Diane and I are driving east along Route 58 on our way to Las Vegas, but we’ll spend our first night in a place called Newberry Springs, where we’ve booked lodging in a caboose. The day is sometimes rainy but mostly gray and pending, and it feels like we are driving through a cloud, with bare trees etched against the sky, and green hills giving way to brown mountains. We are comfortably ensconced in our cozy little carapace…and the miles go by.
We talk about our childhoods and our families, not happy stories, but we laugh a lot, and we know that laughter, like tears, comes with vulnerability, a gift of being open. Now James Taylor is singing Fire and Rain, and although we’re several years apart in age, we are both remembering our younger days in cold and dreary places. My husband once remarked that James Taylor and Leonard Cohen were the record albums depressed college girls listened to in their dorms, and Diane says, “Exactly.” And what would he have known of those bleak northeastern winters? He was surfing in California then, but Diane and I grew up in New York, and although it took some doing, we always knew we’d leave.
We talk about that urge to leave, the belief in its necessity, and finding an elsewhere that becomes a home but always carrying a residue of alien-ness too, and a permanent nostalgia for things that never were. But we’re good now, and consciously grateful, both of us retired from teaching and eager to learn new things. Diane is taking a woodworking class, and I wish I were brave enough to try painting, but I know I’d be terrible, and it feels too late to start at almost seventy. “Seventy gives you permission to suck,” says Diane, and maybe she’s right. Anything is possible. The story is ours to write.
And we talk about what teaching taught us. For me, it’s still a jumble. I am grateful to know some former students in their current, grownup lives, and I hope that I was a worthy influence, but even after all this time, I haven’t quite figured out what it all meant. Diane has more clarity; she believes that the most important lesson is to try to respond, not react. “Losing my temper doesn’t work,” she says. “You have to keep the conversation open. You have to try to understand the source.”
Understand the source…it’s a useful concept. And it occurs to me that this is part of what our road trip is about. We’re going to attend the Women’s March rally that will be held in Las Vegas on Sunday, an event intentionally based in a “purple” state that is racially, ethnically, and politically diverse, in some ways a microcosm of Western America. The theme of the rally is “power to the polls”, and it marks the launch of a monumental campaign to get the vote out.
But we’re also paying homage to the mountains and the sky, to the desert and its waters, to the foundation and the source of life. In a time when so many environmental protections are under assault, we are driving back roads through country that is quietly trying to be, through landscapes that many have viewed as nothing more than potential mines and quarries and industrial sites. We are hoping to talk to a few people along the way too, maybe people who are a little different than the ones we meet at home. We’ll see.
We stop by a railroad track for lunch and watch the freight trains going by. Long strands of cars, forever going by, a ubiquitous backdrop to our travels.
Judi of the Desert
We arrive before dark at Newberry Springs, a small community in the western Mojave Desert, and we find our way to Sarkasian Ranch on Route 66, where we’ve booked a caboose…words I never thought I’d say. The ranch is a sprawling property at the base of the mountains dotted here and there with old railroad cars, trailers, and a handful of houses. The proprietor, Judi, comes out on a golf cart to greet us. She has a great mass of curly platinum blonde hair, and a megawatt smile, and she is made up like a movie star. (“I put on my make-up every morning,” she later tells us, “whether or not anyone is going to see me.”)
She invites us to hop on board the golf cart and she takes us for a little tour of the premises before depositing us at our caboose. There’s a fishing lake and koi pond, a tortoise preserve and a labyrinth. There are peacocks ambling by, a baffled looking emu, and a raven named Ralphie who seems to have the run of the place. There are quirky sculptures and found treasures everywhere, and all the trees have some sort of adornment…glittery stars and owls, toy dinosaurs, and colorful plastic water pistols dangle from the branches… there’s no rhyme or reason to it, just pure delight.
Judi is undisputed queen of the domain. She describes herself as a psychologist, author, and storyteller. (I later looked her up online and discovered that she is also a producer, children’s entertainer, animal rescue worker, and designer of something called an “exer-chair”.) She’s had three husbands, is a grandmother and a great-grandmother, and believes that if you want to do something, you just have to dive in and do it. She shows us her bookstore, complete with a metaphysical room and an antique sofa from an opium den, and she talks about her plans for art activities, parties, events, and retreats.
