Part One - Where it All Began
Saturday 22nd February 2014 10.06am Heathrow, London
Since discovering a short play by Sam Shepard as part of an anthology in a second-hand book shop in Charing Cross Road a few days after moving from Edinburgh to start at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, I have longed to experience his world. I was nineteen then. I am now thirty-seven. I have that short play Slave of the Camera with me still, torn out of the book - clearly it was the only one that I thought worth keeping - and tucked into my copy of his book of stories Great Dream of Heaven. It is scrawled over by the drama student me from when my friend Christopher Naylor directed me in an excerpt from it in our second year at LAMDA, with phrases such as "build the energy," "stress l's & r's," "what are they doing to my country!" and "SUDDENLY!"
I was able to experience Shepard's world more fully in 2011 when Ramin Gray of Actors Touring Company encouraged me to finally try out a long half-formed idea of creating a piece of theatre out of Sam's short stories and poems, bought and absorbed over the intervening years. Ramin put me in touch with Simon Usher, himself a long-time admirer of Shepard who had also worked with Sam's collaborator and guide Joseph Chaikin. We tracked down Ben Kritikos of the band Herons! and with the actors David Beames and Annabel Capper we presented a rough, loud, hard assault on Shepard's works with Ben's music counterpointing them throughout, the four of us Making the Sound of Loneliness one night before a performance of ATC's The Golden Dragon. Uneven though it was we knew we had something and within a few months we were back in a rehearsal room with Paul Hamilton stepping into David's shoes, and with a week in which to shape the material ready for that year's Latitude Festival.
At the festival our final rehearsals took place under a tree while we sheltered from the constant rain. Our first performance took place in a cavernous circus tent where we hurled the stories into a black void unable to tell if anyone was actually there or not. The next day though we performed a show in the woods that confirmed all my belief in the project. Outside, with the sun shining we played to a group of festival-goers who stayed with us throughout despite all the music, comedy, film and festival high-jinks that was happening around them.
At some point in the relief that followed Simon and me said that one day we should do a full Sam Shepard play together, and now over a year and a half later we are. In fact a full Sam Shepard Roadshow, CHORALE - two films Savage/Love and Tongues, a workshop, a gig by Ben, the plays The Holy Ghostly and The War in Heaven which Shepard co-wrote with Joseph Chaikin, as well as The Animal (You), a brand new version of Making the Sound of Loneliness.
And now I am about to experience Sam Shepard's world for real. Some weeks ago I booked myself a return flight to Los Angeles, a place I have never been to, with only that fantastical version in my head that we all carry. As the plane now taxis towards take-off I can feel this odd mix of exitement and nervousness surge up. Every time I gave my destination as L.A. in W.H. Smiths or Dixons at the airport it just didn't sound real. The plan is four days in L.A., then Duarte where Sam spent his teenage years before heading out to the desert town of 29 Palms.
Two weeks to soak it all up in preparation for the Roadshow. Here we go.
The screen in front of me shows a small white outline of an areoplane and a dotted line pointing far away to Los Angeles, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in green and brown, and a small white square with one word in yellow - Inverness. I was speaking to the Eden Court theatre there only days before, really happy that they wanted to mount CHORALE as part of the tour. It already seems a long, long way away.
Notes made on the plane taken from Sam's book Motel Chronicles , in search of his family home - "The road looked clean and deadly." DUARTE? Home - Teenager. Tomato plants in back yard. "The momentum running down." Mum, Dad, younger sister. Arroyo Seco - Duarte? "hills" - aqueduct to LA. Imagines LA - "Palm Trees set against a background of snowy mountains with orange groves sprawling beneath them. The Train Station with a burro standing in front of it, harnessed to a cart." House - red awning, garage door, strip of lawn on driveway. School - dirt playground - South Pasadena come out Sierra Madre. Orocopia Mountains. San Bernadino - San Diego. Deodor Pines? DUARTE - "a town of solid white folk" Rialto Theatre? "People here..." "heart breaking hunger for the land outside the window."
One thing that I do share with Sam Shepard is a deep dislike of flying. I get sick thinking of it as the day approaches. This flight so far has been alright though. I read and then watch two films, which always alleviates the sick feeling. I've even slept and find myself thrilled and bewildered going through my guide book to Hollywood.
Travelled 8553 km. Altitude of 31,264 ft. Time to Destination 06 hrs 24 mins
Next: Part Two - Los Angeles
Part Two - Los Angeles
Saturday 22nd February 5.11pm West Hollywood, Los Angeles
I walk dazed from the airport, find a taxi, climb in and suddenly there it is. L.A. is spread out before me, with the hills rising beyond, and then HOLLYWOOD, the sign a faint flash in the distance. It's all real after all.
The taxi driver encourages me to try out for The Price is Right when I'm in town and shows me a very large rock plunked in front of a museum, before dropping me at my mate Jeffrey Vincent Parise's apartment. A mate that I've only ever spent a few days with, working together on a film in Berlin over ten years ago. He's based in West Hollywood as an actor and painter. I wildly over-tip my driver, and then a "Hello?" through a screen door, and a "Hey!" and a great hug from Jeff. A shower, a change of clothes, and a walk excitedly off-balance down Melrose Avenue before going back to his place to sit outside together with a beer as the late afternoon sun hits the palm trees and Spanish music plays from the bungalow opposite.
