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Gold Fame Citrus

After the water finally runs out, a massive dune sea sweeps the American West, burying everything from Los Angeles to Reno.

by Claire Vaye Watkins
Sep 22 2015, 1:10pm

Art by Jed McGowan.

People come to California for three things: gold, fame, or citrus. None of those things last. That's something we learned from Claire Vaye Watkins' upcoming novel, Gold Fame Citrus, a sweeping, apocalyptic vision of the Southland after the water wars turn California into a roaming sand dune sea. Think Joan Didion meets JG Ballard, with a dash of Mad Max. It's science fiction for the Anthropocene, and we have an exclusive excerpt below. —The Eds.


From space it seems a canyon. Unhealed yet scar-tissue white, a wound yawning latitudinal between the sluice grafts of Los Angeles and the flaking, friable, half-buried hull of Las Vegas. A sutureless gash where the Mojave Desert used to be. In the pixel promises of satellites it could be the Grand Canyon, its awesome chasms and spires, its photogenic strata, our great empty, where so many of us once stood feeling so compressed against all that vastness, so dense, wondering if there wasn't a way to breathe some room between the bits of us, where we once stood feeling the expected smallness a little, but also a headache where our eyeballs scraped against the limits of our vision, or rather of our imagination, because it was a painting we were seeing though we stood at the sanctioned rim of the real deal.

Instead we saw a photograph, blue mist hanging in the foreground, snow collars around the thick rusty trestles. Motel art, and it made us wonder finally how we could have been so cavalier with photography, how we managed a scoff when warned that the cloaked box would swallow a part of the soul. Although in this instance the trouble was not, strictly speaking, the filching of the subject's soul, for while our souls are meager, nature has surplus. Yet something of the mechanism's subject was indeed dissolved in that silver chloride, flattened then minted as those promiscuous postcards we saw now, which we could not now unsee, for we had accepted unawares a bit of the Canyon each time we saw a photograph of it, and those pieces, filtered and diluted, had accumulated in us, so that we never saw anything for the first time. Perhaps the ugliest of our impulses, to shove the sublime through a pinhole.

But scale is a fearsome thing. Scale is analogy. When understood correctly, scale expresses itself mostly in the bowels. See to the east there? See that red thread flagellum? That hair on the lens, that mote in the vision, that teensy capillary is the suicidal region's dry vein, opened. That is the Grand Canyon, where the silty jade Colorado once ran.

Returning our gaze westward, the mind lurches vertiginous. The vast bleached gash we once took for chasm protrudes; the formation pops from canyon to mountain. Another optical lurch as strata go shadows, as mountain goes mountains.

Closer and the eyebrain swoons again: these mountains move as if alive, pulsing, ebbing, throbbing, their summits squirming, their valleys filling and emptying of themselves. Mountains not mountains. Not rock, or no longer. Once rock. Dead rock. The sloughed-off skin of the Sierra, the Rockies, so on. Sand dunes. Dunes upon dunes. A vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West.

Buried beneath:

The world's tallest thermometer.

An iconic cohort of roadside fiberglass dinos.

Goldstone Deep Space National Laboratory.

The Calico Early Man Site, first, last and only dig of the National Geographic Society's New World archaeology project, its excavation led by the world-class archaeopaleontologist Dr. Buzz Leonard, Ph.D., who dated Calico's bountiful stone tool cache of obsidian flakes, chert blades, flint scrapers, hammerstones, handstones, and knobbed querns earlier than Lucy by fifty thousand years, the new oldest evidence of Homo sapiens sapiens's habitation in the world and thus shifting the origin of man from Africa to the Americas, relocating the cradle of humanity to Southern California, thereby upending the scientific consensus while confirming the hypothesis long-held by all southern Californians.

Buried beneath:

The Rio Tinto borax mine, birthplace of the twenty-mule team. The Rainbow Ridge Opal Mine, from which was pulled "Black Beauty," the largest, purest, most expensive opal in the world, whose 3,562 carats overburdened every gemological scale at the Golden State Gemological Society and Rockhounding Club in Sacramento and had to be weighed on a butcher's scale down the street, the opal that Leland Stanford purchased, had carved into the shape of a sea lion, and presented to his wife, Jane, as a push gift upon the birth of their only son, Leland Junior, namesake of Leland Stanford Junior University.

The Potosi mine, which made the lead that made the bullets that made such quantities of blood bloom in the Mountain Meadows massacre that Brigham Young was forced to revise his grand plan for Deseret.

