Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter In Mojave


It is a city on the edge of forever. Endless desert, empty and dead, even on the holiday to resurrection. My family has lived here for generations. My great-grandfather and grandfather built a cabin in Bouquet Canyon in the early 1900s, and we used to go there for long weekends when I was a child. This is where we would go deer hunting and fishing. Here in the sands among the Joshua trees are my roots. Joshua tree: Yucca brevifolia, a monocotyledonous tree given its more Biblical name by Mormons who crossed the Mojave in the mid-1800s. Whenever I travel to Mojave, I am reminded of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert, tempted by Satan.

It is Easter and we are driving out Highway 14. The temperature is still mild, even for late April, and heavy dark clouds hover in the sky with only patches of blue and thin, wispy strands of white. All of this skyscape indicates a low pressure system moving out to make way for a high pressure system later in the week, where the winds will kick up, and the temp will rise to more summer-like conditions. But today, there is still a bit of moisture in the breezy, cool air.

At one point in my life, I thought about moving here. Rent is cheap, and housing is abundant. But I drove through the open gridwork of streets, the miles and miles of empty roads baked by the sun, the sun-bleached tract homes with blank windows, and I came to the realization that I could not survive here. There is a nothingness that is profound.

On every corner, a fast food restaurant. Burger King, Carl’s Junior, KFC, and McDonald’s. Liquor stores and faceless donut shops. One mall with a strip of nicer restaurants, always packed with tired, bleached out people waiting endlessly for tables on Saturday night. That is all there is to do here: eat and go to movies. Driving through the neighborhoods at night, I see people hanging out in their garages, drinking, playing nortenas. Or, the blue glow through shuttered windows of plasma televisions and home theater set-ups. People stay entertained in their homes because there is not much else to do.

Walmarts, Super Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs, Targets, WinCo—they dot every expansive parking lot. This is the place to buy in bulk. It is a desert, I guess, and supplies are hard to come by, and even if that is not the case anymore, people stock up for Armageddon. That is the other main attraction out here in Mojave: religion. Churches are everywhere, mostly Pentecostal Christian varieties. I interviewed a real estate guy out here last summer for a story I wanted to write. He told me he moved here because the San Fernando Valley was the porn capital of the world, and he did not want to raise his kids there. Out here in Mojave, he is ready. The end of times is coming. Barack Obama is a Muslim. And he is ready for the fire next time. He told me of President Obama’s secret plan: collapse the financial sector and the infrastructure of the United States from within. It is a plot, a Muslim plot to take control of our country. I asked him what possible benefit would Obama get for destroying the country that elected him president. “I’m just saying,” he insisted in his bovine manner. “Barack Obama is a Muslim.”

“So, he’s a Muslim, let’s say. We’ve had a Catholic president, loads of Christian presidents. I’m sure we have had an atheist or two.”

“Barack Obama is a Muslim, that’s all I’m saying.”

I dropped the subject and the story. Cities on the edge of forever, living in a shroud of ignorance and desperation, are not that interesting. They are everywhere and nowhere, and therein lies the problem in our country. These are the people willing to believe the fantastical because the reality is too dark and oppressive. Barack Obama is a Muslim, and that is why America is going to hell in a hand basket. Couldn’t be that our culture is collapsing upon itself because we are suspicious of intelligence, we have bankrupted our education system, and we are mired in greed and narcissism? It couldn’t be that we have been telling the story so long that we are the greatest country on earth that we have finally accepted our own arrogance as fact.

Out in Mojave, one can see the America of the Cold War, back when we thought we were fighting against something that turned out to be ghosts and shadows. Be on the lookout for the communist next door. In any case, from the 14 we can see the Lockheed plant with the skunk on the side of the gigantic hangar in the middle of the desert: the Skunkworks 2.0. They relocated here from Burbank in the valley. Now the Bob Hope Airport sits next to a Superfund site, so toxic it will take millions to clean up. My grandfather worked his life there, and I wonder if his cancer might have been caused by his work environment. Just speculating.

There is also Blackbird Park, an air museum featuring a number of planes parked in a landscaped field. Here is the whole history of the Antelope Valley and Mojave aerospace industry. Not too far away is Edwards Air Force Base, home to the west coast NASA space shuttle program. Lots of the testing for the shuttle missions was done here, and when the weather was bad in Florida, the shuttles often came down with a thunderous sonic boom to this airfield in the Mojave. The space shuttle program is at an end. Just a few missions left and then the fleet will be mothballed. What’s next? Didn’t George W. Bush want to go to Mars? Maybe there is aerospace life left in the Mojave. There are always more bombers to build. However, the planned international airport to rival LAX was a bust here. There is an airport, but no one chooses it as a departure point or arrival destination. So it stands here in the middle of nowhere.

There is a lot to see in Mojave. Shacks and desolation, western towns, old movie sets, abandoned mines, boarded-up stores and housing plans that dried up and blew away. Why come here on Easter Sunday, 2011? I still have family here, and I am sure they get tired of me dragging them to civilization down in Los Angeles. I feel bad because it is a slap in the face to where they live, but the harsh and brutal landscape, a creation of both desert and economic starvation, is hardly conducive to a respite away from the city, a day to appreciate the burgeoning spring.

However, the air is clear, the sun is brilliant when it makes its way around the dark clouds, and the static electricity raises gooseflesh on the skin. The Mormons thought the Yucca trees reminded them of Joshua supplicating to heaven with outstretched arms. Therefore: the Joshua tree. Mojave is a land locked in a vow of silence amid the thunder of man-made flight. The largest bird has jet engines, and heat waves dance an ancient ritual across the blacktop on miles and miles and miles of empty roads. Windmills slash at the sky. The California Aqueduct meanders through the sand in a concrete ditch. Mojave is a land of waiting, of praying, of heat and death, and in the event of hard rain, a tiny bit of green life one day that will burn up in a flash of heat from the desert sun tomorrow. It is a land locked in on Easter Saturday, the pause in the universe when the entire Christian world waited for Jesus to resurrect the next day. Only in Mojave, the resurrection never comes, and the land and its people have made a career out of waiting for what comes next.

2 comments:

Pope John The Tall said...

Paul:
Nice piece, poignant yet very straightforward. I particularly liked the part about the man you interviewed for a story that insisted Barrack Onama is a Muslim. (Actually, I think Obama might be an alien from the planet Yomama, but what do I know.)
Anyway, nice job; reading your essays makes me want to be a better writer. Hell, reading your stuff makes me want to be a writer, period.
Thanks.

Paul L. Martin said...

Thanks, John, for your comment. I am so pleased to hear from The Pope, and that He reads my blog and deems it important enough to speak ex cathedra; I am speechless. The other pope, the one with the red Prada shoes, he never answers my emails, never comments, didn't even send a thank you note for the home-made sour kraut I sent him at Christmas. Oh well.

Might I make a suggestion? How about a sermon from your balcony next Sunday. I think the neighbors would enjoy a blessing, if Harley will surrender his spot for an hour or so. Take care.