Sunday 23rd February early West Hollywood, Los Angeles
After our beers I have a typical L.A. dinner of pie and chips, and then pass out on the floor of Jeff's studio, surrounded by his portraits, a comforting sense of warm bronze and reds and the smell of aged paint. After struggling back to pretending that it is still Saturday night I meet Jeff's girlfriend and some of her friends. One of them (also Jeff) hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia and I am able to impress him by remembering the names of bars run by his best friend whose house I stayed in when I was 18. Cocktails follow, and we then all bundle into a car and off to a pyjama party. One of those parties you never imagine you will actually attend, with beautiful women and thick-set guys walking about in pyjamas, dancing to baaaad music and throwing themselves around a bouncy castle. I arrive exhausted but soon develop a completely unnecessary second wind. The Jeffs and the girls need to go, but I stay on, left to my own devices. I stumble about in a shirt and tie for a few hours, drinking beer out of a red plastic cup that I'm shown how to fill up from a keg, talking to friendly skater dudes and young Australian actors. Eventually I make the decision that it really, really is time to go home and sleep. I have been introduced to the wonder of Uber by a helpful chap on the plane, a car company that will come and pick you up in minutes from a tap on your smart-phone. I order one now as best I can, which somehow ends up with me running to meet the car at a completely incorrectly entered pick-up point blocks away. It's like a very basic game of Grand Theft Auto, with a little black car and me as a little blue light played out on my phone in my hand, and for real under the woozy night sky of Los Angeles.
Monday 24th February early West Hollywood, Los Angeles
I still seem to be suffering from jet-lag. I keep waking as night first begins to turn towards the dawn and can't get back to sleep again. I was very tired on Sunday morning but got up and out for Spanish brunch before Jeff and me take his girlfriend's husky dog Jafar for a walk in Runyon Canyon. There we meet a photographer who had arranged to take some photographs of Jeff for a cheap soap-opera magazine (Jeff is a regular on General Hospital) and so have the odd experience of clambering up the loose dirt of the canyon while the two of us and the dog are being constantly snapped. Upon reaching the crest of the hill the HOLLYWOOD sign appears once more, pure white against the muddied green of the hills. On the other side, the sprawl of L.A. opens up, smog obscuring a view of the sea, but the city is still visible for miles and miles. It's hard to get a sense of it. Apart from the Griffin Observatory, the Capitol Record Tower and the sky-scrapers of downtown L.A., it's difficult focusing on any landmarks. It just keeps going and going.
We walk back down through Runyon Canyon, get the car washed, pick up food for Jafar and then onto Jeff's manager's birthday party at her house just off Sunset Strip. I find myself nervous - is this my first chance to make an impression in Hollywoodland? - and there is one excruciating moment when I extend my hand to introduce myself to some guy in a suit for him not to see it and turn away. So I offer it to his girlfriend who also fails to see it. I then realise I'm mumbling "Hello... Hello... Sorry" before pushing my palm into my leg and wandering off. Otherwise, it's good fun.
I have a great talk with Lisa Zane, an actress and musician, who is the first person to get CHORALE as in CORRAL. A beer, some birthday cake and then a chat with a young man from London who is interning with the manager and getting into acting. People are friendly, but everyone is definitely working, trying to get their next low-budget horror of the ground. It is exciting though, this buzz that with hard work, good contacts and even better luck, you could be a part of the movie world. I need to get comfortable with, not exactly selling CHORALE and other projects, but being able to speak of them with absolute confidence, while unapologetically talking of existing achievemnets. I have a good go at it though, at this my first industry party.
Afterwards, some posh ravioli in The Pikey, a British themed gastro pub and then an early night, a fitful sleep, waking in the early hours again. But then an email from back home saying that Òran Mór are on board! Great news. It's early as I write this and I think that Jeff is still asleep, but time to venture upstairs to his living space as coffee calls.
Wednesday 26th February 10am West Hollywood, Los Angeles
Before leaving London I had arranged to meet my old friend David, and so I walk down to join him for brunch. I last saw him 15 years ago at our graduation at LAMDA and then suddenly there he is on the sidewalk of Melrose Avenue in. It's great to catch up with him, to hear of his life in L.A. and how his family is doing, and good to be able to give him news of our fellow students that I'm still in touch with. At one point he takes a call, it's just been confirmed, he'll next be playing Martin Luther King!
After brunch I accompany Jeff to a local farmer's market then back to Runyon Canyon with Jaffar. Dinner is with Jeff's cousin Tim, who I like immediately, it's rare to meet people who are attempting to live with such integrity as I feel he is. It turns out he used to run the quiz in the Roebuck, a pub in London I know well, and one I cycle past almost daily.
