to california, with love IV

black and white picture of joshua trees

For me Joshua Tree is a place not of this earth, in fact many places are if you look at them with eyes that detach them from their physical placement and logical accessibility.

There was a moment when i first saw the asymmetrical shape of a lone Joshua Tree on a beautifully composed photograph by Anton Corbijn on the back sleeve of U2’s album of precisely that title. It stood there like it was waiting for something, like everybody seems to be in the desert. Breaking the scanty vegetated flatness with a shaggy brokenness and carelessly groomed wildness and i wanted to go – right away, off into a prickly forest of Joshua Trees.three photos of joshua trees at sunrise

You must know those moments, in which you incomprehensibly and violently want to leave, when some unknown thing or literal object draws you and you don’t even know why, don’t care to know why. It’s just the way it is and that’s that. I could probably explain all of it with my heavy-breathing-love for California, which i tried to avoid because everybody figured automatically i would love it and i just generally don’t like to act the way people think i will. But i won’t explain because some things don’t make sense and that’s how i like it.

So here we are now. Breathing in the alien landscape of Joshua Tree with it’s sweetish air. Miles of powdery sky and Joshua Trees of every shape and size on endless display. After a while soft rock formations, coloured in a shade of creamy unbleached silk, emerge and form little valleys at their feet. Everything takes place in slow motion. It’s a bit like being under water, the smooth surface and rounded molding of the rock, it’s texture suggesting that you could just cut through it with a knife.

We explore little trails, walk across Joshua Tree fields and climb the huge rocks at sundown. In the distance a man is lying on a Harley Davidson, feet on the handlebars, and i think that this is probably all the allure of the United States in an incidental illustration of what freedom must taste like. My dad always dreamed of doing this.

And then we stand atop a picnic table in the dark and memorize the lineament of Milky Way above our heads. We sleep in our car at Skull Rock and i startle up every few hours, dreaming of snakes sliding into the car.double exposed photo of man standing in front of joshua trees

We awake early to watch the sun rise. I didn’t get much sleep but i don’t mind. We are the only ones awake, not many travel the desert during the hottest time of the year and even less are awake at this hour. We drive down the single street. Every outlandish sound is amplified by the fresh morning silence and spiky silhouettes lean against the bright orange that is edging off the midnight blue. The most peaceful and beautifully detaching thing i have ever experienced may just be this: standing in the curve of the road, surrounded by cholla fields, capturing a papaya-whip sunrise surface behind an obscure mountain.

Before we leave we go to Cottonwood Spring where little forests of wild palm trees create shady dens and we can touch bedrock mortars left by the Cahuilla Indians who inhabited the territory about 2000 years ago. Joshua Tree is not of this world. This earth is not of this world.

bend in the road at sunrise

 

photos of milky way at joshua tree

 

Click here for California Part 3.

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the way i remember things. new york.

double exposed photo of new york skyline, taken with an analog camera

 

There was, in 2007, a January in which i left – armed with the pretensions of a luminous almost-grown-up-ness – for New York, with an unsettling restlessness in my heart. I stayed until the end of summer and returned home with concrete in my chest, adding to the restlessness that leaped to it’s feet as soon as mine touched JFK. I knew then i would never be able to comfortably do normal again.

Ten years have gone by and i have fallen short of many 3am morning-resolutions, but made that concrete crumble by aiming never at status quo, sometimes landing there, but never being satisfied staying there.

It’s funny to say (i will say it though as an example of how my odd, odd brain works) that a smell, reminding me of Brooklyn garbage in summer, made me write this, made me think of how i never dared to write about New York after i left. So here are a couple of things that i am missing.

 

I.

I associate New York most vividly with smells. Unseen clusters of molecules that, without being noticed, pressed miniature grape-like patterns into the surface of my brain. And so every now and then i might smell something like the odour of garbage simmering in the Brooklyn midday sun.

This in turn will bring my mind to me sitting in a little, yellow stage truck, window open (said smell streaming in), rushing past the streets of Brooklyn. Bodegas – blasting Puerto Rican music – , 24 hour Laundromats, Jamaican Soul Food Diners, African Hair Braiding Salons, wooing with their red, green and yellow plastic signs. Each stringed narrowly beside the next, colourful beads on a wristband, tearing when we cross the East River and scatteredly recovering as we touch the hot tar of the South Bronx.

Now the South Bronx might bring my mind to Mott Haven Housing, green plastic tarp in the sun or it might stay in the yellow truck which harbours a certain space in my heart (not exclusively because it’s stage knocked me down and granted me many visits in Lincoln Hospital).

I might remember my teammate sitting in the cargo area between placards and wigs, teaching me jamaican idioms or me trying desperately to close the trucks back door in full speed, hanging out on the highway one-handed.

I might remember the heavy scent of cooking gas at 11am on Grove Street and myself perched on a stool next to the wide stove. Telephone in hand i am testing out the thought of staying in New York, slowly rolling the words out with my tongue, paraphrasing each intention – i don’t want to scare anybody. And just like that every scent is heavy with memory.

 

II.

Another memory imprinted on my brain: the looming presence of the projects. Red brick giants with miniature windows constructed by the New York Housing Authority. 30 floors of a scratched record on repeat.

Stepping inside the projects is like stepping into a caricaturists world in which all features are predictably exaggerated. I dismiss the thought of taking the elevator because there is pee in it and take the staircase (although there is pee in the corner or somebody peeing into one).

After climbing to the top floor i open the door and, just after escaping the pungent smell of urine, am hit by multifarious smells of unknown foods and body odour. I step onto a narrow T-shaped hallway with yellow tilework and worn down, light blue doors.

