Day trip

Rented a Dodge Ram pick up yesterday and headed out to the desert. No CD player. The low point had to be east of Pearblossom in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a 38 Special rock block to listen to. Hold On Loosely has been earworming its way into my skull since, breaking me down like my own personal Room 101, southern rock. Freedom is slavery, war is peace, you see it all around you, good lovin’ gone bad. The high point musically was…well, there was no high point. A lot of high desert hard rock and ranchera. We had dropped by Charlie Brown Farms in Little Rock for a date shake, then the long drive out to Barstow. The desert is great from the cab of a climate change special, you feel like Mike Dukakis in a tank. I watched the ruins of Job Harriman’s Llano Del Rio disappear in the rear view mirror, probably the only time all day I thought about politics. The 18 was closed, and they dog legged us along the 138 and then up another desert road to rejoin the 18 near Phelan. They farm a lot of meth out in Phelan. Cook it right on the rocks. A guy explained it to me one night, unbidden. I don’t think he had slept in years.

We passed through Barstow, picked up the 40 for a couple miles and got off at the Calico exit. Calico Ghost Town has been a slow favorite since I first went there when I was a kid. Hell, that was over half a century ago. Back then I thought it looked like a less fun Knotts Berry Farm (apparently Walter Knott had grown up in Calico, and used the proceeds from the mine to recreate Calico in Buena Park) but I didn’t know then that you could take your beer right on the train. Doubtless some of the appeal for me is how the old pre-Snoopy Knotts Berry Farm was cloned from the place, somehow redolent of ancient times in Southern California. Fantasy world and Calico girls I’m coming back. But to be honest my single favorite thing there is the extraordinary display of tortured seismology looming over the parking lot. Sedimentary layers bent all which ways, even straight up vertical. It screams earthquake, but all you hear is desert silence.

After Calico we went over to Rainbow Basin Natural Area, the reason for the pick up truck and 38 Special, it was perfect for driving the back roads. Not a bit of pavement in the place, just badlands bisected by narrow twisting graded road, gullies, loose rocks, and the occasional diamondback rattler. It is a perfect riot of geology, the land eroded for so many eons was absolutely gorgeous. This was once–actually several times–a large Miocene lake bed. Winter rains carve it anew every year, and tectonics torture the area–there’s a syncline to die for–though the black layers of ash are from better days, when nearby Amboy and the Cima Dome were alive with volcanos. Nearby are layers packed with fossils–most of the large mammal fossils you will see in our local museums that were not plucked from the La Brea Tar Pits came from the Rainbow Basin and thereabouts. The striations are vividly colored, everything from deep sandstone red to a brilliant green clay. So many colors, it would be a ball high on psychedelics and not driving or being way too old and epileptic for that kind of thing. Somewhere in the middle a Foreigner rock block came on and I turned off the radio. There was no other sound at all. Not a bird, not a bug, not even a breeze. Nothing.

After a glorious couple hours in Rainbow Basin, we tooled back on down Irwin Road towards Barstow in our giant pick up truck, trying not to go too fast. It’s the hemi, I explained to the wife, just to actually use hemi in a sentence. We hopped a left onto Old Highway 58 for Idle Spurs, still my favorite steak house ever. Incredible steak and a couple Jamesons. (You can pretend I took a picture of our food here.) We took our time eating, thoroughly enjoying it, and it was nearly dark as we climbed back into the cab of the pick-up, a little too late to drive all the way home on the 66. I love that old trestle across the Mojave, linking the two sides of Barstow, north and south of the tracks. Nearby was the old Harvey House, and I can only imagine the disappointment of Judy Garland fans who pilgrimage here. For a moment I thought On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe was going to stay in my head forever, like The Trolley Song did one terrible year after hearing it on a Palm Springs radio station twice in one weekend, but it disappeared back into the closet.

We turned right onto the 66 and as we headed west Barstow faded into Lenwood and then into nothing. It was too dark for sightseeing, and the excursion was nearing the twelve hour mark anyway, so we made for the interstate. All seemed perfect, the last of the light disappearing behind the mountains as we got back on the 15 heading south, nestled contentedly in the cab of our gas guzzling monster truck. There was just the night, the road, and us. There is something profoundly reassuring about driving through the desert in the dark, just you and the wheels and the stars. Then a rock block of Boston interrupted my philosophizing. Egad. People livin’ in competition, the singer complained, and all he wanted was to have some peace of mind. Bad seventies memories came flooding back and I realized that I was entering my 59th year to a soundtrack of lame classic rock. I hate these songs, with all their inane lyrics and uninspired riffs and soulless guitar solos. Can’t I find any good driving music out here in the desert? More Than a Feeling came on, and as the singer watched Marianne walking away, away, awaaaaay, I asked the Lord in a moment of existential crisis why, oh why, had He forsaken me. The Lord let the guitar solo finish before answering. The desert is beautiful but cruel, He said, like good lovin’ gone bad.


barstow sign

On the road

(Good lord….this is an abandoned draft for a piece I later posted called Mix Tapes. It began as an essay about cassettes. Then apparently I was possessed by Jack Kerouac. Strange, in that I was never a fan. But here I am in the imaginary travelogue of a Good Sam Club beatnik. Apparently at some point I reread this, blanched, and then fearing for my sanity I lopped off these paragraphs. Fun idea, though, you have to admit.)

