A few hours north of Los Angeles and west of Death Valley four mountain ranges converge in the Mojave Desert. The Sierra Nevada, Coso, Panamint and El Paso mountains create a rim around the California desert town appropriately called Ridgecrest. Considered part of California’s “high desert” because of its lofty elevation and even steeper summer temperatures, Ridgecrest is separated from the nearest metropolitan area by several hours of barren terrain.
My family and I moved to Ridgecrest in March of 2012. My husband, a Navy pilot, was assigned to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, one of the area’s largest employers. Though I later learned that a lake did exist in Ridgecrest at one time, the irony of a military base in the middle of the scorched desert ending in “lake” was not lost on me. “At least it sounds pretty,” my hometown friends remarked gently.
For me, China Lake seemed as far and as foreign as its country namesake. I grew up in the Maryland suburbs and my husband Mike and I had spent most of our married life in Virginia Beach. When I was six months pregnant, I learned that we were headed west to Edwards Air Force Base where he would complete a year-long test pilot program. After graduation, we had two-year follow-on orders to China Lake.
Edwards Air Force Base was a blur to me. My son was just over two months old when we arrived. The year was full of all the joy and worry and sleep deprivation of new parenthood. I was simply too tired to care where we were stationed.
But with our move to Ridgecrest on the horizon, anxiety took over. I could not imagine making a life in the middle of nowhere. Would I find a pediatrician I liked? Child care I trusted? Ridgecrest was home to a solitary hospital, few schools and little else reminiscent of my own Mid-Atlantic upbringing. Even the local Walmart wasn’t a “super” version.
Despite my reservations, we had a few friends stationed there already who assured us it would be okay. I kept hearing the same clichés, “you will go there crying, and leave there crying” or, “I thought I’d hate it, but I ended up loving it.” I had heard these things about duty stations before, but I was skeptical now that they applied to me.
The road to Ridgecrest was unlike any highway I had ever travelled before. After leaving the Antelope Valley in Northern Los Angeles County, California Highway 14 began a long ascent into nothingness. Aside from the occasional tangle of brush, the only notable scenery was an impressive section of rust-colored cliffs at Red Rocks Canyon State Park and a ramshackle tin-roofed ghost town tucked along the dusty highway. On that unsurprisingly sunny day in March, our baby boy asleep in the back seat, the emptiness of the desert weighed heavily on me. “I will never love this place,” I thought to myself.
I’m not sure that I said it aloud, but I felt it all over again when I entered our rental house and was met with the mildewy mist of our home’s swamp cooler. Like many houses in our sleepy town, our sole source of air conditioning was an evaporate cooler, a piece of primitive equipment that worked by forcing the hot outdoor air through wet pads and into the house, lowering the temperature in the process. Something about it made the whole house seem permanently and uncomfortably damp.
As summer temperatures skyrocketed, I felt it again when large, thirsty cockroaches scampered in from every unsealed corner of our home in search of water. Or later when our backyard sprinkler system burst and created a sink hole in our backyard that seeped into our walls and flooded our neighbor’s patio. That was one of few conversations I remember having with our neighbors and it wasn’t exactly pleasant.
But it wasn’t until our beloved dog died after a lingering, miserable illness that I started to unravel. I associated the whole place with his devastating loss. What was supposed to be a pit-stop in my husband’s long military career had turned into a nightmare.
And so, broken-hearted, our dog’s ashes tucked into our suitcase, we headed back East for a long break and to return him to his happy resting place. We hadn’t even left the state and my stomach turned at the thought of having to come back.
But in a month’s time we were on another lonely highway headed from Las Vegas airport to our rental. It was the beginning of our ninth month in Ridgecrest and I was in that fragile spot where I could be having a conversation about a mundane topic and tears would suddenly come without warning.
And so, after some discussion, we decided that even though Mike’s work kept us in Ridgecrest, we needed to change the little we had control over. With just a few months remaining on our lease, we decided to move to base housing and start over.
Our base dwelling was like every other house on base: white, stucco and rectangular. We lived on the last road of base and the only things separating our backyard from the Mojave foothills were an iron fence, a paved bike path and several hundred yards of bare brush.
Our boxes were barely opened before our new neighbors, some strangers and others old friends recently stationed in China Lake, started stopping by to check-in on my family. One brought muffins, some helped us move furniture, others asked us to join them at the park and, happy to break from unpacking, we obliged.
The days passed and the visits didn’t dwindle. The eerie desert silence, the one that had made me sad and anxious, was replaced with the sounds of children playing and my mom friends laughing through another day in Ridgecrest. We joined a music playgroup and a stroller running club. On the unbearably hot days we retreated to the pool and on mild evenings we gathered at the tot lot.
Our neighbors became more than people to pass the time with, but trusted friends. When a two-day migraine sent me to the Emergency Room, a friend, already tired from caring for her own little one, slept on our couch so Mike could stay at the hospital with me. When I was trying to muster the courage to foray into freelance writing, my entrepreneur neighbor would sneak over while my son napped to give me pointers on self-employment. If I had a doctor’s appointment or an anniversary or just had enough, my friends would take my little boy in as their own, often before I had to ask and always without question.
As my friendships grew, so did my love for our remote desert town. We still had cockroaches, the base ones were actually more sophisticated and scurried out of the bathroom drains. Nothing ruined my night like reaching down to draw a bath for my son only to find two antennae probing out of the tub drain (to this day the first thing I do when I walk in any bathroom is to scan the drains). Mangy coyotes occasionally passed by our gate and a snake once greeted us at our front door. And I still cried for my dog and worried for my son. But it didn’t matter as much once I had found people to commiserate with on those dwindling unwelcome days.
And after a while, I realized I had stopped hating Ridgecrest. There was no “aha” moment, I just didn’t hate the place. I marveled at the incredible sunsets and starry skies undisturbed by city lights. I woke up early to run under a radiant purple sky. We rejoiced in the very rare rainfall and the accompanying aroma of the native creosote bushes. I learned to appreciate the simplicity of a life with few distractions except the occasional visit from Mother Nature.
And eventually our boxes were packed yet again and, just as I had been told I would, I closed the door on our vacant Ridgecrest house with tears in my eyes. I still wouldn’t say I “loved” Ridgecrest, and with my husband no longer in the military and our friends on to their next commands, we have no plans of ever going back. But on occasion a young, concerned spouse with orders to China Lake will find me through our tight-knit military community and ask me about Ridgecrest and I will tell her earnestly not to worry, it will be just fine.