Sands of the Cyclops
Joshua Tree National Park - 2025
Maryann Mills lifted her chin and tilted her body forward, hands on hips and stretched her bare toes and foot muscles. She strained toward the tightly rigged safety line which ringed their workout site, but she was in another world. She soaked up the music of U2 on her disc player. Behind her, safely on the protruding and rounded rock, best friend Serena Jack duplicated the stretches. Together, they shouted, “Aagh!!”
“Why you insist on playing that dreary old U2 song? Every day?”
“Every day you ask. Every day I tell you.”
“What the hell. Every day?”
“Comfort, baby. Reminds me of who I am; Irish.”
“Maryann, baby, you’ve never even been to Ireland.”
Serena raised her eyebrows and shook her head, unseen in the dawn shadows. “Irish, my black ass…” she mumbled.
Dressed in identical black two-piece yoga workout suits, the stretch material accentuated their nearly identical muscle mass from feet to their not so identical chests. Both were endowed, Serena bountifully so. Serena also was Maryann’s ethnic opposite; a compact and feisty black law enforcement Ranger.
Maryann sighed. She was usually more than ready to extend their strenuous routines. This morning, not so.
“Hey, last week I was just a head-strong ten thirty-nine. Tomorrow, I’ll be acting boss lady. No longer a Park seasonal.”
“Yeah, well seasonal and volunteers, two-hundred and fifty thousand strong, is all we got, but it’s a strong force. Dedicated. Armed. Cohesive.”
“And maybe even stronger. I’ll meet with Morgan later today, Serena.” She flipped her right leg high and settled into a restful squat.
“What? You’ll sacrifice a few minutes of our purest joy to meet with that slug?”
“Don’t go there, madame.”
“Where, then? Watch out around that Morgan. Loud and selfish. Not what we need with the LA riots spilling into all of Southern Cal.”
“I know, I know. But we’re prepared. And we’ll know more after today’s meeting.”
“Right. The whole damned country’s been shut down for three years. Covid-28 killed half the population. I love this park, like you, but we’re sitting here protecting a pile of rocks and half-assed trees with a handful of certified Rangers and the rest are untried volunteers. Stupid, girl. Stupid.”
“Could be but we, and I mean all of us, including you, baby, we love our Joshua Tree and want to save it for the people. Our mission. I’m depending on everyone to help keep the park open. You and Morgan have been a huge factor so far.”
“If you say so. But just you keep the faith, Maryann. We know the Rayders are headed our way. Militants, armed and organized gangs. We can see the smoke from San Bernardino.”
“There’s not much food, or fuel; no strategic position here. Makes you wonder, why here…?”
“Damnit, Maryann! No police, no sheriff. No Marines at 29. No emergency response teams. All in D.C. protecting asshole politicians. A green light and we’re next.”
“Help is on the way. The Association is recruiting like mad. They’re key. And they’ll be out in force for the meeting. So, be strong, my friend.”
Serena moved beside Maryann. Put an arm around her shoulder. “Maryann, dear. We got a war headed our way and we’re gonna need more than Walmart greeters and tour guides. I love Fred and Pam and all those special, special people who mean so much, but we need street fighters, baby.”
Serena backed off and fired a flurry of jabs over Maryann’s head. “We need scrappers, heartbreakers, troublemakers!”
Maryann stared at Serena, but seemed not to hear. “I wake up every night from nightmares, Serena. I need Morgan and his connections. You need Morgan…”
Serena pushed away violently. “My ass. He’s not my guy. You know how I feel about the prick!” She swung her left leg in a high arc before settling into another squat glaring at Maryann from the boulder’s edge.
Maryann returned the glare but watched Serena’s expression suddenly fade to surprise, then fear as her arms flailed the air for balance.
“Falling, falling…” Serena screamed.
Maryann leaped forward in a spider crouch, hugged the smooth rock with every square inch of her body and braced to belay a rapidly disappearing Serena. Both dangled from their own self-retracting safety lines. Each knew the magnified force of a plummeting human body on a slender safety line and its anchor could end in death on the rocks fifty feet below.