Judi has created her own world here, and it’s wacky and tacky but also brave and magnificent. She stands there in full make-up as the sun descends and the distant mountains darken, reminding me a little of the good witch Glenda. She smiles her movie star smile, and maybe there’s a flicker of sadness in her eyes, but she’s upright and undaunted. Her advice: “Nurture that part of yourself that is important to you, dream your dreams and be your own fairy godmother.”
We sleep soundly in our red caboose, lulled by the mournful sound of distant freight trains passing in the night.
On the Road Again
In the morning, we drive just a little further along Route 66 and stop for breakfast at the Bagdad Café because it’s there, and who wouldn’t? It’s a vintage truck stop diner made famous by the 1987 movie of the same name, which, according to Roger Ebert’s review at the time of its release “walks its own strange and lovely path”. Outside of the café there’s a classic old motel sign, a lonely abandoned trailer, and an endless stretch of forlorn desert bleaching in the harsh glare of the sun, but within, the place is busy, cluttered with memorabilia, and noisy with talk and the clatter of plates. We walk beneath a framed picture of John Wayne to enter the rest room, then indulge in a greasy American breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, served by a gregarious fellow named George, who tells us that he came here decades earlier after losing his job at the Hector Mining Company.
We chat with a friendly blonde woman who is on her way to a conference in Santa Fe; it turns out she’s from Santa Barbara…we even have mutual friends. She’s sorry she won’t be at the rally, but she wants to get involved for the long-term, and before you know it, we’re standing in the Bagdad Café exchanging contact information. Meeting someone from home is not what we expected in this unlikely context, but we’re allies. And life is nothing if not implausible.
There are also a couple of bikers in here, some local kids having a birthday party in a side room, a German tourist taking serious photos with a big lens camera, and one woman in particular whose face is a deeply etched road map of hard times. She looks like someone who’s had too much of some things and not enough of others, and she’s feeling kind of pissed about it all. Fed and caffeinated, we hit the road.
We’re about three hours from Vegas, and the highway stretches before us like a shimmering mirage. There are volcanic fields and white sand dunes, and various structures that we take to be refineries, mines, or processing plants, and above it all a breathtaking skyscape of utterly cinematic clouds. We pull over at a place called Camp Cady Wildlife Area, 1900 acres of desert riparian habitat, and we read a sign about the River Bluff Ranch on the north bank of the Mojave River. The river, which has been described as upside-down and backwards because its water generally flows below ground and inland from Silverwood Lake to Soda Dry Lake, was used by ancient indigenous people as a trade route to and from the Pacific Coast. In 1826, Jedediah Smith passed through here to become the first American to reach the California coast via an overland trail, and eventually the Mojave Road became a primary route from Los Angeles to the Arizona territory and points East.
Right now there is no one in sight as far as the eye can see, and we run around under the crazy sky in the center of a two-lane highway…because we can…but we begin to understand that what seems like the middle of nowhere is in fact a place of great geological and historical significance. We will encounter this kind of truth again and again as we travel. Zoom in anywhere to find a universe. There are microcosms and ecosystems within seemingly irrelevant places, there are layers of history and stories in vast swaths of silence, there are remnants of lives lived, and there is nature in all its wondrous incarnations trying to survive.
We are pilgrims. We are wonderstruck. We get back in the car for the drive to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas appears gradually…heralded by billboards and buildings and increasing traffic, it spreads across the desert in all its garish dissonance. Has there ever been a city more completely removed from the natural world? We use our phone to navigate to The Golden Nugget on Fremont Street, in the heart of the old downtown. It’s hard to miss. There’s an extravagant arched entryway, studded with chunky gold lights, and several towers and parking structures, instantly alienating. We’re staying here for convenience, and it has what we need, but we keep our heads down as we wend our way through the crowds and past maze after maze of slot machines and card tables. People seem remarkably eager to throw their money away, despite the odds, and everyone is seeking fun in a desperate sort of frenzy, but nobody looks happy.
After we check in, we go outside to take a walk, and it’s interesting to see the colorful old neon signs, but there’s a sordid undercurrent to it all. The area is jam-packed with drunken revelers and street performers of varying degrees of talent, among them a young man adeptly drumming on plastic buckets, a couple of acrobatic dancers, and a shaggy looking fellow holding up a sign that says, simply, “Fuck You”. It saddens me to see a pale, thin, almost-naked girl standing in the chilly air of dusk advertising lap dances; she has a blank expression, and looks to be younger than my daughter.
