The dustless air.
05 Oct 1997 09:11:32 -0700
Beach RV Park; Malibu, California :: 04 OCT 97
Dust. The air tastes like dust. After exploring old 66 westward
to Victorville, we have come home in the truck to Newberry Springs just
east of Barstow, California. The film, Bagdad Cafe, was shot here. Perhaps
you have seen it. That the air tastes like dust seems appropriate. But
Hollywood made Newberry Springs-rechristened Bagdad for the film-seem
a remote, desolate, dry, hot, wind-blown place. Tonight, at least, it
is only dry and hot. Earlier, during the day, it must have been wind-blown,
or the air would not taste as it does, like dust. We pass over the interstate
at 55 mph, windows and vents open to admit the young night air, cooling.
The headlights on the interstate spread through the dust as if radiating
out in a light fog or haze.
The day before this. John said, "that's it; that's all there
is to see of Route 66 until Goffs." Goffs was miles away, 20 or 30 miles
away. I gestured across the vast alluvial fan we were climbing with its
clumpy sage, the dry washes, the eroding peaks. "What about all this?"
I asked. "But that's not about 66, is it?" "Why not?" I insisted. But
John was adamant, "66 is the diners, the abandoned and dilapidated gas
stations, the old signs, original concrete slabs with black centre lines."
"The people," I add. "Yes, and the people."
This strikes me wrong. No, as not enough. I can't articulate
it at the time. It's everything. 66 is everything.
We are in the Mojave
Desert. To escape the heat, the Joad's crossed this bleakness in the night.
They are a fictional family, an invention of John
Steinbeck, but thousands of Oakies lived the tale before Steinbeck
wrote a single line. Hundreds of thousands. They crossed this desert land
in the day and in the night. This fearsome, dangerous gap between the "sun-rotted
mountains" ending Arizona and the "good mountains" descending into the agricultural
promised land of California west of Barstow and Victorville.
Kerouac, too, came this
way. And said nothing of it. Nothing to see? Perhaps there are no kicks
We cross these unforgiving expanses without a thought. The obstacle
is conquered. Here mankind drew three thin lines: rail, cable, pavement.
Before these, only the ruts left by wagon wheels. Before that, the rare
brave, idiot footfall.
The wagons came this way because there was water. The old trail
connects the watering holes, mere dots on the map, creating an aimless
track from Needles to San Bernardino. Later rail, then copper, then pavement
would follow the old trail. But in the time when hooves plod the old trail
the Mojave was respected, even feared. Before that, it was not often crossed.
That is still here. Stop the car. Step outside. Walk into the
desert. Breathe the air; taste the dust. Erase the lines. Forget steel
rails, asphalt, gasoline, pneumatic tires. Forget cell phones, CBs and
There is no water here. None.
What is left? An inkling. A growing respect. Awe. Fear.
I have not conquered this desert. I have a free pass: a reliable
car on a well-traveled highway and a pocketful of credit cards. Here,
Route 66 is everything. Climb back in your car. Drive the thin grey line
of asphalt, the thin grey line on the map. Remember how it got here, what
was here before it, what was necessary to cross and live. It was not always
so easy as this. Roll down your windows and feel the heat. See the rotting
rock becoming sand becoming dust becoming the air you taste.
Now, you are in your rattle-trap jalopy piled with all your
family and all your family's belongings. Hope the engine rumbles steady,
that your hoses hold their fluids, that your tires are strong. Hope that
your water lasts as you watch the desert pass by, mile upon mile of waterless
desert. You will remember every mountain, every crest and curve in the
road. Each one might bring the dustless air, the hint of water near, news
that the Mojave is at an end.
~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness in the desert air.
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.
Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard (1751)