Maryann felt the sudden hum of safety line reaching its terminus and the hard tug of Serena on the line. “Belaying,” she screamed. She knew the entire line was now stretching to its limit and hoped Serena had been able to right her fall to avoid hitting her head or face on the rebound. But there was only silence as the safety line hummed and strummed across the rock face.
“Take,” echoed from below. Maryann acknowledged and rapidly tightened her hold against a possible break. She could feel Serena’s movement and finally her shout “Off belay,” her signal that she no longer needed belay and must be on the ground.
Maryann grabbed her tape player, stowed it in her climbing bag and rapidly descended to the ground. She met Serena in the shadow of the rock, leaning against it for support. They hugged and Serena laughed between her tears.
“Oh, thank you. You crazy lady. You are so cool.”
Maryann broke the hug. “I was trying to tell you that Morgan suits me.”
“Oh, I know what suits you, puss ‘n boots.”
“Okay, play the snippy one. Just because he’s well endowed.”
Maryann sprang back as Serena assumed an attack position.
They spun as one into a mock boxing drill and sparred for two minutes with short jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Both seemed to forget their near-death slip. They dropped into recovery stretching on the balls of their feet, breathing heavily.
“Jealous, you say? I never met a man who didn’t have the God complex. Morgan? He’s just a poster boy for Jerks R Us.”
“You’re wrong. He’s gentle. Thoughtful.”
“Scheming.” Serena stepped back, clenched and opened her fists.
“You take a measuring tape on every date?” Maryann charged, cocking her arm to feint a right cross.
Serena deftly half-stepped into the left side of Maryann’s charge and whacked her left parotid lymph area with a hard chop, forgetting it was just practice. Maryann went down on her back, rendered unconscious by the blow which had signaled the parotid sensors to rapidly reduce blood flow to her brain.
Serena immediately realized what she had done to her sparring mate and best friend. She quickly rolled Maryann into a sitting position, her back against the rock. She grabbed a water container from her bag and splashed Maryann’s neck. Gradually, Maryann began to recover, but lay there moaning and clutching her left shoulder, waiting for the feeling to return and the pain to stop. The words came slowly. “Why…why you do that, Sherena?”
Serena knelt beside her friend. “Sorry. You gonna be okay, babe?”
“Yeash. I hope.”
“Sorry, Maryann. You were just coming too fast. Too hard. I went tactical to the carotid. Maybe we should slow down the self-defense stuff.”
Maryann looked up, frowning. “Headache. I okay, Sherena…”
“I owe you one, queenie. God, I hope something isn’t broken from the fall.” She helped Maryann to her feet and back to a bench which offered a sweeping view all the way to Indio. “Let’s just sit here for a few minutes while you recover.”
“Good. Hand me ice pack from bag.”
Her best friend’s neck iced down, Serena gently massaged Maryann’s shoulder and looked into her eyes. “Some of the veterans say you and Dak Stitt used to be a number.”
Maryann flinched and stared into Serena’s face to detect intentional antagonism. There was just an innocent look as Serena massaged her sore neck and shoulder.
“You blast me with show-stopper punch. Now Dak Stitt. No… never got that far. You been talking to, Morgan?”
“Morgan, of course. You jealous? Thought you might like to know.”
“I really don’t want to open old cans of worms. Dak was never close. Just too damned possessive. Dictator. Damn, my head hurts.”
“Better have some water. What really happened with Dak?”
“He was thief and a liar.”
“How so? Was it that tree theft ring?”
Maryann gazed into Serena’s eyes. “He tried to rope me into it. But I knew what he was up to with those landscapers in LA…back when there was an LA.”
“Maryann, tell me about it.”
“Simple. He and friends were selling contraband trees from our Park. He made me so mad. He loaded uprooted trees in Park Service trucks. He escorted them off grounds in middle of the night. Same time one of our new Rangers was killed in a rock-climbing accident. Dak was supposed to be his mentor.”
“Was he charged?”
“Hell no. Was no real government to do it. The slime ball was given a chance to resign and take a suspended sentence with two years of community service.”