The three of us push on to another bar to meet a friend of Jeff's and fellow painter, Len, who is 97 on Saturday and is the first man I've met to drink whiskey with a beer chaser and a mug of black coffee. Silver rings on his fingers, a black cane and a black cowboy-hat he is one cool old gent. We were hoping for live-music but get unexpected stand-up. I have the odd experience of a man making me laugh on stage only for a few minutes later to have him tell me off for speaking too loudly to Tim. How quickly relationships curdle. Jeff produces an impromptu slice of birthday cake with a single candle in it from the deli next door and when the live-music act does appear we get the hard punk rockers to sing Happy Birthday to Len. He's made up. We then drive him back to his palatial house in Beverley Hills.
I borrow Jeff's bike to get me to the famous Chinese Theatre, and there discover that Robert De Niro and I both take a size ten. Not such big boots to fill after all. The whole area is much smaller and less touristy than I thought it would be, with modest apartments and college buildings only a block away. Hollywood Boulevard itself is partially closed off at one point. Thinking it's roadworks I then realise - ah no of course - they're setting up for the Oscars on Sunday.
I've decided to try and be American today to immerse myself in my surroundings as much as possible. I think I get away with it in Gap but forget to do it over it lunch at Musso and Franks, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood that used to cater to the silent cinema stars, which is opposite the equally venerable Egyptian Theatre.
I turn the accent back on while shopping at the brilliant Amoeba Music, a huge hangar of a store packed with vinyl and CDs. As I'm paying for all my records with my card I need to show my ID. American Jack then has to produce his British passport. "United Kingdom?" says the cashier. " Yeea-eahhhh" I reply.
Five minutes out of Amoeba Music and there's Moby passing me on the sidewalk. I walk the bike and my vinyl back to Jeff's place before changing for the evening, because tonight I'm going to visit a place that so far has only ever existed for me by re-watching Swingers again and again, The Dresden Room. I'm due to go there with my friend Adam who lives here and after some fine fish tacos we're approaching the front door. I feel this odd sense of nervousness again, it happens when something that I have only experienced through fiction, through the movies, is about to become a reality. How can it possibly live up to the experience that Mike, Trent and the others had here?
It's brilliant. Marty and Elaine who pop up in the film are playing tonight. Marty knocks out the show tunes and takes requests while Elaine accompanies him on keyboards and flute. I have a couple of martinis and imagine that I'm in the rated R movie. I really am so money baby and I don't even know it. Probably.
It's great to be with Adam in his adopted home town but an earlyish night is needed. I sleep better but am suddenly woken just before 6am by a cockroach climbing into my ear. It's obviously time to move on.
It's been so good hanging out with Jeff, a true friend indeed, and discovering Hollywood and Los Angeles, but it's time now to leave for Duarte. Time to go in search of Sam Shepard's youth.
Next: Part Three - Duarte
Part Three: Duarte
Wednesday 26th February 2014 7.05pm Route 66 Roadhouse, Duarte
To get to Duarte, the small town where Sam Shepard spent his teenage years to the north east of Los Angeles, I need to take a train from L.A. Central to Pasadena, where I plan to spend a few hours before getting a bus to Duarte.
Exiting at Pasadena Memorial Park a look to the left reveals the imposing Spanish influenced City Hall with its quiet central court and its impressive fountain. A walk through the modernist Plaza de las Fuentes takes me to the Pasadena Museum of Californian Art, where the main exhibition is of work by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, a Mexican artist who lived in Paris before settling in California to portray and record the country of his birth. Striking Mexican women stare out from the large canvasses that raise the spirits of the beautiful Chicana figures that Sam and his narrators obsesses over, such as the waitress Esmeralda who’s number he tries to get while his strung-out drugged-up friends throw him of his prize.
A smaller room contains Homestead, an installation by Flora Kao, four sides of charcoal rubbings on cloth of an almost collapsed shack on the Mojave Desert, which brings to mind how Sam’s father lived out his final years. As he writes in Motel Chronicles, “My Dad lives alone on the desert. He says he doesn’t fit with people.”
But after the excitement of L.A. Pasadena feels antiseptic, with wide clean streets and the main strip of Old Pasadena, described in the guide book as full of old charm and antique shops, now housing Apple stores, H&Ms and Urban Outfitters.
I hike my heavy backpack with all my belongings (and all of Sam Shepard's books of stories and poems; Hawk Moon, Motel Chronicles, Cruising Paradise, Great Dream of Heaven and Day Out of Days) over and under freeways to the Arroyo Seco to look at some of the grand houses there, before a long walk back takes me to the stop for the 187 bus to Duarte.
Once on the bus, it is one long straight ride along Colorado Boulevard and onto Huntington Drive (once the fabled Highway Route 66) into Duarte and the Oak Park Motel. There is no countryside in between, just civic building after gas station after drive through. I feel very un-Sam as I watch my current location of a blue circle approach my destination on my smart-phone.
The American me checks in with my UK passport. It turns out the owner was born in Wolverhampton.
A shower and then a walk around the houses, driveways and strip malls of Duarte. My first impression is of anonymity. It probably could be most places in America, full of Ralphs, KFC, Staples, 99 cents only, Maki Yaks, Tropicana Market, McDonalds, The Slaw Dogs Café, Auto Zone, Mike’s Food, Sparr Liquor, Coin Laundry, Green Burrito, Baklava Land, El Salvadoreno, Magic Wok and El Pollo Loco, as well as a few independent business such as the garage next door to the motel.
