Local Colors: House of the Moon, Part III

Tom Hilton - 29 Palms.jpg
"29 Palms 02." Photo: Tom Hilton

In Part II, we explored the deep roots of today's Joshua Tree art scene, which centered around Fred Drake's Rancho de La Luna recording studio. This week finds the new desert denizens learning about their new home and the complex social geography set amid the iconic vistas. The more the newcomers explored the Mojave, the more they came to realize there were many deserts within the desert.

We'd gather in the Monument often to sit around the campfire like the cowboys and cowgirls we were. The National Park Service helped us imagine the landscape. The exhibits at the visitor center and the interpretive signs along the nature trails played up the colorful history of the pioneers. Bill Keys, Johnny Lang, and the McHaney brothers seemed to have been the typical greedy, ruthless bastards of their time and place.

Keys, whose ranch within the park remains private property but is open to the public, shot at least one man dead in a dispute over mining claims (he served time for manslaughter and was pardoned late in life). Today his face peers out from a mural on the wall of a furniture store in Twentynine Palms, mostly white-haired and kindly, but still exuding steely pioneer spirit.

Out in the desert we worked up a new narrative, communing with Indian spirits in sweat lodge rituals and shopping organic at Sue's Health Foods in Joshua Tree when we could afford it. We played acoustic guitars, and if we went electric, it was for twang and reverb, echoing Hank Williams.

Most important in this quest was authenticity. Since none of us actually came from the desert, we needed relationships with people who did, or who at least had been here longer than we had, and in the Mojave that meant that our heroes and heroines were generally working-class. Since we were mostly middle-class, that meant crossing boundaries of caste. (When we arrived there was very little money in this desert, except for the billions in hardware and ordnance on the Marine base.)

I found my local heroes at a bar in Twentynine Palms housed in an old stucco building with a sagging roof a couple of blocks off Highway 62. The sign announced "Al's Swinger" in red letters, with a sparkly star dotting the "i." Its founder, Al Ardison, had been recognized as the "first black business owner" in the Morongo Basin. The demographic of residents in the deserts of San Bernardino County is astonishingly white for a community in Southern California (well above 70 percent in most of the tracts in the 2010 census). What "color" exists is provided almost completely by the Marines--Latino and African-American men and women, plus a smattering of Asian wives--and the growing numbers of Latinos and African-Americans priced out of the coast and lured by service-sector jobs in the interior West.

Al's was the only place in the Morongo Basin that brought such a diverse crew together--active- duty and retired Marines, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who worked in civilian jobs on the base, working-class whites and blacks employed in the building trades or semi- or unemployed.

Al was himself a retired Marine who chose to stay in the desert where he had trained. By the time I showed up, he was in failing health and had delegated running the business to Tammy--Tomasa--Castro, a mulata from Panamá who had married into the Marines, lived on the base for many years, divorced, and come to Al looking for work. It was Tammy who served me my first beer at Al's. She was in her fifties, short and pear-shaped, with big, deep-brown eyes that matched the dark tan of her skin. She favored long artificial nails and kept her hair wrapped in scarves, and she spoke a patois of Central American Spanish and English in its black variant, all of it in a booming voice. Tammy sang along to the jukebox, off-key and with great gusto (her favorite was the Latin American bolero standard "Tú sólo tú" sung by Selena), and always teared up at Satchmo's "What a Wonderful World." She ruled the bar with absolute authority (aided by her equalizer, a long, thick wooden pole that looked like an ax handle, with black electrical tape for gripping at one end). She drank alongside her customers but never got sloppy. And she looked after me and my girlfriend, Ofelia (with whom I shared a chaotic love), like a mother.


As I became a regular at Al's, I was furnishing the house in Twentynine Palms with scraps I found on the endless acreage of Bureau of Land Management territory nearby, where there was a lot of illegal dumping. Marine families were the most common perps: a sudden redeployment, family disintegration. In the middle of the night all nonessential belongings would be thrown into the car and driven out to the sandy tracks strewn with spent shotgun shells and glass from broken beer bottles.

