It was past Pioneertown, the last outpost, at the end of a long and dusty dirt road amidst the boulders and Joshua trees and outlaw cabins of the Mojave desert, that we set up camp.
More specifically, it was the property of our friend and Scoutmaster, Greg, and his wife Mary Ann, and an official Cub Scouts camp out. And I was designated cook for 50 or so people on Saturday night.
I’m not sure if Topanga’s Troop 24 is particularly decadent by Scout standards, but the weekend’s opening salvos in the desert dark of Friday evening were the sounds of beer cans snapping open and wine corks popping. Indeed, our Scoutmaster himself has recently foregone his successful lawyering career in favor of opening a brewery, the new Barley Forge Brewing Co. in Costa Mesa, California. Greg brought a fine hefeweizen to share with interested campers. And I was an interested camper.
Over the several years my son has been a Cub Scout, we have for one reason or another never made it to Camp Nylen before. Over those same years, Greg and I have talked many times about cooking tri-tips over red oak on his Santa Maria-style grill. This year, we would make it happen. And so I purchased four large tri-tips (and a pork shoulder for good measure), and seasoned them with my “cowboy” rub of salt, sugar and a mixture of powdered chilies.
Early Saturday morning I set the pork shoulder, all dusted with my special pork shoulder spice mix, over a smoky fire. My pal, Vince, suggested we go for a drive to visit the local eccentric outsider, Garth, and his semi-famous Boulder Garden.
“Nobody would probably mind if we took a couple beers with us,” Vince suggested. It was only 11:30 a.m. and we were going to be driving. But this was the Wild West, and we felt a little outlawish.
The winding dirt trail to Garth’s Boulder Garden snaked past teepees, yurts, sweat lodges, abandoned psychedelic busses, outdoor bars, Fred Flintstone cave houses, etc. There were signs of people, but no people, which felt strangely ominous. Roadrunners darted across the dust in front of us.
“Hey, are you sure this is cool?” I said with trepidation, “This is private property.”
“Sure,” said Vince, ever cheerful and optimistic, rolling to a stop. “Let’s get out and look around.”
We walked a bit, glancing into empty enclosures of various kinds, and then got back into the Land Cruiser. We continued up the road toward the “boulder garden” itself — a mountain full of house-sized rocks piled on top of each other. At the terminus of the road was an enormous concrete teepee, an outdoor kitchen, and four bearded men with knives, whittling.
“Howdy!” said the oldest of the group, springing up to greet us. “Welcome to the Boulder Garden!”
He was a cartoon vision of a man — hunchbacked, long flowing white hair and beard, his arthritic knuckles decked out in turquoise bling that matched his massive belt buckle and ornament on his cowboy hat. I don’t recall his name — Don, maybe — but I will call him “Dumbledore,” since he resembled nothing so much as a Wild West version of the famous wizard from Harry Potter.
“Needed some rakes,” said Garth, the central figure around whom they all orbit, another septuagenarian wearing long robes, a bushy beard and a pensive grin, motioning toward several handleless rakes by way of explanation for their whittling.
“Let me show you around,” said Dumbledore, and he gave us a narrated tour of the immediate area — the Flintstone-esque sauna room and its adjacent soaking pools, the “Pot of Gold,” Garth’s teepee, the koi ponds and bridges — with a bit of history of their nearly four decades in the desert and lots of Garth fawning. “He’s a genius, man.”
They invited us to stay and offered beer and bologna sandwiches. But we had places to be, meat to be tended.
Back at camp, the Santa Maria grill soldiered on in its 200-degree smoking of the pork shoulder, which would soon have to relinquish its spot to the four tri-tips.
Sluiced with beer basting juices and spicy barbecue sauce, pulled and chopped, the shoulder was set aside. Twenty four romaine lettuce heads were halved and given a quick grilling, then drizzled with homemade Caesar dressing, followed by six ciabattas splayed open, buttered and garlicked, then grilled and chunked. Then it was time for the main act.
Simply grilled without fanfare were a prime ribeye and New York steak I’d saved for the kitchen staff and select passerby’s to nibble on while we cooked the tri tips.
“That’s the best steak I’ve ever tasted,” said one friend who kept returning for more. Meat and fire, I counseled… meat and fire.
The butterflied tri tips cooked to a beautiful medium rare quickly, and were sliced and sluiced with garlic, pink salt and olive oil by my two able kitchen sidekicks, Zon and Stephen, and presented before the famished crowd. I retreated to our tent for a beer, a bit of space and to avoid the onslaught of thank yous.
Soon the food was mostly gone, the children had scattered toward the campfire in search of S’mores, and I had some salad and bread.
Later, around that fire, marshmallows were burned and stories shared. I pulled out the Don Julio 70 for Vince and myself — we’d had quite the day and it was time to put our feet up and reflect. Somewhere out in that desert night were my children, feral and howling, but it was safe and warm and we were among friends. And the glow of tequila and fire faded into smoky dreams of twisted trees, horned lizards, bearded sages and other desert things.