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  • Susan Sward / Special to The Bee

    St. Richard’s Catholic Church in Borrego Springs.

Op Images: Desert church stays with me, like a dream

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 18A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012 - 12:11 am

The church was suddenly there with its white walls gleaming against the blue desert sky. It looked for all the world as if the building had been hauled to this site from a Hollywood production set for a movie about the final days of an aging, troubled parish priest.

On that blistering September day in the tiny town of Borrego Springs in northeastern San Diego County, we paused long enough to take quick photos of the church and to use its hose to splash water into its empty fountain for the benefit of a forlorn crow perched nearby.

My husband and I then retreated to our air-conditioned minivan and drove two hours north through a vast expanse of arid canyons and cliffs to reach Palm Springs for our annual summer vacation at the base of the majestic, craggy San Jacinto Mountains.

Months later, though, St. Richard's Catholic Church stays with me. By repeatedly cropping up in my mind at unexpected times, the church joins a long list of mental snapshots I have been storing away all my life – mostly from trips I have taken in California and elsewhere.

I can't tell you why my mind does this, but I know that my image-storing process interacts closely with my imagination and passages from books I have been devouring since my father began reading children's books to me and my sisters in front of the fire long ago.

In this instance, St. Richard's spoke to me of the setting of "Desert Solitaire," Edward Abbey's classic memoir of his life as a ranger in Arches National Park in Utah. I also thought of J.F. Powers' vivid short stories in "Prince of Darkness," about the isolated lives of parish priests. I thought too of "True Confessions" by John Gregory Dunne. In both his book and in the screenplay, which he co-wrote with his wife, Joan Didion, Dunne spins a powerful tale of politics, the church, sex, corruption and the police in Los Angeles in the late 1940s.

Traveling in my mind – when a vista such as St. Richard's Church looms up before me – is one of my favorite pieces of life. Days later, I used my acrylic paints to put down on paper a crude, childlike sketch of the church. Putting it on paper, though, in no way vanished the church from my mind. It only etched it deeper.

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