“It’s lizard time!” Cole said as he lay on a rock amid one of the many heaps of colossal boulders that make Joshua Tree National Park a spectacular, surreal landscape, like a giant’s sandbox sculpture garden. He started enumerating what he felt, saw, heard, smelt.
“Heat … rough … birds … wind … bees.”
Cole was doing one of the exercises in the park’s Junior Ranger book: becoming one with the reptile. A few minutes earlier, as I’d watched him scramble through a crevice with spidery ease, while I stumbled and crawled like I’d just been released from months of enchainment to a desk, I’d asked him if he had suction cups on his fingers and toes. It’s his new superhero identity: Lizard Boy.
We spent the weekend in Joshua Tree, and I’m using the trip as the start of the blog theme I hope to continue this summer, as we drive around the country on a seven-week road trip. Consider Going Mobile a feminist, family followup to On the Road, or an update to Steinbeck: Travels With Coley.
It was our second visit to the desert as a trio — Bud, Cole, and me — but we went in much deeper this time, into and through the heart of Joshua Tree. It was hot — duh, it’s hot in the desert; who knew? But worth every drop of sweat.
We came in Friday, narrowly avoiding a major jam on 215, where a oil tanker caught on fire and completely blocked eastbound traffic. The Sig Alert system works: a highway sign and some quick research on my iPhone (not to mention the billowing black smoke up ahead) alerted us to the blockage, and we detoured around the wreck, which apparently ruined the start of other Angelenos’ multi-day weekend. (Thanks to budget cuts and school furloughs, the three-day weekend became four for LAUSD students.)
Our tent site in Indian Cove (number 12 — a great spot) was alongside a small rock pile, which Cole quickly scrambled up, as if to bouldering born. Otis, a Yorkshire terrier who has always seemed part mountain goat, followed as best he could — Cole gently carried his 11-year-old half-blind companion through one tricky part. We soon moved to bigger and better hills. Otis and I waited halfway up one, me scared, the dog daunted. At the foot, we rousted almost a dozen baby quails out of a bush.
I’ve always heard about Joshua Tree’s awesome beauty, but I’d skirted its edges, never experienced it in full. The stone towers are like the Rock Man character in The Point frozen in place, the namesake vegetation like scarecrow skeletons. It’s vast, epic. And in three days, we saw maybe two errant pieces of human refuse — a blown plastic bag, a styrofoam cooler top.
The desert is not a warm, fuzzy place. We quickly learned to leave Otis in the campsite, as his little paws loaded with burrs and pickers. It’s impossible not to get cactus in your skin somewhere, somehow. As the evening began to cool off, I changed into a pair of jeans that were in my bag in the car. I felt something pricking my skin. Assuming it was another ouchy piece of vegetation, I reached in and pulled out an ant. Another prick, another ant. I had ants in my pants. At least six. Still not sure how they got there: There was a swarm of the insects under the car, and a few inside. But why so many had landed in that garment, I’ll never know.
That night, as we sat by the campfire, Bud wondered what city was creating a glow over the eastern mountains. I said it was the moon about to rise. Shortly after I went to bed, Bud roused me to let me know I won that bet. One day past full, la luna lit up the desert, casting cactus shadows and creating silhouettes of creosote branches on the tent walls.
Saturday we climbed a decent-sized rock hill in Rattlesnake Canyon. Cole was singing, engaged, sure-footed, close to bliss — never frustrated and cranky like he gets when he plays video games. There were no glitches in the landscape. We spied more quail and a roadrunner, but it wasn’t until later that day, at Keys View, that we saw the find of the weekend: a red diamondback rattlesnake. It was one yard off the side of the trail and had already attracted a crowd of onlookers. We watched it slither off for a good 10 minutes. I’d never seen a rattler in the wilderness before. It made the weekend for Cole, the snake-lover.
Until that evening, that is, when we landed at the Pioneertown Motel, a place we discovered in January and vowed to come back to — and this time, there were horses. “Home sweet home!” Cole shouted. Pioneertown is simulacrum with soul, or “pygmalion architecture,” as Bud put it. The Western town was built as a film lot in the 1940s by Hollywood entrepreneurs, including Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Hippies and artists now occupy some of the old saloons and mercantile stores. There’s a bowling alley, but it’s mostly for show — kids can’t bowl there, and they were out of alcohol.
What’s for real are the motel, corral and Pappy and Harriet’s saloon. A horse club from Norco was meeting there, and all around us were stallions, mules, ponies, etc. Cole was entranced. He’s rode horses several times but had never spent so much time around them. He was up first thing every morning, saying good morning to his new friends, feeding them hay. He now wants to save money to buy a horse.
Pappy’s serves big plates of burger, BBQ, and steak — a carnivore’s carnival — has three pool tables, and live music. On Sundays, the All Stars, an ensemble of Americana refugees featuring Victoria Williams, play. The ragtag band of talents act as a sort of support group for eccentric Victoria, whom I’ve known since I was interviewing her for The Village Voice back in 1990 and we got locked into Gramercy Park together, and who’s gotten ever nuttier — but lovable — with age. Pappy’s draws artists, cowboys, families, drunks. Cole can hang out and play pool while Bud and I enjoy the band. Drink too much and you can just stumble back to your motel room — no getting into a car — and wake up in the morning to the whinnying of the horses.
Our prime objective for the weekend was to see the John Lautner exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum. I’m obsessed with this great architect, who was from the Upper Peninsula but did most of his work in Southern California. The exhibit features drawings, models, and slide shows of his beautiful, wildly imaginative houses and roadside restaurants. Lautner trained under Wright and shared his mentor’s desire to merge indoor and outdoor spaces. He was a major influence on Frank Gehry. But I think some of his works — the Idyllwild mountain retreat, the Carling residence — surpass those masters. I got to tour his Sheats-Goldstein house in the Hollywood hills as part of Victor Regnier’s Great Houses of Los Angeles class at USC last fall. Whereas Wright’s houses are marred by mistakes and incomplete executions of great ideas, Lautner’s residences are complete in detail and desire. As a placard at the exhibit said, using new technologies of concrete and glass and engineering, he sought to free buildings from the tyranny of walls. What a great concept. Inspiring. I wonder: Using new media tools, can stories be freed of the tyranny of words?