There’s loud music playing, and a lot of ambitious drinking going on, and I feel as if I’ve stepped into the midst of a frat house party gone awry, and when someone exhales a cloud of cloyingly sweet cigar smoke directly into my face, I know I’ve had enough. I realize that for some this is a vacation destination, and I understand that the tourist, restaurant, and hospitality industries represent livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people, (and I must say most of the employees we interacted with were good-natured and patient) but I’m completely out of my element. We’ll go to the rally tomorrow and get out of here.
We arrive at Sam Boyd Stadium early in the day and take seats high in the bleachers. There’s a festive air as women and men, young and old, drift in, many carrying colorful signs: Voting Is My Superpower. Karma is a Bitch, and She Votes. I Am No Longer Accepting the Things I Cannot Change; I Am Changing the Things I Cannot Accept. White is Just My Outside Color. Respect Existence or Expect Resistance. Grab ‘em by the Ballot Until They Turn Blue. The first speaker is a Native American woman who reminded us that Las Vegas sits on native land, and that indigenous women face a disproportionately high rate of murder and many go missing, never to be found. There are tribal dancers on the stage––to dance is to pray. Later, State Representative Paulette Jordan of Idaho, an indigenous woman running for governor of that state, urges other women…and immigrants, and LGBT people, and people with disabilities, and people of color…to run for office. First we marched, and now we run. And the real Women’s March will be to the polls on Election Day.
“Last year we dared to hope for a better, brighter, more inclusive world,” Planned Parenthood President Cecilie Richards tells us in her remarks. “This year, we’re gonna go out and build it.”
Voter registration and engagement is the strategy, and, as Linda Sarsour proclaims, “We will win. This is not an opinion, but a fact…we’re gonna win. But I don’t like to win small. We’re gonna win big! The women of the USA are gonna take back America.”
An earnest young immigrant woman talks movingly of how the government is toying with lives. A survivor of the deadly Las Vegas mass shooting speaks to us in a tremulous voice: “It’s hard being here and speaking in front of a large crowd, and also scary. But doing nothing is not an option…we have a a responsibility as women to register and vote on behalf of candidates who promote the issues we care about.”
Tamika Mallory has a message for white women in particular: “Don’t come to this rally today and sit here with your pink hat on saying that you’re with us, and you’re nowhere to be found when black people ask you to show up in the streets to defend our lives. Stand up for me, white women! You say you want to be my friend? I don’t want to hear it from your mouth. I want to see it when you go to the polls at the midterm election.”
“Saying thank you to black women is not a damn hashtag!” is how former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry states it.
There are musical performances, and deeply moving song and spoken word by Jess Flo. We see sex workers holding up red umbrellas, restaurant workers, and teachers, locals and people like us who have come from far away. There are earnest young volunteers with clipboards registering voters.
“We are on assignment,” Nina Turner declares. “We are called upon right now to be the change.”
For me, the most rousing speech of the day was that of Rev. William Barber. Here’s an excerpt, but you have to imagine his powerful voice and the African-American oratory tradition:
“I say to you today, we’ve been crying and whining long enough, talking about what happened in 2016, it’s time to get up. It’s time to get up and register everybody you know to vote. It’s time to get up and take the power to the polls. Instead of deporting immigrants, we need to deport some of these politicians. If we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now…It’s time to get up and know that love can win. Justice can win. When we organize, black and white and brown and red and yellow and old and young and Jewish and Muslim and Christian and those who do not have a faith but they believe in a moral agenda. It’s time to get up…and no more fighting each other! Let’s fight racism, let’s fight sexism…it’s time to get up and demand justice for all. Because we are the people that know we can take a word like shit-hole and turn it into fertilizer…it’s time to get up and vote people out of office who do wrong…it’s time to get up and speak truth to power…”
But we didn’t just go to this event in Vegas for the theater of it. This was an informative and inspiring reaffirmation of our commitment, and a clear and persuasive call to come together and get out the vote, very focused on the midterm elections. We’ll learn more soon about tangible steps, and I know there’s a lot of work to do, but I intend to follow through to the best of my ability.