“Ugh, what a damned creep! From Park Service outcast to modern Attila. Was he an educated white master kind of guy?”
“Oh, hell no! Nothing beyond Ranger school, but he majored in bullying his whole life. He was big and conceited. The most handsome man around and he knew it. One of our best rock climbers too, which he also knew.”
“And he never got to first base with you?”
Maryann flushed in the morning light. “No, or even up to bat.”
Serena stood. She exhaled heavily in one last stretch. “Time for me to head back to JT and spend all day in the visitor center. I need a shower before the big meeting. Thanks again. You saved my ass.” She left it hanging but saw that Maryann chose silence. She offered to drive her back, but Maryann waved her away. They hugged and parted.
Maryann stayed on the rock watching her friend disappear into the dawn shadows. A slight tremor ran across her shoulders but she ignored it.
Lost in thought, Maryann watched the desert sun rise fully over the mountainous stack of boulders toward 29 Palms and the Oasis of Mara where the Serrano and Chemehuevi had camped beside the springs for centuries. Where dusty bullwhackers bound for Banning rested their oxen. Where miners lolled in the shade with their bottles and schemed to pipe water to their claims.
Maryann visualized the current scene. It was a modern visitor center perched along a waterless series of dry ravines and massive palms on the slopes of the Little San Bernardinos. Most importantly, it was the wind-whipped northernmost entrance to the park where Rangers and volunteers alike would be asked to give their lives.
Maryann shivered again and tensed at the thought of this morning’s slip. She smiled to herself, sighed and climbed back to the top of the rock.
She gazed down the fifty-foot drop. Felt the familiar tingle, the threshold of awe, like a spider web connecting past to future. She spread her lean, muscular arms wide despite the shoulder pain. She felt the Santa Ana breeze buffet her bare midriff and turned to drink it all in. Her tightly drawn pony tail flapped freely as she luxuriated in being part of an awesome landscape.
She closed her eyes to listen and feel, ignoring Serena’s nagging warnings which echoed in her mind. She had other plans which she had not shared and didn’t plan to until later, after the all-hands meeting.
Behind her, U2 finished “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” She rolled her head in time with the last fleeting notes. Was this it? The end of our daily routine?
It was designed to awaken and prepare their bodies for the rigors of hiking and climbing and a long day of work. Her mind worried away at the thought; the quiet joy that opened their deepest emotions to thinnest of intuitive sensations separating orgasm and death’s solo spiral. Or so they pretended. Daily they spun in synchronized tandem to face each other, like desert scorpions poised to strike a death blow. Every arm and leg muscle, abdomen, breast, and shoulder was highlighted, senses tuned to the highest tactical wavelength. Feigning to strike a death blow which only one of them would survive.
The thoughts rekindled her training memories. Even a modest slap to the carotid sinus can confuse the receptors there into reacting like the blood pressure is too high. The receptors immediately reduce blood pressure, causing insufficient blood flow to the brain. This, in turn, can cause rapid feinting. The recipient collapses and is slow to revive. A relaxed arm slap will deliver all the power needed to do the job.
She and Serena had been through the same self-defense training in Ranger school in Arizona. Serena built on her Army training, while Maryann had none. Serena hated the thought that she had delivered a potentially damaging blow to her friend, but behind it was the satisfaction that her training worked.
Maryann smiled at the thought. Beyond, the sun cast long ghostly shadows from an endless march of strange gawky Joshua Trees. Beyond, the Little San Bernardinos stood on eternal post, beckoning her to the safety of their embrace. Come here. Rest. Listen. Take your pleasure in this, your chosen land.
Maryann believed and told her friends that the earth, the trees, the rocks, mountains, even the rattlesnakes, talked to her continuously. If only you stopped and listened. Cliff Stone seemed to be among the doubters. Oh, he loved nature as much as she did, or so he said. And he loved to hike, but only on non-climber terrain. No tingle there, she thought. But he refused to take the lead-pipe-lock test; a leg-stretching sunrise climb to her favorite rocks where Colorado and Mojave deserts meet.
“I meet lots of memories there,” he said.
