Updated: Nov 21, 2018
Today marks ten years back in Ridgecrest! As I think about it, I ponder that day ten years ago when we made a life changing decision. It was a quiet ride home, my wife staring out the right-side window for the first hundred miles as my youngest asked, “Daddy, why was grandma crying?” That was a milestone moment in life. One of those decisions that redirects your whole family’s life onto another journey. A new path. An old path, actually. And at that very moment, I felt cosmically and comically joined to just about every other man in Ridgecrest, CA. We would be returning to Ridgecrest again. Our third tour.
As a father I was now a part of The One. The one group that binds all head of households together in the town: Being hated by your own family for moving to Ridgecrest. My oldest started a prayer meeting before we moved, asking God to change my mind. When we arrived, she thought, “Actually, I like the town.” And then my youngest rebelled. She came home from her first day of fourth grade, collapsed in the entryway as she threw her bags down and started crying. I asked her why she was crying. She tearfully yelled, “It’s a maaaaaaaan! I didn’t know men could be teachers!” Ridgecrest suddenly took on unanticipated complications. The little fourth grader staged a “I’m going to be in a huff,” protest where ever we went, arms crossed, pouting and all that. It lasted for about a week but eventually, she got over it. It happened on Sunday morning. We were sitting in the end of the pew at DCC church and a line of children went by during the worship waving flags as everyone sang. She uncrossed her arms and looked at me. I said, “Go for it!” and she was off. The pity party had ended.
I was returning to Ridgecrest and my wife had been cast into the group of brooding, angry women who stare out the right-side car window, knowing that this would be the last time that leaving Ridgecrest would mean going home. In the future, going home meant returning to Ridgecrest. She didn’t want to return to the desert. Well … not that desert anyway. The desert where the Sierra winds blow off the mountain at 40 mile an hour gusts on a regular basis. The desert where It’s a 250-mile round trip just to see a medical specialist. They call it the high desert, as if that is supposed to make you feel better about being in the desert.
Returning to Ridgecrest meant we would be setting our agenda based on how hot it is in Death Valley this week, rather than according to the calendar, like most people do. Listening to all the old jokes again. Shirts that say “China Lake Yacht Club.” Funny pictures of skeletons in lawn chairs holding a bottle of beer on a beach that has a “China Lake” sign. And then my personal favorite: “Yes, but it’s a dry heat!”
Ten years ago we were forced by the market crash to consider relocating. We were visiting Ridgecrest on Easter of 2008. I looked at her as we were driving and said, “What do you think about returning to Ridgecrest?”
It was one of those awkward moments that anyone who lives here has probably experienced. Both feet on the dash in front of her as she held a coke can in her hand. That slow turn of the head, staring at you. And then the laugh. I won’t forget the laugh. She almost splashed her coke down the front of her shirt as she leaned toward the windshield, her voice echoing off it while she did it. “You have got to be kidding! Are you serious? Look buddy, you find a job here and then we’ll talk about shutting down your business and moving back here!” She laughed again. And then the ‘coup-de-gras’ as she leaned back in her seat chucking. “Ohhhh … I gotta call my sister and tell her you said that.” Then, just about the moment that I was sure the conversation was over, she suddenly bent forward laughing again. If you are not familiar with Ridgecrest, its an hour away from Death Valley. Nuff said!
I now felt that I had matured as a Ridgecrest resident and I wasn’t even back yet. This would be our third time living here. We met and were married here. An hour later, we were assembled with the grandparents for a quick prayer meeting before leaving to return to Arizona. I turned to my wife and said, “By the way, I just spoke with the CEO of my old company. He hired me. He wants me here in six weeks as a division manager.”
It was one of those precious moments in the life of a marriage. The total silence. The blinking of the eyes. The slow parting of the lips as if she wasn’t quite sure if I were toying with her or telling the truth. Then the sudden realization that ‘Oh my word … he’s serious!’ Then the response. “NO! WAY! NO! WAY!”
The kids watched with furrowed brows and wondering eyes. They had no clue what was taking place. Grandma turned to look at me in total shock! She had been trying to talk her ‘about to retire’ husband into moving to Arizona with us. She grabbed two fistfuls of hair on top of her head and screamed. No words. Just a loud, blood curdling scream that shocked the grandkids into wide-eyed fear. Then she started crying as she shook her head. Sentenced to “Till death do us part!” an hour from Death Valley. It wasn’t going to end. She would be stuck in the Sierra wind-hole for the rest of her life.
It was a quiet ride home, my wife staring out the right-side window for the first hundred miles as my youngest asked, “Daddy, why was grandma crying?”
NOBODY returns to Ridgecrest because they want to. But EVERYBODY does it because it’s a great place to raise kids. And for some reason, the uniqueness of Ridgecrest brings individual success.
Ten years later, I am a published novelist and I’ve been published in a national magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, for an article about Ridgecrest. That was the moment that forced my writing career forward. As I look back at the moment it had everything to do with Ridgecrest. I took advantage of the “big goals in a small pond” concept to start a local charitable organization with a group of my friends, the IWV Optimist Club. I’ve watched my daughters grow into beautiful women who have both gone from grade school to college in a community that values and lives education at many levels. In short, my kids have grown up knowing men and women who have the stature of Werner Von Braun. Chemists, engineers and scientists. They see them every week in church. Sit with them in community meetings. I smile as I think about the day that my oldest daughter was studying at Starbucks while having her science questions answered by a coffee klatch local. He’s a man who is a retired physicist from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and now a professor at the college.
Ridgecrest has been good to my family! In no other town have we held the close friendships with a lot of people like we do here. In no other town has the mayor and the majority of the city council been a friend of mine. Never in any other town, have I sat down with the chief of police or a local doctor and had a cup of coffee. I have in Ridgecrest many times. My sister was visiting recently and, as we walked, I waved at a woman. My sister asked me who she was. I said, “Our local mayor.”
“You know the mayor?” She was shocked.
I laughed slightly and said, “Yeah, everybody knows the mayor here. I consider her a good friend.” My sister had no concept. She lives in a metropolis of a few million people.
Only in Ridgecrest do you feel a sense that, “We are all here to support the mission of the Navy and the Secret City, regardless of where you work or what your career is.” I hear conversations in a local restaurant that run from thermonuclear dynamics to bug resistant crops. Then there are the code words that nobody but those of us in Ridgecrest understand. Like SNORT track. And flex weeks. Echo range.
We stop to observe the national anthem every morning. Listening to taps echoing across town from a loud speaker at the end of the day. Things like flight vehicles that have never been seen by others, streaking across the sky. The distant sounds of fighter jets, or the deafening pounding of an attack helicopter flying fast, a hundred yards above you, as it flies down China Lake Blvd.
We live in a unique town that is nestled right in the middle between Death Valley and all of those famous Sierra vacation destinations. It costs us fifty bucks to visit places around us that others spend $1000 to see on a weekend.
But most of all, I like the peace and quiet of the small community. I could never live in a place like L.A. again. I’ve breathed clean air too long. Enjoyed only having four cars in front of me at a stop light. I love knowing that when I tell my wife I’m on my way home, it’s a total of six minutes to get there no matter where I am in town. IT REALLY IS A GREAT PLACE TO LIVE! And that’s why I decided to return to Ridgecrest. And today, ten years later, my family is better off because of it.