- Mojave desert, late 80s. There is perhaps nowhere on earth as cold and dark as the belly of the Mojave Desert an hour before sunrise: a cold and dark sufficiently dense as to be almost transparent, and to this day that bitter cold, that utter dark, the rumble of the diesel engines of the tractor trailers, the everpresent, bludgeoning smell of their exhaust, and the acrid taste of the Circle K coffee form an emotional cabal: I cannot think of one without being reminded of the totality of the others. I worked as a cashier for four summers at a Circle K store on the edge of the town on the edge of the desert: being the first store for a hundred clicks if coming from Los Angeles to the south or Barstow from the east, aside from the predominating truckers, we got tourists, skiiers headed to Big Bear, cops, film crews, Ozzy Osbourne and his entourage, deadheads, drugmules, salesmen, Hell's Angels on the go, Timbuk 3, vanloads of immigrants, tour buses, hippies, tumbleweeds, and the botched desert town inhabitants.
The manager warned me of what would turn out to be the weirdest thing to happen: "You'll eventually get a guy come into the store who'll beeline for the ice cream freezer and just start chowing down. Whatever you do, don't get in his way. Just let him eat whatever he wants, as much of it as he wants, and don't freak out when he passes out. Call this number -- it's his sister -- and she'll come pick him up and pay for whatever he ate. Just pick up the wrappers so she'll know how much to pay." It happened four or five times in my tenure.
The rule of desert life, as I came to understand it, was never to appear nonplused. Strange things happen with unusual frequency, and it takes a certain, rare kind of personality to thrive there: lacking that, do not ever appear as though you are not in control, or prepared to take control, of a situation unless your action, or inaction, will likely lead to somebody's demise. For most, mere survival in the desert is a social contract and if others feel that you are ill-prepared for it they will favor ties with others at your expense.
That Circle K still exists physically, but when last I saw it, some four or five years ago from the back seat of a moving car, it was a ghost of a building: the windows boarded over, the gas pumps ripped out, weatherbeaten, sunbleached, its front lot populated by tumbleweeds.
- Cima Dome, near Barstow, Mojave desert. I would say more about the loneliest phone booth in the world, of which all that still remains is the cinderblock foundation, but what is said through that phone must never be repeated. Far enough away from anything that the backbone of the night is visible shortly after twilight, the ring of that phone -- though no different in substance than any other of its dying breed -- was like no other sound on earth. In all likelihood, at the other end of that ring -- at least until the Internet got big and the word got out -- was another desert denizen, emotionally burned to the ground -- for whom this call, if unanswered, might be the next to last stop to suicide: the call was a hope against hope that there might possibly be somebody more desperate, desolate, and detached than they. In its later years, I understand, it started getting more drunken and prankish calls, as well as calls from (for some reason) Norway, whose inhabitants, I would imagine, be better equipped than most to deal with desolation.
- 2.5, 5, 10, 15, and 20 MHz: The National Institute for Standards and Technology broadcasts the time continuously on these frequencies from Fort Collins, Colorado. It is the modern gold standard for the voice of desolation, an entrancing, almost hypnotic chant without recipient. Having grown up in a small town on the edge of a massive desert, evidence of that comfortable detachment abounded in the pirate radio stations, filthy citizens-band conversations between anonymous long-haul truckers, mysterious RTTY transmissions probably coming from Edwards AFB, and the interminable high desert nights. To where can one turn for dependable detachment now ? What is the cost to be a member of the always-on society ?
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