Leaving Las Vegas
The following is from the last great motorcycle trip I took, alone, down the West Coast, across the desert and back up the spine of the Sierras. It was, unbeknownst to me at the time, my farewell to biking altogether, I sold my bike a year later. Someday we’ll talk about changes like that but for now, this is a nice reflection on a place and a period in time that had formative value if not lasting pleasure.
Leaving Las Vegas……..or something remotely akin to it on a smaller and more withered yet sickeningly sparkling scale; Palm Springs, CA.
Up and out of the resort bed of choice and off to Bit O’ Country, the default locals breakfast spot for at least the 35 years I’ve been going there. Eggs, great sausage, GRITS and biscuits and gravy. Had to!
The road from Palm Springs to Death Valley is known as one of the loneliest stretches in the country, no exaggeration. But before you get to the “lonely”, you need to go through a couple less than noteworthy but notable none-the-less, blots on the map.
Yucca Valley………….I really don’t need to say a whole lot more than the name implies. It does have Joshua Tree Monument but frankly, they Joshua Trees have always left me less than whelmed. I blew past them and into….
29 Palms. Okay, I debated counting the damn palm trees since there doesn’t seem to be anything else worth doing in this hell hole of an outpost. The Marines use this as their workhorse of a training ground to simulate the Mideast. More? Hideous, ugly, depressing…..that’s enough. Out the other side into……..
Wonder Valley…….. It really does make you wonder……..Who? What? When? Why? As desolate and impoverished a piece of land as can be found and yet, still, the government saw fit in the heyday of the post war “boom” to promote WONDER VALLEY as………what?…..farm land? Nah……..A good place to raise up younungs? Nah…….A place to breed isolationist psychopathic serial killers? Maybe! I really want to know what official or agency of the U.S. Gov’t sanctioned the Homestead Act that fostered this swath of blight and ruin. Oh……the same one that insisted tilling up all the topsoil on the Great Plains for wheat was a good idea in the 20’ and 30’s. And we all know where that got us…can we say “Dust Bowl”?
An aside: Read a great account of the Dust Bowl: http://www.google.com/products/catalog?hl=en&q=dust+bowl+book&um=1&ie=UTF-8&cid=3599132492237380667&ei=1fWwTI6cCIGBlAeg_LzlDw&sa=X&oi=product_catalog_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CD0Q8wIwAg#
It’s also a documentary on PBS well worth seeking out.
Back to WONDER Valley. So, along the highway, splotched every ½ mile or so, are truly pathetic, one room cinder block “houses”, all but about 3 on a 50 mile stretch deserted since the 40’s, with only the haunting, sacred, sinisterism that long abandoned dwellings can conjure in the deepest recesses of our paranoid inner selves. What were these people like? What were their lives like that they seriously thought THIS would be better. Did they have children? Where was the Walmart? Good god, where was the water? This was such a bad idea that were it common knowledge it was a government-sponsored program there would be less faith in the system than there already is. And why in heaven’s name haven’t they TORN THESE SHACKS DOWN in the last 60 years and returned the desert to some semblance of its own serene, stark beauty?
Every mile or so there remains a “home” that’s been “fixed up”, a chain link fence to keep the kids from wandering out onto the highway that only solo bikers and the too-tan tourists tripping from Las Vegas to Palm Springs traverse at breakneck speeds. The spur “streets” (this term used loosely) tell the story with sad and grotesque eloquence. Barbara Lane, Henry Road, Buster’s End; each, a sandy path leading back 50 yards or so into the scrub and ending in one of these long ago homesteaded hovels, once owned by Barbara, Henry, or Buster.
I’ve passed here often….and I’ve “Wonder”ed.
Then there’s Amboy. Once upon a time it was the center for Chloride mining and transport. Today, they’ve managed to resurrect a diner that appears to be serving something but that’s about it. In 1988 I was navigating this stretch in August, alone, in a little pickup on the way to a New Age conference in Sedona, AZ. 125 degrees. This was before internet, The Google, Mapquest….nada. The map showed a town. Named Amboy. I assumed towns had gas stations. I have a picture somewhere of the terminally shuttered gas station (Gulf springs to mind) that left me wanting, swweat-nervous, and stupidly alone in the Mojave Desert in the dead of summer without gas, water, food or a CELL PHONE! We live today but for the grace of supreme beings. I remember these things fondly and with amazing grace but a strong sense of “WTF Was I Thinking?” to have ever been here, alone, in the first place.
Which leads me back to the Kalifornia Closure Tour, Chapter…I don’t remember what anymore and who cares?
In my 30’s I was arrogant enough to think I “needed” my solitude and a more visible grandeur (the desert representing these in spades) and so, Palm Springs seemed like the 80’s hedonistic answer to the wayfarer’s prayer. I honor those that choose this path still, but offer up a suggestion. Rent….don’t own. You’ll live to thank me for it.
Glitz, glamor, gold chains, and gilt fixtures aside, there is little there even now, 35 years on, to tempt a sentient mind. There is plenty to trap a somnolent being, though.
The ultimate in an escapist’s paradise. Trash with Flash.
Sun-burnished bodies housing sun-burned brains.
It’s a place where conspicuous consumption still carries it’s own zip code and all who acquiesce to its quickly-cracked charms will eventually succumb. Fit in or fall short of the ideal.
The Aqua Caliente Indians had the correct idea.
They wintered in the Valley amid a few choice, stunningly beautific, palm canyons; replete with snow-chilled water running down from the high peaks of the looming San Jacinto Mountains. As winter’s warmth gave in to the summer’s sear, they elevated themselves back into the hills and moderated their temperate lives according to the laws of the nature within which they lived.
Smart folks, these Cahuilla, these Aqua Caliente.
It was Hollywood’s fault.
Hollywood, or at least the few mega-moguls who controlled and contorted it in the 20’ and 30’s, needed their property, their Stars, to be close at hand. Beck and Call. When the Studios beckoned, their stars must come calling, quickly.
With more money than sense, they pooled, grassed, treed, gardened, and even air-conditioned their way into a force that propelled it’s own interest above all else, subverted the will of the land, and power-played their hands into a game that many times over the years would become a house of cards.
When the nation’s economy suffered setbacks, Palm Springs suffered disasters.
As the Springs continued to grow, full of reprobates, retirees, and Real World wannabes, they, along with all the rest of Southern California, sucked so much of the water out of the Colorado River that the majestic, ever-flowing, tumble now fails to reach the Mexican border at all.
I don’t regret my time there; then as an escapist from some inner demons and outer dogmas, or now, as an itinerant traveler, passing through it’s molten midst.
But I doubt I’ll return.
There are too many stunning spots yet to be spied, why waste another day seeing the worst of what man has done to nature and wondering why?