, recognition flashes in his eyes, and he tells us to wait right there. He comes back with a local newspaper article about the project. Apparently, we missed media day by about 24 hours. The Marine pulls out a map, points us in the general vicinity of Fort Irwin Road, which will take us back to the highway home, and wishes us good luck. We pull off a few yards down the road to read the article but are interrupted by a firm knock on the window. The guard wants us off his base.
We drive north on Fort Irwin Road, sure that somewhere out there are tortoises in peril. We’re pretty sure we can’t save them, but we wouldn’t mind seeing one. After several miles, we pass the Calico Mountains and hang a hard right down what might very well be private access to a rancher’s homestead. We blow by that, and before we know it, we’re somewhere out on Coyote Lake, a large, dry lakebed between Barstow and Baker, in the vicinity of the southern reaches of Fort Irwin. We follow what seems to be a path across the lakebed. I feel full of purpose, capable of anything. I am the Road Warrior. (“Two days ago, I saw a rig that can ’aul that tanker ...you wanna get out of ’ere, you talk to me ...”) But my reverie is soon interrupted by worry about where this thing is going and how the hell we’ll get out of there should something go awry. We don’t have enough water to hike out and the sun is singing, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” I’ve become the Road Worrier.
Suddenly, the path spits us out onto a larger, wider route that’s obviously used for heavy machinery. We stop at this strange crossroads marked only by lava rock, sand, distant vistas and a change in the ground from soft to hard. I climb on top of the Jeep for a look. Nothing but desert as far as the eye can see. Stecyk tries to get the GPS in his cell phone to work. No dice. We sit there for a minute and debate going back the way we came, defeated, or continuing on this new road to nowhere. Then, just a cloud of dust at first, I notice a pickup truck coming toward us.
I jump off the Jeep and wave down the truck. A young man and woman are in the cab, and there’s a bunch of gear in the bed covered with a camper top. I ask if they’ve been camping.
“No,” says the guy. “We’re biologists working on this desert tortoise project. ...”
What are the chances?
We identify ourselves as journalists up from Los Angeles, trying to get a handle on this whole tortoise-relocation thing, and that’s when our new best friends get a little cagey. Apparently, we shouldn’t be here and they shouldn’t be answering media questions. But bless their hearts, they don’t want to leave us to our fates out here in the desert — they point us in the general direction of the field headquarters for the folks rounding up tortoises in this area. The directions are a little dicey — of the up-over-yonder sort — so we give them a head start and start tailing them. A few miles of up and over and yonder ensue, and then they lose us.