Buried beneath: Quartz country. Talc country. Arrowhead country. Petroglyph country. Rain shadow country. Underground river country. Ephemeral lake country. Creosote forest country. Joshua tree country. Alfalfa field country. Solar array country. Air Force base country. UFO country.

I–15, I–40, I–10 and all the unincorporated pit stops astride them: Zzyzx, Ludlow, Essex, Needles, Victorville, Barstow and Baker.

The date groves and pastel tract houses of Indio.

Snow Creek Village, a lifestyle community designed for miniature-size adults.

The movie-set city of Pioneertown, including Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace and the Pioneer Bowl, the oldest continually used bowling alley in America, where retired movie chimps worked as pinsetters until the evacuations, when, forgotten in the chaos, they were left behind, perhaps bowled a few frames of their own before flight or entombment.

The low, gravel-roofed, rectilinear Neutra imitations of Twenty-nine Palms, their cracked clay tennis courts, their empty stables.

The eerie auroral throb of Palm Springs swimming pools, dry, but with solar lights charged to bursting and ablaze. Each of that city's 2,250 holes of golf a tinderbox begging for flame.

Naturally, there were efforts. The Essex town board planted the wild grasses they were told would deter the steady intrusion of sand. With seeds donated by the Sierra Club, FEMA funding, and meltwater from glaciers tugged down from Alaska, the town surrounded itself with thousands of acres of hearty, supposedly indigenous grassland. Still came the dune, rolling over the grasses like so many swaths of peach-fuzz, the world's most invasive species no species at all.

Baker and Ludlow erected fifty-foot retaining walls, Baker's made of high-tech perforated flexfoam developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ludlow's old-fashioned concrete and rebar. The dune buckled both.

Windbreaks were constructed, tree lines were sowed, thousands of truckloads of gravel were dumped. Scrappy Needles—a town of three hundred truck drivers and rock hounds and recovering alcoholics—offered the mightiest fight, or at least the best-documented, stationing Caltrans trucks and the tanker from the county volunteer fire department at the edge of town and continually spraying the advancing sand wall with oil. Still came the dune.

Still came sand in sheets, sand erasing the sun for hours then days, sand softening the corners of stucco strip malls, sand whistling through the holes bored in the ancient adobe of mission churches. Still came the wind. Still came ceaseless badland bluster funneled by the Sierra Nevada. Still came all the wanderlusting topsoil of Brigham Young's aerated Southwest free at last, the billowing left behind of tilled scrub, the aloft fertilizer crust of manifest destiny. Ashes in the plow's wake, Mulholland's America.

Still came the scientists: climatologists, geologists, volcanologists, soil experts, agriculturists, horticulturists, conservationists. In fluxed new-booted, khaki-capped men and women from the Northeast, stalking tenure in L.L.Bean. Still came journalists, deadline-hungry, sense of subtlety atrophied. Still came BLM and EPA and NWS and USGS, all assigned to determine why a process that ought to have taken five hundred thousand years had happened in fifty. All tasked with determining how to stop the mountain's unrelenting march. All of them failed.

Or half failed. How it happened they could explain, a micro-chronicle even the layest Mojav might recite: drought of droughts, wind of winds.

Unceasing drought indifferent to prayer, and thanks to it rivers, lakes, reservoirs and aquifers drained, crops and ranches succumbed, vegetation withered, leaving behind deep, dry beds of loose alkali evaporate.

Scraping wind, five-hundred-year wind, the desert's primal inhale raking the expired floodplain, making a wind tunnel of California's Central Valley. In came particulate, swelling simultaneously Dumont Dunes and their southerly cousins, Kelso Dunes. In barely a blink of desertification's encrusted eye, the two conjoined across the eighty miles that had long separated them, creating a vast dune field over one hundred miles wide, instantly the longest dune in North America.

But knowing how it came would not stop it from coming. Still came the wind, hoarding sand and superlatives: widest dune in North America, tallest dune in North America, largest dune in the Western Hemisphere. The dune field overtook I–15 in a weekend, reaching a corpulent four hundred square miles, insisting upon its reclassification from dune field to dune sea.

Still rose the dune sea, and like a sea now making its own weather. Sparkling white slopes superheated the skies above, setting the air achurn with funnels, drawing hurricanes of dust from as far away as Saskatchewan. Self-perpetuating then, the sand a magnet for its own mixture of clay, sulfates and carbonate particles from the pulverized bodies of ancient marine creatures, so high in saline that a sample taken from anywhere on the dune will be salty on the tongue.

So came the name, amargo being the Spanish word for bitter; Amargosa being the name of the first mountain range the dune sea interred.


From GOLD FAME CITRUS by Claire Vaye Watkins. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Claire Vaye Watkins.

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