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The dumping sites looked like houses without walls--as if the walls had been blasted away by a tornado and the belongings somehow left intact. Whenever I stumbled on one of these places--I encountered dozens in the immediate vicinity of my house--I felt I was violating someone's intimate space, but that didn't keep me from rummaging. I poked through board games, wooden spoons, family photographs, porno tapes and sex toys, towels and phone bills and sippy cups and unwashed dishes. One time I found a great pair of dress pants, the kind with a silk lining; they fit perfectly, and I wore them for years. I cooked in pots I discovered half-buried in sandy washes.

The BLM land was adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park, and geologically speaking, they were the same--the border between them was bureaucratic. But the divide in social geography was huge. The vast majority of the million-plus annual visitors to the park were tourists, many of them from overseas, seeking the iconic West: massive boulders piled one atop another in fantastic forms, the Joshua tree itself raising its hairy, crooked arms up to God. The BLM, on the other hand, was a place of four-wheel-drive roads and hardly any of the restrictions of the federal park system. There were no tourists from Japan or Germany or extreme rock climbers or neohippies, because the BLM did not exist in any of the guides. On all but the most technical maps, the BLM was a blank space. It was used almost exclusively by locals, which meant mostly poor whites.

Historically there had been a smattering of affluence in this desert (James Cagney built a mansion on a bluff overlooking the basin in Twentynine Palms), and, as in Los Angeles, plenty of the real money leaned liberal, meaning you were green, likely a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club or Defenders of Wildlife. Which in turn meant you were probably appalled by the mixed-use options available on the BLM-administered lands--all-terrain vehicles, plinking, hunting. You could do pretty much anything you wanted on the BLM, and it showed. The area had been exploited for a long time. Abandoned mine shafts dotted the Pinto Mountains. Kids tagged the boulders with spray cans. If a car got stuck in the sand, it was blasted with shotgun pellets and bullets before the tow truck could get to it. You could pick flowers and burn mesquite (strictly prohibited in the park). There were all of seven rangers assigned to the 3.2 million acres of the BLM district this parcel belonged to, and they rarely made it out here. Smoke a j, bury your dog, dig for gold, bring out generators and stage a rave, drive not just off the highway but make your own road in the sand.

And still it was beautiful. The coyotes howled. The tortoises foraged on cactuses, thorns and all, in the dead of summer. The creosote bushes bloomed their tiny luminescent yellow flowers after the monsoon storms.

Some of the things I found at the dumps made me wonder about my neighbors. The empty wooden crates marked "80 mm Mortar Rounds," for example, which I used to store CDs. Shirts with the unmistakable brown stains of dried blood. Balled-up court summonses, restraining orders.

My neighbors: we didn't talk much. There were a lot of young Marines, granted the opportunity to live off the base because they'd decided to stick with the military after their initial enlistment. They'd be gone for days at a time and then return in the middle of the night, screeching down the road in drunken rage. There were bonfires and shouting at three a.m., shots fired, the whir and whine of bullets ricocheting past my windows. The couples would fight loudly and then just as loudly make up.

There were a few encounters. The Marine who lived kitty-corner from me left a pit bull abandoned for days at a time in the summer without food or water. Tired of hearing the animal suffer, I went over and picked him up and brought him to my yard, where Bear and I looked after him. I returned home one day to find my front door knocked off its hinges and the pit bull back in his owner's yard. Maybe there was something about the vastness of desert space that made everyone guard their little piece of it all the more jealously.

I imagined some affinity between my neighbors and me. We had somehow wound up in the desert as a matter of last resort. We were not here because we thought of this place as healing or spiritual. We had not come to build geodesic domes or mud huts or purge our souls in sweat lodges with the ghosts of Indians. We had come not to find ourselves but to get lost from the selves we loathed.

Most of my other cohort, the bohos from L.A., were on a spirit quest, sweating in the lodges and building the mud huts. Fred seemed to straddle these two worlds well. He was too cynical to be a New Ager, but I never met anyone in the desert so attuned to place; he seemed to be at home everywhere, with everyone. Yet besides Fred there was hardly any communication between these disparate realms. I struggled to be in both. Cowboy Rube; rock 'n' roll Rube, strumming the guitar around the campfire; Rubén, the brown man, son and grandson of immigrants, hanging with the salt of the earth at Tammy's.

There were many deserts, I began to realize, in the desert.


Read the previous installments of this Artbound exclusive series:

1. House of the Moon

2. Sex, Drugs, and Drying Out in the Desert: House of the Moon, Part II.


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.


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