The Desert Life for Me
“You’re going where?” friends ask me when they find out where I’m headed.
“Mojave,” I reply.
“Like the Mojave Desert?”
“The town of Mojave,” I clarify. “It’s not too far from the desert though.”
Some people respond with “Oh–cool;” others with, “Oh– why?”
My answer: I’m headed to this town of 3,900– 95 miles northeast of LA and 60 miles southeast of Bakersfield– because the serenity and unique landscape of the desert calls to me.
While driving through the arid terrain on the road to get there, I suddenly feel compelled to turn on the Grease soundtrack, which I haven’t listened to in years (probably not that weird; they race cars through a deserty backdrop towards the end of it, right?). So turn it on I do. How magical is technology that a song can pop into your head and a few seconds later you can be listening to it at full blast?
Emboldened by remembering every single word to every single song, I speed up at the yellow light rather than slow down like I usually do–and make it through the intersection without killing or injuring anyone.
Come explore Mojave and three other desert towns with me in today’s entry. We’ll brush our hands against Joshua trees and cacti (ow). We’ll pass windmills sprouting from the orange earth in Mojave, strip malls and glorious fields of poppies in Antelope Valley, and black sand dunes looming like the sooty humps of charcoal-bathed camels in Palm Springs. We’ll weave through block after deserted block of funky shimmering sculptures next to shores littered with fish carcasses in Bombay Beach–all while taking life at a slower pace.
Don’t forget your sunscreen, hat, gallon of water, and well-stocked supply of witty comebacks to banal Dad jokes.
**Also, I’d prescribe the following for anyone who’s in any kind of slog, or otherwise feeling stuck or down: drive through the desert with a CD from your childhood turned up loud–preferably one whose songs you know every word to.
Not only does this usher in pure joy, it can also be an ego boost–Look at all those lyrics your mind held on to! you can tell yourself. Look how sharp your memory is! Even when you’re not actively working it, even when you don’t realize it’s spinning its wheels, it’s holding onto stuff for you.
Bombay Beach, CA
A silver metal plane glints in the sun—its face plunged towards the ground, body and tail extending up towards the sky.
A car with broken windows, hood smashed in, wheels gone, appears to sink into the swallowing sand.
Behind another smashed car, grafiti’ed dinosaur skeletons prowl across the facade of an abandoned casita.
Making my way towards the abandoned houses: cardboard birds cover the white walls of a free-standing room about the size of a child’s playhouse. Were we closer to civilization this site would no doubt be overrun by tourists looking to snap pics in a highly Instagramable backdrop.
I’m in Bombay Beach, a remote town in California’s Imperial County where, as Ian Anderson has written in his reporting for Roadtrippers Magazine, life can be hard for its 297 residents.
“Temperatures routinely reach 120 degrees in the summer, and, as [one resident] has witnessed, ‘When people don’t have AC, they die,” he writes.
One man runs the volunteer police and fire department; otherwise, there’s no law enforcement. The closest hospital operates 45 minutes away. Bombay Beach also lacks a gas station, a laundromat, and other basic amenities.
It’s for these reasons that many residents have departed over the years, leaving behind many abandoned houses in their wake. Of the few who remain, a considerable amount are artists who have converted the ruin into art. Anderson has said that if you don’t know the history though, the dusty roads “look like a bomb hit it.”
Still, people from all around the world (including zombie movie film-makers) come to visit this deserty ghost town for its unique artistic creations and historical intrigue.
Bombay Beach is located along the man-made Salton Sea, which I meander over to after exploring the sculptures.
Over half a century ago, these shores teemed with men and women in ’50s one-piece bathing suits sipping from glass bottles of Coke and submerging their bodies in the temperate water.
Now, fish carcasses litter the sand of this saltine lake. Signs that say SOS poke out and up from the water. Abandoned sofas and chairs with sizeable chunks missing from them float through the water, while foamy waves break lightly against the arid shore.
A popular weekend resort destination in the 1950s, the sea is now mostly barren, and even considered dangerous to swim in. Though larger than Lake Tahoe, it’s only one foot deep. The bones littering the shore speak to the dangerous toxicity of its water, which appears pretty and shimmery from far back, but once you get up close to it, you’ll see the sheen of brown. Salty winds and extremely high temperatures have also whittled many of the town’s structures down, accelerating its dilapidated appearance.
The Salton Sea keeps getting saltier every year. It doesn’t have an outlet like the vast majority of bodies of water do, meaning it can only take in–so the salt and other toxins remain trapped inside it. It can only lose water through evaporation, and this is a slow process.
I find this so interesting. I imagine a human body unable to eliminate any toxins, only continue to pile them up, and up, and up, until its eventual combustion. That’s what’s happening to the Salton.
Air pollution is quite bad here as a result. Yet another reason so many people have fled; the conditions are unlivable for many, especially for those with underlying health conditions.
Before I leave, I take a final look at the car sinking into the sand.
It’s a decrepit vehicle, no longer able to function as such– but also not obliterated entirely, just transformed into something different (a work of art). It even looks like it could become a boat, were someone to dedicate the time to converting it. Until that person presents them self though, the ‘not car’ will exist in this purgatory state, smashed and shining under the sun as it sinks ever so slowly further into the ground.
Perhaps the same applies to Bombay Beach on the whole.
Other reasons I chose Mojave (continued from intro):
I’d heard nearby Red Rock Canyon has hiking with epic rock formations, and though I don’t climb, I do love rocks for their aesthetic appeal.
Matt Jaffe’s description of driving Mojave Road in the SF Chronicle as “the automotive equivalent of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: slow-going, immersive and unforgettable” also entices me.
