Wind and Dust and Real Wild West

Two days in the desert—driving, hot wind roaring, through the pebbles and boulders, palm groves and dusty towns, the strange angles of the Joshua trees, arching up towards something, a sky as pale as eyes. It’s not hard to imagine infinity in the desert, that’s it’s all still at the bottom of some great prehistoric sea, that the sky were the lid of the sea and we were all swimming through it, rattling highway through it—the wind, waves; the dust, sand; the crunch under your sneakers some kind of ancient asking.

I arched over the hills, my tired car chugging, and arrived in Joshua Tree, went teeth-chattering down an unpaved road that dead-ended at open lot of strange, scavenged art. I’d read about the Noah Purifoy Foundation on Trazzler, and it immediately rose to the top on my list of things to do .

An LA artist that moved to the desert for more space and peace, Noah Purifoy erected whimsical sculptures out of found and salvaged materials—toilets, old vacuum cleaners, scrapped tin. During the 60s he’d directed the Watts Towers Art Center, and you can definitely see the influence of Simon Rodia—though Purifoy’s creations are more folksy, more political, less abstract. In fact, one of the most powerful pieces in the wind-swept lot was a piece made from materials found after the Watts Riots. To take a tragic, violent event, to sift through its remains and piece them together to create something new, something beautiful—this seems to be what Noah Purifoy was all about.

Admission to the Noah Purifoy Foundation is free; there’s a couple pamphlets at the entrance that guide you through your wanderings. There were only a couple other people there, and I hadn’t read about the place anywhere else. Except that, the next day, I saw on Twitter that it’d been featured in the New York Times. So much for having the edge.

Then it was off into the park itself. You hear a lot about the strange spiritual power of Joshua Tree, and I gotta say, they aren’t exaggerating. The terrain was other-worldly, to say the least. The tumble of boulders looked as though they’d been piled up by a toddler’s hand. The arms of the Joshua trees twisted and reached, fists full of beige spring flowers.  The shrubs had a slight purplish haze, like an old woman’s hair, and the air was full with a charged silence, the sound of wind.

I of course made a beeline to the site of Gram Parson’s impromptu cremation, something of a pilgrimage site for fans and aficionados of the bizarre. I drove out to Cap Rock and walked slowly around the massive formation, searching for the tributes and messages written on the rock that would signal the spot. And you know, I have to say, sitting there, the whole thing seemed much less odd. Well, the bit about stealing the body and having it actually burned on the spot is still a bit far-fetched, but being there—listening to the wind and watching the lizards dart—it seemed less like some kind of opiate-inspired fit of fancifulness, and more like an honest yearning to become a part of the place. It felt like somewhere, very far beneath the surface of it all, those plutonic intrusions that caused the rock formations were still boiling, still shooting up through the crust of the earth, and it didn’t seem so strange to want to become a part of it—to become smoke, twisting; dust, dancing; and at last the wind.

Across the desolation lay a supreme indifference, the casualness of night and another day, and yet the secret intimacy of those hills, their silent consoling wonder, made death a thing of no great importance. You could die, but the desert would hide the secret of your death, it would remain after you, to cover your memory with ageless wind and heat and cold.

John Fante, “Ask the Dust”

The next day it was off find the Wild West. I’d been stoked about Pioneertown, for nothing more than the kitsch factor. An old movie and TV set from the 40s, my trip to Pioneertown seemed ill-fated from the beginning. The Pionnertown Motel suddenly “closed indefinitely” the week before I left, and Harriet and Pappy’s Palace, billed as the best honky tonk west of the Mississippi, was closed the night I wanted to go boogie down. So I headed out in the morning and I have to say, if it would have been monumentally disappointing if Ice Cube hadn’t been there, in a poncho and a sombrero hat, filming a new video.

I headed back on the highway, through squat, peopleless towns of gas stations and boarded-up buildings. Did you know they grow dates in the California desert? I didn’t. Or that a date milkshake is god-damn delicious?

I made it to Niland, a windy little town with a couple shops, a no-name gas station and a stretch of trailers. There were two big sights there that inspired me to go 2 1/2 hours out of my way: Salvation Mountain and Slab City—the real, modern-day Wild West. It’s fitting that most people know about these places, if at all, from the movie and book Into The Wild, because they capture the kind of not-for-profit weirdness that can only take place in California.

Salvation Mountain is Leonard Knight’s neon, latex-paint monument to God. Really. Radioactively bright, the art installation is covered in biblical passages, odes to God, and topped with a cross. The old dude came out to the desert in 1985, shortly after he was saved by Jesus, and began building the tribute, fueled by some kind of insane passion and other-realm vision.

Leonard was there that day, as he is most. Weathered, red-skinned and still mostly coherent, Leonard showed a small group of us around, spouting his message of God’s love and keeping it simple. He had a 10th grade education, he told us, and was one of the dumbest creatures on Earth, but because he’d repented, God had enabled him to build Salvation Mountain. He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for fame—he did it spread the message.

