The Road To Zzyzx And Down The Boulevard Of Dreams

BlvdDreams

I wrote a version of this post several days ago, before I went to this Place of Healing, before I walked along the Boulevard of Dreams.   After the visit, I deleted most of what I had written…and began again.

Yes, I began again when I made the right turn off I-15 and took the road to Zzyzx.  I was taking a drive that thousands of people took, from the mid-1940’s until 1974.  Me? I was going to write about arriving at a ghost town of a health spa, a place of healing.  I was going to describe how I felt the need to wash away the sins of my youth and expunge the guilt of my impure and sin-laden thoughts.  I am Irish and raised a Catholic…I carried my guilt like a biker’s tattoo.  I find the idea of “cleansing” of body and soul, an interesting concept.  The ritual of washing away impurities and rebirth is a very ancient practice.  The Christians have Baptism and the River Jordan.  The Hindu have the Ganges River.  The Native American’s have the sweat lodge.  The Jewish people, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, gather for the Tashlich, and symbolically cast pieces of bread into flowing water to atone for transgressions.  As a former teacher, I simply erased the chalk board to begin something new.

But, my problems were not the kind that would draw me to this mecca in the emptiness of the Mojave Desert, to be cured of my aliments by a supposed man of God, a self-described healer.

Preachers and healers, hucksters and quacks, gurus, life guides and snake-oil salesmen have fascinated me for a long time.  I sometimes wish I lived in the days of Billy Sunday or Aimee Semple McPherson.  I wanted to hear the real Bible-thumpers who, sweating and strutting on a wooden stage under a circus tent, would tell me that Satan had my soul and my impure thoughts would send my soul to bake and fry for all time.

I accepted this guilt/burden for many years.  But, I never fully understood, until I was well into middle age, that instead of being a path to freedom, those kinds of beliefs can keep you from growing in countless ways.

After a bumpy ride along a blinding white salt flat called Soda Lake, I saw the palms a few miles away.  This was Zzyzx.  This was my destination.

This location, in the heart of the Mojave Desert has been providing water for travelers for over a thousand years.  The indigenous people would stop here on their journey across the desert to fill their gourds and rest.  One Chemehuevi woman is thought to be buried here.

blvdofDreams

But something troubled me.  I was merely a tourist here.  I arrived with a notebook and two digital cameras.  I did not arrive the way that most people did, for several decades, clutching a Bible in their hands and a prayer in their hearts…and a tumor or a case of TB or nervous exhaustion or a void where their soul used to be.

I needed to rethink the reason for my pilgrimage.  I needed to get inside the mindset of a true believer…a true sufferer…a desperate human being hoping to get mind and body repaired.  I didn’t want to be a mere tourist…I wanted to feel the dread of fear and the elation of hope that the pilgrims of the mid-century, had experienced.

I had to get imaginative…I had to get creative…I had to invite into my heart and mind, the suffering of thousands.

These were the real people who came, praying for their own lives or the lives of a loved one.  For many, I’m sure that making the journey to this health resort with the strange name, was their last hope for a cure or a blessing from the founder, Curtis Howe Springer.

RoadSignZzyzx

He named his establishment Zzyzx Mineral Springs. Why Zzyzx?  The story is that he chose the name because it would be the last word on a list of geographical destinations. Is it the last word in the average dictionary? Not in my copy of Merriam-Webster. The last word in my book is zygote.

They heard Springers voice on the AM radio station, broadcasting out of Mexico with 50,000 watts of power.  The sick and the lame could hear him in Los Angeles.  You could hear him in Chicago.  You could even hear his reassuring voice in Bangor, Maine.

The main avenue leading to the bath houses, cabins, meeting room, dining hall was the Boulevard of Dreams.  I stood at the base of the sign and began the walk, past the old pond that once had a spraying fountain.  Now, the fountain was a mere pile of rocks.

PondZ

[The Pond with the broken fountain]

blvdofDreams

[The Boulevard of Dreams]

I let my mind drift back to 1953, or 1959, or the year I was born, 1947.  I put myself in the mind of a pilgrim seeking a cure.  Maybe my mother was seriously ill, perhaps my wife had a growth in her breast, possibly my father returned from the war in Europe with a changed mind.  I began to feel the power of hope.  What lay ahead of me, the baths, the healing waters, the relaxation…the great white plain of Soda Lake, blinding in its glare from the Mojave sun…what lay ahead of me would save me or someone I did not want to lose to the shadow of death.

