The Desert Tortoises of LA

Adam Straus

At some point, the desert tortoises decide they’re done being fucked with. The Mojave isn’t what it used to be: the summers are hotter, the winters are drier. The wildflowers bloom later and die earlier, until one year they don’t bloom at all. There are more roads with more cars to run the tortoises over and fewer grasses to eat. More burrows being covered by cube-like modernist homes and fewer creosote bushes to shelter underneath. Even a creature less sensitive to ground vibrations than the tortoise could tell what was happening.

The choice they make isn’t an easy one. Some tortoises want to go deeper into the desert. North to Landers, or east to Wonder Valley. Like the tide is coming in and they just need to move their beach chairs higher so their feet don’t get wet.

Others point out the cycle will only repeat itself there. They say, if people can ruin Joshua Tree they can ruin anywhere. They say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. They say, desperate times call for desperate measures. They say a lot of tired stuff, all of it to say, We are sailors, peering over the railing of a ship that’s been torpedoed. We either learn how to swim, or sink trying.

And even the tortoises who want to stay have to say, Fuck it. You’re right. Let’s go.

How do the tortoises get to LA? They take Highway 62 to I-10 West, then merge onto the 405. They only travel about 100 meters per day on their stubby elephantine legs. The younger tortoises complain, saying it’s going to take, like, ten years to get to LA. The older tortoises laugh. What’s ten years to a species that’s been around for 20 million?

The tortoises get to LA, and immediately wish they hadn’t. There’s so much concrete and such little dirt. The tortoises are finely calibrated machines, shaped by the file of natural selection to fit the Mojave Desert like the threads of a screw in a nut. In LA, the threads are stripped bare.

But these are survivors. They can go a year without water. Their shells can handle pressure 200 times their weight. They don’t just roll over and die. They go to a psychic. The psychic tells them to go to a therapist. The therapist tells them they need to start practicing positive self-talk. So they say: We can do this. We can do this. We are not going to die.

Some tortoises do die, though. They die in familiar ways, but new places: In the mouths of foxes and coyotes on the city’s outskirts, under the wheels of cars on the freeway, on their backs after losing fights with other young men, flipped over on the pavement and left to starve.

In every generation, only 2 out of 100 tortoises reach maturity. 100 steps forward and 98 steps back. Life is lived and survival is won on the margins, again and again, favoring the young who can thrive in LA. The ones who wear backwards Dodger caps. The ones who go to Erewhon and buy $20 green smoothies. The ones scraping out minimum wage as an agent’s assistant. The ones working day jobs in restaurants and coffee shops, waiting for their break on stage or screen. The ones who get their area code tattooed on their scaly little heads. It’s 213 till I die, motherfucker.

At night, all of the survivors sit together on Venice Beach, laughing about the stories their parents have passed down about the desert, dunking their heads in beer and drinking it through their nostrils. They look up, faces dripping, and don’t know they’re supposed to see the Milky Way. They don’t know they’re the only tortoises in 20 million years who haven’t.

When it’s late and they’re drunk, they go clubbing. There’s a spot in Santa Monica the tortoises particularly like. Something about the material of the dance floor channels the throbbing bass right up through their legs. I’ve seen them there, shaking their tiny tails around. The tortoises might bite your toes off if you get too close, but if you’re lucky, they’ll dance with you.


Adam Straus graduated from Yale with a BA in Philosophy in 2017. Afterwards, he served at sea and in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Japan as a Marine Corps infantry officer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Line of Advance, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Southeast Missouri State University Press’ Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, and elsewhere. Adam is currently a second-year MFA candidate at Rutgers-Camden. You can find him on Twitter @AdamStraus29.