OUT THERE : Cruising Highway 62 with Yucca Man, a Stripper Named Dixie and the Mojave’s Other Mirages
I GUESS MIRAGES ARE FUNNY to some people, because when I told them I was writing about the desert, they laughed. They laughed because they think that, for comedy writers, everything is reflected in some sort of fun-house mirror, that if I were planning to take on the Mojave, it could only be because I had discovered some sort of mirth-provoking treasure of the Sierra Madre. Well, OK, I admit it: The road runner is funny. Every time I see one, I think of the old Road Runner cartoons and I hear “beep-beep” and it makes me laugh. In fact, the road runner has been eliciting chuckles around the country these days. It seems that one of these entertaining avians stowed away on a U-Haul leaving Twentynine Palms for Eau Claire, Wis. When it was returned to Joshua Tree National Monument from its four-day road-run, according to the Hi-Desert Star, the media-savvy bird sprinted toward a cluster of photographers, paused for a photo opportunity, then headed for the dunes.
But generally speaking, the desert is not funny. It does not make me laugh. In fact, it’s the one place I go to stop laughing, to stop being funny, to stop reacting.
Now I realize that Los Angeles qualifies as the desert, but I’m not talking about Los Angeles. It triggers too much of a reaction; it makes me think of jokes about things like convergent evolution, instead of just wondering about things like convergent evolution. You don’t know what this is? Convergent evolution is the term that biologists apply to species that look almost exactly alike even though they have evolved in different habitats and therefore have no genetic bond, such as a cactus in the Sahara and a cactus in the Mojave. To me, the Los Angeles example of convergent evolution is agents and lawyers. See what I mean? Los Angeles makes me do this.
I find that it takes about two hours’ worth of driving east to get to the true desert, the America that can’t be topped because it has one comment and one comment only--"Oh, yeah, right. That was so funny I forgot to laugh"--the America that is the ultimate laugh track, writhing in perpetual silence. Significantly, the entrance to this part of the desert is marked by the Joshua tree. This underestimated vegetable is a 12-step program that doesn’t care what your name is, what you do for a living, or what kind of addiction you have. Maybe the Mormons were on to something in 1851 when they named this weird manifestation in the middle of nowhere the “Joshua tree.”
Its shape, they believed, with its uplifted arms, mimics a supplicant such as the biblical character Joshua, perhaps gesturing wildly toward the Promised Land. In addition to its high rank in the Mormon galaxy of ethereal messengers, the Joshua tree is also regarded by Native Americans as a stairway to heaven. And even the occasional unaffiliated wanderer has taken note of this prickly Mojave signpost. In 1849, William Manly called the Joshua “a brave little tree to live in such a barren country.” Actually, it’s not a tree at all. As the naturalist Ann Zwinger has written, Joshuas “are characterized by a lack of balance, perhaps a branch stuck out too hastily, a certain awkwardness of stance, yuccas with aspirations to be trees.”
The Joshua tree grows in only one place in the entire world: in the “high desert” of the Mojave, between 2,000 and 6,000 feet. Who lives among these being-like yuccas that point ecstatically toward Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or nowhere? Are denizens of the high desert unable to live at lower or higher elevations? And as Blockbuster Video continues to stake claims faster than a sunbaked prospector on funny dust, what is the future of a region that, unlike the rest of the country, wants to prove nothing and has so far resisted outside attempts to do the opposite?
In pursuit of a reaction-free state, I have come across some answers to these questions while traversing Highway 62, a kind of electrical wire that appears to connect the dots of the Morongo Basin--"one of Southern California’s nicest desert areas in which to live and play,” says the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce--with civilizations to the west. The Morongo Basin is home to such towns as Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Landers, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. (Incidentally, “Morongo” is not pidgin-Indian for “where the morons go,” which is something I once pondered in Los Angeles. Morons, of course, are found at every elevation.) What you can find here that you can’t find anywhere else is a certain kind of color at a certain time of the day and a solitude that calms you down because it’s louder than your heartbeat.
