It was a hot desert summer day- the kind of day where you really don’t want to go outside between 9am and 5pm. The kind of day where having a regular day job in an air conditioned building doesn’t sound so bad after all. We were in Palm Springs, at Jam’s parents’ house, and it was late in the day so I decided to drive to a nearby trail that I hadn’t explored in years. When I arrived, a lady was pacing back and forwards in front of her car. She looked worried. I asked her if she was ok, and she said that she was waiting for the police helicopter- her husband had fallen and hurt his leg up the trail. He had dragged himself for as far as he could but now he was out of water and couldn’t go any further. She had good reason to be worried, by the way- being stuck out in the desert with no water is no joke. Dehydration and heat exhaustion can happen so quickly you don’t even know it’s hit you, and if he wasn’t found soon he could possibly die. I thought for a minute then asked how far up he was: it would be dark in under 2 hours, and then it’d be impossible to see him from a helicopter. She said that he wasn’t very far up, so I grabbed an extra water bottle and set off at a jog.
Jogging up a mountain when it’s 100 degrees out is no joke. After a couple of miles I stopped for a rest and looked around me. The area was completely deserted. The light was pink and there were long shadows cast over the red rocks. The stark beauty of the desert really struck me in comparison to the direness of the situation: nature doesn’t give a damn, and it’s never more apparent than when somebody’s life is in danger. In a way it’s that cold beauty that draws me to it. It’s not nurturing in a loving way- not in the way a mother is to a child. No, it’s nurturing in a primal way, in that the earth feeds us and we feed the earth whether we feel it or not, or whether we understand it or not. Something about that rhythm that carries on regardless makes me happy. It’s the freedom of not mattering one bit that I like so much. Because in not mattering, there is nothing to weigh you down. No potential and no guilt, no past and no future, just this big impersonal moving organism that marches forwards, constantly evolving. In its chaos, it's constant.
I heard a helicopter in the distance, getting closer, and I sat down on a big rock to watch. It looped back and forth, going further and further along the trail, and after about 20 minutes of circling, a loudspeaker said “we see you there sir”. I watched (which was SO COOL) as they lowered a someone down with a stretcher, and lifted the man to safety. And then I lay back on the rock and said “thank you”. To who or what, I don’t know. I just know that I was so relieved that he had been found and was safe.
I gathered some creosote and then set off down the mountain. As I walked back to the car, the worried woman stopped as she was driving off. He was ok. Seriously dehydrated and his leg was badly injured, but he'd be fine, and was on his way to the hospital. Then she looked at me strangely and said “Thank you. You didn’t need to do that.” And I said something about how I really didn't do anything- I mean, I didn't, as he would have been found and safe whether I was there or not. But as I got into the car to drive away I thought “Why was she surprised? How could I not have made an effort?” I mean, there was a man out there who could have died, and what if the police hadn’t arrived in time, or if they hadn’t found him? I don’t think it would have been possible for me to drive off not knowing if he was ok.
As I drove back towards the main road, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and slammed my foot on the brakes. Fancy cars don’t like it when you do this in the desert but I didn’t care. I was surrounded by mesquite bushes, and they were covered in pods. How I didn’t notice them on the way in is beyond me, but then if I’d noticed I might never have made it to the trail, and I wouldn’t have got to witness an air lift happen from super close and I wouldn’t have decided that I’d like to join search and rescue when I am able. In the twilight, I gathered as many pods as I could fit into my bag, and then went back to Jam’s parents’ house to take a shower.
Mesquite reminds me of the desert, with its nutty, sweet, malty taste. You can nibble on the pods alone, or grind them up to make flour. And for those of you who don’t live in the desert areas, you can buy mesquite flour at health food stores thanks to it being a favourite of raw foodists. I highly recommend it. You can replace up to 40% of the regular flour with mesquite, and it makes such a gorgeous difference, adding a complexity to baked goods that is really just, well, worth it. Worth the expense if you don’t have access to the trees, and worth the agony of running up a hill if you do.
A few notes:
If you’re making mesquite flour, depending on how sugary and resinous the pods are, you might have to grind them up a bit, then dehydrate the ground bits. I put them in the oven on its lowest setting for a couple of hours, then ground them some more. You can use a really good blender, or a grain mill, and I think Kitchen Aid has an attachment, though I have no idea how good it is because my blender doesn’t leave me wanting for anything. Then, just run it through a sieve to separate out the husky parts.
The pods themselves will keep for months in a big jar. The flour will keep for months too, though try and use it fresh because the flavour is richer.
It’s a useful thing to have on hand anyway, as it’s antimicrobial and astringent- great as an eye wash or for a damaged GI tract or for washing wounds- just make a strong tea with the powder.
Adapted slightly from Dorie Greenspan’s almond biscotti recipe
1 cup flour (spelt is lovely, if you can tolerate the gluten in it)
1/2 cup mesquite flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick butter
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped into pieces
3/4 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350.
Mix together the dry ingredients- flours, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, and then the vanilla, and beat until smooth. Add the sugar, combine, and then the flour in 3 parts. Then stir in the chocolate.
Roll out into two log-shapes and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes (this step is important!). Then slice into biscotti shapes (about 3/4 inch thick) and stand up on the baking sheet. Bake at 350 for another 20 minutes, until golden brown.
Store in an airtight container. They’re good for about 5 days, if they last that long.