OriginalRooms

[One of the many original apartments…now in ruins]

Hidden behind a grove of palm trees was the original bathhouse.  Everything was empty…cracked and broken cement and peeling adobe.  I stood over the individual “tubs” where the ill could soak themselves in the briny solution of desert minerals.

MineralBaths

[The old mineral baths]

I poked about the old buildings.  Some structures have been restored and are now part of a Desert Studies facility of the University of California.  A few students strolled past us and went onto the parking lot, got into a black Taurus, and drove away.  Now, Mariam and I were the only people in the area.  I stopped at an old table on the Boulevard and looked up at the old bell tower.  I assume this once rang to call the patients and guests to prayer or a meeting or to a meal.

BellTower

[The bell tower.  Original part of the structure..??]

Were we really the only presence here?  I began to feel that we were not totally alone.  I felt that the ghosts of patients and preachers, children and adults, the sane and the insane, were walking among the palms alongside us.

No, we were not alone here.  Too much energy, pain, prayer, hope, loss, death, disease, promises, disappointments, grief and joy dwelt along the Boulevard of Dreams.

We drove away, leaving the little settlement to the rightful residents…the spirits of those who came with only a plea for life.

 

 

 

The Snow Moon Over The Mojave

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Last night the Snow Moon rose over the Coxcomb Mountains of the Mojave Desert.  It’s the fifth full moon we have watched since our journey began

There will be one more to witness before we are home again.  Will we see the Warm Moon from where ever we will be in the third week of March?  I’ll bet a finback that it will be a cloudy night.

That’s the reason I miss so many celestial events like meteor showers, aurora and eclipses back home in the Adirondacks.  Cloud cover is a way of life when you enter the states east of the Mississippi River.

Out here, in the dry clear air of the Southwest, the skies have been spectacular.

But, my pleasure is mixed.  I feel enchanted and mystical when the full moon is lighting my night-time environment in the soft glow of paleness…like a lingering campfire or night-light that is bright enough, just enough, to illuminate a book or allow me to walk without a headlamp.

This post is celebrating the full moon, but I should be writing one, in two weeks, that speaks to the awesome and dazzling population of stars and planets that a desert sky displays on nights that are moonless.

Last night, I could barely make out the belt of Orion.  I could hardly see the Milky Way…but I could read a poem.

Last night, the giant globe passed by Jupiter (which sits near one of the feet of Leo) and rose high and proud.  The goddess Luna, was strutting her stuff and her act could make you halt in your steps and look up…look up and think sublime ideas.  Think romantic thoughts, poetic phrases and sad memories.  Sit on a rock and look up, look around you, look inside your mind and soul.  Remember someone you loved once…or still do.

I have had many conversations with Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon.  Sometimes she sends her Greek sister, Selene to sit with me and talk of melancholy things.  I’ve been reminded that I’ve been alive for approximately  825 full moons in my life…and I still don’t fully understand how the human heart works and why it’s so fragile and why the moon plays such an important role in our thoughts and beliefs.

I think I need another several hundred lunar cycles to fill in the gaps of my own nature.

“Drink in the full moon as though you might die of thirst.”

–Sanoben Khan

 

 

 

 

The Existential Questions Of A Cactus

RedBarrelCactus

One afternoon in a desert full of Joshua trees…

A vulture makes lazy circles in the warm air, riding the thermals and keeping an eye on the slow-moving Bighorn sheep, hoping in his vulture heart that the animal was sick and would soon die in the maze of weathered rocks far below

A rattlesnake moved slowly between the shade of a split rock, keeping a close eye on a desert rat.  One quick strike was all he needed and a meal would be secure.

And, about twenty feet from a trail, a California Red Barrel cactus had an original  thought for the very first time…

I want to be touched, caressed…maybe even given a little water…maybe a little attention.  But, I know that can never be.  I’m aware of how I look.  I know I can hurt anything that comes too close.  I’ve seen others like me on the far hillside.  They’re never touched either.  No one dares come close because I have defenses that will severely injure anything trying to eat me.