At the same time, the place is lousy with all the American demons (and hence your own)--ironically enough, not at rest in this quiet place but in a state of full-blown being. This is the parched land where firewater figures as prominently as H2O, where DUI busts often splash as big as drought updates in the local paper, the land where raids on methamphetamine labs are as much a part of the landscape as dust devils, the land of cars without emission controls, 24-hour Bible theme parks, people living in abandoned movie sets that mimic the desert, the land of Willie Boy and the last cowboy-Indian shootout--a civics lesson in personal rights, a small stage upon which the country’s secret side is anything but a mirage.
About 60,000 people live in the Morongo Basin here among the Joshuas, many of whom are “delightful,” according to the Chamber of Commerce. The residents of today are not unlike those who have always been drawn to the Mojave, often here to start over, and in some ways like the Joshua tree--brave, without guile and flowering occasionally. That part of the world known for its zoning restrictions does not always nurture these qualities, but out here, the desert functions as a kind of topographical greeting card minus the smile face. “Don’t worry,” it seems to say. “Don’t be happy either. Don’t be anything. Just be. It all started here. It will end here. This is what the ocean looked like before water, before scorpions turned into crayfish, before they built Motel 6. You say you’re in trouble with the IRS and you can’t file for Chapter 11 because you’ve already gone bankrupt twice? Relax. Put on some sun block. Park your carcass. We’ve got an RV hookup with your name on it. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
This is not to say that Highway 62 is paved with IOUs. It is to say that everyone in the desert has a story. Here are some of them.
“I FIRST CAME HERE WHEN I WAS 7,” says Jimmy Pritchett, who is now 24 and an interpretive ranger at Joshua Tree National Monument. His family had left Los Angeles because of the noise, and he recalls that at that time, “the only park I had heard of was Jellystone, as in Yogi Bear.” Now, Pritchett takes a great delight in revealing to others that parks are a place you can go to get away from television or the tyranny of other small appliances. Joshua Tree, in particular, is a good escape, because of its size (560,000 acres) and countless bizarre rock formations. A few years ago, Pritchett recalls, “we discovered two kids living in a cave with their mother. They had been there for about a week, living off of Captain Crunch. The only reason they came out was a rattlesnake.” Like many naturalists, Pritchett feels that snakes need a publicist. “They don’t chase you down,” he says, implying that a family of three humans may be able to coexist indefinitely in a cave with a snake. Not unlike such celebrated sand hermits as Paiute Pete, Peg Leg Smith and Chuckwalla Bill, “snakes just want some peace and quiet,” Pritchett says.
Yet, there are those who are drawn to this topographic solitude in order to explode. Evidently, their favorite spot is the Joshua Tree visitors’ center. For instance, one day several years ago a man stormed into the center, upset that Ronald Reagan’s first term was almost over. “He thought that too many people were making bad comments about Reaganomics,” Pritchett says. “I listened to him fume, and then he left.” There was the time that some guy in a jeep threatened to blow up the center. “It was around midnight,” Pritchett says. “He had some ammunition and flammable material. He had removed the retaining wall. The sheriff came and (the guy) killed himself. Later, there were rumors. Maybe something happened to him at another park. Maybe he was mad at a government agency. We never really found out.”
Is the Joshua tree a flash point for private turmoil, a poultice for your own personal psychic fever? Pritchett recalls that during the harmonic convergence in 1987, which many viewed as the cataclysmic celestial event of this millennium, “people were lying in the streets waiting for saucers. There was even some guy calling himself ‘Jesus Christ.’ The K mart in Yucca Valley wouldn’t take his checks.” They wouldn’t take mine either. Is there a connection? Wasn’t bad credit predicted by Nostradamus? Isn’t there always some guy in the desert calling himself “Jesus Christ”? To use a term enjoying a vogue in recent years, Pritchett gets a lot of these linkage theories. “I heard that once there were a couple of people driving through Pinto Basin,” he says. “They mentioned Elvis and their lights went off. But that’s just something I heard.”
WHO WAS THE FIRST MAN to venture into the high desert? According to an old park ranger joke, it was Yucca Man. According to archeologist Ruth Dee Simpson, it was Calico Man, who, perhaps unaware of the visitors’ center, didn’t really hang around Joshua Tree, but in his trek across the Bering land bridge, got almost as far south as Barstow. To some, Barstow is known more as a Johnny Carson joke word or home of the Ralph Lauren factory outlet than as the cradle of American civilization. But for the 72-year-old Simpson, it’s the freeway exit leading to a controversial archeological site that she discovered in the 1950s. It is here that, as she interprets the evidence, someone was fashioning tools out of stone more than 100,000 years ago. Who was this person? As some women spend their lives in pursuit of the elusive male, Simpson has spent her life tracking down Calico Man.
