Out in This Desert

Ali Rachel Pearl

Just east of Los Angeles’ seemingly infinite suburban sprawl, the tract housing and strip malls eventually end and Interstate 10 forks at the exit for Highway 62.

Highway 62 snakes north up the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

It slithers through Morongo Valley until it eventually levels out and becomes 29 Palms Highway in Yucca Valley.

The desert towns along this highway speak to the US’s western imaginary.

To its indigenous history.

To the honest-to-goodness determination of people to make it in a place most of the country has either never given a second thought or considers entirely devoid of human life.

These Mojave Desert towns offer a few buildings constructed in the image of “the old West” as it was invented and mythologized by filmmakers ever since the Westerns of the early 1900s.

A gift shop in Joshua Tree sells cactus candy.

Sometimes there is even a horse named Doc tied to the fence at the nearby saloon, its cowboy inside the bar nursing a cold beer or a few fingers of whiskey.

Dotting this desert landscape, among the Joshua trees and creosote, is a constellation of small communes.

The communes are filled with long- and short-term residents, visitors who all seem to live in different versions of the desert in their minds.

Some visitors understand the basics.

How to get your car unstuck from deep sand.

When not to hike into piles of boulders that house irritable rattlesnakes.

Others seem to live in a fantasy version of the desert.

They come dressed in colorful scarves, their bare skin devoid of sunscreen, taunting the sun in the daytime while the violent winds and quick temperature-drops freeze them at night.

For these visitors, the desert is nothing more than a backdrop.

An Instagram opportunity.

A wide-open space where they can live out the wild and free Coachella desert adventure of their dreams.

What does it mean to be a tourist?

A visitor?

Tell me what it’s like to live in the desert.

I lived outside in the desert for forty-four days, and everything I can tell you is saturated with longing.

Feels like a misrepresentation.

Everything is hard to pin down.

I was sleeping first in a small, open-air container that slightly resembled a human barbecue grill, and later in a converted shipping container.

My kitchen and bathroom were all outside, and most nights I slept under the desert stars.

I lived on an artist’s property, and my job while working for her was to drive around the community and write entries into a logbook about the area, its attractions, its people, and its history.

I drove to places like Landers (population 2,982) to ask gas-station cashiers about the 1992 earthquake that tore the town in half.

I drove out to Roy’s, the only business still operating out in Amboy, California (population 4), off old Route 66, and befriended Kevin, one of four people who lives out there, cut off from everything, including potable water.

Kevin’s greatest passion is visiting the various places once occupied by Jim Morrison and photographing them with his small, silver, point-and-shoot camera.

I worked on Saturdays at a booth in the swap meet in Yucca Valley, where Kevin would sometimes visit me while I listened to stories from locals who dropped by to haggle a small one-dollar plastic alligator down to ten cents.

I tried, with all the objectivity I could muster, to see the place as it was.

Objectivity is just a myth, but it’s one we sometimes want to fight to the death to defend.

Everyone wants to make the desert their own, the artist I was working for said to me one afternoon while we ate breakfast at a small bar in Wonder Valley (population 615).

Wonder Valley is an unincorporated community in the Mojave that inspired the phrase “middle of nowhere.”

That might not be true, but I’ve added it to the list of myths I’ve been collecting.

I’d been visiting the desert for a while before I moved out there to work for the artist, and I’ve spent many days there since.

The desert began, for me, as a metaphor.

A way to describe loneliness or solitude or a state of being always just on the edge of collapse.

It was a place I dreamed about, imagined, longed for, something not really real.

It’s hard to live in a metaphor.

So I decided to try living in the desert itself, with its creosote and cacti, rocky hills, and dirt roads.

Is there a way to describe a landscape that feels otherworldly without colonizing it with borrowed rhetoric and inherited myths?

The desert is a climate.

The desert is a story.

The desert is not a season.

As far east as you can go on Amboy Road in the Mojave, before the road swerves out of Wonder Valley and into the space between the Bullion and Sheep Hole Mountains, there is a salt mine.

