Desert Pass

The setting sun flashed blindingly in my rearview mirror, last Tuesday as I motored eastward on I-10. I wanted to be further ahead by sunset, but getting out of LA took longer than I suspected, having got caught up in the Mass Exodus for Thanksgiving. My augmented goal was Blythe, California, the last town before Arizona, before the desert. I sped toward the mountains that glowed in earthy shades of purple, far out on the horizon.

Radio Babel

Radio Babel

The SUV ahead of me roared passed a man riding a bicycle on the shoulder. The wind shear nearly pushed the biker into the ditch. But he over-corrected at the last minute and veered toward me as I approached. He wore a beat up baseball cap over long stringy hair, cut-off shorts and a winter coat, and many duffel bags, backpacks and jugs of water were tied to every part of the bicycle. An American flag flew atop a little flag pole fixed to the frame. He stared straight out from under the bill of his cap, eyes fixed on the mountains or something beyond them, his stringy hair blowing straight back like the flag.

Moments later, I caught up with the SUV that nearly blew the biker off the road. Across the back windshield were stickers with phrases like “Stand Up For America! Stand Up To Treason!” and “All Traitors WILL Be Shot!”, along with two stickers of American flags and one of a skull and crossbones. I read the phrases over and over, as I followed the SUV. The phrases, flags and skull would pop off the car and float in the apricot light of the fading day. When I pulled around to pass the SUV, I found an old, white-haired white man at the helm, staring straight ahead calmly. His contemplative gaze stood in stark contrast to the exclamatory remarks stuck to the back of his vehicle. His shoulders were relaxed, he wore a sweater. His hand draped over the wheel, lightly. The rest of his being presenting the countenance of someone listening to classical music, or maybe a book on tape. He wasn’t even going the speed limit. After I passed him, I turned my gaze onto the road. The sun was down. Those far off mountains were now blackblue figures and getting darker.

I was back on I-10 at dawn the next day. The sun came straight through the windshield as I sped into the desert. The radio stations were few and after a while I quit trying and turned the radio off. I let my mind go and talked to myself when I felt the urge, sang all the songs I wanted to sing. But most of the time I just sat silently – one hand on the wheel, my foot resting on the pedal to maintain 80 or so miles an hour. The desert sprawled out in every direction, and there always seemed to be mountains on the horizon. Hours of driving and the mountains would still be so far away. I am immeasurable when it comes to the Big Picture, I’d say to myself every now and then, or something like that.

20131127_141703-1I stopped for lunch at a Dairy Queen somewhere in Arizona and ordered a chicken basket. The place was nearly empty but it still took a long time for my order. The three manager-less Indian women working that day were not in a hurry to do much. After I went to the restroom and sat down, I noticed they were bent over, leaning in close over the ice-cream machine, examining it as if it were a crashed UFO.

“I don’t know why it ain’t workin, you know,” said one of the workers. “It was workin’ fine just yesterday.”

I turned my attention to an old, white couple sitting next to me. The old woman was eating a chilidog without much devotion. She stared down hard at the greasy, cheesy mass, picking at it with a plastic fork. The old man was sitting on the other side of the table, staring through her.

“Godammit, I don’t give a shit one way or t’other,” the man finally said to the woman. “I gotta go find me some cigarettes.”

He got up and went inside the convenience store adjoining the Dairy Queen. When he came back, he walked passed the woman without saying a word, went outside and smoked, pulling in long drags that I never saw him exhale. He stared out at something far away and probably long ago, scowling at it through the crags in his face, rarely blinking his eyes. The woman dug out the last bit of the weenie from the goopy hot dog bun with her fork, put it in her mouth and chewed. After she swallowed, she went over to the trash can, dumped the contents of her tray into it and left. She said nothing to the man as she walked to the car. The tiny, wrinkled man followed her, lit another cigarette, fished for his keys, got in the car, reached over and popped the passenger door lock. The woman got in the car and they drove away.

