I woke up on QT’s couch which, when California fell into the sea, would likely float to the hill with the Hollywood sign, given our proximity to that hill and QT’s proclivity for weathering disaster. He’d survived mortal beat-downs so many times in the course of our 25-year friendship, I felt safe in his house. I was a NYC winter fugitive at the start of a 9-day, couch surfing getaway.
The last time I was in L.A. was in 1994. I was living the Melrose Place lifestyle, working in publishing. After a year and a half, I took I-40 — the most direct route — back to New York. This time I would ride into the Mojave landscape.
QT has stayed with me in New York on several occasions. When I needed a break from the relentless city winter, he offered me his sofa in L.A.. Originally, we planned to drive to Riverside to shoot a story. When that didn’t pan out, QT Googled a cool-looking hotel outside of Joshua Tree and we hit the road anyway. Hollywood wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t getting any sleep on the couch. It’s hard to overstate the importance of a good night’s rest. L.A.’s incessant sunshine triggered a bout of insomnia that I drove 3,000 miles to get relief from in 1994 and here I was crossing the desert again for the same reason.
About an hour outside of L.A., wind turbines began sprouting up across huge swathes of American steppe. These were interspersed with long stretches of scrubby desert that have for decades been used to train Marines. I prayed for nothing to come between us and our canary-yellow Aveo, a Hertz rental that screamed “Unarmed Liberal.” True Grit had hit theaters earlier that week and the Old West typography used to hype it was all around us but I was thinking about 29 Palms, the desert horror in which a couple of road-tripping hipsters get car-jacked by some locals and ultimately make sop rags of the motel linen.
The Mojave Sands turned out to be a classic ’50’s roadside motel post-modernized with poured concrete and oxidized metal. Our room was one of five or six lined up inside a gated compound. It was comfortable in a Führerbunker way and had all the basic amenities (i.e. clean beds, running water, a flush toilet & light) but lacked a TV, a telephone and curtains. The place was unfinished and that was part of its initial appeal. When it became a chic, desert-Bauhaus retreat, we would be seasoned veterans. In the meantime, we’d pull up our socks and make do. The ubersized bathroom featured a Platonic cave of a shower. Was it supplied by a hot spring? I could ponder that question later. Our late-afternoon arrival dictated we hit Joshua Tree asap. The desert was chillier than we expected so we pulled on some layers and set out for a hike.
We drove past legions of the park’s famed Joshua Trees before parking in a picnic area at the base of a one-time cattle rustler’s trail. The terrain resembled the bottom of a drained aquarium landscaped with grit, coral and very large rocks. Once the initial sense of funhouse wonder subsided, direct contact with nature began short-circuiting our media-saturated brains. QT commented on the area’s unusual stillness, which he attributed to an absence of surveillance equipment. I chalked up the sense of holy solitude I felt to the sound-proofing effects of the barn-sized mounds of granite that surrounded us.
Just before sunset we drove to Keys View, an overlook with a panoramic view of the San Bernardino Mountains, Palm Springs, Indio, the Salton Sea, and creeping Los Angeles smog. I looked out on the abundance and folly sprawled out across the Coachella Valley and got the feeling that God was okay with it all. Then gale-force winds drove us back to the car. We gingerly wound our way out of the park in the Aveo, past weathered glacier sockets, when we spotted this fella and pulled over to see how he fared.
My desert fears, allayed by the good (muted?) vibrations of Joshua Tree, rushed back like headlight moths when we returned to the empty motel and learned we would be the only occupants when the compound gate closed for the night. The owner told us he lived nearby and could be reached by phone. Good thing we brought our own. After a harried shower–tap water–I passed a fitful night poised for a sunrise escape.