A walk along Huntington brings me to the Route 66 Roadhouse and Tavern, the only real bar in town. I checked it out back in London and it was described then as a traditional dive bar. It is. And it’s great. Country and Western playing on the juke box (“Why don't we get drunk and screw?”), pool tables and hard drinking locals. I order a tuna melt with macaroni salad and a couple of Blue Moons. I’m trying to build up the courage to ask the young barman J.D. if he’ll read some of Shepard’s stories for me to record. In the meantime I sit at the long bar with Motel Chronicles and Hawk Moon out in front of me. I read an entry marked "Santa Anita Race Track, Arcadia, Ca." and realise I passed it on the bus on the way here.
It's just after 7pm but I'm already struggling to stay awake. I'll save asking someone to record one of the stories for another day. I'll finish my drink and head back to my motel. I like the sound of that.
Thursday 27th February morning Tommy’s Burgers, Duarte
Best Californian night’s sleep so far, despite the drunken sounding woman in the room next door complaining incessantly about God knows what at the top of her voice to a helpline that she had on speakerphone.
The rain that was a topic of conversation last night in the bar came down hard in the night, I could hear it running down the roof and pounding through the overflow pipes, but this morning Duarte is sparkling. Grey tinged clouds hug the top of the San Gabriel Mountains that look down on the town. Last night they glowered darkly but now stand out bright as a clear detailed backdrop. I hope to go hiking in the foothills tomorrow.
Breakfast is at Tommy’s Burgers, with coffee to go. I’ll now head out towards Sam’s old school, Duarte High and where he recalls in Motel Chronicles trying out Burt Lancaster’s sneering grin on the girls to no good effect.
Duarte High School has been completely modernised since Sam’s days, only the original concrete pillars from the old building remain. Robin Nelson, the Principal kindly lets me meet her. I tell her I’m researching an old alumnus, Sam Shepard the actor and writer. “Oh sure, the good looking one” she says. As my first sober port of call she’s very friendly and helpful, although obviously came to the post long after he had left. She recommends I speak to the people at City Hall that is right behind the school.
“Rattle. A plane crash. Baby whimper. The house moans. The droning plane. Birds play. My tattoo itching. Anne Waldman. New Jersey. Long Island. Michael’s lungs. Black spot from the Midwest. Eddie Hicks. LouEllen. All the Babies. Miners in the cave shaft. Murray and his Cheyenne headband. His grey Mustang rusted out. Feet, hands. Lubricating sweat glands. The body’s secret machine. Patti and the Chelsea. David making rhubard wine. His new camera. Scott and Annie. Their black roof. Jeeps in four-wheel drive. Sand and beach. Endless. Rattle. Wisdom teeth. Bleeding gum flap. Hydrogen Peroxide. The Beach Boys. Duarte High. John and Scarlet. Kristy and the old man who gave her presents. The Sierra Madre mountains. The Arizona border. Dylan in shades. The ship. The missile. Rattle.” Dream Band - Hawk Moon
The people at City Hall are very keen to help although not many of them have heard of Sam Shepard or are able to give me any information on him. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he has never celebrated or even written fondly of the place. Apart from the intense life lived out within his family home details of the town are very sketchy. You can feel that Duarte couldn’t contain him, that he was always pushing out, anxious to leave. One guy has heard of him though - “The Right Stuff, sure” - and seems to respect him and asks me if I ever do contact Sam if I could put him in touch with City Hall as he would like to invite him to open the light-rail line that is being built to connect the town with Pasadena. He suspects Shepard wouldn’t take him up on the offer, but then says “I guess he might like to though as he could use it to get out of town.” We have a good talk, and as we are doing so Claudia Heller passes, a local historian who runs the Duarte Historical Society. I arrange to meet her there on Saturday and as we leave she offers me a ride to Lloyds Bike Shop where the people at City Hall recommended I could pick up a cheap bike to travel around on. Lloyds is closed so she drops me off at the Public Library. We talk about Sam Shepard and she confesses to never being very interested in him, to never having “a warm fuzzy feeling about him.” She gives me a copy of her book Duarte Chronicles and although he is mentioned in passing, he fails to get a section in the 'People' chapter, unlike Glen Miller, another past resident.
I find one book on Shepard at the library American Dreams - The Imagination of Sam Shepard, edited by Bonnie Marranca. Some quotes from the introduction -
“Shepard, the hedonistic writer enjoys every dramatic moment for its own sake. He writes as if there is no tomorrow.”
“Shepard [gives] his characters the chance to be performers.”
“In Shepard’s radical transformations of realism the actor plays fragments, gaps, transformations – the breaks in continuity.”
“His feeling of space (and nature) is of a rashness that seems unfathomable… a space that looks from the Pacific coast across America, and across deserts, unflinching in their refusal to adapt to changing times.”
It’s great to have found the library but I could be doing this in London. I was recommended to check out the Old Spaghetti Factory by Robin at Duarte High as it is the one of the oldest buildings in town, so at least it’s something that Sam would have laid eyes on. So lunch there and then back to try to meet Lloyd, “a real character” according to Claudia. His store is still closed though so putting some Bill Calahan on ("One thing about this wild, wild country/It takes a strong, strong/It breaks a strong, strong mind") I decide to walk to the neighbouring town of Monrovia to try my luck at the bike store there.
