Climbing above Badwater Road, Artist’s Drive displays a spectacular palette of colour on the face of the Black Mountains. Minted pearl green from chlorite—my favourite. Lavender empurpled from manganese. Yellow, light as pollen and dense as mustard, from iron oxide. Pastel pink deepening to ochre red from Hematite. The threatening sky a wash of denim blues.
Taking local advice, Magellan and I drove this nine-mile loop in the light of late afternoon after hiking for most of the day in Marble Canyon. The desert heat and gusting winds had dusted our faces, clung to our hair and trickled into our boots. Although sweaty and sandy, it felt good to be out of the elements, in Rove-Inn, on such a scenic drive.
Surreal colours aren’t they? The multiple hues were produced by chemical weathering and hydrothermal reactions in mineral deposits in the Miocene millions of years ago. Layers of volcanic debris, cemented gravel and playa deposits built up to a thickness of 5,000 feet. Continuous weathering from flash floods and desert winds further exposed the rocks, their colours beautified by oxidation.
To help describe the range of nature’s palette on Artist’s Drive, I reached for a Mothers’ Day gift from Lynn, The Secret Lives of Colour. Tyrian purple, Cleopatra’s favourite colour, the product of two varieties of shellfish fermented in a vat of stale urine. Hematite, used to stain mummification linens, the title “Lord of the Red Cloth” given to Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife. Gamboge, the solidified sap of Garcinia trees from Cambodia, a fixture on the palettes of artists from the Far East for centuries and later for Rembrandt, Turner and Reynolds.
Along the one-way route there are turnoffs and short walks over narrow washes so you can get even more impressive views of the unique geology and rainbow colours. A frisky breeze, dust and wind flirting at our ankles, and rain shadows darkening the western skies kept us from going too far or staying out too long when we reached the highlight of the drive: Artist’s Palette. (As did knowing we had to find a windproof place to camp.)
While hiking Marble Canyon we met a couple from Sacramento who also had an Airtop tent, although theirs was on a Jeep Wrangler. “Johnson’s Canyon, yeah, it’s a bitch,” said the wife, advising us not to camp there as we’d planned. Her husband suggested we try Echo Canyon instead. However, the huge pile of stones accumulated in the centre of the dirt road was playing havoc with Rove-Inn’s belly so we found a spot to camp just a few miles into Echo Canyon.
It was calm. We realized it was the first day of spring, March 21. “How about a shower in our new stall?” Magellan asked. Spring cleaning?
What? I can hear you asking. A shower stall?
I know. I too was dubious when Magellan found what looked like a flyaway outdoor-biffy at Bass Pro Shop and bought an Oz Trail 12-volt shower.
Only an engineer could rig up something like this. We set up the shower stall, close to Rove-Inn so we could plug the shower hose into her cigarette lighter. Removed a rubber floor mat from Rove-Inn and put it on the floor of the shower stall. Assembled our aluminum dining table, moved it beside the shower stall to hold our clothes. Hung our microfibre towels. Placed our Latitude65 rug and sandals outside the shower stall. Heated water on our camp stove. Poured it into a bucket. Remembered to dig out soap and shampoo from our kit bags and find my thin Japanese washcloth. (Magellan always insists I go first—generous, but then I leave him lots of water.) Got nude in the shower stall, tossed aside dirty clothes and turned on the Oz Trail hose, which has a pump that draws water from the bucket. Turned off the water after a minute or so. Watched it pool around my dirty feet as I soaped and shampooed. Turned the hose back on. Sprayed and rinsed. Reached out for clean clothes and sandals. Nirvana. “Bottom-shelf luxury,” Magellan calls it.
But do you really get clean with less than a bucket of water?
Have you seen an artist’s palette at the end of a day? If you have you know it’s intermingled shades of paint scraped clean down to the wood, only a faint tincture of indeterminate colour left in the thin grains. That pretty much describes our skin after a desert wash-and-rinse. It feels superb. “The smooth tranquility that comes from dwelling among primal things.”
Jarvis, Brooke. “Rethinking the Science of Skin.” The New Yorker. August 3 & 10, 2020. “Five years ago, I stopped showering.” Brooke introduces this fascinating article with words from Dr James Hamblin, a medical doctor who wrote a book that takes a critical view of the soap industry and what it’s doing to our skin—and also stopped showering for five years. It made me think about our skin on that 79-day trip in Rove-Inn around the southwestern US…
The quote by Sylvia Plath dates from 1951 and was first published 31 years later in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.
St Clair, Kassia. The Secret Lives of Colour. Great Britain: Hatchette UK, 2018. A delightful book you’ll find yourself slipping into for a spot of colour. My favourite quote in this book is from John Ruskin: “It is the best possible sign of a colour when nobody who sees it knows what to call it.” Colours like Isabelline, Lead-tin yellow, Orpiment, Minium, Orchil…