Covering the Story


Yuha Desert, February 2007by Elli Caldwell

We had arrived for a few days in Southern California’s Yuha Desert to celebrate SCA, to work, talk and listen, connect and remember. We had come to recognize a program that some said wouldn’t last, wouldn’t work, wasn’t worth it. After seven years in the deserts of Southern California, we were there to remind ourselves and everyone else just how far we had come.

“We are here this weekend to celebrate a partnership that has sustained us here in the desert over the course of this program; to celebrate the members who spend their days and weeks and months in these deserts, working under the sun to give something back to the land, to restore a bit of its honor and grace; to appreciate the many alumni who are present here today who have gone before us, and still have a home here in the desert though they have since moved on to other places and things. We are here to celebrate the amazing 50 years of SCA, and the amazing 50 to come,” said Rebecca Pike during the weekend’s opening comments.

Work in the Yuha

Having spent eight months as a member of Rebecca’s Yuha Crew, I was happy to attend the event. I was sent on business as a representative of SCA’s Public Relations department to “cover the story,” bring back photos and interviews, and deliver the details from a firsthand perspective. I arrived with that intention, but soon found that business made way for a more personal journey.

The event was well-attended with representatives from each of the four Yuha crews, a variety of other Desert alumni, Joshua Tree interns, SCA staff, BLM partners, Border Patrol officials, local friends and neighbors. The sun was hot and bright, but the wind blew at a steady rate and cooled us as we worked through midday. The work was careful and detailed, led by a crew that has learned the techniques of desert restoration from Rebecca, a true scientist and artist, crew leader and SCA veteran who has spent four years in that desert, perfecting the details and honing in on the intricacies of the arid, static landscape. In an area heavily damaged and ecologically threatened by human misuse, how do we make it look like nothing ever happened there at all? How do we trick the eye while repairing the land, and protect fragile habitat in the process?

Planting Ocotillo

I worked with a team of six to restore a freshly impacted area near the campground. Tire tracks criss-crossed the landscape and traveled dangerously near an archaeological hearth, preserved for the last few hundred years and threatened now by illegal off-road vehicle use. We raked away the tracks and planted “vertical mulch,” disguising any evidence of damage, the premise being that if tire tracks aren’t visible, riders won’t be encouraged to ride there in the future. We collected and scattered rocks, paying close attention to color and texture. We re-contoured ruts, and swept sand over the area for a weathered, settled appearance. Before lunch on the second day, we gathered near the front of the road to assess our work and decide whether the site was done.

As I stood there, I realized that returning to the desert, for me, had been an affirmation. I came back to see that the work my crew did last year had been important, and is making a difference. Meeting this year’s crew, putting faces to names, watching them work and interact and commit themselves every day to this complicated, challenging project was inspiring, and comforting. I know now that they have picked up where we left off, and they are there to carry on the tradition of fighting for the desert, and creating real change on the land.

Near the end of the weekend, SCA’s Mark Bodin spoke a few words that resonated with me. He said, “SCA’s has three parts: the land, young people, and a third unnameable phenomenon that occurs when you get people together to provide service, and work on the land. Something bigger than any of us, or any of this, happens out here. That’s the magic of SCA.”

It’s true. If you’ve been out there, you’ve experienced it. For me, returning to the desert was a process of remembering the spirit of the work, the people and that unnameable magic. It’s something I haven’t found anywhere else, and it’s what makes me feel lucky to be a part of SCA.

Walk to work