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Barret Baumgart’s literary debut presents a haunting and deeply personal portrait of civilization poised at the precipice, a picture of humanity caught between its deepest past and darkest future. In the fall of 2013, during the height of California’s historic drought, Baumgart toured the remote military base, NAWS China Lake, near Death Valley, California. His mother, the survivor of a recent stroke, decided to come along for the ride. She hoped the alleged healing power of the base’s ancient Native American hot springs might cure her crippling headaches. Baumgart sought to debunk claims that the military was spraying the atmosphere with toxic chemicals to control the weather. What follows is a discovery that threatens to sever not only the bonds between mother and son but between planet Earth and life itself. Stalking the fringes of Internet conspiracy, speculative science, and contemporary archaeology, Baumgart weaves memoir, military history, and investigative journalism in a dizzying journey that carries him from the cornfields of Iowa to drought-riddled California, from the Vietnam jungle to the caves of prehistoric Europe and eventually the walls of the US Capitol, the sparkling white hallways of the Pentagon, and straight into the contradicted heart of a worldwide climate emergency.
About the Author
BARRET BAUMGART’s work has appeared in Vice, the Gettysburg Review, the Seneca Review, the Literary Review, and Camera Obscura. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
Read an Excerpt
A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe
By Barret Baumgart
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2017 Barret Baumgart
All rights reserved.
July, Mojave Desert ... midday, with strings of tortured air rising, hypnotic and toxic, off the asphalt in rippling jets of transparent flame, a hooded figure draped head to toe in white rounds the bend beneath a wall of volcanic rimrock and continues dragging himself across the distance, his heavy rhythmic breaths scraping through the silent desert stone, each exhalation like a blind woman's broom brushing a cathedral transept, and as the rasping wanders closer, in the distance another figure begins bobbing in a mirage pooled up over the bend, drifting slowly until he seems to rise and wade out from the light, onto the shore of black asphalt, where he continues plodding through the boiling heat just as a third figure rises in the mangled pyrite, followed by a fourth and a fifth, some forgotten fanatical sect of medieval self-flagellants, the deranged and roving victims of mass famine, megadroughts, and black plagues, these gasping white-clad penitents just keep climbing out of the desert, dripping blood and sweat, their outlines flickering in and out through the horizon's heat haze, and as they pass, their white neck capes bouncing, deep breaths blowing, it's hard to tell if they're coming or going, winning or losing, or what that might even mean in all this gigantic pitiless distance.
There's nothing here but heat and dust, dust and light, time and space — no great upheaval beyond the mute accumulation of aeons, no setback beyond the routine catastrophe of morning sunrise. Daylight sears and returns every speck of rock and sand, every pore and follicle of human pride and daily grime, every miserable stick of charred inedible plant life back to the perfect sterility of lunar space. What passion could be conceived here, what sin, what germ? One wonders what these pilgrims could possibly have found to flee from or toward — how they sustain their faith in this landscape that seems to preserve a single celestial truth, to radiate but one overwhelming fact: indifference, the indifference of a dying star that insists on spraying, across this last fossilized infarct of California, the fire, light, and silence of 100 billion hydrogen bombs bursting every second.
In the shade it's 119°F. On the asphalt it's 180°F. In such weather, the body can lose a gallon of water in just a few hours. That's over eight pounds of liquid. As the brain begins to coagulate, it envisions water everywhere. Across the road, the dead lattice of the dwarf trees twists, blurs, and pulses like seaweed inhaling the crests of coastal waves. The undulating layers of fossilized strata stain the cliffs with the leak and drip of virgin springs. The highway mirage ripples cold with alpine refreshment. The pale granite domes high above the scrub pines scream of melting snow. The coyote rotting along the roadside smells of healing sulfur hot springs. Water — the last thing you'll find and the only thing you need. Most people would turn to carrion if they stood on the blacktop over an hour. But somehow these bastards are running on it ...
Every July, they return to erase themselves in the Mojave, and most summers, as I pass the desert en route to the mountains, I see them suffering. People always ask them the same question — why? — and their answers seldom vary.
"I run because I learn so much about God when I run."
"I'm always searching for a feeling of freedom and flight ..."
"To reach a point of nirvana."
"It's about the journey, not the destination."
"There's these people chasing me and I have to get away."
