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Desert Buzz

By D.T. Krippene

Nathanial Beekman surveyed the desert horizon. The cowboy hat Monty Contreras gave him shaded his eyes from the bright sunlight of mid-March. He missed the New England springtime of his former Connecticut home with its arrival of avian choirs singing for mates. One could almost hear tree buds awaken with a snap from their waxy cocoons. Here in Nevada’s version of spring outside the cities, the only sound was that of the blustery wind laden with dust, the cry of a hawk on the hunt, and the scuff of his boots on hardscrabble dirt.

“It’s so quiet, it almost hurts,” Nate said to the breeze.

He hiked back to his Toyota 4Runner that was pocked with body dimples from heavy use as if to proudly exhibit the hard miles since it rolled off the assembly line in 1997. The off-road tires popped and skidded in the truck’s descent on the lunar-like trail, obscuring Nate’s rearview with a cloud of dust.

Nate had a school class arriving that afternoon at the new Pahrump Historical Museum. In his position as Chief Archivist, Nate loved working with the kids, but he wished they’d show more interest in the museum’s artifacts than pestering for him to retell the tale of how he and his retired Bureau of Land Management friend solved the ghost town mystery of Rhyolite’s lost gold.

“Most of this is your fault, Monty,” Nate said to the front windshield. Talking to himself had become a worrisome habit since his wife, Pam, died. “You should be giving these talks.”

When he breached the subject some weeks ago, Monty scoffed at the idea, stating, “The Arctic Circle will reposition to Nevada before I lecture to a bunch of nose miners.”

An electronic chime chirped when Nate went through the museum’s front door. Less than a year had passed when he first arrived at a new building with empty shelves and file boxes of paperwork.

Hector Morales was restocking the gift shop section. “Hey, boss. Discover anything new out there?”

“Just the scenery.” Nate was still adjusting to hearing the question every time he went for a hike. “When is Ms. Duran’s class arriving?”

“Anytime now.” Hector cut open a box of new pamphlets. “A couple of folks dropped off some things for you to examine. Left them on your desk.”

Nate had come to love Pahrump’s residents for their openness to a displaced New Englander, but too many still thought his job as an archivist included a pawnbroker’s estimation service for stuff in forgotten storage units. “Has anyone heard from Monty lately?”

“Betsy Monroe mentioned they were both headed to Duck Creek for a week or two.”

Betsy wasn’t the only lady friend, as Monty called them, interested in corralling the never-married bachelor, but it didn’t stop them from trying, to which Monty happily obliged them.

Hector handed him a letter. “Stephanie Drysdale left this you.” He grinned. “Maybe she has a cabin in Utah too.”

Nate sighed with an eye-roll, snatched the envelope, and pocketed it. Once word circulated of his widower status, he’d become the new flytrap for possible romantic interludes. In his office, he pondered the collection of corroded, so-called heirlooms scattered on top of his desk. The front entrance chimed. “Saved by the bell,” he whispered.

A boisterous group of chattering fourth-graders poured into the museum and disbursed to various exhibits to press hands against the glass enclosures. To the delight of his buddies, one boy breathed on a pane and drew a crude smiley face on the condensed moisture. The number-one item on the museum’s monthly restock list was window cleaner.

The teacher, Ms. Duran, clapped her hands. “Class. What did I say about touching the exhibits? Hands at your side, observe with your eyes.”

She was one of many volunteers with the Historical Society that managed the museum, but Nate had met her only once. In her thirties and unmarried, the soft gloss of her chin-length hair framed a smooth face and her hazel eyes sparkled with a touch of perpetual curiosity. He tucked in his shirt, ran fingers through his hair, and lingered inside the doorframe of his office to watch Ms. Duran marshal her students with gentle firmness. It took a special calling to embrace a teaching profession he considered the equivalent of herding cats.  

Hector raised an eyebrow when he caught Nate staring at her.

He’s worse than Monty. “Don’t you have a mannequin out back in need of primping,” Nate whispered to him.

“Sure thing, boss,” Hector chuckled.

“And stop calling me boss.”

“Would you prefer Nathanial?”

Before Nate could verbally express the scowl wrinkling his forehead, Hector scampered off. Damn fine man, but he can be worse than these kids.

By some miracle, Ms. Duran had the students cross-legged in rows on the floor.  Anticipation twinkled in their eyes.

