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Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt

In Slaughterhouse-Five the Tralfamadorians explain to Billy Pilgrim how time works, how its like looking at the Rocky Mountains, all in a row, all at once and all inevitable. How when they see time they see the permanence of every moment, future, past and present. Rather than a human’s understanding of time, this illusion we have made for ourselves, of beads on a string, one thing after another. But now, I think this isn’t quite the right analogy, because the Rocky Mountains only ever exist as a moment for someone, they are all in a row, all at once, and then they are gone.

It’s hard for me to believe that Joshua Tree exists even now, that it’s sitting out there in the heat, in all it’s total bloated silence. It just seems unreal to me that places like that exist after you leave them, that the sun rolls on and on forever over Joshua Tree.


We left in the late afternoon, folding ourselves into our Toyota Corolla which had only ever driven 10miles (after two days driving in the desert heat we thought the car must be wondering what kind of horrible life it had been born into). We stopped to buy $5 California champagne, shrunk ourselves next to massive jeeps, noted a big billboard advertising a graveyard “voted the world’s best cemetery in 2016!” and hoped we’d make it by sunset.

At one point we had to wait for a train to go past a crossing and it just never ended. We must have been waiting for twenty minutes before Andrew got out of the car to see how long it was. He was a small figure in the distance, a cliched watcher with his hand to his forehead trying to keep the sun out. Apparently there were at least another 40 carriages but he couldn’t even see the tail of it, the snake of coloured boxes winding away.

We turned around and took another route and some woman in a huge car honked at Ruta at the lights so she let her go in front and then when we were back on the freeway sped up beside her yelling “NOW BITCH I WILL DO YOU.” I don’t think i’ve ever laughed so much in a car ride.

I couldn’t really comprehend the dryness of the mountains wrapping up the valley. They must have snow eventually, mountains, because how can you really tell where the top of something that tall is if it doesn’t use the sun to signal you? If it doesn’t glow in the moonlight?

Ruta told us that the first time she visited LA she “was so mad about frozen yoghurt.” My first thought was what did frozen yoghurt did to you but then I realised she meant crazy, that it was the thing to do apparently, that her whole trip revolved around it. The frozen yoghurt shops still exist in LA but like so much of it the colours have faded and are peeling, flaking onto the dry roads.

We hit the desert and the sky just grew and grew. All at once we were in a valley of wind turbines, massive and white and quiet in the orange glow of dusk, they seemed to go on forever and you could imagine zooming right out from them and they’d form a field, like tussock, moving always and sadly with the wind. I wondered how many bald eagles had died out there…

Between what looked like mountains made of boulders (a landscape of some kind of coarse fabric, the rocks like pilling) and the road, would be small houses tucked away, most of them desert red and disappearing, totally alone and facing inwards. Their camouflage proved something we were almost certain of, that when you’re living out there, you’re hiding.

It took us longer than expected, and the woman on the GPS told us we would arrive at our destination at 20:32. “FIFTEEN YEARS?” Andrew said with horror.

But it was worth it once we got there, as we arrived with a sunken sun and a violet sky, the most incredible landscape of piled rocks and alien trees, stretching right out: pulling over to pop champagne and feel the night flood over all of it.


It was an American Dream Come True, as Ruta said.

We unknowingly chose the only campsite with a pile of firewood next to the pit so Mama Ruta lit a fire for us in what seemed like seconds and we put up the tents (leaving the roofs off so the stars would slip in as we slept). We sat around and talked and laughed and drank our wine and Andrew’s birdface jumper looked like a rabbit in the firelight moving as he moved and Ruta drank the hot tea from the industrial thermos that never lets the heat out and Andrew said she must have lips made of asbestos, and Alex setting up his inflatable mattress and saying (in his serious Austrian way) that sometimes it needs extra assistance to get up and that you can “blow it by the mouth” to achieve this and Ruta and I laughing far too much at this and the planes and the stars in all their wild wonder spreading thick over the big sky not quite as close as home but as beautiful and as sad as ever nonetheless.


We got up at 5 and became “sunrise psychos” to get the boys out of bed on time and then found a good set of boulders to watch it. Everything in Joshua tree seems so intentional, so curated, like the placement of every rock, it’s size, it’s orientation, and the trees growing between them were part of a wider plan, a network of decisions made by someone impossibly particular. Sometimes the best way to watch a sunrise is to sit with your back to it, to watch where the darkness is falling, to watch it on the rocks behind, a vivid orange drowned in the blue, the whole shadow of the world slipping down.