Long Ago and Far Away

Long Ago and Far Away

It was a long and quiet afternoon, very few radio stations. Somewhere around the point where the I-10 rises out of the old ocean bed that is the low desert and ascends onto the high desert, and incredible amount of anger welled up within me. I’ve crossed the desert many times, and have felt this happen with other emotions, but the emotion had never been anger. The anger was about nothing and everything at the same time. The anger grew. I started arguments with every one I knew to fully reconcile myself with this anger. Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I think…what I have been thinking all along! What do you think of me now! But each face would look back at me, bewildered, saying nothing. What is the point of this anger? But as I dug into myself to find the answer to that question, the anger fooled me, became abstract and malleable, like murky, rising water. I desperately looked around the desert for something to be mad at. My eyes caught the odometer. Nearly a 100mph. I slowed the car down and wanted a cigarette, or a pack of them. Then I was craving anything. I reached out for the radio dial like a sailor gone overboard, grasping for a life-preserver in this frothy wheezing blackwater abyss. Yes, radio would save me

Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. You gotta be f#$king kidding me…

I scanned the gamut of the FM dial several, times. No dice. Robin Thick was some kind of perverted, cruel, joking, freak siren sitting on a jagged rock in the writhing desert sea, singing me toward destruction. Then he was gone. I hit scan but the dial just raced from 88.1 to 107.9 over and over. I looked in the rearview mirror at my own reflection…I didn’t know you were still angry.

I hit El Paso at rush hour. I hurried up, stopped, hurried up, stopped, etc, with all the other travelers, dodging cars that carelessly jumped from lane to lane. The sense of urgency on the road was palpable on this Thanksgiving Eve, the busiest travel day of the year. At sunset, the clouds turned dark black as a sliver of fiery yellow hovered just above the southwestern horizon. The vast event that was the violent and thriving Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande, floated in millions of lights. The Mexican metropolis went on forever, or at least too far for me to see any end. Maybe it did, indeed, have no end. When I reached the edge of El Paso, I stared ahead, followed all the red taillights through the mountain pass and into complete night.

An hour outside of El Paso, the traffic thinned drastically. I’d been driving for 12 hours. The dark night ahead of me was a cloud that came in through the air conditioner vents that formed squid-like shapes with long appendages. They would dance around in the cab until a pair of oncoming headlights would shine in and disintegrate them. I was pleased to find the anger was long gone, overtaken by fatigue, as anger usually is. And the radio was picking up stations consistently – the usual Top 40, Classic Rock, Modern Rock, Shitty New County, and several Evangelical Stations. I can drive forever. But I knew better. So I let the music tug me thought the calming waters to the nearest harbor.

And that was Fort Stockton, Texas. I shivered in the cold as I walked to my room at a cheap hotel. I turned on the TV and the temperature at the bottom of the screen read 30˚F. The room had no carpet, the cold came right in. I switched on the heater, crawled under the covers and watched the news – a segment on the benefits of prison labor. Footage of black and Latino prisoners cleaning up yards of homes and parking lots of offices was interspersed with interviews of white people praising the idea.

“Yeah, think it’s great,” said one fellow wearing a tie. “Long as they stay in line and don’t creep nobody out, you know.”

Low Prices Everyday

Low Prices Everyday

The next segment was something about the oncoming Black Friday with accompanying footage of people crowding the check out counters at a Wal-Mart. I turned off the TV and the world and lay under the warm blankets. I love hotels, I thought as I stared at the white ceiling softly reflecting the parking lot lights. The good ones and the roach motels. The minimum-wage effort to make a room cozy. The shower, the sink, mirror, desk, TV, table and bed and linens all harken to something like a home but yet is so far from it. This pillow is soaked with dreams and nightmares…a faint rumble by the oilfield crew who took up the two rooms next to mine…little bars of soap…the door opens, slams, more voices…brand new bar of soap just for me…they turn their up TV loud...no one will ever use that bar of soap but me...beer cans opening next door, general yee-haws ensue…tomorrow it’ll be a new bar of soap for a different traveler in another America...I fell asleep. 

