High Desert Gothic I: Artifacts

It all started with a mistake. In the 70s, when we lived in Los Angeles and worked against deadline, we often spent weekends at Joshua Tree National Monument, as it was then called. The park was quiet, with sparkling vistas, beautiful and barren, and a person could walk virtually anywhere — and, as we discovered, sleep anywhere. Pick a patch of sand; lie down.

Mostly, though, we stayed in a fetchingly ramshackle motel at the edge of 29 Palms. It too was quiet, with identical whitewashed bungalows heated by wood fires. There was an attached restaurant for dinner, where lots of Marines from the nearby military base  spent the weekend drinking. It was funky and lovely and just a bit weird. The desert is a bit weird too. That’s why I love the desert.

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Stuff has changed since 1981. Joshua Tree (now a national park) is the fastest growing park in the system. People from L.A. have caught the fever. You gotta make motel reservations pretty far ahead during flower season.

And here’s the mistake. Somehow the name of the odd bungalow motel where we stayed in our youth became transmorgified  from 29 Palms Inn (its actual name) into Joshua Tree Inn, in the town of Joshua Tree. That inn was where we were in fact going to stay. It was a one-story stucco-and-exposed wood building along the highway and unprepossessing from the outside. We looked at each other. “I’m sorry,” I said.

My heart sank, but Tracy bravely marched in. She’s good at bravely marching.

Enter motel.  Look around. Some kinda plaques on the wall, really a lot of plaques. Woman asks about our help-related needs. Reservation, see your credit card? Then, yes, here it is; the Fred Astaire suite. (Yeah, I got a suite. I’m too old not to get a suite if that’s what I want. I can afford it. I can’t afford a BMW X2, but I can afford a larger room in a still sleepyish desert community. What is it with you? Nag, nag, nag. That’s my inside voice).

“You know that this is the place where Gram Persons died.”

She just kind of tossed it out there. My experience, admittedly limited, is that hotels tend to cover up the fact that famous people died in them. Might make the place look, I dunno, raffish. The Beverley Hilton is mum about which room Whitney Houston died in; the Hard Rock Hotel in Florida does not reveal precisely where Anna Nicole Smith met her end. We do know that Oscar Wilde died in room 16 of the Hotel D’Alsace in Paris, where his last words were reported to be, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” Not perhaps the best advertisement for the hotel, but he probably didn’t say it then, or at all.

“It’s room 8,” said the clerk cheerfully.

So the story, as augmented by some Actual Research: Parsons, having completed an album and celebrating a period of relative sobriety, did what many addicts would do: Went to a motel in the desert, drank a lot of tequila and overdosed on heroin. His body was stolen at LAX by his manager, Phil Kaufman (not that one) (nor that one), who had pledged to Parsons that he would cremate him in Joshua Tree Park.

It was done, but not well: Some 35 per cent of Parsons remained, and it was taken back to New Orleans and buried there.

And yes, right outside the door of number 8 was a memorial, a metal sculpture in the form of a guitar, a bunch of plastic flowers and beads and predictable memorial knick-knacks. On the ground  was a piece of concrete with the words “Safe at Home,” the name of an early Parson album.

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We passed it by every morning on our way to breakfast. “You’re in the desert now,” it murmured.

I partially grew up in the desert. (I also partially grew up at the seashore. I’m a California lad.) I was enraptured by its landscape. It has hardly any reality at all, so every juxtaposition is unexpected. It is oddly comfortable with death; even life in the desert exists in the margins, doing all the work of living during the dawn and twilight hours. And the people who choose to live there want to live their way, surrounded by whatever possessions make them happy. And there’s lots of real estate to work with; property lines are notional at best. Even the park is open 24 hours a day, because it would be fruitless to do it any other way.

Artists love the desert, partly because it’s such a large  canvas, partly because you can do almost anything that doesn’t hurt farm animals. And, in an odd way, that makes everything about either art or death or both. So a memorial to a dead rock singer on the grounds of the motel where you’re staying: absolutely normal.