On day thirty-seven of living outside in the desert, Alec, the owner of the salt mine, whom my friend had met at the local Laundromat, hosted a small barbecue at dusk.

The water level on the salt flats was high enough that we could all strip naked and swim among the stars reflected on the water’s glassy surface.

We dove into the night sky, bare skin rubbed clean by the salty floor bed.

Alec told us his salt mine used to be a lake called Dale next to what used to be a town called Bush.

All of this is salt now, and buried bones.

Alec’s salt, handed down to him by his grandfather.

We roasted marshmallows in a barbecue pit made of salt blocks, and the land looked like winter, and the wind was warm on our bare bodies after our swim.

• •

Out in the desert, we call Palm Springs “down the hill,” and down the hill is a place many of us prefer not to go.

We say “I’m going down the hill” when we need something the high desert does not easily provide: fresh produce, Trader Joe’s dried fruit snacks, the geniuses at the Apple Store.

I don’t want to tell you we go to Trader Joe’s and the Apple Store in a story about the desert because I don’t want the language of late capitalism to terrorize any story I am trying to tell about the desert, and yet capital built this place into what it is.

And into what it isn’t.

I am trying to tell you something true about the desert and the people who live there, but I, like everyone, have an agenda.

I want you to know what this place really is.

But there is no story about what this place really is that isn’t affected by my telling of it.

I want the people in this story to speak to you.

But they have to speak through me.

Aridity and absence alliterate themselves into a story about the desert that is only half true.

There isn’t a story about this place that is free from settlers and the military, free from nuclear testing, atomic waste storage, immigration, and migrant workers dying in extreme conditions, Japanese internment, indigenous genocide, all of the stories this country doesn’t want to tell about the desert.

The desert was always arid, but it will never be empty.

• •

Some Tuesday, I ventured out to one of the Mojave’s most beautiful communes, Garth’s Boulder Gardens, known to locals simply as Garth’s.

Garth’s, named for the man who built and still runs the place, lies at the bottom of a small valley invisible to anyone without proper directions to the address on God’s Way Love Road.

I got the address from some friends in town.

This is how things work in the desert.

Stories and people chase each other up and down the highway.

Everything is word of mouth and serendipity.

Yes, I was in the desert to work, but I was really in the desert because I was chasing down an answer that felt like a riddle posed by Adrienne Rich’s poem “Trying to Talk with a Man.”

A poem that begins, Out in this desert we are testing bombs, tells the story of a desert-bound couple in between, and ends, as if we were testing anything else.

I wanted to know what it is that brings people to a climate so harsh and unforgiving that daily tasks must be structured around the will of the weather and the land.

And I wanted to know what it was that brought me back again and again to that same climate, to the Mojave, where bombs being tested at the nearby Marine base shake the earth day and night while plants bristle and coyotes howl and everything feels fanged, even the sun.

The drive out to God’s Way Love Road is marked with signs that warn When flooded, turn around, don’t drown, and Slow down, dust control area.

Because the desert, like its communities, is always shifting.

Sometimes the desert shifts in a flood, other times in the wind.

What the dryness of the dust allows us to forget is that the desert sometimes falls victim to the kind of torrential downpour its landscape might seem to be screaming for, but a kind of downpour too hard and fast for the land to sustain.

Downpours fill dirt-packed gullies and dry riverbeds, and the water, unabsorbed by the hardened earth, rushes rapidly in any sloping direction toward the bottom of the valley.

It cuts off roadways and trails, sweeps dust into mud that dries as it rebakes in the sun somewhere far off from where it was originally picked up by the storm.

When the desert isn’t being transformed by floodwaters, it’s being transformed by wind.

Critic John Beck recollects narratives of Japanese internment in different deserts of the American West, how characters and narrators and memoirists in these narratives often recall the dust settling into every crevasse of their lives, infiltrating their homes.

Sometimes the dust is so dry it allows us to forget floods.

Sometimes the wind is so strong it allows us to forget all trace of a history we’re letting the desert bury for us.

The wind employs the dust to veil what we don’t want to confront.