The first time I saw them, I was standing at the end of Centennial Road, a bumpy dirt track that runs across a broad wash, away from the rim of Death Valley, to the mouth of a narrow lava canyon. My friend Kyle and I had carried in water and whiskey and camped beside the ruins of an old ranch in the upper flats. We'd had a couple of days off, and neither of us gave much thought to the heat or to the fact that we'd be sleeping another night on hard ground. We were working for the US Forest Service that summer, breaking rocks and shoveling scree, repairing old trails above the tree line, and the hard work had made us trail-tough, or so we thought until the next morning when we drove down from the canyon and stopped the car to watch the runners come over the ridge. One by one. Dressed in white. Their faces beamed as they stared past us, beyond the Coso Range, toward the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
We didn't know it then, but they'd already been at it for twenty-seven hours. During that time they'd crossed over two mountain ranges. When they finally collapsed sometime the next night, they'd put 150 miles on their sneakers, summited Mount Whitney — the highest peak in yet a third range of mountains — and endured an overall combined vertical ascent of 19,000 feet. All this without sleep.
"God, we're pussies," Kyle said.
We climbed out of the car, stood in the dirt, and stared east along CA 190, shading our eyes and inhaling the idling engine fumes until we both suddenly shrieked, crouched down, and covered our ears. A bullet-shaped F-16 fighter jet ripped out from the south, exploding the sky behind us before it tore north for another mile in the span of two breaths. We watched as the runners stopped in the middle of the road and started jumping and cheering, waving good-bye to the warplane as it dipped a wing, cut east, and disappeared over Death Valley. When all was quiet, the runners continued plodding west.
"Yet another special treat out here in the desert," recalls Arthur Webb, a Badwater veteran. "It must have cost the race director a bundle to put this display on."
The Badwater Ultramarathon calls itself the world's toughest footrace. It is very likely "the most physically taxing competitive event in the world." Beyond such trite and true taglines, the extreme endurance race is also known for its extraordinary hallucinations, not the least of which being the fact that an obscure and brutal contest offering no prize money beyond a belt buckle can afford to pay the military to cheer onits suicidal contenders* or that such frequent flybys should constitute anything beyond the routine rehearsal of foreign war over the world's largest and most isolated naval base. Nonetheless, as we stood below Centennial Canyon that day, the runners' enthusiasm felt contagious, convincing. The power, speed, and levity of that plane, for all its violent cacophony and dormant murder, seemed to fly in the face of that mute and inhuman desert — a cheerful sovereign noise, no matter how long it lasted.
"Kill 'em all!" Kyle yelled after the runners.
Badwater finisher Dave Bursler's official race report captures how much competitors depend on those military planes. "As we walked, I told Dori how disappointed I was that I hadn't seen the F-16 fighter jets that David Bliss told me we might see." But then suddenly, "As if God above was answering my prayers an F-16 came out of nowhere and did a fly by. A few seconds later a second F-16 flew by us. It was an unbelievable experience that gave me an emotional rush. Seems I was going to experience everything Badwater had to offer."
Bursler says that it's at Badwater where he found the strength to open up his heart. "This is where I learned that things don't have to be seen to be true."
Kyle and I had both been disappointed the night before when we didn't see anything at the perimeter of the base. Walking the upper flats, headlamps lit, we'd half-expected some contingent of military guards armed with machine guns climbing out of camo Humvees to scan our licenses, credit cards, and cell phones; inspect our packs, notebooks, and pupils; and confine us in some underground detention center for past sexual treasons, future unpaid parking tickets, or at least our present public drunkenness. But there was nothing out there. Not even a single obscure flashing light to entertain our fear or encourage a guess about what exactly they might be studying, building, or testing in the dark. Nothing but ink-black night, a dusty deserted road, and a long sagging rope of rusted barbed wire insufficient to keep out even the least curious passing burro. Several shotgunned signs reflected the spray of our headlamps: Warning — Restricted Area. No Trespassing.
"Yeah," Kyle agreed.
I watched him walk around to the back of the car, lift the tailgate, and grab a water bottle from his pack. He tossed me one and started coughing, then smiled as he closed his eyes, covered his mouth with a fist, and tried to point a finger over my shoulder.
This time I didn't flinch.
"We should give them a ride. They look like they're waving for help," I said.
The runners stopped in the road as a second plane roared past us.
Kyle took a deep breath and shut the trunk.