And so, that very evening, following a travel strategy we call “taking suggestions,” we went to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, a few miles north of town but still essentially unfindable without Mr. Google sitting in your lap. It’s out beyond the scruffy Joshua Tree suburbs, where every yard looks like it might have artistic intent.

Noah Purifoy was an interesting dude. An African-American, he first came to attention with a series of works that he carved, sometimes literally, from the ruins of the 1965 Watts Riots. For 20 years he was active at the intersection of art and social justice.

Then he had a moment (I assume), and moved to Joshua Tree and started Noah Purify’s Desert Museum. He made art out of the bountiful harvest of the desert: tires, refrigerators, cafeteria trays, beer kegs, automobile springs, radiators, water fountains, computer monitors, large pieces of plywood, televisions, etc.  True desert beings, we went at twilight, when the light and the temperature were perfect. Not so perfect for taking photographs, but Tracy did find one usable image:

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And there are plenty more here. We wandered around until it was too dark to see the ground, sitting in the “rooms,”  entering the “doorways,” wandering backstage at the “theaters.” There were three other people there, all French (because: perfect) who were, I believed, envisioning the end of the world and quite liking it.

Every day was like that; heck, all my days in the desert, in Pear Blossom or Palmdale or Indio or Pahrump, have been tinged with surrealism. Sitting in the sunset, looking at a merest sketch of the world, sans water, sans leaves, sans crops, sans animals, sans almost everything except the will to survive. When survival meets landscape, we got some primordial stuff going on.

But I am holding something back. On this trip to the desert, I lost my mind. Stay tuned.

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Photography by Tracy Johnston

Useful tech stuff by Michelle Mizera

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Today I am bringing you good news. Yes, forget that apocalyptic stuff about Trump and the cities flooding and the real possibility of more war, this time with nations that can fight back. Which would probably mean that the internet would become an unlivable minefield of scam artists, Russian bots and media corporations selling everything about our preferences and habits to agents of an Argentinian drug gang.

But we are not worried about that. We are looking on the bright side.

Good thing #1: Spring. It’s spring. Everything that can blossom is blossoming, or thinking about blossoming, or is still deep in its roots waiting for the overwhelming blossom wave to hit. So you can delay, but why would you? The outdoors is literally right outside your door.

I once had a revelation while looking for wildflowers in Death Valley. When we walked in the bright sandy landscape, we did not see any flowers. We’d been told that the season was now past its prime, but there was still good stuff to see.

We were out there seeing like crazy, but we were not seeing much. A lot of rocks (some of them interesting), but not much in the way of flora. Then I saw something on the ground. I peered over, but I was still not seeing it. So I dropped to my knees and got kissing-close to the plant. It was a burst of color, a maze of white flowers, green buds and leaves of gray or jade.

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The advantages of looking closely

Then I looked to the side. I was in fact in a garden, a miniature garden teased out by the late winter rains. I saw another, and another, elegant plants forced by the lack of water to stay small. When all you need is a drop of water, you’re going to stay awhile.

So my revelation was this: Look closely, and keep looking closely. That’s probably good advice for anyone doing anything. (It’s real good advice in commercial transactions, where the seller might not be telling you everything. And if you’re the seller, make sure the buyer’s money does not come with a portrait of Edgar Martinez on it. These things happen. It’s a cruel world).

But let’s not ignore big, showy blooms. Some in the plant world think they’re vulgar, but for me, the bolder and naughtier a flower is, the better I like it. Nor should we ignore bunches of flowers that together make a gigantic, sometime overwhelming display of color and fragrance. Hey, wisteria, I’m looking at you.

Good thing #2: Baseball. Yes, I know, a lot of my readers are not into baseball, although I trust none of them have uttered the phrase “Oh, I don’t watch sports” in a tone they might reserve for “Oh, I don’t eat babies.” Sports is no more a moral failure than shopping for another kitchen gadget from High Prices R Us (Lattes Included!).

