By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Somehow, we find the field headquarters. But there are no biologists in sight. There’s a trailer, with the door flapping in the wind, some portable restroom facilities and just a few other signs of life. But right when we think our luck is up, we notice a green Subaru approaching. Inside is a comely young biologist, who apparently didn’t get the memo about how we’re not supposed to be here. She gladly escorts us to a processing center out in the field, where tortoises are being readied for relocation.
A few fieldworkers are huddled under a tarp when we arrive. They are weighing, measuring and putting a transmitter on a good-sized male, probably middle-aged. The tortoise will then be put in a plastic crate with water until he’s relocated. They tell us over the past two years they’ve counted nearly 800 tortoises that need to be moved. We ask what they think about this whole thing — moving hundreds of tortoises like this. They’re reluctant to talk, but the gist of what they do say is that the tortoises had a good deal here because they’ve been living on military land that restricted public use. Their new home will not have nearly as many restrictions, they say, and we get the general feeling they don’t think it’s such a good deal for the tortoises.
“I don’t think that [the new] habitat is as good,” says a guy who tells us he’s been hired for the project mostly because he’s a desert rat who knows the terrain well. “There are power lines and all-terrain vehicles and a lot more desert use there — off-roaders, hikers, campers.”
Why, we ask, is this being done?
“I think a lot of it is just the times,” he says.
Before we can get into it much further, an official-looking vehicle appears in the distance, winding its way through the mountain roads.
“Do you think they’re here for us?” I ask Stecyk.
“Of course they are,” he says. “They can read your license plate from outer space. They probably know who you are, where you live and what you’re about. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for them to get here.”
A couple of stern-looking officials pull up and ask us to leave. They point us toward a more user-friendly road out of the wilderness that will lead us to I-15 and back to Barstow. On the way, we pass signs informing us that vehicles shouldn’t enter this area without official military escort, and others that say Tank Crossing.
We take the old Route 66 back to Barstow. Amid the kitsch and blight, we come upon a carport motel laid out like a wheel that seems to be a live-in art project where vintage cars reside, and maybe even some people too. The entire structure, though, is designed to showcase and accommodate the cars. Human habitation is definitely secondary. We duck into the Googie-era Denny’s next door, clean and burnished, pristine in attention to period detail. I’m looking out the window, rapt with the incongruity of it all, feeling lighted by this otherworld, when I notice a tweaked-out pregnant woman stumbling her way up the street, trailed by a guy drinking something out of a brown bag.
After lunch, we finally find the Desert Discovery Center, famous to some degree as the home of a 38-by-30-inch chunk of rock known as the Old Woman Meteorite. It’s the second-largest meteorite in the U.S. and weighs 3 tons. The Discovery Center is also home of the Mojave Desert Puppet Theater. We miss that show, but the tortoise habitat is out back and it’s feeding time. An attractive woman (I’m beginning to wonder what’s in the water out here) puts out a lunch of cabbage and other greens for the two males that live there in a state of uneasy détente.
“They fight a lot,” she tells me, and it seems clear she cares.
I ask her what got her interested in the plight of the desert tortoises.
“Probation,” she tells me. “I have to volunteer here for my community service.”
Alternative Rock and a Hard Place
“So,” says John Wagstaffe by way of greeting, “you are the guys who were driving around lost in the desert a couple weeks ago.”
Wagstaffe can’t help himself. Seems word of our desert misadventure has trickled up the ranks. It’s several weeks after our initial tortoise quest and a couple of weeks before he will take us into The Box, when Stecyk and I first meet our sun-dried tour guide at a Holiday Inn on the western end of Barstow. Good egg that he is, though, Wagstaffe seems eager to get us out for an official visit with the tortoises. The translocation of nearly 600 tortoises from a 36-square-mile tract at the very southern tip of Fort Irwin, known as the Southern Expansion Area, is in its final stages. The tortoises are being placed on 13 different square-mile plots.Land use here is restricted to some degree, but it’s not completely off-limits.