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“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.
This Southern Expansion translocation is the first of three being planned, and it’s already a year behind the Army’s schedule. The next phases are the western expansion, which includes the controversial Superior Valley tract, where the largest population of tortoises lives, and the Eastgate parcel, on the fort’s eastern frontier. Study of this initial translocation is considered imperative to the success of future efforts, though everyone acknowledges that those will take place before the long-term effects of this first move are fully understood.
The expansion drive started back in the mid-’80s, when the Army decided that changes in war doctrine, tactics and equipment meant that the National Training Center at Fort Irwin needed about 193,000 more acres. This happened to coincide with a downturn in the fortunes of the California desert tortoises, especially the Western Mojave population. For nearly two decades, the main obstacle to Fort Irwin’s growth has been the desert tortoise.
Ironically, desert tortoises look like little tanks, with hard shells and a protruding appendage out front — the gular horn. They’ve been in this desert for a long, long time. And they’re very territorial and homebound. The reptiles spend 95 percent of their time underground and come up to eat, mate and occasionally fight. They find a place that works for them, dig a burrow with their clawed front feet, and stick with it. They build catch basins for infrequent rainwater and can be found waiting at them before it rains. Their bladders can store, conserve and distribute water throughout their bodies for up to a year.