Nate selected a folder from beneath the counter. “Good afternoon. I’m Dr. Hawthorne and I’d like to talk to you about the amazing heritage of Nevada’s mining past.”

A ponytailed girl in denim overalls and Wonder Woman t-shirt raised her hand. “Are you going to tell us about the Rhyolite gold discovery?”

“Settle down,” Ms. Duran said calmly when others piped in with approval. “Dr. Hawthorne is a very busy man and is graciously donating his time to be with you. I want minds open and mouths closed while we’re here.” She turned to Nate with a glowing smile. “Forgive the interruption. Please, continue.”

The hour sped faster than expected. The students applauded when he finished, with Ms. Duran clapping the loudest. Nate was about to ask if anyone had questions, but the children scrambled to their feet and headed for the exit leading to the outdoor exhibits.

Ms. Duran ambled up to him. “They are wonderful kids, but they can be . . . ”

“Exuberantly distracted?” Nate finished for her.

She laughed at his theatrical response. “Couldn’t say it better myself. Your influence on the new museum is most remarkable.”

“Oh, I think the Rhyolite discovery is what draws people here, not some old stuffy New Englander.”

“I’m not so sure that’s true. You have a unique perspective of the surroundings. Sometimes it takes that to see the hidden beauty we all take for granted.” She relaxed against the counter with hands behind her back. “You made a few comparisons to your former home. I have to imagine you miss it.”

“I was up around Last Chance Range this morning, thinking of how quiet it was for March. Spring where I come from is a bit more–animated. Something about the pop of new green after months of perpetual New England gray.”

Ms. Duran lifted her chin to stare at a fluorescent light. “Now rings the woodland loud and long / The distance takes a lovelier hue / And drown’d in yonder living blue / The lark becomes a sightless song.” 

“Did you write that?”

She tilted her head at him and smiled. “Tennyson.” 

“There is a mystique to Nevada that I admire, but I do at times miss the chaotic noice of winter’s end.”

“Oh. Right. Guess I’m a little rusty on my poetry.” Nate glanced at the thermostat. Did Hector crank up the heat? He cleared his throat. “There is a mystique to Nevada that I admire, but I do at times miss the chaotic noise of winter’s end. I was surprised to learn rainstorms are common here in cooler months. That thunderstorm a couple of weeks ago was as good as anything the east produced. Gave me a solid education on the meaning of a desert wash.

“Oh my, yes. They can be quite dangerous. Did you get caught in one?” Ms. Duran asked.

“If Monty hadn’t been with me, I would have.” Nate exhaled a little too loud.  “Well, I better get back to …”

“Have you ever been to Scottie’s Castle?” she interrupted.

Nate had read about Death Valley National Park’s Oasis of Grapevine Canyon.  Nicknamed after a con man from the early twentieth century, Walter Scott, or Scotty, loved to brag to people how he built the place with money from his secret gold mines, none of which existed, especially the money.

“Been meaning to go,” Nate replied. “I read they’ve done a great job of preserving the site.”

“I know a Park Ranger and thought I’d visit her on Saturday. Would you like to come?”

The unexpected question tied Nate’s tongue.

“I can arrange a private tour for you,” she continued. “I think you’ll find it’s a unique jewel. Maybe find a bit of what you’re missing.” Ms. Duran turned an ear to the sounds of yelling children from the open back door. “Duty calls.” She stopped in the doorway. “I’ll pick you up first thing Saturday morning.”

Nate gaped as she walked away. She never gave him a chance to opt out.

Was it a tour – or something else?

***

Ms. Duran arrived early Saturday morning in form-fitting rancher jeans, sturdy hiking shoes, a denim shirt, and a fleece-lined tan vest. Her off-road Jeep Challenger could give Monty’s truck a run for its money.

“Good morning, Ms. Duran.” Nate stashed his backpack in the backseat and buckled himself in the shotgun seat. “Nice set of wheels.” Lame. Did people use that phrase anymore?

“Let’s make a deal. I won’t call you Nathanial if you drop the Ms. Duran thing. It’s Sandy.”

“Sandy it is.”

Nate’s head bopped the back of his head against the headrest when the four-wheel-drive kicked into gear.Instead of taking the road to Death Valley’s main entrance, they traveled south toward Shoshone.