She breathed deeply and smiled at the painful sensation of her foot muscles twisting and stretching. She likened her body to the aching aura of trees awakening stiffly to a new day. She sensed her blood rising like a thermometer’s mercury. She listened for the Joshua Trees’ sigh of relief, as the sap rose from overnight lows of 35 to 40 degrees to daytime highs of 80 or more. Nothing else in this world, no one else, particularly not Morgan or Cliff, could challenge and reward with the physical and emotional intensity of her daily run and climb from Cottonwood Springs. She began another daily ritual, talking to herself.
“So, why Cliff?” she asked aloud staring into the dead space between her and thousands of square miles of Southern California desert.
“Because…,” she answered herself, hesitating.
“He’s ex-military, Marines. But not Park Ranger material.”
“No, I take that back. He’s strong. He’s handsome, confident and he cares for me. I can tell.”
“So does Gunny Jones. He mixes the perfect Old Fashioned.”
“Different. He’s an older version of Cliff, only he has a permanent dark tan and he has…well…He has well-defined principles, like steel guardrails. Not that Cliff isn’t stable...”
“True, but Cliff ran away from a good job in L.A. after he left the Marines….”
“Right. When the riots started and it was stupid to stay…”
“I shouldn’t say that. He moved his parents back to East Helena. Wise move, but now he talks too much about rioters coming here. We’re next. They already took over Yosemite…”
“I know, but that park is not so people friendly out on the rocks…Their winters are hell.”
“Oh, they’ll start with the town. All of Joshua Tree…”
“National Park Service, the people you work for. Gunny’s contacts in Black Lives. They’re pulling out everywhere. No funding. No government. People are running to the national forests to live primitive.”
“They’ll die out here.”
“They’ll cut down the trees and kill the animals. And we’ll all die here unless we get help and do something…Now.”
“What can Cliff do? I’m sorry. He’s so self involved. Doesn’t seem to want a relationship…with anyone.”
“Just sayin’ ”
“But I’ve known Cliff so long.”
“Oh, idiot. This is survival. Who can help?”
“I know. Should be Cliff. I don’t want to hurt Morgan, do I?”
“Lotsa luck making up your mind. I’d go with Cliff Stone. Everyone trusts him. You can too.”
“Maybe, and bring his Marine buddies from 29 Palms…?”
“Maybe, but we might have to close down by end of February. So the boss says. I refuse to sink into the ‘woe is me’ shit hole with the rest.”
“No? Babe, you’re my strong right hand. How can you even think that?”
“We’ve been headed that way for years. Reduced budgets, annual visits soaring past three million. Fewer and fewer Rangers to protect it all. Who’s to protect the people from the park… and the park from people?”
There was a long moment of silence as Maryann considered her question.
“We’re here to serve, preserve and protect. There’s no higher calling in the country today. Otherwise, how can we call ourselves Park Rangers?”
“Oh, forget that phony patriotic bullshit, Maryann. Like I told you before. Soon as they close this snake hole, Serena’s headed south. Mexico, baby. That’s me, too. Maybe. Sangrias, sex and siestas. The good life.”
Maryann watched the rising sun. Started her end-of-workout stretches. U2 died in the background. She searched for words. There were none.
“We just did Cliff. You idiot, you really do like him, don’t you?”
“Goes deeper than like. When I look at him, I really want him. I imagine all sorts of things. “Okay, so I’ll change the subject. What or who is next? I’ll take Cliff.”
“Not good. It pushes me off my rationale vector.”
“You’re what? Your rationale vector. Wanting to make love to Cliff is pushing you off your rationale vector? Come on. Get a life. I think Cliff would be a great lay. Maybe a keeper!”
“No way. I’m not doing that. I’d lose respect for myself. That ain’t me, babe.”
“I don’t need another relationship. I had a relationship with Morgan and it went sour. Now it’s down to pizza for lunch. Like Bly’s relationship with her boyfriend. And what about Serena’s boyfriend, or is it girlfriend?”
“Careful there. Serena and I are tight. I can’t help but love her, but not like lovers. She’s more like a confidant. You take her into your innermost confidence. She caresses your feelings. But, sex buddy? No way.”