Location: Adelanto, CA
I saw lots of great photographs today, but it was a day of words. It was a day of sometimes violent discussion in my head. As I drove across the desert my sun-baked brain created images that you will have to wait for my fiction to read. Earlier I said that an artist gets close to madness. Today I was an artist. I guzzled a gallon of gatorade as I crossed the desert and was peeing yellow crystals at the end of the day.
I was alone. Really, really alone. I was a tiny ant, crawling over the surface of the universe. I started to think about that empty space, and I compared it to my own soul. I started to think about a photograph, and more than that the story of the photograph. The picture is a nude, her dark skin in sharp contrast to the shimmering mountains in the distance. Her bare feet hover above the superheated white sand. Her long black hair falls straight to the Earth (perhaps with a detour over a shoulder), giving a line for her body to curve against, perpendicular to the unforgiving horizon. It is early morning, and the desert is hot already, but the light is coming from the side, creating dramatic shadows that make the curves curvier and the lines more dramatic. She is the goddess of the desert, cruel and lonely. I imagine the position of her down to each finger, and I imagine the sun dancing over her skin, the shadows playing over her curving neck. Lines and curves. Her face holds rapture. Her image thrills me and propels me.
I join 395 south and it is an easy drive. There are sections where there is a passing lane and others where it is a simple two-laner. During the two-lane sections people were behaving badly. I was putting along in one of those sections when I heard a siren behind me, very close. There was a trooper right on my butt. I signaled and pulled over, and he went blasting by. I slid back onto the highway. I was in the next town when I pulled aside for an ambulance. There was trouble ahead. Actually, for me there was inconvenience ahead. Trouble had already been and gone, exacting his terrible toll.
I watched ahead as a helicopter rose and shook the heavens as it shattered away. Inside was at least one human life on the edge of expiring. That life was surrounded by the greatest people and the greatest technology ever dedicated to preventing the fragile thread of life from being snapped. Our tax dollars at work, and well spent. I thought back to the crosses I had seen at the side or the road in Montana, a state-sponsored appeal to drivers to imagine their own mortality. I came over a rise, and below there were flashing lights and a cluster of vehicles. I pulled to the side to let another meatwagon pass.
As I approached, there was a flagman controlling traffic, They had opened one lane, but it was to be shared by northbound and southbound traffic. The collision (safe driving is no accident) occurred right where four lanes went to two. I know what happened; nobody has to explain it to me. Someone tried to push that passing lane a little too far.
What got me most about the roadside crosses and about this horrible thing I saw was time. Fifteen seconds before the disaster no one knew that they were about to suffer horribly or even die. They were just driving along. I imagined the horror of coming over a rise to see a pair of headlights staring you in the face. As I pulled through the forest of demolished vehicles and fire trucks, I could not help but rubberneck, despite my earlier vows to do no such thing. I had to know the magnitude of the damage. There was a car torn right in half. There was a guy panning a video camera over the wreckage. In an ultimate act of hypocrisy, I wanted to punch that guy. As I crawled through the scene, trying really hard to keep my eyes glued to the car in front of me, I saw probably ten people loading a victim strapped into a total immobilization litter very gently into the back of a truck even as an ambulance stood waiting.
I was barely ten miles south of that scene, driving with people who must have seen what I saw, who must have seen the horrible cost that saving thirty seconds in a six-hour trip can exact. No lesson, no learning. People were still doing the same stupid shit. People who had just seen a horrible accident were completely unaffected as far as their own mortality was concerned. I drove on knowing the the same assholes were going north, and at any moment I would be faced with leaving the road or having a headon.
I am not going to enumerate the endless series of phenomenally reckless acts I saw on 395. The whole time I was on that road I was surrounded by dickheads. There are crosses along that road, not state-sponsored but more ornate, testifying to the price of stupidity and impatience. After my travels, if there is one thing I could teach my beloved country, it’s patience. Slow down, guys, you’ll get there. Pass with care.
I drank a gallon of Gatorade, a gallon of water, and a large Coke as I crossed the desert that day; when I finally pulled in for a rest in Adelanto I was more like Jerry-jerky. If you really can sweat the toxins out of your body, I was pure that night. (Lord knows I picked up some toxins in Ely.) I bought a six-pack at the local grocery and drank only one of them out of some sense of obligation. I was just really, really thirsty. I took a cold, cold shower and finally shed the heat of the desert.
This was just going to be a quick episode. As I moved over the face of the Earth today I was filled with words. All kinds of words, most of them too private not to disguise as fiction. I came to a new understanding with The Fish. I’m a cold one. At least when it counts I am. But out there I got closer to the story. I put in (in my head) a couple of new ideas. As I moved from Nevada to California I was imagining what people would say about The Fish, and while the exercise was embarrassingly vain it also helped me define just what it was I wanted to say. That’s the magic of the desert. There is a stark beauty that dances with you, but there is always the reminder of death breathing hot and dry on your neck. The desert makes a poet of all of us.