The loud rumpus of a heavy duty helicopter chugging over the craggy, blonde mountains to the north confronts the peaceful desolation of the desert. This disruption also alerts me to the fact that I have driven so far in silence. Most always a radio station is tuned in, or a favorite disc playing. Today the silence has been good to me, better even than, say, Van Morrison’s Moondance album, which I should slap myself for saying, but I cannot deny the truth. I have been focused on the world around me, and now distraction calls my name. R.L., a voice calls from the stereo, turn me on, listen to me. I tempt fate and break the silence.
I hit the search button each time a commercial comes on, and after five minutes I discover that a majority of the stations out here are, not surprisingly, Mexican music. I enjoy this style for its vibrant spirit, but I don’t listen long today as the desert seems to lend itself to rock and roll. I scan until Soundgarden’s Fell On Black Days comes through loud and clear. I can’t believe I didn’t bring any Doors discs with me. Jim Morrison and the desert go hand in hand. I almost expect to see Oliver Stone or the ghost of Mr. Mojo Risin’ himself wandering along this friendless, defenseless road. If I come upon a wreck with dead Indians I’m turning around and going home. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe Freddy Fender will serve the purpose.
Green is suddenly everywhere, and I am surrounded by stands of palms and irrigated rows of agriculture.
I change roads and direct my attention northward on Highway 86, my first four-lane blacktop since leaving the freeway almost five hours ago. 86 runs from El Centro in the south along the western shoreline of the Salton Sea, which is really an overgrown lake created by the damming of a portion of the Colorado River. From this enigmatic, landlocked sea blows a faint breeze, and with it floats the unmistakable sultry odor that announces the approximate presence of any large body of water in such a parched landscape. Even more sultry is the tractor-trailer loaded with mutton, all bleating and crying as it passes me on its way north for the slaughter, leaving me in its surly, effervescent wake. I am surprised I can still smell anything at all. My mucous has evolved from liquidy this morning in foggy San Diego to a sort of flaky, croissant texture here in the desert. The lack of humidity in the air forces me to drive the index finger of my gearshift hand up my singed nostrils in search of what I discover are non-existent boogers. For the next ten miles I am plagued by these phantom lugies, though I can still detect the sharp, sweet shore of the Salton, with its high mineral content and decomposing organic matter.
Green is suddenly everywhere, and I am surrounded by stands of palms and irrigated rows of agriculture. Vegetables rule here, handpicked by strong-backed, minimum-or-less wage workers who have migrated from southern lands to establish a more prosperous life here in the Land of Plenty. I follow a sign that points to Mecca, California, where I plan to find the junction that will point me to Joshua Tree National Park. The Santa Rosa Mountains tower to the west, and a snow-capped peak, probably Mt. San Jacinto west of Palm Springs, stands out over the northwest horizon thirty miles distant.
I pass Mecca, and realize I have missed my scheduled northeastern turn. I rest for a moment in the Post Office parking lot of the aptly named Thermal to gather my bearings and fill my body with some water from the canteen. The map offers little resolution, but I deduce that the answer lies somewhere in or around Mecca. I must now retrace my trail and return to the city. I take a breath and look around at the people coming and going. These are desert dwellers, dry, burned, and uniquely adapted to life in this harsh ecosystem. Most of the signs here are en espanol.
The road has changed to one step above a dirt track, and to a stranger’s eye like mine it is unmarked and nameless, just a way with no beginning or end or place on a map.
Retreading my path the Santa Rosas now look dark and ominous in the west, glowering in contrast to the islands of life green along the road . . . lush, irrigated grass beneath the palm rows accentuated by the mid-afternoon angle of the descending sun. I flip the radio to AM for kicks and happen upon a stuttering preacher who is barking about the Jews stoning Jesus, an appropriate sermon for such a rock-strewn community. I correct my navigational error at a crossroads and find myself on a route through downtown Mecca.
I pass Leon’s Other Place Groceria and more random, dusty, low-level buildings and dogs until I am out of town. Northeast of the settlement are rows of trellised grapevines stretching for a couple of miles under the desert sun. The bare, waist-high vines morph surrealistically into thousands of thorny crucifixes, a symbolism that suits the grapes, the Middle Eastern motif, and the stumbling radio preacher.
The road has changed to one step above a dirt track, and to a stranger’s eye like mine it is unmarked and nameless, just a way with no beginning or end or place on a map. I must follow my instincts back into the uninhabited wasteland, and pray I am on the path to Joshua Tree.
Some hombre driving a junk-filled Treasure truck ahead of me gets a wave and nod from a gringo coming the opposite direction, but sadly, once again, I am shut out. Is it my conspicuous vehicle? My unexplained presence that fuels their hesitancy to recognize my questionably warm how-do-you-do? To them I am as innominate as this road is to me. This sudden anonymity sends a chill up my neck. If I have no name, no method of definition, do I still exist? I begin to feel like an apparition with no anatomy, no material essence or significance. I need ratification, endorsement, just the briefest gesticulative parlance to convince my body that it is still here. Maybe it’s only my ego, Freud’s bodily ego, that desires the attention required for existence; and perhaps it’s my ego that is numbed by the lack of recognition, and covered with the same fine layer of dust that camouflages my material being, hiding it from human rapport, concealed by the epidermis of the planet.
Conversely, I feel I have shed myself, like a sidewinder’s skin, and peeled away a coat of acquisitions and worldly, manmade possessions that would otherwise give me status and a method of identification.
I feel as though I have begun my acceptance back into the Earth from which I rose.
This is the second in a series of eight excerpts from the chapbook “Spread Out Across the Lowering Sky” published last year by Sun Wolf Press and available for sale here for the first time.
Each edition is comb-bound and of very high quality. This is a limited edition; written, edited, designed, printed and constructed by R.L. Buss and Sun Wolf Press.
There are 20 copies now available from a first edition print run of 25. Each one will be signed and numbered by the author beginning with number 1. The edition is illustrated, and the book’s themes of journey, discovery, human awakening and acceptance as Buss travels from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park for the first time are rendered in the author’s wholly original voice.
If you decide to invest your hard earned money in this title you would be supporting both an independent writer and an independent publisher when you buy just one book. At the low price of $15, which includes domestic U.S. shipping right to your front door, you would be investing in the future of American Letters.
Please connect stating your interest, or return to read more excerpts in the near future.