Deep into the
night, men would arrive at Doc's place. They seemed to have their own keys, as he was often not
there when they came. They were careless about noise, slamming car doors, talking, and, if there
were more than two of them, upsetting trashcans in the dark.
"Who are those men I see around your place at night?"
"Men who want something, I suppose."
"Are you going to tell me or not?"
"Just some men I let store things in my back room. They pay me a little for it.
I do a few errands too. Philosophical excursions. Perhaps you would care to go with me sometime?"
It was late winter--not that that means much in California. It began to rain one Monday,
and rained all week. Doc met my bus on Friday. He had a large black umbrella, which he tried to
hold over me, but I opened my own.
"Would you like to go with me tomorrow?"
"On your errand?"
"Yes, and other things."
On Saturday morning we took the bus to a parking garage. Doc had a black Cadillac
brought up. "Not mine, of course," he said.
As we drove out of L.A., I thought about all the people living there, along the highways,
each of the thousands and thousands thinking he had a destiny. I told Doc this, and he said, "If
you think that is horrifying, think of all the life being created at night, in the dark, when
you think all is still and quiet. No, millions and millions of spermatozoa rushing around in the
blackness of primordial ooze trying to be one with anything, anything."
"Well," I said, leaning back against the leather seat, admiring the hum
of the expensive car, "at least if you are in motion you feel alive, not just as if you are
waiting to be alive."
"You have entirely the wrong idea about life," Doc said. "It is not
a miracle. It is the Great Default."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that it is not a miracle when life occurs. It is the great What Is, life
is the reality. In the absence of anything to prevent it, there will be life. Organic molecules
are everywhere, moving or waiting, energy is everywhere. I cannot decide about the "add water"
part of the recipe, but I believe that waiting for water, that too is life, that however it can
be, wherever it can be, life simply is what there is. Have you heard of the hairnet plant? It
grows only in Death Valley, at about 5000 feet. That's the altitude where the occasional rainfall
hits the top layer of hot air in the valley and evaporates, the ghost rain. It lives on the ghost
"Is that where we are going?" I said, seeing we were heading east.
It was a long drive out, past all the little desert towns, the highway running alongside
the Mojave River bed, now dead and dry, but once a mighty Pleistocene river, crossing the desert,
filling lake after lake (now white distant dry playas), until it turned north and filled the deepest,
darkest lake of all, Death Valley.
Near the Nevada line, we turned south, down a dirt road. The road ran between a red
and black hill, covered with desert holly, and an immense dry lakebed. Then I saw we were on a
kind of small promontory which went out into the center of the lake. I could see past the end
of the hill now, and the lake was on the other side, and beyond it, the old Mojave riverbed. This
was where the river, after filling this lake, had turned north, and headed down to its final destination.
Spread out over the end of the promontory was an old health spa, looking something like a hacienda,
or an old abandoned movie set of a hacienda. The sign, its paint so faded I could not read it
until we parked beside it, read "Blue Chalcedony Spring: Famed Healing Waters". Doc
tapped the car horn.
A tall, amazingly handsome man with reddish gold hair came out of a blue door. "Have
you got my package?"
Doc nodded. The man yelled, "Doc's here," and two other men, maybe Indians,
appeared out of a nearby shed. They opened the back of the Cadillac and took out five boxes. They
vanished back into the shed carrying them.
"What healing waters?" I asked Doc.
He pointed down at the end of the promontory. There was a stand of grasses and reeds
there, at the edge of the dry lake. "There's a spring down there, and over there-see that
tank with the old fountain in the middle of it?-is where the water was pumped up to the spa."
"Is this place still in business?" I asked.
"In a manner of speaking. Now it is devoted to enjoying sensation. You are too
young for me to go into it."
"Then why did you bring me?"
"To show you something." Doc got carefully out of the car, like a man with
back problems, though--as his lips were moving--I knew the deliberateness probably had another
purpose. "We're going up there," he said, pointing behind us, up the hill.
It did not look
far up to the top of the hill, but once up there we kept going, on into the hills behind the promontory.
Doc went ahead, puffing, but still moving quickly, just as I had seen him do at night. At last
we came to a place of tall black-red basalt columns. It was all rock up here, no soil beneath
our feet, and all around were circular depressions where bubbles in the lava which had formed
this hill had burst. Doc began to climb up among the columns. "Come on," he said. It
was a strange place; this was a strange expedition whose purpose I did not know. I hesitated.
"Come on," he said, and put down his hand. I climbed up, not taking his
hand, just in case I needed to get away.
"Look," he said. At the top of a pile of columns was a great round burst
bubble. It had evidently been full of rainwater, but now the water was cloudy with something.
I looked closely. It was full of masses of little creatures swimming frantically.
"Brine shrimp," Doc said. " They hatch, they swim in the sun, they
lay their eggs; then they each fight to stay alive in the evaporating water. The water finally
evaporates; they die. The eggs lie there until the next big rain. Maybe one hundred years. They
hatch. It begins again."
"It's just chaos," I said, looking at all the squirming, doomed creatures,
not knowing they were in a small place up on a bare rock, in the middle of the desert; thinking
at first perhaps they were in the wide sea.
"But the strange thing is, we sense pattern, order. What is our basis for that?
Why do we search for that? Some of us. Why do we think there is something to understand besides
the insistent wiggling and shimmering of life, of chaos, then death? Why is order such an ideal?
Why do we feel there are patterns in things? That there is meaning to be found, overarching, underpinning,
or perhaps inherent in things? Is it the brain's illusion, some evolutionary advantage? Is it
a code in every cell, or is there a field out there, in the air, of meaning, to which we are dimly
"You are going to say it is all numbers," I said.
Doc began to climb down. "Ah well," he said. "We are only half an hour
from Las Vegas. Do you feel lucky?"