|Hanging in the dessert with mon amore. Carlos and this writer.|
We had not been in Long Beach for eleven years. But the first few months of number two’s life took place there. For a while there, she had put in more time in California than New York, where she was born, just months before we left for Los Angeles for my first teaching job in 2006. I’ve long have a soft spot for Los Angeles that has only warmed over the years. On more than one pivotal occasion, the space opened up when other doors closed, offering me a place at Pitzer College in the Claremont Colleges in 1988 and my first tenure track teaching assignment at Cal State Long Beach in 2006. That year, we hit the road every weekend, sometimes to Big Sur or Malibu. Our favorite weekend get-away was 29 Palms Inn, located in an Oasis just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. We visited there three times that year, growing to love the dessert more and more each trip, seeing the beauty in the dessert flowers, the cactai, the resilient vegetation, and the critters that one gets to know on each trip On each trip we learned more, the kids growing more and more each trip. On one trip, the number one got a splinter an inch long, only letting me take it out when I bribed her with ice cream. On another, she chopped her hair short when I was asleep after the trip. During the days, we hiked and scamble through the otherworldly landscape. At night, we howled with the coyotes, enjoying a dinner at the pool in the old California inn. And this journey was no different. It just took us longer to get there.
After staying up all night the night before the trip, we flew to the loopy little Long Beach Airport and jumped in a rental car. It would be a two and a half hour trip to 29 Palms. The day light was bright and everyone was excited. First stop on any road trip through Southern California has to start with In and Out Burger. “Its so good I want to cry,” Rick Whitaker wrote, describing his first taste. Standing in line at an In and Out, just outside of Anaheim, kids have just finished baseball practice. And Carlos, who looks no older than twenty, walks up to greet us and ask if we’ve been here before. Yes, we tell him. He smiles and strolls away, walking back in a minute telling me about a burger they offer using the lettuce for a bun. He likes it when he doesn’t want all the bread. He is reading my mind. One of the things I love about Southern California is now nice everyone is. Everyone has dialed it down just a little more than NYC, much more laid back.
There problems with Southern California are certainly many. Car culture being the worst of these problems. And that’s a big problem. But it’s a relief to be back in Jerry Brown’s California where they curb emissions on cars, acknowledge climate change, and tax billionaires. Today, California has a budget surplus because of this simple policy. If only NYC embraced a similar ethos?
Further and further East we drive on highway 62 out to 29 Palms. We see gun shops and liquor stores, country stores, small inns, shut doors, thrift shops, loopsy southern California bowling alleys with 1950’s signs in disrepair, and cactai. A few Joshua Trees begin to appear in the dessert as the space starts to feels dried and more arid.
After three hours, we make it to 29 Palms. It feels like homecoming. We pull on our bathing suits and hit the pool, swimming and swimming into the evening. The coyotes howl at the full moon in the distance. I read stories about a daylong hike that becomes a weeklong fight against death, with references to Charles Bukowski and Clifton’s Cafeteria in Downtown LA, feeling glad to put the time I put in here, exploring loopy southern California in between other voyages over the last three decades, coming back and feeling like its kindov a home. I dream vividly, the dessert outside in the distance, lit by the moon. Dreams expand and expand, as I move further inside my consciousness feeling a part of everything.
The next two days, we spend lounging at the pool and exploring the national park, taking a four hour hike and picnic on Sunday, a shorter rock scramble on Monday. The landscape feels like a per or even post apocalyptic space, stimulating pop culture memories of star trek episodes, movies and a landscape that feels both desolate and full of life, like what the moon must feel like and ourselves. I imagine running into Carlos Casteneda, meeting Don Juan when he was an anthropology graduate students.
Our first hike was through Lucky Jim, a train the ranger recommended. Walking out into the dessert one is immediately aware that this is a formidable landscape. Respect nature, my summer camp counselors always advised. Bring water, a map, and a compass. Keep your hands out of dark crevices, warns the map the ranger gave us. We have phones which probably won’t work, and a snack from the bar. Alternately taken by the land and fearful, the heat of the day grips us. It gets hotter and hotter as we walk, following the markings on the loop. The heat drains us. We drink and walk and imagine. It feels like the land that time forgot, the earth as a work of art.
Danger and beauty are palpable here. It’s the most majestic of sights I have ever seen.