His paint-stained pants were hitched up high, one of the legs tucked into his sock. The Velcro straps of his stained sneakers flapped, and he’d missed a button on his shirt. Three long hairs grew out of the top of his nose; he had a cold sore and one long thumb nail. He looked like a man that had become the desert, was the desert. He gave us each a handful of postcards and asked us to distribute them. He wanted nothing in return, just for us to spread the word. He repeated “keep it simple” like a mantra.

A quarter-mile down the road was the legendary RV squatter encampment of Slab City—”the last free place,” the sign read. Pebbly and stark and covered with trailers, Slab City is a piece of land no one wants. The government bulldozed a military base that was there in the mid-40s, leaving nothing but concrete slabs, covering the ground like graves. Word got out in the squatter community, and it became a wintering place for “snow birds.” There’s no water, no bathrooms—nothing, again, but wind and dust.

There were a number of “yard sales”—tables and blankets were random stuff was displayed, on sale for passer-throughs like myself. I pulled over to one and chatted with the people there, a desert-skinned man with a scabby elbow on a bicycle, and a sun-visored woman with obese ankles and a gap where a tooth once was. I asked them about life in Slab City, about the community and why they were there.

“There’s no rules here,” they told me. “No one bothers you, and you can do whatever you want.” They let the statement linger, and I didn’t ask what “whatever” was. As long as you were sociable with your neighbors and didn’t steal, anything went.

They told me how they easily lived on $200 a month in government assistance and food stamps, how people helped each other without payment or reward, how there were weekly live music shows and how the cops wouldn’t come out there (since Slabbers provide all the income for the nearby town Niland, they claimed). They talked about local goings-on, about drunk neighbors who’d stabbed each other and a dog that had recently died, a new church that had opened and was going to start giving out food on Sundays. Last year a trailer had burned; there was nothing to do but watch it blaze in the night.

“By April 1,” the guy told me, “everyone will be gone.”

“Where do they go?”

He shrugged. “Oregon. Canada. There’s not many free places left, places like this.”

He looked around the shrubs and dirt, squinted under the heavy sun—a place that had etched itself onto his skin, his sharp blue eyes. This was no OK Corral; this was the realeast Wild West I’d ever seen.

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9 Responses to “Wind and Dust and Real Wild West”


  1. 1 Hal Amen March 19, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Cool to see this “famous” stuff from your perspective, Lauren. And a date milkshake sounds delicious.

  2. 2 Naomi March 19, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    You know, Slab City sounds just like something out of Chris McCandless’s story, somewhere he would have stopped before heading up to Alaska. Amazingly I went camping at Joshua Tree with some friends a few years ago and missed almost all the rad things you’ve written about…lame!
    Except for the date milkshakes. We definitely devoured some of those.

  3. 3 Anil March 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Wonderful narrative. I was travelling along as you went.

    The seemingly windswept emptiness is rarely so, ever. Under the surface it pulsates with a simplicity that travellers can only marvel and ask, ‘Why’, as if there’s an answer to it.

    Even if there was, would we understand it, for come dawn, the road out beckons us to leave the reality behind. And we do.

  4. 4 grace b March 20, 2010 at 7:16 am

    Loved this post. You captured what I felt about the west (well, I’ve only been to Arizona) when I was there and would like to experience again. And also, big props to you for the solo travel!!!

  5. 5 guinea pig c March 20, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Your portrait of Slab City captures the feeling very well, but the unfortunately persistent rumors regarding the law must be put to rest. The sheriff WILL come out if needed. The idea that “there are no rules” out here is false; nothing illegal in the U.S., the state of California or Imperial county is legal in the Slabs. While it’s true that residents pay no rent and the building codes are extremely lax, this is not a magical Disneyland of anarchy and devil-may-care freedom. Too many visitors seem to think the opposite, and that leads to a growing number of problems. We still struggle with problems of illegal dumping and toxic trash burns, and some folks who think they have the right to enter other peoples’ camps without permission because Slab City is “free.” Trust me, if you go where you aren’t invited or welcome you may be asked to leave at gunpoint. Be respectful of boundaries, and take your trash out when you leave – all of it.

    • 6 laurenquinn March 20, 2010 at 9:39 am

      Thanks so much for the clarifications. I only talked to a handful of people, so it’s really good to get another perspective. I’d read about the trash problem on the website, but the folks I talked to didn’t seem to think it was a problem. Good to hear there’s folks dedicated to the preservation and well-being of the space and the community. Thanks!

  6. 7 Ekua March 21, 2010 at 11:17 am

    You’re killin’ me, Smalls! I thought you were hitting up the CA coast. I was thinking about visiting these places next week. But I won’t trail behind you with the same content so maybe I’ll head up north instead :)

  7. 8 simonemarie March 27, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    AMAZING. I still gotta make it down to Joshua Tree sometime. That photo is incredible.

    Great description of the dessert. Your writing reminds me a bit of Hunter S. Thompson’s.

    And yeah, Socal people love their date milkshakes. They do sound delicious.


  1. 1 Recommended Reads: March 21, 2010 | SoloFriendly.com Trackback on March 21, 2010 at 6:22 am
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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