Bob emerged from the kitchen of the Sky Valley Swap Meet café, smiling with what few teeth remained in his gums, long white whiskers exploding from his chin in all directions. This wizardly cowboy could have been 70 or 700 years old, it was hard to tell.
"Would you like to see my crystal cave?" he asked me.
In my six months living there, I had come to realize that all things are possible in the desert. As such, it came as no surprise to me that Bob would have a crystal cave. Of course he had a crystal cave. I imagined it tucked in the deep desert, glowing in a forgotten corner of the National Park, some mystical cavern containing super-charged gems, shiny enough to make an old man's eyes sparkle the way Bob's did. There are enough undiscovered boulder gardens, enough dirt roads named after stars and planets, enough lonely land parcels whose only living inhabitants are whooping coyotes and nervous cottontail rabbits; enough room among all of that for a 21st century sorcerer like Bob to have a real-life crystal cave to call his own.
Before I could answer him, Bob scuttled away like a spider and his wife, Elizabeth, gave me a sausage and some coffee from a jug. I sat down and looked around the café. Small booths lined with blue leather along the walls, decorated with a huge mural showing boulders and waterfalls and wild desert flowers and blue skies that stretched above my head, all over the ceiling. Golden oldie hits and country music piped from an ancient Tannoi system and I imagined the café as the setting for a David Lynch movie, with Bob in a small but significant supporting role. With his neatly pressed dark blue Wrangler jeans, red and white gingham shirt, fedora hat and belt buckle studded with cracked blue chrysocolla stones, Bob is undeniably photogenic.
"We have had film crews stopping by," said Elizabeth, showing me photos of Bob with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and chef Anthony Bourdain. "They had called saying they wanted to come and film here and you know people are always saying one thing and doing another so we didn't think much of it until they showed up," she said. I handed over a $5 bill for my coffee and sausage, but she waved me away. "Next time."
It was my first time at the Sky Valley Swap Meet, and between Bob, his promise of a crystal cave, and a free sausage, I was impressed. Even though I had arrived late.
"Going after 9 a.m. is pointless," chided my landlord, whose number had popped up on my iPhone as I was parking. "No bargains. You should just turn around and go home."
I thought about it for a second.
"Oh, I'm sure I'll find something."
When you drive east along the State Route 62 through Yucca Valley toward Joshua Tree you can see the sign for the old Sky Valley drive-thru movie theatre that is now the site of the flea market. There are no movies shown any more, its marquee advertising "medicine men" and "junk to gems" instead. This whole stretch of the 62 is lined with junk, medicine men and gems, none too polished. For climbers and campers, it's a route to the eerie magic of Joshua Tree National Park; for music lovers it's the road off the 10 freeway that takes you to the turn-off for Pappy and Harriet's, the only good venue for miles. For antiquers, it's the little slice of thrifting heaven dotted with stores like Tamma's Magic Mercantile, where you can find an old hand-crank gramophone complete with needles half as many dollars as you'd have to pay in the city. There's also a Wal-Mart and a Donut Shop and a 24-hour Del Taco and a bowling alley and an airstrip and the infamous Wine and Roses dive where Gram Parsons used to drink and a park filled with white statues of Jesus Christ and tire alignment shops and kids waving arrow advertisements like fools in the all-penetrating heat.
White crucifixes and flowers fringe the roadside too; last November I saw a woman in sweatpants and a tee-shirt trying to cross the street as twilight fell, her swaying 50-something frame caught in silhouette 100 yards ahead of me in the middle of the road. She looked confused and I knew she had about five seconds before some part of her was transmuted into an etheric plane where she would meet up with Michael Jackson, her Viking ancestors, St. Germain and the rest of them. Clipped by a passing wing mirror, she was flung on to her back; I pulled over to try and do something but seconds later a couple cars drove straight over the woman, her body an unfortunate speed bump in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Don't look," screamed my friend who had hopped out of the passenger seat; of course, I looked. Somehow her Reeboks had been flung quite far from where she lay. People are always getting fucked up crossing the 62, I learned. Desert Rule Number 1: Always find a crosswalk, no matter how badly you need cigarettes.
By now I had finished my sausage and I was ready to see the cave.
How long does it take to drive there, I asked Bob's wife. I was wearing platform heels and a black dress, and was inappropriately attired for spelunking, or rowing through moody cenotes.
Bob re-emerged. "It's right here," he said.