Thorn

I have thorns that can measure seven inches.  My thorns are as unforgiving as the July heat or the lack of water on any given day.  I could probably kill anyone who approaches.  But, I can’t strike out and inject venom like a viper.  I can’t bite an artery to end the life of a mountain goat.  I am destined to stay where I sent down roots.  I am immobile.  I can only grow my slow way toward the blue sky.  I can’t do anything else.  My tender core of green flesh is protected by a nest of these thorns as sharp as anything can be.  The tip of my spike ends at nothing…it just ends, waiting to puncture a finger, a lip, a paw or a thin slice of flesh.

red barrel cactus

[Source: Wikipedia]

Which makes me wonder why I am here at all?  What is my role in life?  When I bloom in early summer, a few buds of my flowers may feed a small animal.  Beyond that, I am food for no living thing.  I simply take a little bit of moisture and a few minerals from the sand…and I just exist.  My purpose in existing is to protect myself.  I can’t do anything to attract a mate for reproduction.  The most I can contribute is to allow a desert rat to nibble on a tiny flower bud and pass my seed with its feces.  My seed will be deposited somewhere and my children will take root…never knowing their ancestors.

I see humans walk past me on the nearby trail.  Sometimes they are holding hands and then they stop and put their mouths together.  Sometimes, they walk well away from the trail and lay together.

Sometimes a human walks past me…alone.  I know what alone means.  I wonder if their aloneness is by choice or are they wondering what happened to the one they once loved and thought they were loved in return?

I wonder if I can ever be loved?  Why would any living thing love me…I who have put up so many defenses?

What’s there to love?  Can I be loved for just being?  Just existing?  Just being a part of a beautiful landscape?

For all my spines, sometimes I am the only color to be seen in a land of brown rocks.  Wait!  I can’t forget the intense blue sky above me.  And, I can’t forget the billions of stars at night.

I can’t forget the bright moon or the dust of the rock crystals I am rooted in.

I can’t forget the rare raindrops that land on me and are pierced through by my spines.

Maybe the drop of rain loves me and that’s how I get touched by something?

 

Room # 8

There was an old man, kind and wise with age

And he read me just like a book and he never missed a page

And I loved him like my father and I loved him like my friend

And, I knew his time would shortly come but I did not know just when…

–Gram Parsons “In My Hour of Darkness”

We were driving a little slower than anyone else on that clear cool Friday afternoon.  It wasn’t because we were pulling the r-Pod, although that didn’t help matter very much…no, we had a destination.  I wanted to see where a man died and I didn’t want to miss a turn.

But, we did just that, in a manner.

“There it is,” said Mariam.  “The Joshua Tree Inn.”

It took me another ten minutes to find a way to make a u-turn and pull into the crescent-shaped drive way.  The Inn stood close by Highway 62.  We were on our way to the next stop in our journey, Twentynine Palms, California.

But, first I wanted to see where a man died.

The front door was locked.  I peered into the window. No one was behind the desk.  To my left, I saw an open gate.  I boldly walked into the courtyard expecting to be stopped by a clerk or manager.

OfficeJoshuaTreeInn

“Are you staying here?”

I was waiting for that question, but it never came.  There wasn’t anyone around.  I opened a door that had a sign stating that it should be kept locked at all times.  Inside was a charming sitting room.  Comfy chairs and a few tables.  In the courtyard, cacti grew.  A fire pit had a ring of chairs…waiting for a night-time fire and stories and legends and ghosts.

Yes, this Inn is reputed to be haunted.  I wouldn’t be staying the night so I wouldn’t know who or what spirit resides here.  I spotted room # 1.  I continued along the tiled walkway, reading the numbers as I went.

I stopped in front of Room # 8.  This was the place.  This was the room where the legendary Gram Parsons put enough morphine and alcohol into his system to kill three men.

FromGardenMemorialTo Room8

Keith Richards commented that Gram knew very well the dangers of mixing opiates and alcohol (Keith should know, they both hung out and got high in the late ’60’s).  Friends said he simply miscalculated the dosage and failed to realize the potency of the mix.

He also failed to wake up.  He died at the Hi-Desert Medical Center just after midnight, on September 19, 1973.

I mentioned that he was “legendary”, but he never achieved the fame and success of those he worked alongside.  He was one of the Byrds (not officially, however) and he hung out with the Rolling Stones when they were recording “Exile on Main Street” in the south of France.  He co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Chris Hillman).  He toured with Emmylou Harris (who continues to sing his songs when she tours).

He was “legendary” in the sense that he put country music into an entirely new realm.  His recording output was “minimal” according to most sources.

