Apple Valley: Landing

The place where I grew up was the equivalent of an alien planet.

The place was Apple Valley, California. It was a small town of, at the time, 5000 or 6000 people, scattered across 75 square miles of high desert scrub surrounded by bare rocky hills to the west, east, and north. To the south and southwest were views of the bluish San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains. In every direction, there were far-away mountains or nearby hills, ringing the horizon. That was the world.

I came to understand that the name was perhaps misleading; Apple Valley sounds like it should be a bucolic Midwestern valley filled with apple trees. It wasn’t (though, ironically, we had a crab apple tree in the front yard). The town is about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, across the ridge of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the “high desert,” sitting at an elevation of 3000 feet, so that in winter it occasionally gets snow. In the summer, it’s hot, but not as hot as the low desert regions like Palm Springs.

It’s along the southwest edge of the Mojave Desert, a vast expanse that extends from Bishop and Mammoth Lakes in the north, to Joshua Tree National Park in the south (just above Palm Springs and the Salton Sea), to Las Vegas and southern Nevada and parts of Utah and Arizona, to the east. In this map (from, I’ve put a red star at the location of Apple Valley. You can see how it’s close enough to the mountains separating it from the Los Angeles basin, that at night there was an ever-present glow over that southwest horizon.

As a child, of course, I knew nothing different and thought nothing strange; it was the default place to be, and only way of existence. I had glimmers of alien worlds: as a young child, I had a coloring book with outlined drawings of lakes with sailing boats, landscapes with huge clouds in the sky, pastures with animals like sheep and horses. Strange worlds.

In later years as my family moved to big city suburbs I gradually realized how unusual my childhood had been, living in an arid environment, isolated from neighbors and other children (I had no childhood friends). We lived in Apple Valley from my earliest memories, as described later, and moved away in early 1962, when I was 6 ½ years old, to the big city. But of course, Apple Valley was my Ur-existence, against which everything later would be compared.

The desert landscape was bare, dotted with low plants and shrubs that, when dead and dry, became tumbleweeds. The mornings were cool, the afternoons hot. Every afternoon the wind came up, blowing from the southwest, a hot dry wind that bent trees into permanent positions leaning toward the northeast. (This was because the area sat northeast of the Cajon Pass, a low point in the ridge of mountains to the south, with the Los Angeles basin below. As the desert heated up every day, air would rise and the air from below the pass would be sucked in underneath…bringing smog, or haze, that would then obscure the view of the San Gabriel Mountains, every afternoon.)

The winds died at sunset.

The nights were dark, and quiet. It was quiet enough to hear the occasional barking dog from several streets away, or the highway hum of trucks on Highway 18 a mile south of the house.

The desert surface was crunchy. Sand, but with a crusted surface hardened by the relentless sun and very occasional rain. You could not walk outside without shoes, ever. Everywhere were ‘stickers’, thorns broken off from the tumbleweeds that regularly blew across the desert. They would stick into the bottoms of your shoes. If you walked outside anywhere but the well-worn dirt driveway, you would pause at the front door, turn up your shoe bottoms, and pull out all the tumbleweed thorns that had gotten stuck into your shoes, so as not to bring them into the house and crunch them into bits all over the floor.

There were occasional lizards, lots of ants (red, black) in big anthills in the sand, the very occasional snake, the very occasional scorpion.

There were wildflowers in the desert, every Spring, little ground-hugging plants that bore tiny white or yellow flowers. There was one year when, perchance due to the rain pattern that year, there was an abundance of wildflowers that I’d never seen before and have never seen since. Indian Paintbrushes, lupine. I collected samples of those wildflowers into a sampling book. Year later I learned the phenomenon occurs every few years, in one area of the California deserts or another, and is called a “desert bloom.” ( The one I remember was in 1962, and while I found a newspaper reference to that year’s event sometime ago, the link has disappeared.

It got hot in the summer, in the 90s and maybe low 100s Fahrenheit, but not as hot as areas in the “low desert” (near sea level) like Palm Springs, where it gets into the 110s.

There were a few Joshua trees, like the one on the cover the famous 1986 U2 album of that name, otherwise no trees except for those trees planted by homeowners. The Apple Valley house that I remember (the second one) had a big square patch of grass and four or five elm trees around its perimeter, in a typical landscaping arrangement inspired by the mid-western background of the house’s original owners, I suppose. There was even a lilac bush in a smaller patch of grass on the north, sheltered side the house. Of course, that grass and those trees – including a Crab Apple Tree, and a Pear Tree, planted within the semicircular driveway—had to be watered regularly. We would drag a hose from the faucet at the front of the house into the well around the base of each tree, and let the water run, slowly, for an hour, once a week. Along the front edge of that grassy yard, shielding it from the driveway, was a ridge of cacti and boulders. From the front right corner along to the back grew ice plant, those succulents with fat finger-like leaf pods, and big magenta flowers in the spring and summer.

And due north from that second house stood Bell Mountain, almost perfectly bell-curve shaped from our viewpoint. It was iconic in its position, as if to orient the surrounding world around some ideal, inevitable focus, as I grew up. It would be years before I saw Bell Mountain from any other direction.

Other, irregularly shaped hills stood close to the west, and further off to the east and northeast. Despite being enclosed my hills and mountains in every direction, there were so few houses and trees that the landscape felt incredibly open, the sky enormous in every direction. This enhanced the impression of being on the surface of planet. It was easy to imagine enormous scales of space and time. To the northeast, at night, with few homes and no towns for dozens of miles in that direction, the sky was incredibly black, and you could imagine that horizon being the edge of the world.