Recently, I was fortunate enough to meet with the amazing tattoo artist Hettie Baker in London. When I decided what I wanted her to design, I decided I wanted California poppies mixed with some creosote flowers. To be honest, the creosote bush is kind of ugly as a whole, but looked at closely, it’s tiny yellow flowers and fuzzy seedlings are beautiful. Kind of like a metaphor for the desert. At a glance it can seem so vast and desolate, but upon further inspection, it’s got so much to offer.
Crushed in your hand and held close to your nose, the creosote leaves smell exactly like the desert after it rains. Those who’ve been in the desert after it rains know that this is one of the most amazing smells in the world. It’s just so clean and fresh and feels wonderful. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.
But getting this tattoo wasn’t solely to get some amazing floral art by by a phenomenal artist, this tattoo was about me. For me. And here’s my story.
I grew up in the Mojave desert, in a tiny town on the edge of nowhere. I grew up… ashamed of where I was from. A military town with transient residents, most people who shared this space with us hated it.
“There’s nothing out here to do.”
” Why am I stationed in the middle of nowhere.”
“I hate the brown, scrubby landscape.”
There was never a shortage of ill words about my home. Even my mother, a military brat raised around the world, never took too kindly to the desert. She cried when my dad brought her here. And my father, who settled in to the desert fairly quickly soon tired of the consistent clear bright and sunny days as he longs for the cloudiness and “ook”* of California’s Bay area.
I have this distinct memory of a conversation when I was young. “I hate this town,” I said to a boy while we danced in the gym, “I’ll get out of here as soon as I can.”
And I did. Two months after graduating high school I moved to the beach for college. I spent those four years telling people I was from Palm Springs rather than 29 Palms. It seemed more glamorous as Palm Springs has long been a getaway for wealthy Angelinos.
At 20 something, when I met my husband, he was stationed in my hometown and the embarrassment continued. Even my sweet, quiet, accepting, husband felt the need to say to his friends, “I started dating this girl, she’s from 29 but she doesn’t look like she’s from 29.” I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean but I laughed it off. Trying to hide my embarrassment that I wasn’t from somewhere cool like LA or San Francisco. That I grew up barefoot in a yard filled with sand and tumbleweeds, not grass and flowers.
Out of college, we started our married life in 29 Palms and I worked for the military base’s Public Affairs Office. It was during this time, representing my office on local town committees that I started to realize what a gem my hometown was. There is literally, a National Park in my back yard. I grew up going camping there with my girl scout troops and I completely took it for granted. While on this committee we discussed light pollution at night and I started to really look up. To notice that there is NOTHING like the desert night sky.
Standing in the intense dark of the national park, if you look up on a clear night, you will feel both tiny in the vastness of the universe and intrinsically connected to it all at once. There are more stars than you can imagine in the desert sky and on a summer evening when the warm breeze surrounds you, it’s like a hug from mother nature.
But even as my eyes opened to the beauty of my hometown, I still struggled to be proud of my background and I rarely told my military coworkers where I actually grew up.
I don’t think it was until I moved away, first to a city a few hours away and then to another continent that I full appreciated my home. While I’ve always been a proud California girl, I haven’t always been a proud desert girl.
But that’s changing. Living in another country who’s landscape couldn’t be more different than the desert, I’ve realizes the little things I miss. Swimming in my pool on warm summer nights. Watching a fiery sunset behind the mountains. The smell of the desert after it rains.
It’s in these little things that I build my pride. Away from the negativity of those forced to live there, I can see the beauty of what it truly was, an amazing place to grow up. No, we didn’t have a Target or many fancy restaurants and if you weren’t military you’d have to drive thirty minutes away if you needed to buy basics like clothes, but we had so much more. A caring and (fairly) safe community, where people help others just because they can.
And this is why I went to Hettie with my latest request. These little yellow flowers and orange poppies are home to me. They represent me at my core. My home. My desert.
It’s not rolling green hills of England or massive redwoods. It’s not bright lights of Broadway or quaint seaside villages. But it’s beautiful in it’s own right. It’s vast sandy views and towering purple mountains. It’s trees that look like something Dr. Seuss created, spiny cacti and blankets of wildflowers. It’s the bluest skies you’ll ever see. It’s the sun on your shoulders and sand beneath your feet. It’s everything in “nothing.” It’s home.
*Ook – was my dad calls it when it’s cloudy or rainy or foggy or basically anything other than clear bright and sunny. I.E “Oh it’s nice and ooky today.”