Now curator emeritus of archeology at the San Bernardino County Museum, Simpson can generally be found in the basement thereof, trying to extract information about Calico Man from ancient stones. When not there, she is lecturing about Calico Man. When not lecturing, she publishes the “Friends of Calico” newsletter. When not publishing, she is digging at the site of Calico Man. A lonely outpost administered by the Bureau of Land Management and generally listed in tour books immediately after the description of Calico, the ghost town, the Calico Early Man site has a few ghosts of its own. One of them is the late paleontologist, Dr. Louis Leakey, who visited the site in 1963, and proclaimed that indeed, man had lived in North America 100,000 years ago. Simpson had hoped this would persuade skeptics that she had truly unearthed something of monumental importance. Talk about linkage! If the stone tools found outside Barstow really are tools, and if they really are as old as Simpson thinks they are, and if they really resemble Pleistocene tools found in Siberia, as Russian scientists think they do, then that proves that glasnost is older than the desert.
As far as many archeologists are concerned, that’s a big “if,” despite Leakey’s validation. “People resented Leakey being here,” Simpson says, “and felt that ‘we’re American, we can handle our own sites.’ ” The Calico site remains controversial for two reasons: a) It makes other North American findings, such as Clovis Man in New Mexico, who is “only” 7,000 to 12,000 years old, less consequential, and b) the remains of whoever it was who was making tools here have not been discovered. According to Simpson, it was probably Neanderthal man or, “crossing your fingers,” ancestral Homo sapiens, but even she admits that it is “unprecedented” for a dig to go on this long without the digging up of something other than tools. “There’s the feeling that we’re crazy,” she says, which is why for quite some time, the site has been excavated and studied only by volunteers, many of whom are Simpson’s age. “Other people may not care,” Simpson says, but, like the classic desert wanderer, “I’m looking for the truth. That’s why I go back.”
THE THEME OF RETURN IS important in desert mythology. For those who believe that initials are prophetic, Bill Jay Weir achieved his alphabetic destiny 15 years ago when he left Los Angeles, relocated to Yucca Valley and started B. J.'s School of Blackjack. But to him, it’s just a coincidence that his initials also stand for his favorite game. “I always loved craps,” he says, “but I went to blackjack because I could sit down.”
B. J.'s school is on Highway 62 amid one of those cinder-block storefront strips that are kind of an inadvertent architectural echo of the desert--monotonous, low-lying, just there. (Somehow, this can be a satisfying combination in nature; as a commercial environment, it does not please the eye.) So if you’re not really looking for this card college, it’s easy to miss. I found B. J.'s because one day I was reading the local phone book, for me a Rosetta stone whenever I’m searching for answers. And there appeared my light bulb for the day, listed under vocational schools. Never one to turn down tips on beating the house at blackjack, I jumped out of my favorite hot spring and headed right over.
“The thing about blackjack,” says the cheerful professor, “is that people pick up the jargon. Everyone knows ‘eights or aces,’ but they really don’t know how to play. Except for a lucky streak, the casino has a 6% to 14% advantage over you--while you’re sober. After that, it gets worse. What I teach is, there’s a proper way to play every conceivable hand versus every dealer’s up card, and if you can reduce the edge to you, a goal of $15,000 or more per year from weekend play will be readily obtainable.” In other words, Weir is not a high roller, and he likes it that way.
“My wife and I go to Vegas every two weeks,” Weir says, “and make anywhere from $50 to $500 per trip. As smart blackjack players, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Nevada and the casinos. They make plush hotel rooms and gourmet food available at modest prices. They hire friendly people to deal our cards and make us welcome, and they maintain a fully stocked cashiers’ cage to fill our pockets with cash at the end of our blackjack play.” He pauses, and then adds, “How sweet it is!” Having parlayed blackjack into a way of life, as well as a method of conversation, Weir is not interested in pushing his luck even further. With great reluctance he dons a pair of shades for a photo opportunity. “I don’t want the house to recognize us when we walk in,” says the unassuming card counter.