Part of the problem is that it’s virtually impossible to actually play my old mix tapes anywhere. I still have my ridiculously fancy double cassette deck I bought cheap in the technology’s final throes. It has all these sad features that attempted to match CDs. You can program a cassette and it will play the tunes in any order you want. One tune will end with a loud click, then the machine will whir, click, whir again, click again, and another tune will come out. All these tunes off a cassette played in random sequence. Both sides. Side A track three followed by side B track seven followed by side A track one. Whatever. It seemed so sad and pointless. Like making a really nifty adding machine to compete with calculators or a glow in the dark slide ruler to compete with personal computers. Yet I consider it a tragedy that cars no longer have built in cassette players. Best was a cassette/CD player. Ideal would be cassette/CD/mp3 player. Of course now cars come with a built in computer. So you have CD/mp3 player/infinite variety of web-based music. Which is when you crash the car. So you hire a chauffeur.

Maybe a motor home would be better. You could have live music in a motor home. Can you imagine anything cooler? Hauling ass across the Mojave at three in the morning, the craziest shit happening right behind you. That long sleepy night time stretch between Baker and State Line, all the scenery, the long dead volcanoes to the south, the vast beds of ancient lakes, the desiccated mountains all utterly gone in the darkness, and you’d be ensconced in that driver’s seat, drinking coffee but thinking of whiskey and behind you some handpicked players playing a long, long set, hundreds of miles worth of jazz. Inner Urge? They’d tear into it. The Bridge? Like you’d never heard it. Giant Steps? Need you ask? Then next stop 88 miles and they break into East Broadway Run Down and you’re barreling past all those goddamn trucks. You’re flying. Like this is the most righteous motor home ever. It’s maxed out, tricked out, pumped up, and fully stocked. There’s a bar, a bartender even, and it’s like a 747 lounge but way cooler. I read about a party Jackie Gleason threw on a train from New York City to Los Angeles. A solid week of a rolling righteous jazz party. The partiers got off that train and they died right there in Union Station of shock at the sight of so many sober people. They hadn’t seen somebody uncrocked who wasn’t in a Pullman uniform since Albany. (The city, obviously, not Joe.) Well I’d throw a motor home party and zig zag across the states with live jazz and beautiful scenery and local eateries and picnics full of leftovers and produce from farmer’s roadside produce stands. Stop late at night, sit round a fire and talk and talk. Drinks, marshmallows, the sweet smell of reefer coming from somewhere. Low volume chatter, people are sleeping. Early next morning we’d relaunch with a scatter of gravel and an open road. Put something into the cassette/cd/mp3 player. Something easy to start with. And more coffee. There’d still be a little pink in the eastern sky. No fixed direction, no plan, no nothing. Just moving and looking and breathing all that air. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere the band would start, just jamming on a blues. A long lazy trumpet solo. A river off in the distance. Mountains ahead. A fork in the road. Someone flip a coin. Left or right. East, west, north, south. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just keep moving and jamming and living a crazy, beautiful life. Of course there’s the money thing, the reality thing. But if I were a Herb Alpert, say, this is what I would do.

Man, this story got a little off track back there. We were talking about cassettes. Blogging is like a too long saxophone solo, or an acid trip. Or a crazy guy on a bus, talking and talking. But I really have thought these thoughts out there on the road. Alas I have to work like everyone else. All the stories I could be living, but can’t afford to, so I make them up. Reality has never been my strong suit.

Bowlegged cowboy


(Another old one, written a good decade ago at least.)

Bowlegged cowboy contest.

Bowlegged cowboy contest.

We were heading west on the 18 driving through Adelanto–that’s the upper desert, between Apple Valley and Pearblossom*–and pulled into a brand new mini-mall to pick up some cold drinks. There was new all over the upper Mojave back then, the nineties boom was underway, credit was easy, cash plenty, and the L.A. megalopolis was overflowing its basin and spilling into the surrounding desert. Here on the edge of Adelanto you could see it. One side of the highway was scrub, creosote mostly, a few poppies, an abandoned farm house with the roof burned away. And the other side was a shiny new mini-mall. Homes were going up by the hundred just down the road, and we’d passed a big shopping center a little ways back. There wasn’t a patch of land anywhere in sight that didn’t have a for sale sign. The lot across the street did. A couple hundred acres. I can’t remember how much they wanted for it but it seemed like a lot of money for a dusty patch of desert.

That’s when I saw him, the spectre. A man on a horse. A cowboy, a real cowboy, all dusty and weathered and leathery. He trots up, boots, jeans, cowboy hat, no shirt. He got off the horse and was bowlegged like you can’t believe, like he never got out of the saddle. He walks into the store, the lady says he has to put a shirt on. He’s got one in his saddlebag, throws it on, goes back in. Buys a coke. Says thank ya ma’am and gets back up in the saddle and trots off again, across the 18. I watched him disappear into the desert.

Somewhere up there in the foothills he worked a herd of cattle. They were invisible. He was invisible. Maybe I dreamed up the whole thing. But I didn’t. He was there, alright, bowlegged and all. He always was there, if not him then cowboys just like him. Their herds ate up the springtime grass and come summer they drive them up to higher ground. It was just lately all this civilization popped up, filling in the lowlands with houses and Walmarts and cars. With people and sidewalks and police. Weird how you drop a megalopolis into a desert and it’s the desert dwellers that look strange. But they aren’t the ones.

I snapped out of it. We slipped back into traffic and drove off in air conditioned comfort past row after row of brand new houses, feeling as out of place as you can be.


* actually it’s between the more prosaic Victorville and Llano.