I seem to have a resentment of which I was not previously aware.

Baseball, like gardens, rewards closer examination. It’s easy to see it as boring. It’s not fast like basketball nor violent like football. Sometimes its rhythms seem soporific. Long stretches without scoring go by. This is also true of soccer, which about 1 billion people play and another 5 billion watch. So slow sports must have aspects that keep people involved.

The closer you get to baseball, the more interesting it gets. A seemingly infinite number of calculations goes into every pitch, sometimes rigidly rigorous numbers-crunching, sometimes hunches, guesses and mistakes. Each decision has a history; each decision will have a future. Its charms are infinite; not even professionals can see them all. Neither can fans, but, oh, the joy in trying.

Or look at it this way. Baseball is a warm-weather game; its slowness in developing matches the lethargy of summer afternoons. There’s time to talk with your friends, get another cold beverage from the cooler, run around aimlessly if that’s your choice. My mother used to fall asleep to baseball broadcasts on the radio. My guess is, that if you’re an American, you have baseball somewhere in your past. It’s what links us together far better than any changeable political allegiances. Even radicals like baseball.

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Playing dominoes, listening to baseball. Nothing better.

Not doing it for you? How about the unmatched visual splendor of baseball? Consider the opening act (memorably captured in the first few minutes of “Bull Durham”): You walk through the tunnel or the hallway into a slowly emerging panorama of green, a field that absolutely overwhelms the tiny players moving around on it. That’s prophetic, because every part of the field is in play all the time, far too much to be covered by nine mere mortals. The game seems unplayable when you first hear about it; the continuing miracle is that it actually is playable, by major-leaguers and 9-year-olds alike.

But the green vista, augmented by a beer and a brat as they say in Cincinnati, heightened by the conversation around you, the buzz of pleasure and intense debate, of quotidian concerns and grand theories, makes a summer afternoon or evening an exhilarating experience. Relax. Have another beer. (Don’t have five). Bring sunscreen for the day games. Bring blankets for the night games. (In San Francisco, bring two).

Baseball, like spring, means the days are getting longer and the sun is getting brighter. You can stroll the streets at nine. You can sit on your porch, or someone else’s porch, and talk shit or not-shit, slump and yawn, and declare that this has been the best Sunday ever. And look at the nods of agreement around the circle. And every peaceful, easy feeling is inexpressibly augmented by a home team win. Wouldn’t you say?

Good thing #3: Optimism. We willingly surround ourselves in a miasma of bad news. This hyper-partisanship you hear so much about is a personal commitment to doom and gloom. The remarkable thing is that it’s entirely voluntary. We can feel bad or good; it’s always a choice. Yes, there are rising seas and poverty and refugees and idiotic policies and a rise in nationalism and a loss of privacy and, what else? Coffee makers that break down too much? Whatever.

I know you want to effect social change. I know you want to be a cog in the wheel of the resistance.  But you needn’t be glum about it. Be like the old resistance fighters in this country. Write songs about it and sing them. Publish songbooks on the internet. Have secret meetings, disputatious gatherings that end in a communal meal. Make up creative signs and inspiring chants. Take joy in the work you are doing, because joy will make you live longer. It will make you feel better. And it might even dislodge a cruel tyrant.

During the few years I was a student activist, the thing I remember most was camaraderie. (The possibility of hooking up may have added a bit more excitement to the stew; that’s not a bad thing). I remember fighting for good — in my case, free speech on campus with a minor in ban the bomb — and thinking that maybe change was possible. And lo, change happened.  Look to a better future. Ignore your inner cynic. What has she ever done for you?

Just because the world is filled with assholes doesn’t mean you have to be one too. Tell a joke, dance a dance, overthrow the patriarchy. See? Easy.

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 It doesn’t look that weird until you get up close

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Things I never knew before: Michelle Mizera