To reach the state of mind where you can easily say that you don’t want to be recognized when you walk into a room in which you successfully perform the skill required for that room, it helps to live in the desert, where the primary struggle isn’t for money or fame but for water. Have some agua , who needs the red carpet? At least that’s one of my theories. I ask Weir if he agrees. Has living in the desert helped him reach a different consciousness? “I wouldn’t know about that,” Weir says, “but I have everything I want.”
His students range in age from 25 to 65, and 40% of them are women. Weir offers various payment plans for his course, involving coupons, advance enrollment, bringing a friend, or all of the above, but basically, the cost is $245. What you get is four classes--every Wednesday night for one month. The classes meet at the blackjack table in Weir’s simulated casino. It’s the only school of its kind in the tri-desert area, so before heading for Laughlin or Vegas or Reno, you might want to stop in Yucca Valley and learn what “eights or aces” really means.
It would seem that just as self-help therapist John Bradshaw advises lost souls to find the child within, Weir is a kind of Mojave wise man, appealing--wittingly or not--to the small-stakes gambler within. “Thou shalt go for it,” the desert scrolls of the 1990s will say when they are unearthed after the millennium. “But within limits.” Incidentally, “eights or aces” is all about turning a bad hand into a good one. A card game that tells you how to do this should only be played in the desert, original site of sacrifice, redemption and getting a suntan even when you feel lousy.
PERSONALLY, I FEEL REDEEMED whenever I find myself in a bookstore; each book is a kind of altered state, and as I wander through those doors of perception, I seem to find some sort of deliverance to a higher power (and, alas, from my piggy bank). And so imagine my excitement when, during one of my reconnaissance missions across Highway 62, I spotted a literary establishment in Twentynine Palms called Raven’s. As Raven himself says, “I brake for used-book stores,” which is exactly what happened.
Raven is a former tattoo artist who had a parlor on Sunset Boulevard across from the Hyatt Hotel. He is well-known in the tattoo subculture and figures prominently in the definitive book on the subject, “Pushing Ink.” He moved to Twentynine Palms nine years ago, a move, he says, that had nothing to do with the fact that the raven is also a desert bird or a trickster of Southwestern Indian mythology. Born with the name Cliff Ingram, Raven was so dubbed by his father, who taught him that his last name was a modern version of English (for the “ing”) and raven (for the “ram”). “So I was always called ‘Raven,’ ” he says. “I don’t know if it’s serendipitous, but the name attracts a lot of people to the store.” So whether or not Raven was destined to live in the desert, he moved here because he “got tired of Los Angeles,” he says, “didn’t want to go too far away, and knew I could still tattoo because of all the Marines.” And, of course, there’s our old American pal, personal rights. “Out here,” he says, “you can really let go and drive.”
About two years ago, Raven decided he wanted “a long sabbatical” and opened his bookstore. He reads almost everything that crosses his path, and his favorite books these days are such novels as “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” “Aztec,” “The Lure,” and “Peaceable Kingdom,” and a collection of essays titled “Border Regions of Faith,” which is about “the fringe side of religion.” “I like that one so much I might even keep it,” says the tattooed book dealer as he prepares espresso.
“The bookman’s problem,” Raven continues, “is managing not to acquire too many books. It’s hard because books just seem to attract books.” His store has attracted many used books on almost every subject, reflecting his passion for languages, religion and the classics. The notion of being well-read seems to conjure the urban side of life, or at least access to culture, and Raven admits that “people who haven’t experienced the big city claim to not miss it. The desert is so great in so many ways but it does lack that sparkle.” To stay in touch with glitter refracted in bottles of champagne rather than grains of sand, Raven frequently tunes his radio to classic stations in Los Angeles, San Diego, or Las Vegas. I wonder: Perhaps this is what the Joshua tree is doing, listening, not gesturing; maybe this is why it has frozen so, why it looks so exquisitely off balance, with a branch cocked this way and that, so many frequencies calling, so many notes to hear.
WITHOUT A doubt, one of the strangest tunes ever to be broadcast--at least to be received by one of my frequencies--is the one emanating from “Exotic World,” a distant time /space in the Mojave just outside of Victorville, north of Highway 62. There are fewer rocks here than in the Morongo Basin, and more Joshuas, the spindly trees appearing to congregate and lean ever so closely to the allure of minor keys, perhaps some sort of musical version of phototropism.
