Approx. 22 Hours in Joshua Tree

by Miranda Perry

My first time in the desert was like a dream.

It begins at Canter’s, where we wondered aloud if Locks of Love furnishes merkins, then dissolves and fades back in on the farthest stretch of the eastbound 210 on a spontaneous trip to Joshua Tree.

We speed through suburban decay, listening to our breath and the road and fuzzy AM radio that goes on and on about gunshot wounds and Jesus and sovereign living and snippets of some ancient foreign chant bleeding between each station.

The hour is too dark to see the bleak, scrubby palette of the Inland Empire. Everything is a vague outline coated in orange-black glow, a veil of light pollution as we speed through San Bernadino and pass alongside an Indian casino. Will cracks a window briefly. There is a smell in the air that we can’t quite place.

The hills guarding the desert are dotted with blinking red eyes. Giant elegant windmills, swooping asynchronously, vastly tall and silent. We can just see their shadowy outlines against the night.

Then suddenly it’s midnight and we’re driving on Highway 62. We stop at the Institute of Mentalphysics.

Then we’re inside a 24 Hour Wal-Mart as big as a city. It’s filled with rows upon rows of adult-sized fleece onesies. Of bullets they won’t sell after 10 PM. Of thick rubber bathmats adorned with all the noble beasts – wolf and bear and stag. Spirits of the forest waiting to be trod upon by fat wet feet.

We leave the Wal-Mart, just as we left the Institute of Mentalphysics, without buying anything.

We sleep at a Super 8 Motel that makes Marco nervous, where they serve watery coffee and cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next day. The cinnamon rolls are individually wrapped in Super 8-branded plastic and are beloved by large old men in NASCAR shirts.

At the edge of the Yucca Valley swap meet, there’s a large shack called Dakota Bob’s where they sell ranch hand boots and cowboy curios. The ceiling is corrugated tin, cut up in the back where live-oaks grow tall and dark and skinny.

There’s a cluster of broken pianos by the porch outside, leaning against each other for support. The keys have been stripped by wind and bleached by the unyielding sun. Will maneuvers around a splintery guard-rail and taps a few notes, strums the exposed wires. The discordant music rises with the desert heat.

Inside the shack, we meet Cathy. Cathy wears rainbow nursing scrubs with pictures of horses on them. She works at Dakota Bob’s and doesn’t have too many teeth left, but still she’s got one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen. At 62, she met the love of her life while nursing her dying mother in a trailer park in Lucerne Valley.

While her whole life story continues bubbling out like champagne, Cathy’s Love drops in to pick up the keys to the truck they share. He gives her a quick shy kiss and beams and dashes away again. He’s off to get the pump for his new saltwater fish tank, Cathy says.

We say goodbye to Cathy and wander the swap meet for a while. The air is ghosted with hot dust and mildew and cigarette smoke. Every kind of swap meet junk you could imagine is sweating on plaid blankets and old canvas tarps laid out in the sun.

Then the day takes us to an honest to god pancake jamboree at the International Crochet Museum.

A leathery woman in a prairie dress is flipping the pancakes on a wide griddle stove converted from an engine block while a man in patched overalls heaps fresh fruit onto a tray. There’s hot black coffee, too, and it tastes much better than Super 8’s. Someone drops a pancake and an old yellow dog scrabbles out from under the table to eat it.

We eat the pancakes and drink the coffee and get back into the car to follow Marco and Christy’s directions. Go south. Go east. Sail down the highway to Neptune Road. Turn at the sign for BAIL BONDS, 888-UN-CUFF-U. You will see hills. Take a short but twisty hiking trail at the base of the hills.

This leads us to one of the mysterious High Desert Test Sites, where I meditate inside a hand-crocheted blue teepee until a lonesome and persistent bumblebee decides to join me.

I step outside and listen to the wind. It eventually slows and eventually ceases and the silence burns your ears just as much as the sun burns your skin. Each step forward is deafening but the sand is surprisingly soft underfoot.

Ephemeral Joshua trees stand all around me, stretching long shadows toward the horizon. Marco and Christy are gone. Will is hidden among the boulders making music. Ahead of me, a single pale orange flower unfurls its blossoms to the sky.

I pick another direction and walk deeper into the desert.