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Remembering the Mojave High Desert: Solitude for Social Misfits

Mojave Desert - Yucca Valley
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Union Bank is a proud sponsor of Lost LA.  

Noah Purifoy installation
Noah Purifoy installation |  beccacantpark/Creative Commons

The Mojave High Desert has always captured the outlandish imaginations of a certain sort of social misfit, as deserts tend to do. In particular, Joshua Tree and its environs had been something of a well-guarded secret, a place of pilgrimage for those explorers of the hidden recesses of inner life, where the demarcations between fantasy and reality blur. Even its iconic National Park, now one of the most visited in the country thanks to the homogenizing pull of social media, used to be well-known only amongst the niche global climbing community and those drawn to its alien, wild desertscape as a means of exploring their own inner otherworlds.

Fantasy, by its very nature, exists and thrives in the unseen, invisible to the limiting, quantifying eyes of scientific materialism. It is this force that animates the vastness of the imagination: a wild, internal landscape where anything is possible, and whose treasures can be found only by those willing to surrender themselves to the uncertainty of uncharted territory. Much like the desert.

Unsurprisingly, this High Desert was a place where troubled and mythical creatures such as Keith Richards, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison would seek out to lose and find themselves in. Indeed, Gram Parsons allegedly told his friend and tour manager, Phil Kaufman, of his desire to be cremated in Joshua Tree National Park in the event of his passing. As legend has it, after Parsons' death in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973, his body was stolen by Kaufman and friends from LAX as his family's convoy was transporting it back to New Orleans for burial. Parsons' body was then driven back to Joshua Tree National Park and set ablaze. Whether or not the disputed claim that Parsons asked for a desert cremation is true, his deep affinity for this land as a place to escape to and find creative succor — drug addictions notwithstanding — was well-documented.

The artist and activist Noah Purifoy built his mind-expanding outdoor assemblage art museum way out in the middle of nowhere in north Joshua Tree in 1989. This site still stands, with its sociopolitically-charged, allegorical sculptures made from trash and found material, which have miraculously withstood the harsh elements of the desert climate and is still free and open to all who navigate their way through the bumpy dirt roads to see it.

Joshua Tree Inn
Joshua Tree Inn |  Wayne Hsieh/Creative Commons

North Joshua Tree borders the small neighboring town of Landers. It is wide open with stark, desert vistas and none of the dramatic, prehistoric boulder formations of the south side and the National Park. The Joshua trees are few and far between here. Against this seemingly barren desert backdrop, Purifoy’s sculptures are a visceral homage to the richness of the so-called wasteland. Spend some time walking around this place and you’re taken on an alchemical journey, a meditation on the transformative powers of the more hidden, apparently inhospitable reaches of the imagination.

It isn’t difficult to understand why an artist as poetic and prolific as Purifoy was so deeply moved by the landscape that he chose to build his own lonely desert “town” upon. Indeed, the palpable sense of loneliness he created in this environment is a work of art in itself. It’s an authentic, even beautiful, experience of an unavoidable aspect of the human condition.

Many who find their way to the desert are escaping lives that simply no longer fit. More often than not, they are artists, libertarians, survivalists, activists, environmentalists and just plain old freaks, no longer able to wear their cracked masks of apparent normality. Almost all are seeking a particular quality of solitude and sensation that only the landscape of the desert can fulfill.

Many single women homesteaders find themselves here, setting up home in remote areas, strong and eager to learn the intimidating art of self-sufficiency in this rough terrain. This is no easy feat, physically or mentally. The motivation to create a life and a home here, on her own terms, is founded on a desire to push beyond the limits of imposed social restrictions and to imagine a new reality for herself, one that involves the shedding of old skin.

It is an opening-up to, and allowing, the desert and its manifold challenges to irrevocably change a person, without holding onto any of the old, conditioned ways. It is a surrender to the innate feminine wildness and strength within, which until now had been hidden away, the wild woman having been relegated to the realms of fantasy or insanity. The pioneering women who are drawn to this desert do so because they are called to express this aspect of themselves, and they thrive as result. But only after they have gone through the painful process of allowing the desert to erode obsolete parts of themselves.