"They're just happy," he said.
If the road of excess still leads to the palace of wisdom, then for those runners crossing the earth's hottest desert in the world's hardest footrace, the amazing superfluity of those planes must have seemed a near-providential sign, the most auspicious omen; it was as though Gaia herself had screamed "Eureka!" and sent not one but two eagles, a certainty twice spoken: these brave runners would conquer the titanic forces working against them. The promised land lay near, they seemed to say. Anything can be accomplished, as long as the will remains strong.
Yet if it's true, as Dave Bursler's memoir suggests, that things don't have to be seen to be believed, then shouldn't the opposite adage also hold true? Don't believe everything you see.
I never ran the Badwater Ultramarathon and I don't ever intend to, but I suppose I've always been drawn — for better or worse — to the human extreme, that border between light and dark, terror and ecstasy, faith and absurdity. Albert Camus called it a "waterless desert where thought reaches its confines." The point he believed was to stay there, "insofar as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions." But you can't stay there for long. The things you see will either destroy you, rouse you from a dream, or send you running as fast and as far as your feet will carry you. "To say that that climate is deadly," Camus wrote, "scarcely amounts to playing on words." It took me years to realize what I had actually seen in those upper flats besides piled scabrock, junipers, and Joshua trees — a disturbing vision hidden in the cliffs just beyond the dry wash of Centennial Spring and its threshold of rusted barbed wire.
The runners of the Badwater Ultramarathon speak openly of their visions, the trance-like hallucinations that occur often during the second night of their journey. They see ghosts and demons, decaying corpses on the roadside, mutant mice monsters crawling in the darkness, and extraterrestrials in the distance. One runner, Jack Denness, reports that he saw a spaceship that had smashed into a mountainside: "Smoke was still rising from the crash. Around the spaceship were these tiny aliens. I saw this from a distance of seven miles." Runners have been stalked by women rollerblading in silver bikinis, low-flying passenger planes, and Satan himself. "He was all red, had horns, fork-tail, and carried a three-pronged tripod. ... Every time I turned around to look for him, he would dodge behind a tree or rock, just showing his face." Others in their altered states have calmly jogged across a transplanted Golden Gate Bridge, over the improbable excrescence of computer microchips, and into dreams of drifting ocean vessels, covered-wagon trains, and lost gold miners. "It was still 114 degrees at 2 AM ... I started to hallucinate, seeing this grizzled old 49er holding his gold pan. I thought it was filled with water. I went to get some. I woke up when I heard the water from my own bottle sizzling on the pavement."
Sheep may be the ultramarathon runners' most common hallucination. They fly among the stars, wander the highway in thin herds, and scale the basalt outcrops above the highway guardrails. Ian Parker, a veteran of nine Badwaters and a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine, recalls once accepting the spirit guidance of a desert bighorn. "I noticed a figure walking slowly up the trail a few hundred yards ahead of me which, looking more closely, resolved into a bighorn sheep. This was exciting, because bighorn sheep are normally very timid ... suddenly it stopped and turned to look at me. Fixing me with a baleful stare ('Come on slowcoach!'), it waited until I had caught up. At that point I wondered if I ought to be worried — bighorn sheep weigh more than 200 pounds, the males charge each other at speeds over 25 mph, and the narrow trail ran above a high cliff — but this one looked to be a juvenile female who was just curious about this intruder into her rocky lair. She let me approach within a few feet, then started upward again at a pace that looked languid but still left me trailing behind. Again, though, she paused to let me catch up, all the while fixing me with her intent stare, and again set off upwards when I was almost close enough to touch. This little game carried on for around 10 minutes before she tired of it and bounded effortlessly away up a steep talus slope. The memory of our brief encounter stayed with me throughout the cold, hard slog through the darkness up to the rim and, like all good pacers, my bighorn sheep provided a psychological boost at the toughest time during a run."
Ian Parker apparently did not understand the point of the game.
He should have killed that sheep.CHAPTER 2
"Bump, bump," she says.
She sets her elbows down on the dark wood table and smiles. A candle glows beside the napkin holder and the light catches her eyes as they search mine. I glance away, staring down at the dogs sleeping beneath the table. It's late and we have to wake up early.
"Bump, bump?" I ask.