But, his spirit lives on in contemporary music.  Films have been made about him.  Books have been written.  Tributes are made.

He didn’t live long enough to see his career flourish…he seemed to be on the verge of some success when he and some friends headed to the Joshua Tree Inn that day in September of 1973.  He loved this desert and wanted to retreat here before starting a tour.  He was only 26 years old, missing his place in the “27 Club” by a year.

Gram Parsons had long declared his desire to be cremated at his death.  He had his wish…as a result of a bizarre and controversial effort on the part of his friends.  I won’t go into details except to say that his body was stolen from LAX before the remains could be flown back to New Orleans.  He was taken to a place in what is now Joshua Tree National Park, placed on a small hill, and his casket filled with three gallons of gasoline.

With the strike of a match his dream came true…so did the police.  You’ll have to check Wikipedia for the grisly details of the outcome of that well-meaning adventure.

I stood in the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn and looked at his memorial.  I thought of the early days of Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris…before they gated it off from fans.

GuitarMemorial

Here, items were left in bowls and jars.  I saw two violin bows.  I put a shiny penny into one of the dishes that was filled with coins.  A large slab in the shape of a guitar stood before Room #8 like a tombstone.  Four clay figures that stood about a foot tall, were placed across the courtyard.  In the scrubs behind the figures was a white stone that read: All Things Are Possible Through God.

4Figures

I thought about what little I knew of this man’s life.  The suicide of his father when Gram was twelve years old.  His little sister drinking herself to death.

I thought of his substance abuse…his doomed attempts to keep his demons at bay.

I said a quiet little “thank you” to Gram Parsons for the songs he left us.  I am grateful to my son-in-law, Bob Goldstein, who brought Parsons back into my life with the comment: “Oh, you would loves Gram Parsons if you like Townes Van Zandt”.  I’ve purchased “Grievous Angel” on iTunes and I intend to listen to his words tonight…under a nearly full moon and in the chilly desert air.

The air of night…about fourteen miles from the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons took his final breath before vanishing into the desert he loved.

Gram_Parsons

[Parsons in 1972. He had a year to live. Source: Wikipedia]

Her comb still lies beside my bed

And the sun comes up without her

It just doesn’t know she’s gone

Oh, but I remember everything she said.

–Gram Parsons “Brass Buttons”

The End Of The Line

PalmDesertSunset

Like, wow…I can’t believe we’re in California.

What a magical and special state this is.  It’s no wonder that all the famous people live here.  It’s the “land of opportunity”, where an anybody like me can become a somebody like…George Clooney.  We weren’t here an hour when I drove to a service station to get a bag of ice and fill the tank.  On a whim, I bought two $2.00 scratch-off lottery tickets.  Would you believe I won $25.00 from those two tickets?  I was elated and felt that my time had come, until I paid for the gas.  When we filled up the tank one afternoon back in Tucson, AZ, it cost me $1.43/gal.  I nearly spilled my Starbucks Latte when I saw the California price (at this particular station) was $2.79/gal.  I thought there were oil wells out here??  I think I saw a Clark Gable movie once and he got soaked from the gushing crude from a well.

Maybe that was Texas…I can’t remember.

lottery

[This probably isn’t legal to post winning lottery tickets online, but I’m from New York…]

This is as far west as our journey is taking us.  If you’re a faithful reader and you’ve paid attention and taken notes, pick up that Rand McNally Atlas that’s sitting on your coffee table…the one with coffee stains and rings left by the condensation of the Bud Lite cans during the Super Bowl.  Turn to page 15 (I’m using the 2013 edition).  We are at the Emerald RV Resort located on the map page at coordinates “15/SJ”.

I feel so…so important being here in the Golden State.  Our RV Resort is located on Frank Sinatra Drive, which is separated from Dinah Shore Drive by Gerald Ford Drive.  (If you don’t believe all this, just Google this place).

We had a long hard drive behind us today.  We left Yuma in the late morning warmth of 88 F.  We sped past the western part of the city and I glanced at the Yuma Territorial Prison…the topic of my last blog.  Ok, maybe misery, murder, death and forgotten graves may not have been the best choice for a Valentine’s Day post, but we were having WiFi issues and I needed to get something out before things got worse.  Note to those planning on RV’ing any serious distance all: Whatever the Resort tells you about how strong their signal is, don’t believe it.  There are some days you can forget email…you’d be better off mailing a letter through the USPS.  Nearly all my posts were composed and posted from Starbucks or McDonald’s (say what you want about the Double Cheese Macs, their WiFi smokes!).