A long walk along the Royal Oaks Park Trail and beyond and I make my way into Monrovia and find Empire Bikes, open and staffed by friendly young guys who get me a mountain bike to hire. I pluck up my courage and ask if I can record the tall, handsome Obie reading one of Sam’s stories - “Me and Tim Ford stole a car once in San Bernardino…” which he does with great humour, smilingly haltering throughout.
I cycle back to the motel, have a shower, get some ice, then sit outside in the forecourt, drinking a can of Sprite and reading Motel Chronicles until the sun goes down. The electric lights on the posts outside each door crackle on with a high electric whine. I can feel the first hint of spitting rain.
Friday 28th February 2014 morning Carl’s Jr Drive Thru, Duarte
Last night was cool but remained dry as I cycled back to Monrovia for a change of scene. I ate downtown, a relaxed centre of three blocks, very different from Duarte. I am still getting tired early but in an attempt to stay up later and catch an American movie in an American movie theatre I watch the remake of Robocop in an entirely empty cinema.
But this morning it really is raining. I dismissed the warning as yeah Californian rain, perhaps a light shower. This is harsh though, great rivers already flowing down the gutters and across the sidewalks.
By running and clearing flowing water with awkward jumps I make it to Carl’s Jr Drive Thru for another burger breakfast. The clientele includes an old guy with lots of plastic bags, a trucker in waterproofs, an elderly couple in for coffee and orange juice and two silent Mexican workers. I had hoped to make it up to the hills today but it will be perilous in this weather. The best I can do is get another coffee refill, read and write and hope it eases off.
Friday 28th February night Oak Park Motel, Duarte
Leaving Carl Jr’s the rain is thinning and by the time I reach the motel ghostly pale blue patches are appearing above me. So on the bike and out to Monrovia Canyon Park, a long hard push out of town and up into the foothills through tall pinewoods with their rich earthy smell released by the rain. Heavy with sweat I reach the turn off to find a Park Closed sign and a young deer grazing on the road. Ignoring the sign I push on but round the bend I find two walkers being turned away by a park ranger. The whole area has been closed off due to the rain. I manage to take a few pictures of the wide muddied aqueduct, sadly too far west to be the “huge concrete serpent that swooped down from the San Gabriels and made its way to the ocean” as described in Cruising Paradise. Sam says that “I’d never seen more than a trickle in it" and that he had "heard the main function of the aqueduct these days was a dumping ground for murder victims from L.A.” That one comes out near Fish Canyon to the east of Duarte but I was told at City Hall that it is closed off most of the year now due to the activities of the Vulcan Materials mining company there. Turning back onto the residential road I push further on up hoping to get a better view of the valley but the roads turn into private ones and it is starting to rain heavily once more.
Freewheeling into Duarte I find my way back to the Royal Oaks Trail and stop to visit the C&S Store, one of the oldest buildings in town and once the general store.
It's wonderful, but I can’t work out how Rick who runs it could make a living. It is full of spark plugs, stopped watches, anthropomorphic battery packs and bizarre cobbled together electronic items that move for no discernable reason. A customer asks how much one small item is and Rick answers "$600", he doesn't seem keen to part with anything. I image that if you searched long enough you could find the parts to build a basic time machine, probably good for just a one-way trip though.
I resume the Trail, but the rain is getting heavier and heavier so I decide to head back to the motel to continue going through the short stories for Duarte references.
Duarte References from Hawk Moon and Cruising Paradise
“On the outskirts of Duarte, California, it’s dry, flat, cracked and stripped down. Rock quarries and gravel pits. People in the outlying towns call it “Rock Town" ... The City of Hope – an institute dedicated to caring and investigating the causes of cancer, sits there surrounded by rocks and cement companies. It provides most of the town with work of one kind or another.” CITY OF HOPE, Hawk Moon
Returning from Shadow Mountain on the Mojave Desert with his father when he was seven - “That night we drove all the way back home in silence. My dad smoked and squinted down the long road toward the lights of Duarte.” The Real Gabby Hayes - Cruising Paradise
“The sun was just going down behind the concrete towers of the gravel refineries, with their tin blue warning lights already blinking, and the black yucca standing silent along the ridge ... the dark purple mountains” Cruising Paradise
Working all night as a coal-barge guard on New York’s East River "Walking home at dawn through the garbage men and lone junkies … I was a long way from Duarte, but it felt good to have gone through the whole night without any sleep.” Fear of the Fiddle – Cruising Paradise
Once the skies clear I venture out into the rush-hour traffic on my bike, feeling vulnerable and throwing constant looks over my left-shoulder. I have a fantastic Mexican meal, happy with some green stuff on my plate for once and smiling perhaps a little too warmly at the waitresses. It is now dark but still relatively early and I want to try the Route 66 Roadhouse again for that true American voice and spirit. Positioning myself at the bar I realise that the guy to the left of me is from the East End of London, while the woman to my right is from Northern Ireland. Back to the motel.