“Exotic World” is a way station announced by a sign and a tattered American flag above an iron gate where both the pavement and “Regular World” have run out of things to do. In perhaps another example of nomenclatural destiny, here on the far side of Wild Road exists the Strippers’ Hall of Fame. Tour guide Dixie Evans is known on the ecdysiast circuit as “the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque.” In addition to Dixie, the hall of fame, which isn’t really a hall, is the major attraction at the ramshackle and sand-bound headquarters for the Exotic Dancers’ League of America.
Why would anyone build a strippers’ museum in the middle of the desert? I’ve heard about shrines to bats, snakes and frogs, but what does erotically peeling your clothes off in front of strangers have to do with the Mojave? The more I pondered this question, the more it made sense: The desert is bare, although cloaked in mystery; look away, look back, it shows you another side, but only for a moment, and then you may never see it again. Of course, as it turns out, the Strippers’ Hall of Fame is here not as an intentional metaphor but because the guy who owns it got a good deal on some land and got tired of living in San Pedro.
He happens to be Charlie Arroyo, widower of the late and legendary stripper Jennie Lee, who founded the Exotic Dancers’ League in 1962. When she died two years ago, her old friend Dixie assumed leadership of the society, diligently trying to preserve a past that she believes is no longer appreciated or valued. “We were burlesque dancers,” she says with pride, vogueing rather wobbly (she’s in her senior years) for two visitors. “You’re too young to remember Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr and Lili St. Cyr, but that’s when stripping was an art. People used to line up for miles just to see my friend Lili take a bubble bath on stage. There’s no mystery today.” (Ironically, one of the things that the dancers’ league does to keep afloat these days is sell highly suggestive photos of new members to men’s magazines, a practice Dixie laments--and supervises).
Although the rambling premises are as gravity-afflicted and truthful as an aging hoochie-coochie girl, Exotic World remains a house of mystery, true to the lost art of burlesque. You see, there are all these veils, and Dixie removes them one at a time, in a dance she knows quite well. . . . First, she reveals her foyer, festooned with all the glory of the past--Jennie Lee in a negligee, Ann Corio in long black gloves, Pink Champagne on a platter, moments of promise frozen in time, even Dixie herself, as a Minsky girl, in New York, the desert of theatrical mirage. In a flash, we’re in a bedroom now, here is Jennie Lee’s feather boa, her G-string, her pasties. And then through closets, letters from soldiers, pressed flowers, tributes from “industrialists,” old magazines for “nudists.”
The exotique shows us almost everything, peeling off another layer of time, striking a pose with each display, but suddenly, realizing that she has taken almost all of it off, Dixie completes the dance, closing her scrapbook and a door, and now we are in the living room, in the present, standing before an urn containing Jennie Lee’s ashes, a burlesque dancer’s life stripped to the bone. Dixie is once again ensconced in her veils, beginning a new seduction. “Please come back any time,” she says, “and here, have some T-shirts.”
SO, TO ANSWER MY OWN question, no, I don’t think that the people who flourish here would do so well at other elevations. I don’t think Exotic World would be so exotic on the beach. I don’t think Raven’s Used Book Store would be an oasis where it snows. I don’t think B. J.'s School of Blackjack would instruct in the land where everyone’s got an angle. For now, like the Joshua tree, the inhabitants of the Morongo Basin exist at 2,000 to 6,000 feet, their dreams hijacked by the caprice of an itinerant jinni, but regenerated under the sheltering sky.
And as for whether the dunes will soon become a breeding ground for Chicken on Fire and Thai to Go, a frontier of marketing whims, it seems to me that there are just too many competing signals here, that the illusions manufactured in the sand castles of commerce are not nearly as grand as those found in the Mojave itself. At least that’s what the Joshua tree might say if it could talk. Or maybe that’s what I want it to say. Maybe what it would really say is, “Who’s going to win the Academy Award for best director--Rob Reiner or Penny Marshall?” Or, “Have you ever noticed that Ted Koppel has no legs?” Or, “Chief Gates comes here all the time. He buys aloe vera gel by the case.” OK, OK, Joshua trees don’t talk. Or, if they do, they don’t make topical references. I’m sorry, that was the Los Angeles in me, reacting, not being. Can I go back to the desert now?