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.