Last week we visited the high art scene of the desert, which had a distant view of the Marine Corps training base north of Joshua Tree. In this installment, we get a close-up of the battlefield, via a young desert denizen's journey onto the California sand dunes that serve as a simulacrum of the Persian Gulf.
Jennifer lived down the street from Andrea Zittel. She was young and white, plainly pretty, and drifting through her twenties, a hippie decades late. In Seattle she had met a musician and poet named Jema who was also drifting up and down the West Coast. He'd heard about a music scene in Joshua Tree. Jema was on an epic quest for meaning, and this, along with his stage antics, drew Jennifer to him. She followed Jema to the desert and they made something of a life for themselves, but it was all very precarious; sometimes they had a place to sleep and sometimes they slept in her car in the parking lot of the Beatnik Café, long the public home for the scruffy bohos of Joshua Tree.
We sat in the café's back patio, the heat of the day still pulsing from the walls and floor. She chain- smoked, tossed the ash off her cigs with her nail, flick-flick. It was at the Beatnik that she'd heard about a job opportunity at the Marine base. There was an open call for people to perform as civilians on the battlefield (COBs), to provide scenarios in a kind of cultural-sensitivity training program for the Marines. Her relationship with Jema was at a particularly unstable juncture, even though they'd just gotten engaged, and she'd applied for the chance to get away as much as anything.
The simulacrum of an Iraqi village was about a half-hour ride up into the mountains from the main camp at the base, somewhere above the dunes I could see from my window. The buildings were represented by conex boxes, metal storage containers the size and shape of railroad cars. About three hundred actors were brought in for the training exercise. Some were professionals desperate for work, and many were Iraqis (FLSs, foreign language specialists, who earned more than the COBs). The mission lasted eight days. The actors lived in the village day and night, without running water but with an unlimited supply of baby wipes; two cooked meals a day were brought in by truck (a third came in the form of an MRE, the meal-ready-to-eat rations that U.S. military personnel receive in the field).
Each actor was given a conex box house, a broad scenario, and a specific role to play. They were told: A bomb will go off, you will die. Tell the Marines, "As-salamu alaykum." Tell the Marines, "Bad America!" Be mean to the Marines for the next half hour. You are going to stage a riot. Jennifer was a mother with a sick baby (a Cabbage Patch doll), then she was a student injured by an IED.
The Marines made a great effort at realism. There were guns firing blanks, explosions that filled the air with smoke, unmanned drones buzzing in the sky, tanks charging up and down the hills, and Chinook helicopters waiting to transport the wounded. In the village, there were garbagemen and taxi drivers; a marketplace had been stocked with plastic fruit. There was even a mosque, made from conex boxes topped by a fiberglass dome.
The main point of the training was to help the Marines discern who was a "friendly" and who was not. They did not always make the right choice. One day three friendlies were shot in the back. There were rules. No alcohol, no pot, and no sex. Jennifer found it hard to follow the rules.
One day she met an FLS named Mohammed. She noticed him in the marketplace, reading a book. He caught her looking at him. "Shy girl," he called out. Things developed fast. It was wartime, after all. He told her about life under Saddam. She told him about her engagement to Jema; he said that he didn't want to be a home wrecker and resolved to keep his distance during the rest of the mission.
The resolution didn't last long. Mohammed made sure that the supervisors assigned him to Jennifer's tribe, and he suggested that they play husband and wife. They made out in a conex box. He made promises. One night, a flare shot up into the dark of the Iraqi sky. From my window I would watch flares like these slowly descend over the mountains and dunes. On such occasions, I was transfixed: I couldn't move away until the flare was extinguished or fell behind a ridge.
Jennifer watched the flare float as its parachute rode the warm updrafts. It finally landed in the very center of the village, striking the dome of the mosque, which immediately burst into flames. Everyone had been playing their role in the scene, but now they all stopped as the dome lit up the night and eventually imploded in a thousand burning bits of fiberglass.
Jennifer never saw Mohammed again.
Ted and Elia, Jennifer and Jema, the Marine who abandoned his pit bull in the dead of summer, Zittel and the growing cadre of artists with agents: these were my neighbors. Mostly there was space between us, which made each new arrival on the scene stand out like a cactus in silhouette.
One day I heard the unmistakable puttering of an old VW Bug pulling up outside. I looked out the window and saw a middle-aged man, wiry and balding, his tan verging on sunburn. He paced the lot next door, which included a one-room homestead cabin that had been home to nothing but kangaroo rats for a long time. He walked around the property for a good while, toeing rocks, gazing out at the view of the nearby hills (one named Indian Head because it looked like the profile of a chief in a war bonnet) and the blue mountains in the distance.