One of the speakers offered this quote from Maya Angelou: “Sometimes it’s necessary to encounter defeat just so we know who we are.” Well, we know who we are now. And we’ve all been traumatized, but as Rev. Barber said, it’s time to get up. Amidst all that terrifies us and breaks our hearts, there are many things to inspire and encourage. I refuse to despair.
A Quieter Place
We leave Las Vegas the next morning. Our destination is the Amargosa River Valley at the edge of Death Valley, about eighty miles to the west but a world away, and we soon arrive at Shoshone Village on California State Route 178. A decaying old automobile is parked alongside two obsolete gasoline pumps, and there is rusting antique farm equipment scattered about on the ground, each piece with a label, an in-the-field museum of agricultural machinery. We have lunch in a little café called The Crowbar.
Afterwards, we enter the Visitor’s Center. I”m very fond of little local museums, and this one is a truly fine little haven, lovingly curated. We talk to a woman named Carla at the front desk, and she offers a wealth of knowledge about the history of the area as well as tourist information, and then we walk on wooden floors and peer into glass display cases filled with mining and railway relics, Native American artifacts, and geological displays. There are wildlife exhibits too: a coyote preserved in mid-howl, a handsome pair of ram horns, and most remarkably, there’s an excavated prehistoric mammoth fossil on display in the back, like a grand finale, or an astonishing clue to mysterious beginnings that go back further than imagined. Photos and documents tell the stories of the human characters who came to seek their fortunes and build a community here, among them Ralph Jacobus Fairbanks, who founded Shoshone in 1910 as a trading post, and Charles Brown, whose granddaughter, Susan Sorrells, inherited and still owns the town.
A stone’s throw from the museum is a wooden house painted green but faded into varying shades by the sun, and partially hidden by a large tamarisk tree. (We later learn that these trees, although pretty, are problematically thirsty and invasive.) Peering within, we see that the house is open to visitors, and we enter to discover the office of the Amargosa Conservancy. We browse in its sunlit front room, reading about the wild and scenic river, the many species of wildlife, and ongoing efforts to fund restoration and encourage ecotourism. We’re eager to wander outdoors.
As we set out on our way, uncertain where to go, we see a young woman in a wool coat and a red bandana tied around her head, Rosie the Riveter style. We ask if she can suggest a good walking route, and indeed she can. It turns out she’s the head of the Conservancy, and a delightful person too. Her name is Tanya, and she’s “from the West” mostly, although she lived for a time in Iowa. Tanya gets us oriented and even walks with us to our turn-off. She’s dedicated to her work and has an enthusiastic and intelligent demeanor that reminds me of one of my former students, Elise, and she is instantly relatable. I guess Tanya recognizes something familiar in Diane and me too, and she suggests an organization called Great Old Broads of the Wilderness that we might consider joining. We thank her for tending to the environment, and she thanks us for going to the women’s rally. (She’s another ally, and she wishes she could have been there.) We like her so much that we hug her when we say good-bye, and take pictures, and say we’ll be in touch.
We walk past the cemetery first, a few humble graves marked only by rotting wooden crosses, others more substantial, and many decorated with bright plastic flowers. Soon we come to the old miners’ caves at Dublin Gulch, vacant but still remarkably intact, with smokestacks and wooden front doors and even bedsprings inside. From a distance, there’s an eerie kind of beauty in the broken glass glittering in the sunlight, and the old rusted cans strewn upon the ground, but it’s a desolate place. Carla had told us the story of a British prospector who had high tea daily in his cave, and a German bootlegger who hauled in a Victrola so he could listen to Wagner, but it’s hard to imagine now. We follow a series of white poles and the contours of the rocky hills and a brushy wash, keeping sight of the oasis in the distance, and we gradually make our way back to the town.
We stop and chat with a young man named Eddie from the Nevada Conservation Corps who’s working on a restoration project by a creek. The crew is focusing on a pupfish refuge, but also improving the overall habitat to enable wetlands to return. “Come back in five years and see what we’ve done,” Eddie tells us. I hope we will.
(There are good people out there, quietly doing good things.)