It was still pitch black the next morning, Thanksgiving day, when I got back on I-10. Only the faint outline of far off mesas, and of course mountains, could be seen. A few minutes into the drive, I saw two school busses in front of me, lights flashing atop the cabins. School busses, on a Holiday? I sped around to pass the busses and read  “HALLIBURTON” written on the side of each bus. The windows were tinted and I could only make out faceless shapes of heads. Just in front of the busses were two mobile Halliburton oil rigs. After I sped around them, there was nothing but empty road ahead.

I searched up and down the dial for a radio station but only found an evangelical station.

“Did you know,” preacher said, “that Napoleon finished only 42nd in his class? A failure in many eyes. He was a man who nobody thought would amount to nothin’. Well, he fooled ‘em all, didn’t he? But because he was dedicated to makin’ somethin’ outta himself, he became one of the greatest men in history.”

An image of Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, Jesus and Abe Lincoln standing outside in the cold in front of a towering locked door popped into my head. I hit scan, but the digital numbers scrolled back to the preacher. I hit scan again…the preacher…

The sky had lit up to a pure steel-blue and I was able to get lost in it for a while. The preachers voice faded to nothing. When the flashing lights of a state trooper ahead caught my attention, I tore my gaze from the heavens and came back. The preacher had moved on from talk about dictators to the importance of sparing not the rod upon thy children. “Now I know there’s all kinds a talk out there about how whipping or…spanking…a child hurts them, but the fact is the rod molds them, builds them up, keeps them from strayin’. Then they start making all kinds a choices. Limit choices for your children early, for you have to get ‘em early, or they’ll go their own way and be lost, forever.”

20131201_111036-1During a commercial break, the DJ announced a special Thanksgiving day auction, at a nearby town. “After dinner, come on down, bring the family. Enter and you get a chance to win a gun safe that can hold up to 56 guns!”

The sun broke the horizon but low clouds kept it from bursting bright across the new cold icy day. In seconds, the eastern sky was glowing blood-red. Hmm, red sky at morning…

Be well…

The Next Desert?

Hello Everyone…

Into...

Into…

Last Friday, I left for California in a 2013 Chevrolet Impala. I ordered a tiny economy model, but the clerk offered to superzize me, so I took the Impala. The car didn’t idle and I had to press the pedal thoroughly to get the car to even move. But when I did the engine roared and before I knew it, I was going 70mph. The car was not a muscular beast in the great hierarchy of motorcars, but compared to the gerbils under the hood of the economy cars I’m used to renting, the Impala contained something not unlike a pride of lions under it’s hood. I spent the ride out to the interstate just getting used to the extra power under my foot.

And I listened to Willie Nelson’s latest song on the radio. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is an old standard written by Irving Berlin in 1936. Willie’s version is a mello yet haunting tune with kind of a dark jazzy-nightclub feel, and his guitar picking is brilliant in his own simultaneously delicate and rough way. The recording is smooth the way folks say whiskey is smooth, which is not smooth at all, but potent with dizzying fumes, slightly sweet and flammable.

By the time the song ended I’d found the rhythm of the Impala and in no time I was past San Antonio, heading west on Interstate 10. The speed limit was 80mph. I set the cruise control at 82 because I’m a rebel and handled the purring car with two fingers on the steering wheel and settled in for the long straight ride to El Paso. Soaring into spacetime as the satellite radio fed songs into the car from an invisible umbilical cord. I’d made the same trip on I-10, 13 years ago, when I moved to LA to make it big. I remember dead spots along the drive, where I couldn’t get any radio action.