“Isn’t there a quicker access road further north?” Nate asked. He was familiar with the major tourist stops like Zabriskie Point, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, and Furnace Creek. 

“I was waiting for when you’d say are we there yet.” She winked at him. “A detour worth your while, I think.”

When Sandy turned on Jubilee Pass Road, a sea of yellow wildflowers on both sides of the two-lane drive sprouted from cracks in the dry bed.

When Sandy turned on Jubilee Pass Road, a sea of yellow wildflowers on both sides of the two-lane drive sprouted from cracks in the dry bed. “Desert Gold Sunflowers,” she said. “Not a super bloom we all hope for, but conditions were pretty good this year.”

A splash of blue here, a smattering of purple there, Nate never thought of Death Valley as a place for spring flowers. Nothing like it grew near Pahrump or hilly areas he’d frequented. Sandy pulled over and pointed at tulip-like red blossoms sprouting from a broad-bladed succulent. “Oh, I love Beavertail Cactus in bloom.”

Nate wasn’t sure what he liked best. The splendor of color in one of the most uninhabitable places in the country, or the schoolgirl glee on Sandy’s face when she rattled off plant names. When they reached Badwater Basin, a bleak plain of white-salted nothingness below sea level, a few flowers sprouted from a splintered slice of dried salts.

“Life finds a way,” Nate murmured in awe. “Thank you for bringing me here.”

“Best is yet to come,” Sandy replied.

Heading north, they passed the usual tourist overlooks and petrified borax mining equipment. When they arrived at a Spanish-influenced revival of a colonial mission house, Nate wondered how a place resembling the album cover of Hotel California could be considered a castle. A few people wandered the property, but nowhere near the numbers that crowded parks in recent years.

Sandy introduced him to the Curator of Collections. Hearty handshakes followed from staff who had a higher opinion of his reputation than he did. Sometime during the private tour in which guides dressed in period clothing of the roaring twenties, she excused herself.

Nate meandered the property after the tour and found a patio park bench beneath a mesquite tree. Absent the bothersome prattle typical of a tourist place, the setting was strangely quiet. As his ears adjusted, he detected what he thought was the subtle drone of a distant weedwhacker. He scanned the area for evidence of a gardener. Finding no one, he settled to cataloging the site’s exhibits in his thoughts.

Something zoomed near his head and disappeared. He spun around to investigate and caught lightning-fast movements of–what?  Bees?  

Pondering if he should move, he jumped when Sandy managed to sneak up. “You surprised me,” he laughed with nervousness.

“May I join you?” Sandy didn’t wait for an answer and sat close enough to make him nervous without touching.

He flinched at another buzzing flyby near his head. “Do they keep beehives around here?”

As if he’d told the funniest joke ever, Sandy giggled.  Her eyes glinted with mischief when she extracted from her purse a small thermos and poured a clear fluid in the red cap. She snuggled closer to wrap Nate’s hands around the cup. “Stay very still.”

Nate froze when a hummingbird of iridescent green floated inches from his hand. Its head flitted down and up in scrutiny of the cup and its holder. Another one of the same species buzzed to its side. Then a third. One bird alighted the rim of the cup. The other two joined in to drink.

To Nate, time stood still as more hummingbirds arrived at the liquid feast. A red-throated hummingbird boldly landed on his finger. The air near his ears hummed from the tiny helicoptering creatures.

People gathered at a respectful distance with upheld smartphones. One observer aimed a professional camera mounted with a long-distance lens. At some point, he whispered.  “Think my wrist is going numb.”

Sandy moved the cup from his hand, set it on the park bench, and clutched Nate’s arm. Hummingbirds flocked to the feast like a hungry lunch crowd surrounding a taco truck.

“We have hummingbirds back east, but I’ve never been this close to one,” Nate said.

“The raucous din of eastern birds may herald spring flowers, but the desert blooms awaken to the gentle murmur of a hummingbird,” Sandy recited.

Nate met her eyes. “That’s nice. Who wrote that?”

“I just made it up,” she said with a giggle. “When you’ve been here long enough, you acquire an appreciation for the short blossoming season. When you listen to subtle sounds carried on the wind, you’ll hear much more than the desert buzz of springtime hummingbirds.” 

A bit chastised for the wrongful assumption the desert was monochromatic, Nate lowered his chin. It took a kind schoolteacher from Pahrump to take the effort and show him that seasons in Nevada were not mere changes of temperature. If I stop to look and listen.