Mojave Desert - Driving
Driving along Highway 62 |  erik borowitz/Creative Commons

Erosion is what the desert does best. The infernal heat of summer and the relentless, bone-rattling winds of autumn and winter wear down the wooden sidings of desert cabins and threaten to blow the roof off of shelters, destroying everything except the hardiest of desert vegetation. When the weather is extreme like this, all desert life is being asked to retreat inside, in more ways than one.

The beautiful patina of desert-rusted metal is pure wabi-sabi. It is also a reminder of the surrender demanded by this landscape, and what can be revealed as a result of it. This surrender is unequivocally on the desert's terms. Dark nights screeching with howling winds, often reminiscent of the folkloric banshees, are an invitation to journey into this inner imaginal terrain.

It’s an invitation to put down the electronic distractions, the first layer of erosion in these times, and to listen, go within and observe. What is revealed will be a gift from our unseen realms that is more authentic than anything that can be gleaned from a screen. In return, we will have to allow another layer of our socially-conditioned identity to erode; allow another part of our desire to escape from ourselves to drop away.

The desert is not for everyone. It demands presence. To the casual observer, the landscape is, as its name promises, deserted. No signs of life, barren and inhospitable. Yet underneath teems a resilient yet fragile and complex ecosystem. We cannot easily see this ecosystem with our eyes, but it exists nonetheless, much like our own subterranean forces, unseen yet generative. To exist in the desert is to become a seamless part of this system — or at least it was until recently.

The desert is currently experiencing what might be called a boom, although reluctantly by some. What was once an outlier’s refuge, a place for eccentric introverts, artists and seekers of solitude, local down-and-outs and desert kids throwing under-the-radar generator parties, is transforming into what might even more reluctantly be called a scene. Over the last year or two, gentrification has become a noticeable specter. And sadly, those who moved in to escape from the social and economic imperatives associated with any scene have, unwittingly for the most part, had a hand in it

Gentrification in rural areas brings with it the added dimension of gentrification of the land itself.

Mojave Desert - Yuca Valley Realty
Yucca Valley Realty |  Orin Zebest/Creative Commons

The following might seem absurd and perhaps a trifle fanciful to an urbanite, but it’s a good example of the implications of this sort of gentrification on the ecosystem of the desert. Ants and other seemingly insignificant creatures serve an important function in the process of decomposition, which in turn enriches the sandy soil and provides nourishment to flora and fauna. With the upsurge in popularity of rural desert areas, comes the spraying of the outdoor areas of homes and land with poisonous chemicals in a bid to curb or destroy these and other creatures. This is a huge disservice to the landscape. Trying to control and tame the wilderness, and to interfere with its vital processes, is also a death blow to the collective inner wilds of imagination and fantasy.

By deciding to be here, whether as visitors or residents, it is necessary to make ourselves subservient to it, to its systems and processes, to leave behind our need for control and convenience at the expense of this desert wilderness. The desert is not just sweeping panoramic views for rad photo shoots to adorn our social media feeds with. There is so much more going on than meets the eye, and its survival depends on us helping to sustain and enrich this ecosystem, especially during this alarming peak in its popularity.

The British writer and environmentalist, George Monbiot, coined the term “ecological boredom” in his book “Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life,” referring to the safe, sterile, wrapped-in-cotton-wool life that is the mainstay of the modern, western urban dweller. The epidemic of instant gratification has led to an apathetic disconnection from our environment and ourselves, creating instead a gaping, insatiable hole of addiction and craving. This is what sends us out into the wilderness, the intuition that there is more to life than this. Monbiot writes: “To know what comes next has been perhaps the dominant aim of materially complex societies. Yet, having achieved it, or almost achieved it, we have been rewarded with a new collection of unmet needs. We have privileged safety over experience; gained much in doing so, and lost much.”

There is a place for everything. Urban environments and their protocols are a necessary part of our culture and evolution. And equally, if not more so, is the wilderness in this electronic age of mass distraction. To allow ourselves to truly be in this desert is to remember a part of ourselves and journey into this forgotten “wasteland,” this realm of imagination and fantasy. In whatever capacity we find ourselves here, whether as visitors or residents, we cannot impose our ways that deplete and destroy. If we do, we run the risk of the very same ecological boredom that drove us out of the cities and into the wild.

To truly hear the call of the desert and respond to it, to truly embrace it, demands a capitulation to it, instead of vice versa. To love the desert is to shed the desire to tame it and to allow this weird, arid landscape to truly crack open the senses.

Top Image: Chris Goldberg/Creative Commons

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