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Friendly Desert Advice

The conversation began, as it often does between strangers, with the weather. Down in Death Valley and across the floor of the Mojave, the temperature had stood firm all day at about 115 degrees. Here in the higher desert, with a soft wind up and the sun headed down, it seemed just a bit cooler, didn’t it?

“Oh, I don’t know,” Irene Ausmus said, standing behind the counter of her weather-beaten general store, “some people have told me this is pretty nice. I say it’s hot. It’s always hot in the summer.”

Well, the winters must be comfortable anyway.

“Not really,” the 62-year-old widow went on, deadpan. “It’s cold. It snows some and it’s windy.”

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And there are flash floods, right?

“No, the flash floods come later, when the snows melt.”

In the spring?

“No, later than that,” Ausmus said. “In the spring, it’s still pretty cold.”

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Well, what about fall? It’s pleasant in the fall, no?

She shrugged.

“It’s all about the same. In the fall it’s hot. Then it gets cold.”

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Clearly, Irene Ausmus--postmaster of Cima, proprietor of its general store and, from all appearances, the town’s only homeowner--was not in the mood this day to sell strangers on the serenity of the East Mojave, a vast stretch of desert sometimes called the Lonesome Triangle. Instead, she had cast herself as the anti-booster. From weather the discussion drifted to rattlesnakes--she prefers to kill them with a shovel--and stranded tourists, and impassable roads, and other hardships humans can expect out here in the hot lonesome.

Given the context, this attitude was perfectly understandable. Congress is completing work on the Desert Preservation Act. In general, the legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein would create a huge national preserve in the California desert. Some of it seems hardly controversial, such as upgrading the Death Valley from a national monument to a national park. Trouble arises in places where the proposed federal protective status would require the acquisition of private land and the cessation of cattle grazing, mining, hunting and the like. The East Mojave--a park in one version of the bill and a less-protected classification in another--is one of those places.

Ausmus moved here in 1961, after her little girl developed lung problems living in Los Angeles. Her husband ran some cattle and she ran the post office and store. When he died four years ago, she sold the cattle, but otherwise stayed put. She had become one of those characters who populate, sparsely, the California desert, and are a large part of its charm. She had become a desert rat, content to sort the mail for her far-flung neighbors and sell ice and soda to the rare motorist.

Now she has seen the future, and it is wearing a Smokey Bear hat, and she is worried. “If this becomes a park,” Irene Ausmus said, “they want to close my business down. They say it’s an eyesore. That’s the gossip anyway.” True or not--and confusion tends to dominate any detailed discussion of the desert bill--Ausmus will agree that her little wood and tin outpost could profit from some paint. “I used to tell my husband he should paint it,” she recalled, “but he wouldn’t. He said the photographers loved it the way it was. They told him it had character.”

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The battle over federal desert protection has dragged on for a decade. The particulars change, but at the extremes the debate remains unchanged. Proponents point, quite accurately, to the surreal majesty of the landscape. They decry the damage done by cattle herds, miners’ dynamite and dirt bikes. They note, again with accuracy, the seemingly irresistible surge of civilization--condo cities from the west, casino meccas from the east--into the desert.

Opponents such as Ausmus, by contrast, believe it’s folly to imagine tourists flocking to a desert in sufficient numbers to support a national park. Would you pack your children into this place in the summer? she asked. They contend that current protections are enough, that the ancient desert pretty much can protect itself.

“I just wish they would leave us alone,” Ausmus said. “We could take care of what is out here. We do like it. I enjoy the sunsets, the early sunrises, the quiet. . . . “

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She caught herself, and toned down the rhapsody. No sense starting a tourist stampede, not now, with Washington debating her future. She walked her visitor out. He remarked on the beauty of a flowering plant. It’s poisonous, she said. He climbed into his car. She warned him to be careful. Don’t get lost. A lot can happen in the desert. Cars can break down. There are rattlers around. And coyotes. And the heat, did she mention the heat?


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