Cabins and roadways, relocation centers, and makeshift infirmaries.

Common rhetoric around the desert that paints it as a wasteland partners with dust to enact a perpetual cover-up, erasure, forgetting.

The Dust Control Area signs that line the road to Garth’s aren’t intended to speak to that history, but the desert is always speaking back to itself, an arid echo, and the sign seems to warn travelers of the ways in which dust relocated can cause the desert to swallow up land, plant, structure, and history alike.

Garth’s Place is safe from dust kicked up by the wheels of speeding cars, as its main structures are located off roads too sloped and curved to allow for a speeding motor vehicle.

When I arrived at the bottom of the hill that leads to the main camp, I parked in a small lot designated for such a purpose by a little weather-worn red sign that read PARKING.

I hiked the short distance from the car to an outdoor kitchen where I found strangers playing an improvised game of Yahtzee.

A lot is improvised out in the desert: habitable structures, campfires, social relations among people who can’t bear the confines of a city.

In each of these cases, the desert wanderer has only the materials at hand, whether those materials be social graces, good or poor judgment, tarps, rope, wood, half a deck of playing cards, children’s old BB guns with rusted BB pellets, or the lid of a toilet seat but nothing else resembling a toilet save for the will to dig a hole in the ground.

What I found at Garth’s was a community of nomads.

Where are you from? they wanted to know.

Not sure what to tell them—did they want to know my hometown, the name of the city that most recently housed me, or the area of the desert I was visiting from in that moment?—I looked around and said, I’m not sure.

They nodded emphatically in kind.

At the commune there was a sauna built into a rock, a pool built into a rock, a house built into a rock, an aviary built into a rock.

Improvisation.

In the center of camp, I met Garth.

It’s hard to tell how old Garth is.

His skin is weathered, resembles the rocks in which so many improvised luxuries of the site are built.

His eyes, a hazy blue, seem not to focus on your face when you speak, but to focus on some other part of you that isn’t physical.

Your scent, maybe.

Or the air around your body.

He pleaded with us to help him finish the carrot cake left on the table, brought by someone passing through as compensation for a few calming hours in the shade of a giant pinion pine.

He looked at my tattoos, told me that the only people he knew with tattoos were sailors.

Are you a sailor? he asked earnestly, over one hundred miles inland from the sea.

There was a time when Garth loved having visitors.

And then that time came to an end, and Garth began to snarl at people stumbling up the dirt road to his makeshift home.

People who always wanted something.

This wasn’t the first commune-like space I’d visited.

Before Garth’s, I’d visited a someday-writer’s retreat with small patches of flat land hidden behind hills of rock that will one day boast 150-square-foot cabins complete with beds, desks, outdoor patios, and an aesthetic to rival even the most hipster interiors of Los Angeles homes and boutiques.

Everyone wants to make the desert their own.

In my notebook I was collecting lists of materials.

What people bring with them to the desert.

What it takes to settle down and make a home where people aren’t really meant to live.

This someday space is currently inhabited by the carpenter-poet who built the first cabin on the property.

He lives there alone for the months out of the year that he isn’t building commercial bars and restaurants up the coast in Seattle.

He’s got an outdoor kitchen and a raised platform that serves as both an open-air sleeping space and BB gun firing range.

Small and large metallic objects glint in the distance, blowing in the gentle valley winds.

I spent the afternoon there eating blood oranges from the local market and learning how to shoot BB guns that each have their own inclinations, left right up down, firing wherever they please with only the suggestion of my guidance aiming them toward their targets.

The carpenter-poet showed me around the property after hours of shooting pellets at garbage.

Just over each new hill was a plot of land with a dream attached to it.

A woodworking shop here, he pointed to the empty space.

An outdoor shower there.

More cabins.

He joked about starting a camp for adults.

Camp Dangerous, he said.

Adults would come and drink beer and shoot BBs and play with slingshots and learn how to set stuff on fire.

Though I’d already been told about a crew of desert rats that had beat him to the punch, but they called their camp The Church of Fun.

