The American Condition

Traveling northeast from Los Angeles on the 15 towards Barstow — the halfway point between LA and Las Vegas — it’s probable that one would encounter an eclectic mix of motorists. Carloads of partiers making their way to the The Strip for New Years Eve. Families taking one last jaunt into the desert before the kids are back in school. Everything from semi trucks and seniors pulling motor homes to lonely souls living off the grid, just trying to make it to the next town. The folks who travel this historic stretch of Route 66 are perhaps as iconic and interesting as the landscape itself.

The purpose of our pre-New Year road trip to a popular pit stop but otherwise unremarkable town was to hike the Kelso Dunes, the largest in all of the Mojave National Preserve. Or that’s how I sold the trip to my husband, anyway. There’s something so irresistible to me about the small towns — micro villages, really — in California’s High Desert. And the people who choose to live there.

Everything feels like a movie scene. Or a crime scene waiting to happen. Abandoned buildings,  white washed churches and convenience stores in the middle of nowhere begging to be robbed. About 15 miles west of Barstow sits Hinkley, the subject of the blockbuster film Erin Brockovich, with a population of approximately 1,900. I wonder what the residents thought of that movie? I wonder why they’re still living there?

Which made me think of what I affectionately refer to as the American Condition, at least my definition of it. Not meant to be derogatory or a slight against my American brothers and sisters, just an observation that American kids tend to be raised without a natural curiosity for the world outside of their own. Their own country, state and sometimes the confines of their tiny desert town.

I used to view people who live in places like Hinkley and Barstow as complacent. Why would you stay, when there’s such a big world out there to explore? Why on earth wouldn’t you move to Los Angeles, at the very least? Where does one work or get a decent sushi dinner out here in this desolate, godforsaken land?

I’ll tell you why they stay. They’re content. They don’t need to choose from a million and one restaurants or have access to anything and everything 24/7. They don’t need the noise or the volume or the speed in which most modern luxuries exist. They just want some peace. And simplicity. Which is what draws assholes like me to the desert in the first place.

Beneath what seems to be a simple way of life, though, are layers of history and survival and complexity. Crusty old timers salvaging new world artifacts to make art or sell them at a roadside stand. The ghosts of Calico, once a bustling mining town during the silver rush, lingering throughout its abandoned tunnels ($4.50 to venture inside). The sweet gal at Idle Spurs Steakhouse trying to coax us to come back the following night with some house made cherry cobbler (it worked). The electricity of the Kelso Dunes that literally made my hair stand on end.

Complacency can sometimes be mistaken for contentment.

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