As I drive closer to the town, light from the full moon allows me to discern the dark shapes of mountains looming to the right–though I’ll have to wait until daylight for their forms to fully reveal themselves.
When daylight comes, I putter through the town. Cars blitz by on the highway road past the motel’s pool. Behind them, windmills speckle the black-mound mountains that frame the town.
The air smells like Fritos and car oil as I amble down the wide black residential roads, passing pets perched on the tops of cars—some listless and weary, others watchful and vigilant. A broken-in trampoline rests on a patch of dirt standing in for a front lawn. An occasional adobe house stands out from between the more generic ones.
Driving through the mountain roads on my way to Red Rock, I feel a bit like a blood cell– traveling up, down, and around artery roads that coil through the desert dune body of a foreboding orange monster.
The one passenger I pick up here is a black man with a Latino name, who says his family is Arabic and lived in Sudan. He expresses interest in learning more of the language (“It’s just a whole new alphabet and they read right to left, so it’ll be a lot more challenging,” he acknowledges).
Palm Springs, CA
When I first arrive within the city limits of Palm Springs, it’s night-time and my radio is turned to a classic rock station. The Led Zepelin song pairs aptly with my descent into the desert darkness. I can’t pinpoint why exactly; it just seems to amplify the whole experience.
I have to say that I also felt sort of badass, driving through the dark desert night with music of that variety capturing all of my senses. Each was accounted for in that moment: vision by the black dunes looming in close proximity; sound and touch by the music filling my ears and enveloping my body; tastebuds by barbecue peanut road snacks. I felt like I should be wearing aviators, paired with my black leather lesbian jacket.
For some time I’d been wanting to visit this desert resort city of 48,000–located two hours east of LA and nine hours southeast of San Francisco.
Every spring, throngs of queer women congregate in Palm Springs to dance poolside and party the night away for five days in what has become the largest lesbian celebration in the world. According to Wikipedia, “The Dinah celebrates the tapestry of [lesbian] women around the world, attracting some 15,000-plus participants from countries such as Mexico, Australia, Canada, Russia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, China, South Africa, Belgium and Spain.”
Though my visit unfortunately doesn’t coincide with Dinah Shore, my love for desert environments entices me to visit regardless.
When morning arrives, I set out to explore. Palm trees stud the chic and glamorous main commercial road, which stretches on like an elegant, endless-seeming carpet carved out from the surrounding arid land. A few days before Christmas I stride down it in a black tank top and a pair of green shorts– past adorable boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries all placed neatly a few feet apart from one another.
Parallel to the main drag, dark volcanic mounds (whose shadow forms I’d seen the night before) loom like the sooty humps of a giant camel who’s been doused in black sand.
While there I try the region’s signature drink: the date shake. A hundred years ago agricutluralists transported date shoots from Algeria and Egypt to Palm Springs, as the region’s soil and climate were ideal for the planting and growing of date palms.
Now the industry is a multi-million dollar one, with Palm Springs referred to as the date capital of the world. 95 percent of the country’s dates are said to be grown here.
“My girlfriend grew up here and when she was a kid her dad would put dates on her toast,” says passenger Norman*. “At school they’d take field trips to go date-picking. Then they’d bring the dates back to the classroom and bake them with cheese.”
The shake is delicious, with the dates lending its icy body a natural caramel flavor.
“She taught me how to sand-buggy and now it’s one of our favorite things to do together,” Norman says as I sip from it.
Driving out of Palm Springs later on, I notice to the right of the highway little black specks blitzing up and down the dark dusty dunes next to gently rotating white windmills. Though they look like insects, I realize they’re actually the sand buggies Norman was referring to earlier.
Chock full as Norman was with good quotes, I’ll close off with one more from him:
“I love it at night. Not having to wear a jacket or long pants. Sensing those black sand dunes in the distance, but you’re not quite able to see them. It’s creepy and cool. It’s like they’re shielding us from the world beyond like a mama bat’s wing. And we’re the baby bats.”
“How are we bats, we’re nothing like bats,” his girlfriend counters, while also brushing his arm affectionately.
Come here for the stillness and the palm trees. The heat was also a welcome change from the December rain up north.
Antelope Valley, CA
Somewhat of a rivalry exists between the two main cities in Antelope Valley—Palmdale and Lancaster, its populations 156,000 and 159,000 respectively.
One article ranks Lancaster (incorporated in 1977) the most stressful city in California, “because of its combination of long work hours, high divorce rates, and long average commute time.”
Fittingly, the first passenger I pick up– before we’ve exchanged introductions or the usual cordialities– lets out a deep sigh and says he is “going through a lot.”
Other passengers though, such as the avid mountain biker I fetch outside a brewery in downtown, who moved here a few years ago from Kansas to work at his dad’s sales company, enjoy the city and are faring better: “It provides better terrain for mountain biking-. I prefer it to Kansas. Back there it’s really flat.”
Inside one Palmdale brewery, a black leather couch abuts a mural that takes over the entire back wall, floor to ceiling. Where the wild things are meets psychedelic monster dream, is how I’d describe it.
Groups crowd around communal tables, some playing Janga, others mapping out their plans to hike Red Rock the following day. Some eat pizza purchased from the food truck outside, their stools pulled up to wooden barrel tables.
I try a small taster glass of Peaches Be Trippin (an Imperial peach IPA), one of several unique beer flavors (others include El Mas Guapo, a guava-infused IPA; CatBird, an IPA with hop hash and hemp CBD; and Golden Goose, a golden ale with gooseberries).
From another passenger I find out that twenty miles west of Lancaster blooms one of the state’s most abundant poppy reserves. Every spring the area draws 60,000 people for the California Poppy Festival.
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