The local TV news is on high STORM WATCH alert. Footage of rivers black with mud running down the very streets that I was cycling on earlier, with trees being washed down off the hills. One resident is putting sandbags up around his house. Asked if he has insurance he answers that there is no insurance for mud. “They say it’s an Act of God. Suddenly they get religion!” It is not yet 8.30pm but I am struggling to stay awake.
Saturday 28th February morning Oak Park Motel, Duarte
When I wake it is 6.22am and there is no sound of rain. It is cloudy but the driest it has been since late on Thursday. It is time to cycle round Duarte once more.
I decide to try southeast Duarte and cycle round a series of identical streets and then back onto East Duarte Road when the rain starts its deluge once more. I’m approaching the renowned City of Hope Medical Centre and right outside is a bus stop with two guys also on bikes sheltering underneath, their backpacks protected by black bin bags. I join them and we start talking, at first about the weather. One of them tells me about a landslide a few years ago that killed a number of people in their beds and says that global warming is to blame, a stance I didn’t expect to hear so much of in America. We agree that big businesses in this country are lobbying to help block legislature intended to tackle the crisis. I wonder whether climate change is more accepted by the poorer people of the States who without cars are more exposed to this extreme weather. The skies start to lighten and the two of them are ready to leave. We introduce ourselves properly before they go. They are Philip and David. “I'm Apache,” says Philip, “and my brother is Apache. So we're brothers." Philip says his tribe name is Running Bear, and David is Peaceful Wind. After our conventional handshake, he shows me the Apache one, which I fumble first time, the two of us grasping the other’s forearm just below the elbow. Then they’re off.
I take a picture of the rail-track but quickly discover that it is not the Union Railroad that Sam once had to drag a friend's wolf cub off before the fruit train hits it as described in Wild to the Wild from Cruising Paradise, but the soon to be completed Metro Gold Line extension that the man from City Hall hoped that Sam might open.
What I really want to do is find Sam’s old house, but I do think that this is now close to impossible. I have very little to go on. He describes it in The Remedy Man from Great Dream of Heaven as having "a steep gravel grade up to the house” with a “hairpin turnaround.” In A Small Circle of Friends from Cruising Paradise he describes an ill-fated barbecue that his parents held at the house in 1957. There is an orange tree on the front lawn with a tall hedge and oleander bushes, " the yard and ... the avocado orchard" ... "the apricots were just ripening on the trees" ... "sheep pens" to the back of the house and he confirms that the house is on a hill. In The Remedy Man he describes one tall tree behind the house, "bone white and muscular with red strips of bark swirling through the trunk like arteries … trailing back through the brushy hills in pitch black.” At times he refers to the house as a ranch.
I imagine that it will have changed a lot over the years but there is the story Costello from Day Out of Days written only a few years ago in which he recounts making “the great mistake of returning to my hometown after not being anywhere near the place for over forty five years.”
“Why do we do thee things to ourselves when we know full well they’re going to bring us nothing but sorrow and grief? Some morbid curiosity in the place itself I guess. The plain streets. Trees grown bigger. Porches where you used to toss the morning paper off the orange Schwimm. Why would anyone volunteer to take a stroll through their distant past other than to torture some memory of a long-lost counterpart? I had come to the end of it quickly, actually vomiting in the front yard of our old adobe stuccoed house where there once was a red canvas awning, now replaced with a taxidermy sign below the head of an antelope. It wasn’t the thought of slaughtered wildlife that got me, it was slaughtered youth.” Costello - Day Out of Days
But he also gives himself the name “Billy Ray” in that tale so I don’t know what to believe. Although a lot of his stories are autobiographical he seems keen to avoid specifics, this most evocative, detailed writer of small towns and desert landscapes is also America’s most un-naturalistic, most mythic. Dates and places don’t add up. Everything is filtered through his imagination. I only have fiction as my guide.
I force my way up to the very base of the hills, looked over by Duarte's very own version of the HOLLYWOOD sign. I tell myself I’m close and wander around, even asking a couple of people if they know of a taxidermist nearby, including one woman with her clearly much loved dog at her feet, possibly not the most sensitive of questions. One woman does help me though by telling me that all of these houses were built in the 1980s. Sam’s slaughtered youth is not to be found here. She does recommend another are of Duarte with older houses down the hill and to the east so I push on there, searching for any sign.
I find no signs but do stop and start talking to a man cleaning his car, Doug. We have a good long talk about Duarte, the apathy of people in the town in trying to prevent the Vulcan mining company from digging out the hills behind them and the City's lack of vision in regenerating the town. They seem happy to encourage 99 cents only stores but show no energy in pursuing a public space where local farmer’s markets and other community events could be held. He tells of bears and mountain lions appearing in the hills and gardens behind the houses. He even reads the only story of Sam’s named after here, Duarte.
"Didn't we once have a freak show in Duarte? Wagons and rings. Right out on on Highway 66 where the aqueduct begins. I remember the deep elephant smell. Peanuts in shells. The Petrified Man. Fat people poking him with pins. Only his eyes moved. The Two-Headed Calf. (Always a standy.) Bearded Lady Midget. Fetus in a Bottle. Human. Suspended. Drifting in strings of gooey yellow. Everything is coming back to me now. In Spanish.