A lonesome Native American flute drifts across the kitchen from the plasma flatscreen. At night she keeps the TV tuned to channel 943, Soundscapes. I've always called it her magic cave music. She'll say she likes these songs. "They're relaxing." They help her escape.
"Come on. You know what 'bump, bump' means," she says.
She mounted a rainbow-colored map of the world behind the television recently. Alongside it, on the top shelf of a bookcase crammed with travel guides, stand dozens of handmade miniature wood-carved animals from Oaxaca. She lifts them each day and dusts them, careful never to crack their fragile toothpick limbs. She's never traveled outside the country except to Mexico once. I want to help her.
"Let's go to sleep," I say.
I hear one of the dogs beneath the table wake. Velvet hound ears flapping. Collar jangling like chiseled car keys. If I cup the glowing tip of my e-cig in my palm, rest my elbow on the table, and hold my fist to my lips, I can smoke without her noticing. I inhale, staring down at the candle flame flickering between us. The sticker says April Rain, but I don't smell it. It's late October and San Diego hasn't had a drop in six months.
"You really don't remember?" she says. "If I get sick, drop me behind the car, put it in reverse, and back over me."
This dark image contradicts the color on her walls. She keeps her morbidity at bay throughout the day, but at night, when she drinks, she lets it escape. Or maybe it's just because I'm here. I tell myself she inherited it from her father. "I yam what I yam," he used to say, quoting Popeye, when she'd beg him to quit smoking — that's what she told me. Lately, unlike him, she's tried to change. She's managed to eliminate most of her bad habits, everything except alcohol.
She raises her champagne glass and taps the crystal. "Refill, please," she says.
I walk past the hundred multicolored indigenous craft art crucifixes that cover the wall beside the table. All authentic, she'll say. Next to the kitchen sink, a small electric fountain gurgles between the toes of the enlightened Buddha she bought at Marshalls. I open the refrigerator and squint.
She told me she paid a lot of money to hear some guru speak downtown at a hotel last week. After his speech, he stared in her eyes and said he saw a vast reservoir of light, but she had to learn to love herself first if she ever wanted to heal. She interpreted this to mean that she could still enjoy a couple of drinks each night.
"You know I'd cut my right arm off for you," she says while I pour.
I've never doubted her love. We slept together in the same bed for eleven years. When I was eight, she told me she'd had two abortions before me. But she chose me. "I wanted to have you," she said. My grandmother worried; she thought our prolonged attachment would soften me, turn me into some kind of queer. Say "I yam what I yam," my mom used to tell me when I'd try to stop the bad kids from catching and killing the lizards in the rocks after school. They only danced around me, singing: "Popeye the sailor man, he lives in a garbage can. He turned on the heater and burned off his wiener. He's Popeye the sailor man."
Excerpted from China Lake by Barret Baumgart. Copyright © 2017 Barret Baumgart. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Jesús Castillo,
Notes and References,
What People are Saying About This
“No two ways about it, Barret Baumgart’s China Lake is a brilliant, often hilarious, and thoroughly original work of nonfiction that looks at climate change and many other things, important or not, through the exploration of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in the Mojave Desert. Baumgart, dragging on his ever-powered-up e-cig and listening his cherished heavy metal whenever he can, takes us on a tour of paranoiac conspiracy thought, petroglyphs, cloud seeding, chemtrails, climate manipulation, his mother’s brain and body, the Pentagon, New Ageism, and numerous other mesmeric curiosities. China Lake is an apocalypse of the weird. In places it is wildly funny. I found myself bursting into laughter, slapped by startling eruptions of wit and humor. The book is unfailingly entertaining, keenly intelligent, and, in fact, is an almost shamefully good read."
“This is an astonishing debut. At once tragic and hilarious, frightening and timely. China Lake is our most provocative and personal statement on humanity’s failure to come to grips with the monstrous reality of climate change.”
“Prehistoric shamans, weather warfare, chemtrails, geo-engineering: Baumgart ties these disparate threads into a fast-paced, engaging and very personal narrative about our greatest existential threat: rapidly changing global climate. This is an important book, marking the appearance of a talented and distinctive new literary voice.”
“John Hawkes spoke of the ‘terrifying similarity between the unconscious desires of the solitary man and the disruptive needs of the visible world.’ What I find most impressive about this remarkable book is Barret Baumgart’s willingness and ability to explore this paradox. China Lake gets at something alarming and true about nature and human nature.”