The Church of Fun’s philosophy is, Blessed are those with zero fucks to give, for they shall inherit the FUN.

They are both a venue in Los Angeles and a bandit of misfits who venture out to the low desert sometimes and light the world on fire.

They are nowhere near as innocuous as their name makes them sound, but they’re playful, if your idea of play is doing a ton of drugs while singing into an auto-tuner about fucking your father while the boys around you burn any and all flammable objects, rig cars to explode, send mushroom clouds pluming into the air, shock waves radiating across the desert floor.

There are many communities like this in the desert.

Communes and churches, cults and creatures who crave like-minded companions somewhere far from the purview of city law.

Some of these places and people are hidden, others readily visible.

These days, most groups like this exist by choice, though I couldn’t help but think, while in these spaces, of people who have been exiled to the desert against their will by fearful American citizens and a fear mongering 1940’s American government.

Or by failed integration into the American capitalist machine.

Or by insufficient mental health facilities.

Because some people are in the desert by choice and others are not.

Everyone who comes to the desert with a dream comes ready to shape what they presume is a space unmolded by anyone or anything else but the elements.

But there have always been people who came before.

The Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, and Serrano peoples.

And after them, the Spanish.

Then the gold miners.

The war vets who were sent out west to breathe dry air.

The Marines who were sent out to 29 Palms to train each other how to drop bombs on other deserts in other parts of the world.

The desert has never been empty or barren.

It has never been a wasteland.

It has always been a landscape that holds imagination and history in tension.

Sings violence in harmony with myth.

My least favorite myth about the desert is that it’s a place people come to be alone.

Rhetoric about the desert may paint it as empty, inhabited only by loners who crave isolation.

But the most deeply connected communities I’ve ever encountered are those I’ve come to know in the desert, because the desert holds everything in paradox at once.

A network of people who came out to the desert, by force or by choice, and rooted into its shifting sands.

The layers of desert history populate it with every kind of ghost America has to offer.

And even though the people in some of these desert communities shift as quickly as the landscape itself in a dust storm or a downpour, others remain, despite 110-degree summers, despite windows rattling in the winter wind.

For generations, they remain.

Homesteaders.

War veterans.

Immigrants.

Their children.

Their children’s children.

And with them remains the myth that the desert is empty.

And with them remains everything that fills the desert up: its vibrant ecosystem of resilient plants, furry and fanged beasts, boulders as old as time itself, motels that date back to 1928, grocery stores that feed the people who haggle at the swap meet and repair the dirt roads that reckless tourists unknowingly destroy with their speeding cars.

And, too, the Walmarts and AutoZones and Dollar General stores, all the modern American necessities that settle into every town, every city.

The solitude of the Mojave is a lie we tell ourselves to feel free.

Because if we acknowledge that the desert is brimming with life, we aren’t free to build our vision of the desert without tearing something already in existence out by its roots.

We have to work with the history and the ghosts, the plants and the people; we have to sacrifice the whatever it is we wanted to project onto a space we thought was empty in service of conserving a space we know beats with life.

But then again, as Casey Walker writes in an essay about desert borderlands, We thought the desert was blank and we built it up only to have the desert persist.

Sometimes I think about cacti, asleep out in a desert basin somewhere, in the freezing cold following a sweltering heat.

When I imagine the desert from somewhere else, somewhere like the cleanliness of my temperature-controlled Los Angeles apartment, I imagine the desert empty even though I know better.

I imagine all that distance I’ve seen a hundred times through the rolled-down window of my speeding car.

When it’s dark enough, I can’t tell if the landscape beside me is flat and vast or cluttered with the heaviness of mountains.

I can’t tell if I’d be able to hear a scream or if it’d be muffled by the wind ripping in and out of my vehicle.

But I imagine a thousand sleeping succulents, spikes mounted to protect the precious water that hides within.

I imagine them, their beady eyes, if they had eyes, opening and closing slowly, watching everyone who tried to claim the desert as their own eventually expelled, made to leave, or dead.

They sit there in stillness, blinking, forever.

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