Didn't we once have a Gypsy consultant in our linoleum kitchen? Is that what we called her? No. Couldn't have been. My dad believed in her, though. Before God. Before Mary. Poring through glossy High Desert brochures. Salton Sea. Preposterous mock-ups of golf course seen through the irrigated mist of Rain Bird sprinklers. Jerry Lewis and Sinatra were supposed to appear. Him chain-smoking Old Golds. Shaking from whiskey. On the edge of which desert, he wanted to know. He got it confused with the Painted one. She couldn't say. Wouldn't. Why be mysterious, I wondered. It's only land. Her pink bandana. Sulfur smell. Rubbing sage oil into her bony wrists and all the turquoise bracelets clacking liek teeth. That was her, all right. Whatever we called her. Watching her through an open door collect her burro hobbled out in the orchard, chewing rotten advocos, pissing a hole in the dried-up leaves.
Wasn't there once a tall piano player too? Gentle. He came in a bright blue suit, haircut like a Fuller brush; played "Camptown Ladies" all through the night of Great-Aunt Gracie's death then hanged himself in a Pasadena garage alongside his Chrysler sedan. I remember that now. Told stories of how Gracie was quite the Grand Dame, dated John Philip Sousa back in the day; seduced a Lumber Baron with her Blue Plate Special and captured hawks on weekends down in the Arroyo Seco. Everything is coming back to me now. In tiny pieces." Duarte - Day Out of Days
And unbidden he reads me some of Costello. “Poor guy” he says. “Poor Duarte.” He is called in for brunch for one point but staying talking to me as long as he can. I like him a lot. A true gent.
The weather has been clear for hours but as I leave Doug and start to cross the San Gabriel river huge fat drops of rain start to suddenly pour down on me. I shelter under a bridge for a while and then a hurried cycle takes me back to Huntington Drive and a Subway for lunch. Next door is Home Made Donuts, which is old enough to be the Krusty Glaze donut store, the only building apart from his house that Sam recognises in Costello, "where I used to hang out after school just to behold the spanking clean blonde girls in ponytails and petticoats." The woman behind the counter doesn’t understand why I want to know how old the place is and won’t let me take any pictures inside but I buy a donut and get Costello and my notebook out. The store doesn’t bear any relation to the one in the story. The only similarity is that I’m using a notebook just like Shepard does.
It’s time now to meet Claudia Heller at the Duarte Historical Society. I’m greeted by her and the other society members. There is lots of local history on display, Miss Duarte portraits, Route 66 caps and beer mugs, orange crates, but nothing much pertaining to Sam, except one fantastic find that they have dug out for me, a reproduction of the his Duarte High yearbook photo which has him listed under the name Samuel Shepard Rogers III, although it says that he also went by the name Steve Rogers and that he graduated in 1961. This is the very photograph that he describes in Circling from Day Out of Days, as an older man still “Looking just like the same panicked kid from your Duarte yearbook" but goes on to say “The year you never graduated.”
They are all very friendly and clearly proud of Duarte and interested in its history, and Shepard clearly isn’t. That must distance him from them as a man and an artist.
A polite, relaxed man named Steve Baker offers to look up Sam’s parents in city records. I give him all the information I can and he promises to email me, although I will have probably moved on by the time that he is able to do so. It looks as though finding his Sam Shepard's home is a forlorn hope. I feel bad turning down Claudia’s offer of dinner at hers this evening, but I need to return the bike to Monrovia and want as much independence as possible on my last night in Duarte.
The heaven’s open again as I leave but I cycle towards the Vulcan mining plant and am completely soaked by the time I return to the Oak Park Motel. I have a shower and attempt to dry my clothes. I have got an hour or so before I need to return the bike.
Saturday 28th February 6.10pm T Phillips's Ale House, Monrovia
Everything else today, and on this trip so far has been eclipsed by the last hour. I was about to get ready to return my bike when an email came through on my phone from Steve Baker. "The city directories for 1958 and 1959 have the following listing: Rogers, Samuel S. (Jane S.) teacher, public schools, San Marino. The address is consistent with avocado groves, sheep pens, and a barn. The house currently on the site was built in 1945 and remodeled in 1955. It is no doubt the house that the Rogers lived in."
I jump on my bike and cycle through the rain and then suddenly there it is. It is instantly recognisable.
Should I attempt to get inside? I have come so far and I will never get this chance again. I can see that the lights are on and then a person dashes from a nearby building back inside so I push my bike up the drive, through the garden and up to the kitchen window where I can see a woman moving around inside. I knock and shout a Hello! The dogs start barking and startled, she answers the door. I explain why I am banging on her window at dusk on a Saturday night and tell her that I think this might be the house where Sam Shepar - “Sam Shepard. Yes” She knows all about him and says that they bought the house of his mother. Understandably apprehensive, she asks if I have any I.D. on me and after I produce my passport she invites me out of the rain. She introduces herself as Mary-Lou and takes me through to the living room to introduce me to her husband Tony. He explains that the house was built in Pasadena and moved here on a truck some time in the 1940s. He confirms that Sam never actually graduated from Duarte High and goes on to tell me a story that he heard.