Where were those dead spots? I thought. What was I wearing? Ah…Levi’s, t-shirt, Converse, just what I’m wearing now. Gee some things never change. The sky was big, just as it was back then. But it was cloudy 13 years ago, remember? I did. But this time, it was hot and dry – barely a cloud in the sky, less clouds than circling buzzards. I ran into rain storms back then, remember? Remember how excited I was to set forth into the world? Remember? I believed I was fated to head west, remember that, silly? I told myself to shut up, then, and focused on the view. Closed down motels and gas stations were sprinkled along the west Texas drive. I’d already passed Junction, the next town would be Fort Stockton, 100 miles away. I checked my gas gauge to find I was nearly on empty. Back then I didn’t even have a cell phone. Running out of gas was a real drag back then. But wait, you have no cell service out here, so if you run out of gas…Shut up!

Luckilly, I came upon a tiny gas station. I got out of the car and immediately felt the heat. The horizon glimmered all around me. The tiny store’s air-conditioner rattled like it was filled with half a million Mexican jumping beans. 18-wheelers roared down the interstate. Buzzards were silent, high in the air. The fuel pump shut off and only then did I realize that the gas was marked up 50 cents more than the bigger stations closer to the cities. I thanked the clerk inside – despite the mark up – because I’m sure 50 cents would’ve seemed absolutely insignificant if I was on the side of the road and nobody was stopping as I wandered in the ditch with my phone in the air trying to get service.

20130531_18344118 wheelers owned the road – long frieght trains sped along side the interstate. What will become of the semis and freight trains now that we have the 3-D printer. Then somewhere east of El Paso my thinking inevitably drifted into philosophy. Will the 3-D printer do to to the long haulers what the Yucatan astroid did to the dinosaurs. Will the next species of mammal to rule the planet dig up the semis and locomotives from out of this desert and put them in a museum next to clay models of us?

The desert changes before your eyes as you drive through it. Mesquite trees and huisache bushes give way to cedars, then the cedars disappear and ocotillo cactus grows everywhere. Then the giant saguaro cacti replace the ocotillo. It’s like the desert is moving along with you, and from such movement I can grasp the impermanence of reality a little better. From such impermanence, I gain a better understanding of the nature of freedom. I know there’s a destination ahead – there always will be. But before I reach it I can be anyone, anything I want. I can say anything. Nothing holds me down, there are no bills, no jobs, no place I have to reach in life at this age or that age and regrets can’t travel at the speed of the desert. When I am Moving – Out There – I am perfect in the image I want to be. But as soon as I slow down I become aware of destinations, gas gauges, bygone eras…

…traffic. Road work. Highway patrol. The remnants of a blown out tire. The Carnal World will always find me and bring me back from Out There. What can you do but obey? Shut up! But you know I’m right. Yes, I know, I know. I flow – slower – with the traffic toward El Paso. There’s no cactus – only tumbleweeds. But there will be cactus again. Yes, there will be. See that closed down gas station, crumbling and broken? I see it. It was a lifesaver in the wilderness another time. Quite possible. Has progress tamed the deserts? Do our trusty cars get us to the cities more efficiently? Have we lost the need for outposts? I didn’t answer my own questions, but I didn’t stop philosophizing. I went deeper, all the way to…Did we tame it, or has the desert rejected us, instead? Like skin rejects broken glass or thorns. Are we the foreign object that Mother Earth is trying to purge?

I turned the radio up loud to prevent my philosphy from drifting into prophesy, for I’m only able to predict doom. I’d arrived in El Paso and it was getting dark, but I kept going, leaving Texas until I got to Las Cruces, wher stopped for the night. After checking into a motel, I took a walk on jello legs. The day’s lingering heat lay over the night like lace.

20130601_081223-1The next morning – in Arizona – I pulled over to take some pictures of an old gas station. It had a No Trespassing sign on the wall. There was an old trailer house behind it, also displaying a No Trespassing sign. It’s door swung open and its windows were dusted over. Snap. Snap. I was creeping closer to the trailer to get a better a shot when a dog jumped out from the open door and barked at me. It had a leash around its neck, which was holding it back from coming toward me. I ran-walked back to the Impala, the dog barking all the way. It was barking as I pulled out of the station and drove off. Somebody lives there. I guess so. What do you thing they’re like? I don’t know. Can the radio go up any higher? Yes, it can.