We tried to do all our walking before the heat set in, trail after trail, discovering quickly what it meant to be in the desert. Ash became a desert creature quickly. She has a way of blending, of making herself seem natural in a place, her thin limbs making a space for themselves as if they were always meant to be there. So we would watch her with a kind of awe, up ahead.

Adaptable Ash,
Ash in her desert gear,
Ash in the sun,
Ash in white in the distance,
the image of Ash,
her head wrapped up like the bulb of a flower,
shivering in the heat.


Everything in the desert is purple and green, starting (and especially) with the sky. Cacti and their flowers, bursting and exploding between the rocks (they’re quite amazing really, these explosions of plants – all the green trying to spread outwards), the mountains in the distance, bruises under the great eye of the sky and the trunks of trees breaking open, scarred and round.

Andrew told us the story of when he was Peru chasing after some llamas and he fell over and his hand landed on a cactus. “Why were you chasing after some llamas?” “Because they’re not very friendly and I wanted a llama selfie.” “Did you get any llama selfies?” “Yea, many.”


The boulders drift around the desert like icebergs, or like bubbles, depending on how round they are. The plains look like an ocean. Especially coming over the hill and right down into them. It’s hard to believe it isn’t a rolling purple sea. There’s even a sea mist haze, blurring everything, the tall thin cacti suspended as if held up in it, like seaweed. 

How can something so unlike water, so dry and dehydrated, be just like water?

There are oceans everywhere here. I guess that’s what happens when you have a landscape of opposites and their edges. Of flat and hill, of up and down, of rough and rolling, and nothing in between. It turns the whole world into the sea.

As we travelled deeper into the desert, through the hills, layered like a collage, past the grape vines and chilli crops, and palm tree plantations, the temperature climbed. I wonder if the Americans like Fahrenheit as a system because the increments are more dramatic. All I know is that 110 degrees sounds and feels hot.

In the wave of that heat we hit an actual sea. The Salton Sea. Against the horizon it was a strip of molten silver, impossibly bright, facilitating the complete dissolving of sea into sky, turning blue into blue so you couldn’t tell if the black shapes of birds were sitting on the water or drifting lazily above it. The beach around it was white with salt and we stopped in at a diner on the edge of it for some respite. The road was light grey and dusty and the only things stealing from the flatness of the place was the diner’s sign and an abandoned boat, leaning to one side as if exhausted. It was a small place with a low ceiling completely covered in dollar bills and messages, notes from visitors. It felt like the sort of place where time stood still, and if it weren’t for the round and round of the ceiling fans you’d hardly know that time ever moved at all.

We asked the old guy who runs the Ski Inn if we could swim in the sea (google was inconclusive). He grinned at us and told us we could but we’d come out thick and white with salt, that it’s 40% saltier than the ocean. Apparently it wouldn’t be much cooler than the air anyway, that it would be like swimming in your own blood.

We left a dollar bill and I wrote on it – America, Land of the Basically Free.

We stopped for lunch at the Buckshot Diner, which is rated on Yelp as the best place to eat in Slab City. My feeling is that it may also be the only place. We sat in an orange leather booth below a painting of a regal tiger and a huge stag head which we figured would definitely kick you to death in your car if you ran into it on the road. There was a mannequin standing across from us in a bright pink branded shirt and an orange mullet with some pretty sassy looking make up on. We admired her from afar and had three simple questions for the waitress when she came to give us the cheque:

-Question One: What is the mannequin’s name
-Question Two: How much is her T-shirt
-Question Three: Why did you just lock us in

We never found out why she locked us into the diner and the mannequin didn’t have a name yet, but I bought her T-shirt for $10, down from $15 because it was the only pink one left and we had to pull her arms off to get it off her.