I didn't see him again for several weeks. When he returned, it was with a small trailer hitched to the Bug and filled with supplies to begin the fix-up. I introduced myself. My new neighbor was from Germany and spoke halting English. He offered no backstory, even after I prodded him for one. My dog Bear barked loudly whenever he showed up, and unlike with most humans never warmed to him. I imagined the man as a character in a Wenders film, a postwar figure looking to find himself in the wide-open spaces of the American West, à la Paris, Texas. He didn't ask me where I was from, which was in keeping with the motif: we'd both been expelled from our pasts and stumbled into a landscape of limbo.
The first or second time I spoke with him, he asked a lot about crime in the area. He was going to be away a lot, he said. I told him what I knew, that there were a fair number of break-ins and with the old homestead cabins there was the particular issue of vandalism--bored teens shooting them up, shitting in them, torching them. The speculators who restored cabins and advertised them as vacation rentals had yet to arrive in our part of the desert.
The cabins were certainly an essential part of the mise-en-scène that had drawn both me and the German. Icons of pioneer life, they had been photographed countless times (for magazine essays, gallery shows, postcards) in their various stages of decrepitude, the California version of New Mexico's old Hispano work trucks sinking into the earth. These images underscored time, captured the sensation, or created it, of the tourist or neohomesteader traveling not just through space but also into the past, into a rendition of the West. You were leaving the present behind-- your alienated life in the city-- and rejoining the pastoral from which your kind had been cast out generations ago. You were now the pioneer.
Indeed, the origin myth of the Joshua Tree boom reaches back to the homesteaders who built these cabins in the early twentieth century, epitomized by the cantankerous prospector Bill Keys. The nameless optimistic souls who followed him left the structures across the desert, the ruins of which were now being put into the service of a new round of prospecting.
In my early days in the desert, Ofelia and I drove east on Highway 62, past the sparsely populated plain of Wonder Valley to the blank spot on the map, the place of next services 100 miles. There was the skeleton of a shack on the horizon: no roof, no walls. The prevailing winds from the west, the barbaric summer sun, and the winter freezes had stripped it to its frame. Here I asked Ofelia to take pictures of me. My hair shone with brilliantine. I wore Ray-Ban Wayfarers and a dark blue short-sleeved Dickies shirt, proletarian chic. I crossed my arms, jutted my chin toward the camera. I was ready for my close-up.
The problem with all the imagery was that it was a copy of a copy for which there was no original. Since the time of the first Spanish "entradas," thrusts, the land had been speculated on, bought and sold, the foundation upon which the house of capital was built, physically and culturally and ideologically. In historical, material terms, the abandoned shacks in the desert represented the impermanence of capital, the death of a homesteader's dream, the bust that always followed boom--indeed, that bust made boom possible, a dialectic in perpetual motion.
I'd followed the trail just like the banged-up German had. And now that we were here, alone in the Big Empty, we realized that we had brought with us our city ghosts, intensifying the radical difference of the encounter by filling the desert with scenes from John Ford and urban paranoia (which amounted to the same thing). Coyotes cackling maniacally in the dark, snakes ready to strike from beneath boulders, the heat waiting to suck the life out of you, neo-Nazis, poverty, and the crystal tweakers.
Ted and Elia certainly got a crash course on that desert. The wash next to their house was a popular spot for addicts to score and use. And as a "mixed" couple, they confronted the racial politics of the desert's demographics. Camping in the Monument once, they were surrounded in the middle of the night by drunk Marines who threatened to rape Elia--mentioning her ethnicity--and kill Ted. Among their neighbors was a Latino family who had an eight-foot swastika burned outside their house. In nearby Lancaster and Victorville, there were convictions in homicide cases with racial motivations. Researchers documented an increase in hate crimes across the rural West through the 1990s and the aughts, as black and brown arrived in increasing numbers.
I had no idea how seriously the German would take my rap on the risks to his property. Within a couple of days, he closed in his parcel with a chain-link fence. He covered the windows with plywood shutters, which he secured with industrial- sized latches and padlocks. When he was at home, he would prop up the shutters on two-by-fours, like the cannon ports of a galleon.
A few months into his stay, my neighbor left and never returned. The shack is still there, the shutters sealed tight over the windows, a ship stuck in the sand.
Read the previous installments of this Artbound exclusive series:
Visit Rubén Martínez' website for more information about the author.
Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. Available August 7, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Rubén Martínez. Published by Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt & Company, LLC. By permission of Susan Berghoz Literary Services, New York City and Lamy, NM. All rights reserved: no further duplication, distribution, display or sale without permission.