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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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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Pappy & Harriet’s

Los Angeles is known for attracting, inspiring and launching the careers of rock stars from all over the world, this we know. It’s also known for an unmatched live music scene with more venues than any other city in the US. From massive stadiums all the way down to dark little dive bars, the vibe is legit.

While there’s no shortage of live shows every night of the week in LA county, there’s a place – a strange and kitschy little place – about 2.5 hours east that stands out among the rest. A “palace” perched atop a long and winding desert road to nowhere in the Yucca Valley, where artists like Robert Plant and Vampire Weekend have graced it’s storied stage.

Pappy & Harriet’s, a cabaret style roadhouse situated on the edge of the Mojave Desert in Pioneertown, is almost too good to be true. I had read about bands I love dropping in for surprise appearances, and given the bars remote location, I had to see for myself what was drawing people there.

The road from Yucca is kind of a trip, especially at night. You immediately begin to climb in elevation, in complete darkness, save a few random folks who call the valley home. We did spot a massive pine tree decked out in twinkling Christmas lights on the edge of a cliff with no visible house nearby. How they got there is a mystery.

The moment you pull up, you’re hit with the intoxicating smell of mesquite barbecue smoking out back. The bar is part of a small village founded in 1946 by Hollywood filmmakers who intended to create a living movie set for western pictures. With facades based on an 1870s frontier town, it feels a little like Wyatt Earp will rise from the dead and challenge you to a duel at any moment.

A mix of bikers, old folks, families and cool kids clasping their bourbon-filled mason jars filled the place. While the food is worth the trip alone, we were there for the music. Anthony D’Amato opened with an acoustic set; he and his guitar and harmonica had a big enough sound to match an entire band. Then the headliners, Israel Nash, hit the stage and as D’Amato put it, launched into a set that would melt our faces off. Think Harvest Moon era Neil Young meets The Who meets rockabilly. Fuck, is that even possible? Maybe it was the electro-magnetic air, maybe it was the whiskey but it was the perfect soundtrack for a wild night in the desert.

We couldn’t help but alter our plans to return the next day before heading back to the city. It was worth it. A trip to the California desert isn’t complete without wetting your whistle at Pappy’s alongside the gnarly locals and bright-eyed hipsters. Even for a first-timer, I felt right at home.

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Transcending Time in the Desert

There’s something strange and mystical about the desert that can draw you in like a thirsty traveler to an abundant oasis. The climate is almost perfect, at certain points of the year, while the dead of summer could result in just that – death. Natural environments capable of creating extreme danger kind of get my rocks off, even though I wouldn’t dare travel to these places in times where an inherent risk is present. Just being aware of the power of these corners of the world is enough to satiate my adventurous appetite.

While planning a trip to Joshua Tree, I stumbled across a few travel blogs that talked about a big white dome, a short drive from the Yucca Valley. I remembered seeing an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations where he and Josh Homme visited something like that too. Always one to follow in the footsteps of my favorite journos and rock stars, I couldn’t resist traveling down the rolling road to nowhere, passing ‘Jesus Saves’ signs along the way, in search of this strange structure.

Eventually we reached a little town called Landers and found the Integratron, a striking white dome set amidst a desolate, desert backdrop. I was waiting for tiny, green men to swing open the front door and tell us to join them meanwhile hoping we hadn’t stumbled upon some religious cult clubhouse. Luckily, neither were the case.

Situated on top of a geometric vortex, the Integratron was built in the 1960s by aerospace engineer George Van Tassel who claimed the idea to build it was inspired by communications he had received from extra-terrestrial life. I wasn’t too far off with the little green men.

The only acoustically perfect, all wood structure in the United States, its energy is said to be capable of cell rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel. While I didn’t find myself shot back into the early 1970s, a time I fantasize about traveling back to all the time, I did experience an altered state of consciousness that I can only describe as not really being awake, but still being completely aware.

My husband and I signed up for a Sound Bath, conducted by one of the three sisters who own the place. A sonic healing technique, using giant quartz bowls keyed into your body’s energy centres (or chakras), the soothing sound is said to deliver frequencies deep into cellular levels.

Our group of about 20 people were invited into the upstairs sound chamber and asked to lie down on the mats and pillows provided, with our heads facing into the center. At first, the sound is a little jarring but eventually soothing. For me, it felt like a sound bubble was hovering outside of my right ear before traveling inside my head, lingering somewhere in between my eyes, before escaping out from my other ear. At one point it felt like my arms had dropped through the floor and eventually it didn’t feel like there was any floor at all. My husband found the whole experience so soothing he fell asleep.

The Integratron, originally financed in part by Howard Hughes, attracts visitors and musicians from all over the world; there to experience acoustic perfection or to absorb it’s healing powers. I came purely out of curiosity, but I’m eager to make my way back to experience it all over again.

Reservations can be made ahead of time, and I suggest you book well in advance. According to Nancy Karl, one of the co-owners who conducted our sound bath, interest in the Integratron has increased tenfold over the past few years. Visit integtratron.com for more information.

Also published in the Huffington Post.

