The U.S. as a whole, and California specifically, is so culturally blended that finding a singular identity for us is nigh impossible. However, as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and the ridiculous urban cowboy fashion trends in Europe and Japan point out, there is nonetheless a serious worldwide obsession with the Wild West. In addition to Busch-swilling NASCAR fans, the Marlboro Man is one of the most powerful icons of America’s roots, and a large part of it is due to the mystique surrounding the open desert. With all of this in mind, a few friends and I spent last weekend wandering Joshua Tree with the aim of finding what all the fuss is about.
Thanks to a wildly wide range of influences — from Hunter S. Thompson’s exploits to “Entourage” to millions of random peyote references in pop culture — the desert has become a top-notch site for getting faded. Also, as evidenced by sketchy trailers hidden among the hills and half-assed cults like the Institute of Mentalphysics, it’s where most of the West Coast’s lunatics, weirdos and outcasts reside. Driving through hellishly long strip mall towns that consist of fast food oases interspersed with scores of desert pun-named dive bars, you get a sense that desert peoples are, to put it crassly, fucked up.
After parking and walking a few miles into emptiness, with the heinous combination of Red Man, doja and hot whiskey scrambling your neatly herded dendrites like cattle rustlers of yore, the initial vibe of the desert is amicable and distinctly beautiful. After living in the clusterfuck of a raccoon brothel that is Isla Vista, spending the occasional stint in a place where the miles of visibility reveal absolutely nothing close to civilization is totally relaxing.
Once the initial infatuation with open spaces dissipates, the situation rapidly changes. Nothing is more awkward than sitting around a campfire, especially when it is completely illegal to have one while lost somewhere deep in the backcountry. At least now I understand yet another reason why hobos drink: When your only options are to look into the softly-lit circle of faces around you and have intimate conversation or stare blankly into the surrounding blackness of a moonless night, booze is your only respite. Thankfully, as soon as the sources of inebriation start getting passed around, the desert begins to take over. The stark emptiness of the desert surrounding offers the perfect stage for permed antics, whether it be running through the brush mostly naked in 40-degree weather or mounting an expedition to climb the nearest ridge to fight the penguins you envision at the top. It’s this freedom that has made places like Joshua Tree such go-to spots for indulging in mind-bending substances.
Yet, after an extended period of time on your own, you soon start to realize that the desert is far from being simply a passive backdrop to your own activities. After traversing a pass through a small mountain range, we came across the inexplicable sight of a true oasis. While we were chilling in the shade of a huge stand of palm trees, I began to realize that being out in the desert actively makes you lose your mind, for I heard some of the most unintelligible shit in the history of language uncontrollably burst forth from my friends’ mouths. Hell, after a while, I even felt myself get caught up in it; soon I was arguing the finer points of why Swiss Army Knives were instrumental in the evolution of man. I mean, I’ve spent weeks deep in the rainforest and never felt even a tinge of insanity. Yet just a few days out in a rock-strewn wasteland and I was pushing the boundaries of theoretical mental physics, as was everyone else. As I read a notebook I filled with gibberish during the trek, I have no idea how the desert gets such a grip on your brain — although I’m starting to understand why all the crazies congregate there.
I left for Joshua Tree with the vague aim of trying to source the aura that gave rise to centuries of idealized imagery surrounding the West, but instead I returned solely with insight into the mental instabilities of people living east of Riverside. Next time, I’m bringing peyote.