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'Stranded in the Desert: A Diary of Yesteryear'

July 13, 2003|By Nancy Smiler Levinson | Special to The Times

July 13, 1957, Los Angeles

Dear Diary,

Dad and I had quite an adventure in Death Valley last week.

"I'm going to photograph desert life for Look magazine, Barbara," he said to me. "How about coming along?"

"Sure!" I answered.

I packed T-shirts, pedal pushers, sturdy saddle shoes and a straw hat. Dad put bottles of water and lots of Nehi orange soda in the Chevy since we needed to have plenty of liquid. Then I went to the library and checked out three good books on the California desert.

When we arrived, I thought the desert was amazing. All around I saw empty land, salt flats, a few shrubs, small bushes and sand — sand — sand! After all, with hardly any rain, how could much grow?

The sun was blazing. The air was dry. Nearby a tortoise crawled along. A spiny lizard flitted into the shadow of a rock.

I helped carry Dad's equipment from place to place. He shot pictures of arrow weed, Mojave yucca and all kinds of cactus plants. He photographed a roadrunner and a quick desert cottontail. They were really something to see!

That evening, when more animals come out to hunt for food, he got a good close-up of a kangaroo rat. We spent the night in a rental cabin. Dad shot another roll of film the next morning and we headed home a little before noon.

Elvis Presley was singing on the radio when suddenly steam began rising from under the Chevy's hood, and the dashboard gauge hit "hot."

"Oh, no. The engine is overheated," Dad said.

"What'll we do?" I asked. "Are we stranded in the desert?"

"Hope not," he answered. "We'll have to wait half an hour or more until the engine cools down. Then we'll have to use our last bottle of water to pour in the radiator."

"I'm already thirsty," I cried.

Dad didn't answer, but he looked worried.

Then I remembered something I had read in one of the library books. A plant shaped like a barrel. A barrel cactus. I walked a bit in each direction until I found one. Then I told Dad to cut off the top of the plant with his pocketknife.

There inside was a pulpy juice for us to drink. I might even say that the plant saved our lives!

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