The occasional muffled dialogue from a television set is the only noise swaying in the unsettling quietude. A smothering silence is shrouding the projects‘ hallways and inner yards. It’s the kind of silence that makes you feel like you are being observed, a silence made more silent simply by existing in close proximity to all the lively noise on the streets, in the basketball courts, on the front steps.

And then i might remember Bronx nights where, after sunset, the stillness of the projects seeps outside. The warm glow of a streetlamp mixes with the halogenous light streaming through the tiny windows and lends the tarmac a burgundy hue, infused with an eerie neon.

When i think of those nights it might bring the feel of goosebumps, although i am not able to tell the matter accurately. It’s not necessarily a gloomy one, since i kind of liked those nights, physically being there, in a way. Maybe those nights allowed me to feel a fraction of what some things may mean. Maybe.

And for those of you wondering: this is my notion of a love letter.

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to california, with love II

Olancha

The night sky is that out of a storybook. A crisp, dark, coffee-ish purple. The moon is giving off a soft, burnt orange glow. As i open the car door the air, dry and an unfamiliar mix of pungent and sweet, meets my face like a pillow in a pillow fight. The scenery is exactly how i expected to arrive at the junction of Death Valley – dreamily hazy and, if such a thing exists, just the right amount of creepy.

Olancha is a sleepily slow hamlet verging on Death Valley and it’s 192 inhabitants all seem to be in the safety of their air conditioned homes. We step inside the dim entrance cabin of our little ranch motel and are hit by the spicy odor of tabacco and whiskey. The owner leads us to our room, searches it for rattle snakes and we’re set. We’re hungry but it’s late and the next open restaurant is half an hour away. So we just inhale our surroundings and go to sleep.

Death Valley

Matt wakes me, calling out from the front porch to join him watching the sun climb over the mountains in front of our cabin. All dawns are calm and slow, but desert dawns are sedately slow. Colours exploding out of nothingness, spreading over nothingness and hydro poles.

After a while m. goes back inside. I sit down on the gravel path beside truckers dragging past to watch the mountain range skirting the valley turn from rusty lavender to dusty orange. I take a shower in cold spring water and after breakfast we follow Highway 190 to the mouth of Death Valley.

Gorges of black rock, the hot morning air, unmoving. Oddly romantic colour palettes settled in the angularity of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Stone desert, dotted with shrubbery. Salted nuts and water. The way sand falls, blurry but somehow sharp, like rippling water. A cracked, saffron landscape. Rusty pipes on the roadside and graffiti on forsaken one story buildings. All of this we pass in just a few hours.

photo of the street leading into death valley

Palm Springs

It’s still early and i am woken up by the ice clinking in the soda machine. I sneak through the crack in the sliding door and sit down on a rust stained lawn chair in front of the clover shaped children’s pool. Nobody else is around yet and it is most probable that nobody will be, for the soporific September heat seems to be more smothering here than anywhere we have been.

The circumambient mountains narrow in on, but at the same time isolate themselves, smooth and beige, from the Fata Morgana-esque valley, highlighting the artificiality of the latter.

Yesterday it was over 122 °F and even after the sun went down there was nobody out. Nobody but us and one woman waiting at a bus stop amid the constant nebula of lawn sprinklers in a drought. Surrounded by countless interior decorators‘ shopfronts and biliously green lawns.

This place is air-sealed in a annoyingly fascinating lack of self irony, born in the thick of it’s settled affluence.

At the supermarket-checkout in front of us: a slender lady in her 60’s, seemingly arisen from a Joan Didion novel, buys copious amounts of 4,5l bottles of vodka and cream cheese and with a shaky hand and high toned manner advises the cashier on how to do his job. I imagine her driving home to white leather couches, abstract expressionism, her purchases on a light marble surface, with certainty a pool in the backyard. Probably no clover shaped one.

At dinner elderly women, bejeweled and pink-lipsticked, tiptoe-talk in polite and hushed manners (more to themselves than to their starched companions). Their heeled feet dangling just above the floor as they slip into the backrest of the padded benches. Places reveal themselves in glimpses.

photo of couches in the middle of the desert in slab city

photo of hollywood swing in the middle of the desert in slab city

detail shot of salvation mountain in slab city

Salvation Mountain

We pass by road workers and date palm fields. After 2 hours the latter cease (the former never do). A leaden, yellowish shade seems to emanate from the emerging Salton Sea, staining the air that smells of rotten eggs. Rusty chains carry signs that advise caution on entering the beach. Everything in sight is broken. Everything carries rust and the spooky somnolence of abandoning things in a hurry. Trees have decayed to wiry praying mantises. A dilapidated billboard is pointing to a deserted gas station. A strip of beach made up of fishbones bears the disjointed relics of an armchair.

We take a few byroads and find, among nothingness, Slab City made up of trailers and sofas, coloured glass and empty tin cans. Salvation Mountain is looming atop like the evidence that the most beautiful things are to be found in the wasteland.

The midday sun is so bright that it takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the bright colours of Leonard Knight’s work of art. It’s quite a beautiful and whimsical thing that someone would have a revelation and then go ahead and devote his life to creating something so striking, so palpable, so matter of fact in the heat of the desert. Something people can not only look at, but walk on (which underlines the whole message).

I guess that’s a true testimony to vision. The fact that there are still people taking the detour and the fact that there are still people maintaining it. Although their maintaining it means that it’s not his mountain anymore. It’s kind of ours as well.

photo of view of salvation mountain through the open door of a decrepit and rusty truck

photo of a man looking out on a desert valley in california

 

Click here for California Part 1.

 

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