We attended a real rodeo while we were in Yuma and I intended to write something about how excited I was to finally see one in person, for real.  I have to admit that it was impressive.  I’m including a few photos just to prove that we were really there.

RodeoYuma2

[This guy rode like the wind.]

MissSonoranDeserts

[In case you’re confused: The Happy Camper is on the left and the bored Miss Sonoran Deserts Queen is on the right.]

RodeoYuma1

[Woman rider]

Just across the California-Arizona state line were the Imperial Sand Dunes.  I parked in a kind of base camp for the dune buggy people.  I took a picture of one of the beautiful dunes and made it even more stark and raw by filtering it through my Instagram app.

B:WImperialDunes

[A lonely bush in the Imperial Sand Dune National Recreational Area]

After a few miles along I-8, we turned north on Rte. 86 and drove through some of the agricultural (and highly irrigated) parts of Southern California.  We passed truck loads of carrots, groves of date palms and vineyards.  I also caught glimpses of the smiling happy faces of the migrant workers as they leisurely picked cabbage and turnips.  They were so fortunate to have such jobs, out in the open fresh air, getting a tan…instead of being stuck inside some awful office building or factory.  I was tempted to stop and pick a bushel or two just to get the exercise, but we had places to go and I couldn’t see any convenient parking places.

So, is this the end of our trip?  Have we reached the farthest point from our home?  Well, no and yes.  The eastern slopes of the Rockies are still between us and home.  The prairies of Kansas are still ahead of us. (The last state in the Lower 48 I have yet to visit).  We still have to get home…and there is a place I must visit.  It’s not far from here and it is the magical and mythical destination of the trip…for me, anyway.

I’ve been dropping hints about this place since I first started posting these blogs.  It’s a real place.  Thousands of people came there to get healed…to get clean…to wash away sins, ancient and recent, that have darkened souls that were pure as snow at birth.

Water has been a healer for thousands of years.  Spas and hot springs have saved the lives and repaired the souls of countless individuals.

Now, it’s my turn.  Sometime next week, I will arrive at this strange place that has a strange name…and see if anything remains of the healing waters of seventy-five years ago.

Will I find sage and tumble weed and cracked concrete in the old pools.   Or, will the ghosts of those who came to find succor still roam about in the weedy driveways and dying palms?  If the spirits are walking around the now-empty fountain, will they take a moment to tell me their stories?

I’ll tell them mine.

Unfortunate Souls

UnfortunateSoulsPlaque

One afternoon, in the late 19th Century, the fifteen year old brother of Maria Moreno complained about the way she was dancing.  She got angry.  His response was to say: “So, shoot me.”  Maria, who was sixteen went into her house and brought her father’s rifle.  She shot and killed her brother.  He should have let her dance anyway she wanted.  Maria was convicted and sentenced to the Yuma Territorial Prison.

One evening, again the late 19th Century, Elera Estrada, found out that her lover was being unfaithful.  She cut his heart out and threw it in his face.  She claimed in court that he fell onto her knife.  The jury didn’t buy her story.  Elvira was sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison.  Excuse the graphic description, I’m just writing about what I read.

EleraEstrada

[Not your everyday crime]

ElviraEstrada

[An everyday crime]

On Saturday, February 13, I parked our red Ford Escape and Mariam and I paid a small fee to tour the few buildings that was all that remained of the infamous prison.  I tried to imagine what a newly convicted person would feel like when we entered.

They would not have passed through a gift shop that carried hand lotions, lip balm, dream-catchers (made in China), post cards and books of the Wicked Women and Outlaws of the Old West.

They would not have entered a courtyard that was planted with blooming flowers and palm trees.  Inside the museum, there were display cases exhibiting the stories of the more colorful and interesting inmates.

There was a photo and story of Pearl Hart, a misguided train robber who teamed up with a guy named Boot.  They robbed one train and took away $421 in loot.  Both were captured and sent to different prisons.  Boot escaped and disappeared from the history books.  Hart went on to try her hand at acting.  She failed at that as well.  Her revolver was on display behind glass.

PearlHart

[Pearl tried her hand on the New York stage.]

This must have been a dismal place to serve time.  The cells, each holding six inmates must have been unbearably hot…Yuma is a very hot city.