The Amargosa Opera House
I cannot believe I had never heard the story of Marta Becket and her opera house. A young dancer from New York, Marta was vacation camping in Death Valley with her husband in 1967, when they discovered their trailer had a flat tire. While her husband tended to repairs, Marta began to wander, drawn to group of old adobe buildings nearby that had been constructed in the 1920s by the Pacific Coast Borax Company as part of a complex for a company town. The largest of the buildings was an abandoned theater, then called Corkhill Hall. “I can dance here,” Marta thought.
“Peering through the tiny hole, I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself,” she later wrote. “The building seemed to be saying…..Take me…..do something with me…I offer you life.”
Marta and her husband agreed to rent the theater for forty-five dollars a month, and began its transformation. Her first performance was on February 10, 1968, when she danced for an audience of twelve. But although she performed regularly three nights a week, sometimes no one came at all. Her solution: paint an audience.
It’s a place of magic. Diane and I walk through the theater led by a young man named Jason who shows visitors around and works in the restaurant; he’s originally from Indianapolis and lived in Los Angeles for a while, but he found his way here and it felt right to him. We are astonished by the murals, which took four years to complete. There are kings and queens and knights, acrobats, dancers, and troubadours, angels and birds on the ceiling…a whimsical and sumptuous rendering of one woman’s beautiful, madcap vision. There’s something extravagantly defiant about it. Long after her husband was no longer on the scene, Marta continued to dance and paint, living on until her 90s. Her final show was February 12, 2012.
We visit the hotel, also, where Marta’s artistic touch is evident in every room: trompe l’oeil paintings, decorative parrots and clowns and peacock wings on the walls, dancers and angels galore. We meet Holly, who was Marta’s caregiver at the end of her life, but Holly tells us that it was Marta who cared for her. Standing beneath a mural of three cherubic angels, Holly shares a little about the rough times she has endured, most painfully the loss of two children; she was on the verge of giving up, but Marta had faith in her. “I think she’s still looking out for me,” says Holly. I think she’s still looking out for all of us, in a way. Her message is to be unafraid. Dream. Dance. Do. (Even if no one is watching.)
Tecopa and Beyond
And we go to Tecopa, of course. It’s a high-energy vortex; you can sense it right away. Maybe it’s the therapeutic, geothermal heated, mineral-rich hot springs, or the way the chalky salty minerals make the ground look snow-dusted, or how the mountains glow orange at dusk and the night sky blazes with stars. But maybe it’s the flourishes of quirky creative humans: a purple-painted kiosk, an old truck rusted and peeling into multiple hues and abandoned in a field like an art installation, or in one place the twinkle of tiny red and green lights in the trees and the air, so it’s like walking through a fairyland, and it isn’t even Christmas.
The highlights of our too-brief stay in Tecopa were a dip in the silky waters of the hot spring pool at Delight’s bathhouse, and a fabulous meal at Eric Scott’s Steaks and Beer, a gourmet restaurant in the proverbial middle of nowhere. (Follow the yellow-lit path…)
But speaking of meals, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention El Valle Restaurant in Amargosa Valley, where we stopped for Mexican food, including homemade tortillas, and it was top-notch. El Valle is run by a lovely lady named Ampara, whose Christmas tree is still standing in the entryway, but it’s been redecorated as a New Year’s tree, because 2018 is going to be a great year, and in a couple of weeks she plans to turn it into a Valentine’s Day tree, because, as Ampara is fond of saying, “Why not?”
Is there a theme to our wanderings? Today I think it would be about daring to aspire and create, and having the freedom to do so. There’d be something about resilience, too…and the spirit of why not.
The Ash River Wilderness Preserve
Our trip culminates at the Ash River Wilderness Preserve, and it’s the perfect place to be still and contemplate, the perfect place from which to return. We take the boardwalk path and look upon a crystal clear aquamarine stream. From the bottom, nearly fifteen feet down, 2800 gallons of fresh water is flowing to the surface and collecting in limestone bedrock. This aquifer has given life to fish, animals, and humans for eons. Ancient indigenous tribes saw this as the holy and sacred place it is, and they came from miles away and all directions to gather here.
In 1980, a corporation proposed turning this place into a development that would include hotels, strip malls, an airport, and over 30,000 homes. Why drive to Las Vegas, when you can bring Las Vegas here? Thankfully, vigilant citizens stood up and fought it, and today Ash Meadows is a wildlife refuge.
We stood at the source. And today, as always, there was the water, and the wild heart of the desert, trying to be.