“Watching this is making me hungry,” Sandy announced. “I have sandwiches and apples in the car.”

“Sounds wonderful,” he said. “Been a while since I lunched on a park bench.”

She glanced at the avian-crowded airspace around the red cup. “Maybe we should move, though. Now that we’ve established trust with these little fellas, they may insist on sharing your fruit.”  

Strolling toward the car, side-by-side with Sandy, Nate hoped there might be more to her interest in him than introducing the wonders of a springtime desert. 


Top Ten Plants I Miss in Pennsylvania

After years of living in Eastern Pennsylvania, we relocated to Nevada to be near the kids and grandkids.  We’re still adjusting to a desert clime and triple degree temperatures in midsummer. Here are the top ten plants I miss living in Pennsylvania.

  1. Tomatoes: I grew several varieties. Many grew over eight-feet tall in cages, that is if the critters didn’t get to them first. Hydroponic tomatoes at the story just doesn’t cut it.
  2. Herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (sing it Simon & Garfunkel). Also, basil (Genovese and Thai), oregano, and tarragon. Now I have to purchase all my herbs in the grocery store. Sigh.
  3. Hot peppers: cayenne for drying, habanero for hot sauce, serrano for cooking. I grew Carolina reaper one year, but even the groundhogs wouldn’t touch those.
  4. Garlic: The hardneck kind. I planted bulbs in late fall, cut the flowering stem (garlic scapes) in spring for Asian dishes, harvest the bulb when the tops start to turn brown, then save a couple of the larger cloves for next year’s crop. It’ll make your marinara sauce pop with flavor.
  5. Daffodils: Once the bulbs are established, the yellow trumpet-shaped flower is a spring gift that keeps on giving every year.
  6. Ornamental flowering cherry tree: Another harbinger of spring, the flowering cherry tree in our front yard bore delicate pink petals that eventually sprinkled the lawn like a wedding flower girl.
  7. Pansies: Another potted plant that hung from porch eaves, the yellow and purple flowers emerged all summer long if we pinched the dying buds off.
  8. Vincas: Better known as periwinkles, we’d pot the pink and white varieties, then hang them on shepherd’s hooks around the rock garden. Hummingbirds loved them. Just have to be careful not to place near birdfeeders, where squirrels can use the pots as a launch pad.
  9. Sedum flowers:  A ground perennial with tiny purple blossoms that flowered in late summer, it is a favorite of local bees. We’d sit close to listen to the subtle whiny hum of the nectar gatherers on a quiet late afternoon with a good book.
  10. Begonias: We had paver stone planter boxes on either side of our patio door. We used to plant impatiens (touch-me-nots) for their unending supply of pink and white blossoms that lasted until the first freeze. As the year waned, however, the plants grew leggy, and easily broke at the stem. Begonias proved to be hardier and offered a greater variety of colors.

What’s in our Nevada garden? Plants tolerant of triple-degree summer temps that don’t flower. Another sigh.


D.T. Krippene

Growing up in Wisconsin and Connecticut, DT Krippene deserted aspirations of being a biologist to live the corporate dream and raise a family. After seven homes, a ten-year stint working in Asia, and an imagination that never slept, his muse refused to be hobbled as a mere dream. A member of the Bethlehem Writers Group and Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, DT writes apocalyptic science fiction, paranormal, and parallel universe science fantasy. DT has published several short stories. “Hell of a Deal”, in the paranormal collection, Untethered, and most recently, “Man’s Best Friend”, in the 2021 Best Indie Book for Fiction, Fur, Feathers, and Scales. He also appeared in the Write Here – Write Now short story collection with his middle-grade paranormal, “Locker 33C”. An active member of the Bethlehem Writers Group, he’s been a featured author in the BWG Writers Roundtable Magazine, and will appear in the July 2021 Summer Issue with “Hot as Sin”. His latest project is an apocalyptic tale of humans on the edge extinction, and a young man born years after surviving humans had been rendered sterile. You can find D.T. on his website, Searching for Light in the Darkness, and his social media links on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

3 Comments

  1. Loved reading your creation. So glad to have come across you and your craft.

  2. Your descriptions make me want to visit Nevada! We loved Joshua Tree on our February trip to California!

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