There was the solitary confinement called the Dark Cell.  One poor soul spent 120 days in this room without light.  He emerged a “model prisoner” and never gave anyone any trouble after that.  My guess is that he had lost much of his reason inside this hellish enclosure.  That’s just my guess.

DarkHole

[The Dark Cell]

I tried to write down the names of the unfortunate souls who committed a crime, some hideous, like murder, and some that are not serious enough to require incarceration, like adultery.  I tried to look into the eyes of these men and women who suffered for what they did.  If you’re a religious person, consider that they paid twice for their sins, once in Yuma and again in Hell.  The two were the same if you looked deep enough into the eyes…those dark, wet, frightening, scared and pitiful eyes.  The eyes of people like Barney K. Riggs, Trinidad Verdugo, Henry Wilson, Donald Waters, Daniel Morin, R.L. McDonald, Jennie McCleary, Georgie Clifford, Pearl Hart and Frank Leslie.  There were too many to write down…too many to remember.

FrankLeslie

[A woman wrote to him while he was in prison. They married.]

The prison was opened in 1876.  The first inmate was William Hall.  In 1889, Manuel Fimbres gave birth to a child while a prisoner.  In 1899, Pearl Hart was behind bars.

The prison closed in 1909.

I stood in the court-yard and tried to imagine the conditions…but it just didn’t get inside me.  Nearby, the truck traffic on I-8 drowned out any chance for quiet reflection.  A lot of traffic was crossing the Colorado River (what’s left of it) in and out of California.  On a nearby hill was a casino.  A bike path wound its way alongside the river.  The parking lot was half-filled with SUV’s…most with out-of-state plates.  Ours was one of them, easy to spot because of the two bikes mounted on the roof.

We drove down a small road (perhaps a hundred yards) and walked to the Old Prison Cemetery. Here are 104 small mounds, most are covered with rocks.  None are marked. These are the unfortunate souls who died up on the hill, inside the stone walls, of Tuberculosis, snake bites, murder, suicide and executions.

I stood and took a photo, noticing my shadow falling across the graves.  I looked to my right and noticed my car with the bikes, sitting in the hot sun…alone.  There were no visitors to this part of the prison exhibits.  I wondered if anyone ever came here to visit a distant descendant, take a pebble as a souvenir, read the plaque, swat the flies, apply SPF or to mumble a prayer for these unfortunate souls whose bones mixed with the sand and dust beneath the baked rocks.

MyShadowonGraves

[The Prison Cemetery]

CarAtGraveyardYuma

[In the distance: A Ford Escape. Irony?]

There certainly was death beneath my feet, but there was also death in the eyes of those in the haunting photographs.  Those eyes.  Look at those eyes.

For a moment, they were forced to look at a camera…and in a sense into a society they mostly rejected.

But, for whatever despicable deed they committed, it occurred to me that each of them was born of a woman who loved them, for however briefly, before they grew up and found out what terror life can hold.

For a short time, they were fortunate souls.

 

 

The Big Empty: Where Nothing Is Everything

YumaFoothills

If you have a mind to go someplace where you can think without distraction, pray without a preacher, sin without a society to judge, see the night sky in its true black star-filled glory, see a snake, an ant, a spider or a bird…then come to The Big Empty.  One thing you may not see, is another human, perhaps for days at a time…unless that person is seeking what you are seeking.

Solitude.

I’m on a road trip.  I’m only passing through this odd and bewildering moonscape of the desert Southwest.  We were driving from Tucson to Yuma along I-8.  I had a vague idea about the land we were traveling through.  That’s unusual for me, normally I like to prepare my self…immerse myself in the country I will be sleeping and walking in.  I had finally obtained a copy of American Nomads by Richard Grant.  This amazing book is a history, as the cover states, of travels with mountain men, cowboys, Indians, hoboes and truckers.  I was learning as I went, a page ahead or a page or two too late.

We stopped at one of the few gas stations on this section of I-8.  I looked around.  I saw the closest thing to nothing I had seen in my two cross-country road trips.  I wandered a few hundred yards through the sage and sand and scrub brush.  It was early February, so I had little chance of dropping from dehydration and heat stroke.  I’m Irish.  I’m prone to heat strokes when the mercury climbs above 81 F.  I drink plenty of water as a rule of life.  When I was a teacher, I constantly sipped from my Poland Springs bottle to keep my throat wet and prevent that Bill Clinton raspiness.