Salvation Mountain is this incredible painted hill in the middle of the desert. It seems unreal against the incredible bright blue of the sky. It looks like it has been built from plasticine, and cooked in the sun, these pastel colours rolled and stacked and wrapped around trees and layered right up it. A highly religious man dedicated his life to it so it’s covered in bible verses. We drove up further than we should have to park in the shade of a caravan but figured we were all already going to hell so it wouldn’t be too bad. A couple of girls were taking highly crafted instagram shots in front of the shelter part, the bit where hay and paint has been used to build a structure around some old trees. It was beautiful and surreal but the heat was the worst it had been there. Alex thought the guy must have seen Jesus cause he was delusional in the heat. We were basically melting. It feels like opening the oven door over and over, or like you’re existing in your own breath, like your lungs empty out their stale air around you, all over your skin.

Slab City is a kind of rogue community of squatters in the desert, who’ve built a whole world for themselves. All their caravans and tents and old cars are bundled and scattered. Amazingly all the ‘streets’ have names and are marked on google maps even if they exists as ghosts of dirt roads in reality. Driving down one a rabid-looking dog tied to a tree barked at us as we passed. Alex says, “look at his red eyes, it’s like he’s from an umbrella ad.” It must be an Austrian thing.

East Jesus is their collective art project. It’s this big yard with all these wild things made and brought together from whatever they can find. Old TVs with political messages, a boat turned into a hang out zone, sculptures and wooden shelters, pathways to small little rooms covered in mosaiced pieces of mirror, or an old juke box, or half an elephant made from tires. It was eclectic and interesting but it was mostly hot, and the car didn’t stop groaning even after we turned it off and Andrew said his phone was so hot he could iron his clothes with it.


Our trip back to find a place to stay took us to Palm Springs, and the ‘Mirage’ project by Doug Aitken on the hill. Ruta worked her charm and got us in even though the security guard had just closed the gates (“but we have come all the way from LA just to see this!). It was seriously beautiful. It’s a ranch style house clad entirely with mirrors, so every view of it is a surprise, the reflection of something you don’t expect to see, or yourself or the rocky, rolling landscape beyond framed by the infinite image of itself. I stayed too long, trying to see myself from all angles, trying to understand how I fit.

In Pioneer Town we felt like true Americans, we watched the purple sunset over all the old buildings like a film set before eating at the famous inn there (where apparently Paul McCartney had done a surprise show a few months prior) and watched a country music gig before retiring to a nearby campground at the edge of Joshua tree to sleep. By the end we couldn’t believe the weight of the day, the things we had seen and packed into it. The places we had made a part of ourselves.


Somehow I had set up the girls’ tent so that the sun rose exactly behind the tree trunk of the tree we were next to, so we stayed in the shade as long as possible. The boys went to the bathroom early and Andrew must have been in there an hour with the car key doing god knows what but when he came back we found out he was sitting in the toilet waiting for this other guy to leave who took ages and then sprayed heaps of deodorant and Andrew doesn’t like deodorant and there was an awkward silence before Alex says, “Andrew, that was me.”

There were squirrels everywhere, small ones, fat ones, thin ones (but mostly fat ones) scavenging food from the camp grounds and laying themselves flat against the ground. They got into our bags when we weren’t looking and we could barely get angry about it.

We had a slow day back to LA, starting with a small cafe we were mainly using for the powerpoints and the wifi. The guy at the counter made a weird joke about keeping your milk fresh (you leave it in the cow) and then we had an actually decent meal at another diner with all our dietary requirement custom orders (gluten-free, organic, no sugar, no dairy, mostly vegetarian, and Alex who mainly only eats candy).

We found a thrift store where everything was $1 and lost our minds a little bit and came away in some kind of 80s dream and it made all the other thriftshops seem expensive. In the desert you don’t have to go outside to get between shops, they’re often connected, like an internal street, a much colder one, from antiques to records and comic books.

The End was a store on its own though. A beautiful place full of handmade things and wild festival clothes in some kind of hippie fantasy. I’ve always like places called The End, they suggest a beginning without being explicit about it. Like something had to start for us to get here. It seemed an appropriate last stop before the cactus market to end our trip, a dreamy place like an oasis in the heat.

So we again became one with the freeways, Ruta’s CD from pioneer town playing Andrew’s new favourite song: “She made me a Patchwork Quilt” over and over, the country twang bouncing off the walls, the sky moving from purple to blue, the temperature dropping slowly in celsius and quickly in fahrenheit as we left the desert behind us, to leave it there to live on, to exist apparently, always and forever, in some shape or form.

The future stands firm, dear reader, but we move on in infinite space.

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