When I came to California in 1984 my friend and ex-bandmate Jeff, from Minnesota, was already here, and he kept saying, “You’ve got to go out to the desert, man, come on, let’s go to the desert,” and I thought, what kind of idiot purposely goes to the desert? I pictured what everyone who’s never been to the desert pictures: endless miles of flat dirt and blazing sun. No life anywhere, no breeze. Or the Sahara desert of the movies: giant sand dunes and blazing sun and camels and Bedouins with swords to lop off your noggin. That’s what I thought of when Jeff said, “desert.”
But then a few years later I was living in Topanga Canyon, and my friend Noel said, “You want to go riding with me and Tavis tomorrow?” “Riding” meant mountain bikes, and I was one of them there mountain bikers, so I said, “Sure.” The next day I put my bike into Noels’s Peace March van, climbed in and asked where we were going. “Joshua Tree,” he said, and I’m not sure I knew that Joshua Tree was the desert, but when we got there, I could see that it was indeed the desert. And Jesus, what a desert.
We came out here to ride many times, and each time I fell more in love with the place. It’s the polar opposite of where I come from, but there’s something here that speaks to me. You’re either a desert person, or you’re not. I think a lot of people believe they are desert people and they come out here to Joshua Tree or Yucca Valley or 29 Palms and after a while they say, “Yeah, you know, maybe…maybe this isn’t for me. I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.” Which is fine. Los Angeles is a lot like that too. And New York, and London, and Paris. They all have their mythical bits that attract people, but they also have the reality bits that drive them off.
The third or fourth time we came out here to ride bikes around, Noel, my friend Trevy and I had brought along some bread and cheese and various eating and drinking things, and after we’d been biking in the park all morning (you could do that back then) we were sitting in the van, resting out of the sun and eating with our fingers, and in that moment I thought, “Man, this is perfect. Life is perfect right now. I think I could live out here. All I need is a place to get out of the sun and some bread and cheese.” And now, here I am. I think I may require more than just bread and cheese now, but the idea is the same. I still feel like I’m living in that moment, and life is perfect. As perfect as life can be, anyway.
Coming to the desert for a day or a week is one thing, living out here is another. I actually lived out here before. Briefly. For six or seven months back in the 90s, in a 400 square foot cabin a few miles east of where I’m standing now. It wasn’t fun in the long term, mainly because it was kind of an exile at the time, a place of last resort during the break up of a seven-year relationship, and also because it was one room. No city water, no heat. Just a room with a wood stove and a 3,000-gallon water tank outside. So it wasn’t quite the same experience as I’m having now.
The cabin was isolated. There were a few scattered neighbors, but they were on the other side of giant mounds of boulders, so I could go weeks without seeing another human. Just Mountain lions casually strolling by, desert tortoises, rattlesnakes everywhere, tarantulas, all manner of dangerous creeping things. Where we are now, a few miles west in the highlands, it’s much more green. Desert green, but green. More wildlife. In the first week here a coyote strolled along behind the house about 10 feet away from me, I watched a bobcat pounce on something and carry it away in its teeth, and about a million jackrabbits, chipmunks, quail, and other desert dwellers. And birds. Damn, I hardly ever saw birds at the cabin over in Panorama Heights. But here, lots of birds.
Just like the cabin, this place is right on the border of the National Park. 1,200 square miles of pretty special desert. To call it a different world is an understatement. It’s an alien kind of place, and I guess that’s why people come from all over the world to see it. Germans love it, for some reason. Germans built the house we’re living in, but they only lived here half of the year. I don’t know which half, but I’m glad they sold it to the people who are renting it to us.
So close to Los Angeles, but so far away in the approach to life. There’s less room for appearances out here. When you see those young women on Instagram smiling and skipping through the Joshua Trees in their platform sandals, just know that as soon as the pictures were finished, they were back in the air-conditioned SUV drinking their cucumber water or whatever they drink these days. The kids. Hurrying back to poolside at the 29 Palms Inn. Not that there’s anything wrong with the pool at the 29 Palms Inn.
But the park seems to have been taken over by Instagram somehow. On those biking trips I first took out here, you could pedal all over the place and not see another person for hours. It’s not like that anymore. But maybe the National Parks will become passe to the kids soon. They’ll be all Instagrammed out. All the selfies will be taken. It won’t be novel or cool to post a picture of yourself kissing a Joshua Tree. Friends will just LOL and say, “Why are you still going out THERE?!” LOL. Then they’ll move on to trample something else in their desperate quest to be just like everyone else.
Anyway, here we are. We’re six months in, but it feels like it’s only been a few weeks. I believe this is the last place I’ll ever live because I can’t see ever going back.