Somehow, while roaming the 5-acre shanty town that is the Sky Valley Swap Meet, I had managed to miss an entire crystal cave among the blue tarps and knick-knacks. I silently berated my shoddy observational skills while Bob talked about God and how when the desert calls you, you should answer, because the desert will show you your purpose. The Crystal Cave was his.
We traversed Bob's collection of motorcycles, a life-size iron horse, and a 6 foot tall decorative chicken nesting among the ocotillos. A few vendors remained, packing up their wares. Bob pulled some keys from his pocket. In front of us was a blobby amorphous structure, something Gandalf might have felt at home in, its brown lumpy exterior resembling the bark of an enchanted tree. Small portholes offered a glimpse to the inside but my eyes were stinging from the midday sun and I couldn't quite make out the interior. I read a small plaque outside, decorated with a pen and ink portrait of Bob. It quoted him: "my intent...was to make it so beautiful that no one would ever get up the nerve to bulldoze it for any reason".
Bulldoze it? Who would want to bulldoze anything belonging to Bob, a bona fide mythical creature building crystal caves in the desert? The Yucca Valley City Council, that's who. Apparently, in 2008, they tried to reclaim the land that his swap meet is located on. Mythical creatures don't do well with municipal bullying, and in a fit of hopelessness, Bob demolished all his structures, including the Crystal Cave, which he had been building since 2004. I couldn't imagine a sadder scene. The people of the desert rose up in his defense, and the council yielded, allowing Bob to keep his land. With the help of two Danish art students, Merete Vyff Slyngborg and Mette Woller, Bob began restoring the cave, piece by piece. They had stumbled upon Bob and the Crystal Cave much like I did, by wandering into the Swap Meet one day, probably too late to find anything worth buying, but right on time to find Bob and his treasures. Thanks to their hipster art world connections, the Crystal Cave was featured as part of the High Desert Test Sites in 2010, an event in which artists create conceptual installations across the desert and arty people with good taste and good shoes drive in to look at them.
"I'll let you inside to meditate for a while," said Bob, unlocking the door. I crouched through the doorway and he closed the door behind me, leaving me alone in the cave. I could have sworn herald angels sang through golden beams of light at the end of the cave, illuminating a tiny sea of gold upon turquoise upon pink. Jung, in his book Psychology And Alchemy, said that the cave stands for the impregnability of the unconscious; mythological iconography often sees caves as a meeting-place for deities, others say caves are sepulchers, representative of Hades, cradles of death and rebirth.
Unsure as to whether I was in heaven, hell, or the belly of Mother Earth, I unsheathed my iPhone, pointing its electric light to the H.R. Giger-ish walls. The lumpy bumpy brown material, was covered in chrysacolla stones just like Bob's belt buckle; there were giant spiders, mini trees made of amethyst, quartz crystals, another amethyst tree -- I felt like I was standing over a 3D model of Middle Earth. A golden tree glinted at the back of the cave, surrounded by little porcelain houses and ruby red crystals. The chrysacolla was arranged to look like a river and soon there will be water flowing through it.
I wondered why Bob would let me inside his precious cave. Usually people can only observe it from the outside. Turns out he has a daughter around my age. His only daughter. She's getting married this July and recently shopped around for venues to hold the wedding in. She had found a nice banquet hall in Palm Springs. Bob shook his head when he told me this part of the story. "I reminded her that she has a cave." His daughter saw sense, and will be exchanging vows with her fiancé in the Crystal Cave next month.
I meditated in the cave for 15 minutes or so. I thought about Bob. Here was a man who had a dream, unaffected by notions of plausability, probability, or art even. He does not consider himself an artist, even though his work has been included in one of the desert's most high falutin' art events. Bob's cave is there to all who see it and wish to be inspired by it - although it's all too easy to miss. Had I arrived at the swap meet on time, perhaps I would have gotten home by now, with a brand new pair of second hand boots or sunglasses, none the wiser to Bob or his cave. Had that woman not crossed the 62 at that exact moment in time, I might never have known not to cross that road on foot. Had my friend in the passenger seat not yelled at me not to look, I wouldn't have had to respect my tendency to disobey orders. And had I not hungered for a sausage that afternoon and visited the café in the middle of the Sky Valley Swap Meet, I might never have sat in Bob's Crystal Cave. I inhaled the musty air inside, the scent of glue and dreams, and stepped outside into the swap meet, locking the door behind me. Bob was nowhere to be seen.