Satellite radio changes the journey across a desert, completely. There’s no falling in love with a cool local station only to have it snap, crackle, pop and leave you in the middle of your favorite song like a well-meaning yet flighty lover who only an hour ago was happy and wanted to be with you forever. With satellite radio, your favorite songs don’t disintegrate into static. You may always finish the song, and listen to the same DJs clear across the country. You are in control. But that kind of control comes with a drawback – I got tired of listening. Period. Even satellite radio stations play set lists. I began to feel a visceral negative reaction to songs – even great songs – if I’d heard them two or three times. Maybe we need the heartbreak of the fading radio waves. Back to philosophy, dammit. Maybe we need things to be beyond our control. Maybe we need things taken away from us just when we think they will be there forever. Maybe its the longing that gets us to the other end of the desert. And 3-D printers be damned, there will always be a desert to cross.

Saguaro cactus...desert nobility.

Saguaro cactus…desert nobility.

About 100 miles east of Tuscon, my mind went blank. It came back briefly in Phoenix, when I realized I was staring at a sign in the sky and reciting the words of that sign over and over in a German accent…

“Vaffle Haus! Vaffle Haus! Vaffle Haus!”

This concerned me, so I tried to focus. There were only whirlwinds and memories for many miles past Phoenix. Both were popping up anywhere and anytime, then were gone just when I realized they were there.

Then I crossed the Colorado River into Blythe, California. Blythe’s like any sub-city you’ve ever been to – dudes with ponytails, smoking outside a grocery store that was across the street from a closed down grocery store. I got a coffee to stay awake. It went down harsh in the 107 degree weather as I walked back to the car.

And it only kept getting higher. It was 112 when I pulled off I-10 and into Joshua Tree National Park. The interior of the Impala grew warmer and warmer – the air-conditioner losing to the heat. Higher and higher – in degrees and elevation – I drove into the desert. For some reason, I kept going slower and slower until I pulled over, killed the engine, got out.

Killer Whales protecting the cheese in Blythe's grocery store.

Killer Whales protecting the cheese in Blythe’s grocery store.

The hot air immediately embraced me as I walked further into the desert. I sucked in deep labored breaths – felt moisture rise to my skin, then disappear. Joshua trees stood here and there. There was absolutely no wind. Dust – kicked up from my footsteps – hovered just over my ankles. Nothing was moving. No sound, only those sounds I made as I moved. I walked to a bluff and saw the interstate far below. I could make out the 18-wheelers, but the roar of their motors couldn’t reach me. I liked the quiet – it had shape, like the hills, the trees and the sun that all worked together to create the silence. It’s too hot. I walked back to the car, gasping slightly for air, my legs heavier with each step. The car looked so far away, it didn’t seem like I walked so far. A beautiful barren land of silence, but deadly, should one feel foolish to become part of it.

I drove down the hill onto I-10. There was 29 Palms, then 10,000 Palms, then only Palm Springs and after it the long wide road to LA.

I am writing to you from sazzy Hollywood. I was hired to build a set for the Independent Shakespeare Company, in Griffith Park. I have friends in the company and I’m looking forward to a lot of fun and hard work in the sun at the edge of Western Civilization. My friends’ little bungalow apartment – just between Sunset and Hollywood Blvds – will be El Jamberoo headquarters for the summer. Then who knows? Maybe another desert journey – of one kind or another.

Joshua Tree National Fore

The shape of desert life…

But I won’t get ahead of myself. I will be Here, with my friends, and that is good enough for now. Talented friends, too, for, much like a cactus thriving in a desert, Independent Shakespeare Company thrives by doing theatre in Movie Town. They do it out of passion, and because – so many years down the road – Shakespeare is still relevant. The modern world needs Shakespeare, just like we still need deserts, longing and broken hearts.

Be well…