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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CalJam Brings Concert-Goers Together Amid Awful Week in Music

Speeding towards the desert foothills of the San Bernardino Valley in one hundred degree heat for CalJam, a one-day rock music festival revival, conflicting thoughts raced through my head. What would typically feel like a rush of joyful anticipation leading up to a music festival became laced with anxiety.

After a historically sad week in music following the tragedy in Las Vegas and the sudden passing of Tom Petty, that sweet pre-concert build up was being overshadowed with dark thoughts. What “suspicious signs” should we be looking for? If the unthinkable happened, do we hit the deck or run for cover? What would be the plan if my husband and I became separated for some reason?

As a Canadian, these are things I would have never considered before moving to Los Angeles. As a reasonable person I realize tragic events can happen anywhere. So when we passed through the iconic rainbow entrance at Glen Helen Amphitheater on Saturday alongside thousands of other music revelers, it struck me — we’re all in this together. A single flowing mass of energy showing up to have a good time. That joyful anticipation quickly returned and security became secondary.

An event dubbed as the album release party for Foo Fighter’s ninth studio album Concrete and Gold, the lineup was just as iconic as the original California Jam’s that took place in the 70s. We arrived as two-man British band Royal Blood took the stage and rocked the crowd in the searing heat of the day, with some people vying for shade beneath the massive speaker stands.

Brits would continue to prove their rock prowess with Wolf Alice on the Sun Stage while Liam Gallagher held court at the CalJam17 Stage, treating the crowd to a few Oasis hits. He would later join the Foo Fighters on stage for a rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together” before leaping into the audience for what looked like a group hug that quickly turned into a lengthy crowd surf.

As the sun set and temps began to drop, Cage the Elephant turned up the heat with a ground shaking – literally — set that commenced with their version of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, one of many tributes to Petty throughout the day.

After taking in what was already an A-list lineup of rockers, Queens of the Stone Age lit up the natural amphitheater with an electric light show and wall of sound that could metaphorically melt your face off. Between songs, lead singer-guitarist Josh Homme spotted a sign in the crowd and politely asked the rowdy pit of fans to pass it up to the stage. The sign, which Homme hoisted above his head, read “Vegas Strong.” When he flipped it to the other side it listed all 59 names of the victims of the Las Vegas shooting a week earlier.

“We are nothing when we’re apart. We are everything when we’re together, forever. Let’s have the fucking time of our lives,” Homme said before launching into the next song.

The finale of the fest was of course the Foo Fighters, who played a two-hour set with several special guests, including Joe Perry of Aerosmith who headlined California Jam II in 1978, bringing the magical day full circle.

More than ever, we need live music. More than any other time in US history people need to come together to sing and dance and have a good time. As Homme sensitively pointed out, we are indeed everything when we’re together.

Originally published in The Province.

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Seeking Redemption at Salvation Mountain

I’m not a religious person. I did some time in Sunday school, learning about Jesus and Moses and the rest of his crew. But to me it all seemed like a fairy tale, folklore that had somehow survived for centuries, interpreted differently all over the world. A power or light or being or whatever for people to believe in that’s bigger than themselves. I appreciate the comfort in that, but the thought of Immaculate Conception haunted me as a child. If I had an impure thought, would I too end up like Mary? Knocked up by a sheepherder giving birth in a barn?

The California desert is a hotbed for Jesus enthusiasts. The words “Jesus Saves” appears almost subliminally, whether it’s a large sign in someone’s yard or spray painted across an old, abandoned pick-up truck. He is everywhere. And while I’m not exactly a believer, his presence is somehow palpable.

The rise of Instagram and hipsters in need of a “candid” photo pointing their peace sign to the sky amidst a desert backdrop has helped draw attention to some of the most sacred places in and around the Mojave. Maybe too much attention? One place in particular is Salvation Mountain.

About a 90-minute drive along route 111 (aptly) from Palm Springs, past expansive palm farms, the abandoned Salton Sea and more Jesus propaganda is a little town called Niland. Just when you thought the desert couldn’t be more desolate and detached, this is your turn off to “redemption.”

After a few more miles along a winding dirt road you’ll reach an abandoned army bunker that indicates you’ve reached the Slab City limits. A few turns further, a colourful mound of mud, cement and junk shellacked together over decades of devotion pops up into view and you know you’ve made it.

Salvation Mountain began as a simple monument in the 1980s to express the simplicity of the Sinner’s Prayer. Created by Leonard Knight, the impressive site you see today is an ongoing work of many contributors and visitors and its message is simple: God is love. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, I think we can all get behind this simple yet meaningful mantra.

We cruised onwards through Slab City, an off-the-grid community of squatters and snowbirds looking to stretch their retirement dollars, for a peek into the underbelly of California’s badlands. No electricity, no water, no sewers or services. The residents here really are on their own, and it appears as though that’s exactly the way they like it.

If you venture a little further down the rabbit hole, you’ll reach East Jesus, a collection of artwork and desert artefacts. But we were running low on fuel and decided to turn back. As much as this place intrigues me, I’m not sure I’d want to be stranded there. But I know I’ll go back.

Far beyond the desert road
Where everything ends up
So good the empty space, mental erase
Forgive, forgot
– My God is the Sun, QOTSA

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