I stood and looked at the blue and gray mountains in the distance.  I turned a full circle.  In nearly all directions, there were mountains.  Before I left the car, I had seen that I was on the edge of the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range.  The town we had just passed was Gila Bend.  The last sign I saw was Dateland.  (It sounded like the name of a 1962 Roller Rink).  But, here I was alone.

Truly alone.  I thought about whether or not I could live in an RV out here.  Bottled water.  An outdoor privy.  The constant awareness of snakes (I don’t do snakes, if I haven’t mentioned that before).

Mariam was back in a cool diner, sipping coffee and checking her email.  Oddly, the WiFi signal was strong out here…out here in The Big Empty.  (It must be because of all the military installations in this part of the country.  Why else erect towers to serve the twenty-seven people who made their homes out here?

I closed my eyes and tried to feel the emptiness of this Great Void.  I heard the distant trucks on the highway.  But, filtering that out, there was…nothing.

It was almost like being lost at sea.  A survivor sits in a life boat and floats, thinking they can be seen, visible and blatant, like a circus balloon, from a rescue plane flying 1,000 feet above the water.  But, in reality, they are a mere ripple, a white cap, a dark splotch in a vast expanse of blue.

I tried to imagine myself lost out here in The Big Empty…I tried to see myself from above.  High above, where the planes and helicopters flew, and I realized I would be mistaken for a dead cactus or a thick sage brush.  No, I was only visible to the Ancient Gods of the Desert, the spirits of the Hopi, the Comanche, the Apache…the Mother Goddess of the Earth.  I was nothing to any human…out there.  To paraphrase Dylan, I could die out there and be just another accident statistic.

What I felt was humbling without being degrading.  It was similar to the feelings I get when I stand in the nave of a Gothic cathedral, like Salisbury or Winchester.

Out in The Big Empty you’re nothing and you’re everything.  In those few minutes I was alone, I understood more clearly the Native Americans relationship with Nature and the totems, spirit guides and memories of the Ancients.  You mean little to the land itself, but your respect and reverence to the sand and burnt rocks, means a great deal to the gods that oversee the wanderings of a mere mortal.

It is a land that doesn’t allow for ego.  Ego can kill you in a place like Yuma, where the average yearly rainfall is 3.36″.  Ego can kill you when the average temperature in July is 107 F.

If, when you read these words, you find that I have not described the land in proper clarity, then do yourself a favor.  Don’t go to a prayer-book and read about the Sinai Desert.  Open an atlas of the United States and find the pages that cover west Arizona and Southern California.  Run you fingers along the blue line of the Colorado River.  Trace the Smoke Tree Wash.  Locate the Mohawk Valley, the Castle Dome Plain, the Chocolate Mountains, the Kofa Mountains, the Gila Mountains, the Yuma Desert and the Picacho Peak Wilderness.  Say these names out loud, like chanting a prayer or reading a poem.

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Something evocative will happen.  You don’t have to be standing in the sand to feel this ancient earth and hear the ghosts ride behind you.  Another amazing thought: All of you who read this, at one time sat in a classroom that was covered by a map of the United States, all 48 of them (back in the 1950’s).  I confess that I would let the nun’s lesson on the past participles fade away while I roamed the map…I knew the coasts, the odd finger of Florida, the large blue oddly shaped Great Lakes, the Great Divider of the Mississippi River…but I never paid a lot of attention to that lower left corner of the map.  I did read the names of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico but they were simply “out west” somewhere.  In that land of the cactus and Indians.  My greatest possession as a child was a rotating night-light.  It had a western scene of Saguaro and cowboys chasing Indians.  Skulls of Long-Horned steer.  Coiled snakes.  The heat of the light bulb would pass through a louvered top and the convection would make the illustrated plastic scenery spin slowly around my room. I fell asleep every night of my childhood to that scene…the specters circling my room like a dervish.  These lamps are very hard to find these days.  Couple that drama played out on my bedroom wall, with the night train passing through Owego, NY on its way to Chicago or New York City, the clicking and clacking of the steel wheels on the seams of the rails…is it a wonder that right now I feel like I’m living in a childhood dream?

It’s a land of contradictions.  It’s imaginary and dreamy, but it’s as real as a sunburn or a grain of wind-blown dust in your eye.

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