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A Day in Joshua Tree

There are a lot of books, blogs and spiritual enthusiasts that talk about bucket lists these days. Goal-getters, manifesters and the like. While I certainly subscribe to the practice of gratitude and setting goals I’ve never been one to maintain a “bucket list”. I guess the mantra that’s always meant something to me is to follow your desires, despite how impulsive or careless they might seem. If it feels good do it, I always say. Or was that an overplayed Sloan song?

Despite not having a list of items I feel compelled to check off before I fade to ashes someday, there are certain things that I fixate on. I guess you could interpret that as a bucket list, but I like to think of them as things I’m mysteriously drawn to as a result of some unspoken force. That probably sounds a little crazy. Maybe it is.

I’ve been obsessed with Joshua Tree for as long as I can remember. The diversity of the environment, the jaw dropping landscapes and the gnarly yucca trees made famous by four Irish lads long ago. It’s always felt like a universe away, even though I’ve lived within a 3-hour flight of California’s Mojave Desert most of my life, where a portion of the park is situated. Now that I live in Los Angeles, it was high time I explored this place I’ve fantasized about for decades.

Before committing to a multi-night stay in one of the campgrounds, I decided it was better to tackle the park in a day trip from Palm Springs to get my bearings and better understand the climate. No matter what time of year you plan on venturing into Joshua Tree, always make sure you have the right supplies with you to stay safe and hydrated.

We entered at the East entrance from Highway 10, which is exactly where you want to start if you intend on traveling across to the other side of the park in one day. The road leading up to it was surprisingly desolate with little to no traffic (like, we maybe encountered 3 other cars), despite being a long weekend. Which really appealed to my Joshua Tree fantasy of feeling like you’re the only person on the planet.

We arrived at the Cottonwood Visitor Center right when it opened and the helpful rangers gave us a map and pointed out all the keys points of interest, based on our 12-hour timeframe. If you have time, start the day by hiking the easy 1.5-mile loop to Cottonwood Spring before getting deep into the park. The spring, which was used for centuries by the Cahuilla Indians, is the result of earthquake activity and the trailhead begins next to the Visitor Center.

Our first stop was the Ocotillo Patch, which immediately transported us to what seemed like an underwater garden. The tall, green plants looked like soft coral swaying in an undercurrent amidst the Mojave’s Pinto Mountains. Great photo op for street signs that indicate how crazy and windy the route is.

A few more minutes up the road and you reach the Cholla Cactus Garden, which may have been my favorite part of the park, based on the snap-happy amount of photos I took. This area of Joshua Tree is otherworldly and the colors are so vibrant it feels like you’re looking through an Instagram filter (#nofilterneeded). Walk the 15-minute loop – or longer, depending on how long you marvel at these prickly wonders – and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. We spotted a rather friendly desert hare that was practically posing for us.

Continuing on, before we knew it, the landscape shifted from sun and sand to moody clouds and mile-high boulders. Each piece gently and strategically placed, as if by some giant being, balancing against the laws of physics. We stopped at Jumbo Rocks to stretch our legs and determined this was the spot to camp next time we make our way to Joshua Tree. The rock formations there create perfect little alcoves, offering a much-needed reprieve from the heat of the day. Slightly beyond the campgrounds you’ll reach Skull Rock, another great photo op if you feel like climbing into the nostril and hamming it up as my husband did. Be on the lookout for lizards here. We spotted a few desert iguanas basking on the warm rocks.

As you continue through Sheep Pass – watch for bighorn sheep, as the name would suggest – Ryan Mountain comes into view. One of the highest points in the park and great for a more challenging hike with steep terrain, once again a photo op was necessary as my husband’s name is Ryan. This definitely tops our list for our next visit.

Finally, we made it to Hidden Valley, perhaps one of the most photographed and familiar places in the park due to the abundance of yucca trees (also known as Joshua trees) and a teeny, tiny little album in the 80s. You know when you dream of what a place might look like or feel like, and when you get there, it’s often slightly different than you imagined? Sometimes better, other times a little lackluster. Hidden Valley was exactly what I had envisioned Joshua Tree to be. Spellbinding, spine-tingling and, if nothing else, a little eerie. Make sure you have some time to spend there just to wander. No maps, phones or distractions. Just be. And if you’re looking for the tree made famous by U2, it’s not actually inside Joshua Tree, but several hours away…if it’s still standing today.

Obviously, after traipsing about all day in the various temps and terrain, dodging rattle snakes and other unfavourable desert characters, you’ll have earned yourself a cold one. Belly up to the bar with the locals at the Joshua Tree Saloon, less than a mile past the western entrance to the park, until it’s time to head back for sunset.

A lot of people recommended that we head to Keys View for sunset, which has a great view of the valley below. But, if you’re looking for that iconic Joshua Tree experience, with yucca trees dotting the horizon as the blazing sun dips below the Bernadino Mountains, head to Quail Springs and stake your claim on one of the many boulders to soak in the last seconds of magic hour. It might just change your life.

Suggested soundtrack: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits, Queens of the Stone Age Like Clockwork and The Doors Morrison Hotel.

What to bring: A cooler with a minimum of 2 litres of water per person. We also packed sandwiches, granola bars and fruit. Wear a hat, sunscreen and make sure you have something warm to layer on after the sun goes down. Otherwise, a camera, good tunes and a tank full of gas are all you need to make the trip. Oh, and toilet paper…just in case. But the park has several rest stops with outhouses.

 PARK MAP

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