“I don’t know, maybe he did a play at school” but he went to New York when he was 17 or so, with his Mother promising to pay him the rail fare back home come Christmas. He took a pile of manuscripts of plays with him, went into an agent’s office in town and threw them down on the desk, saying that he was going out for a cup of coffee. When he returned he was given representation and enough money for a plane ticket back home. “And that was the start of it.”
Mary-Lou then gives me a tour of the house. She first shows me their utility room, which used to be the Rogers' small kitchen, meaning it was the one that Sam’s Dad used to destroy on a regular basis in a drunken rage, and then through their new kitchen that used to be the yard, meaning that the family would have to go outside to get to their bedroom. She takes me into the two original bedrooms, one of which must have been Sam Shepard's as a teenager. I am physically shaking. With only two bedrooms we suppose that he must have shared with his two sisters while his Mother and father took the other one.
Back in the living room and the sun room, both of which would have been the Rogers, they tell me that they bought the house when Sam’s mother needed to sell up and that they have in the past been in touch with his sisters. Also, that some years ago, about 2005, Sam himself had shown up out of the blue with a friend, told them who he was, and then given his friend a tour of the grounds, the orange trees and avocado grove, now gone save for a few trees. Tellingly though, he didn’t enter the house.
Tony and May-Lou are the friendliest, most welcoming of people, taking a crazy guy from London into their house because of an enigmatic playwright and actor who once lived there. Tony says that people around here don’t know who Sam Shepard is, even when he mentions The Right Stuff and he seems rather put out by this, they do appear protective of him.
By now it’s 5.40pm and I only have twenty minutes in which to return my bike to Monrovia so Tony gets his pick-up truck out and puts the bike in the back. A short drive, and a promise to be in touch. I’m going to send them one of Sam’s books and the CHORALE programme. A warm handshake and the most brilliantly odd 20 minutes of my life is over.
It’s only a house. And Sam couldn’t wait to leave. But the house crops us again and again in thinly disguised fictional accounts with flashes of pure autobiography. It clearly meant a huge amount to him, for good or ill. It was his family home, the home of his father who haunts and informs almost all his work. And I managed to see inside.
I’m over the moon tonight.
Next: Part Four - 29 Palms and Joshua Tree
Part Four: 29 Palms and Joshua Tree National Park
Sunday 2nd March afternoon Greyhound Bus
To get to the small desert town of 29 Palms to the north of Joshua Tree National Park where I am going to base myself for the next four days, I need to get the bus back to Pasadena, then the train to Los Angeles, a Greyhound bus to Palm Springs, a night's stay there and then two local bus services.
On the bus from Duarte to Pasadena a young woman starts chatting to me. She wants to go Europe to visit the Louvre and later, she wants to set up a Centre for Spiritual and Natural Needs. In Pasadena I cross back through the inner court of City Hall. It’s odd to feel such familiarity for a place I have only ever visited for a few hours once before. Back in L.A. I have to take a long walk through the warehouse district of L.A. to the Greyhound Bus Depot. It is fenced off, with only ticket holders allowed to enter, those living on the corners refused entry to its waiting areas and vending machines.
On my first Greyhound bus
Destination Palm Springs
Under cloudy British skies
People talk here. Whether it’s being asked to look after an older lady’s bag while she goes to the restroom and then her introducing me to a pretty girl with braces on the way to Calexico; to the guys on the Greyhound offering other men they’ve just met guidance on long-haul driver’s test and union advise. True public transport. I know I could start chatting to my neighbour, but right now I’m happy with “the land out the window.”
In San Bernardino, for me a hot location, as this is where Sam and Tim Ford “stole a car once.”
A man with a smart straw hat and a silver beard bends to pick fresh white grapes from his vineyard. He smiles at the camera with impeccable white teeth. “With my new knee life is sweet again.”
Patches of urban sprawl, industrial America, then mountain ranges, wind farms and finally the Greyhound bus station at Palm Springs train station. It is on the very edge of town, out in the desert, sand whipping in my face. There is not a cab to be had and the torrential rain has washed out the highway into town and it is starting to get dark. My new friend, the older woman from L.A. bus station, offers me a ride into Palm Springs with her friend that she has come to watch the Oscars with. Her friend pops the trunk for my large backpack and drives me to my hotel. They call themselves the “Ditsy Desert Dollies.” I tell them she’s saved me and give them my address to stay in touch. “Maybe he can introduce you to someone from Downton Abbey.”
I’m now trying to put these disparate thoughts down, lying on my king size bed in this swanky desert town surrounded by mountains on all sides, brushwood and sand only a few steps away from the front door, the Oscars on TV in the same time zone and only 107 miles away.
Monday 3rd March evening 29 Palms Motel, 29 Palms
I wake up to bright Californian sun with Mount San Jacinto clear from my hotel room. A car to the airport where I am due to get a local bus service to Yucca Palms, to change there to a local bus service to 29 Palms, the small desert town in the Mojave Desert, the desert where Shepard’s father took him "shooting rusty cans with a .22 pistol and looking for snakes."
"He'd wanted to bring a rattlesnake back with him to show my mother. A "Green Mojave."
"Just to prove we were out here," he'd said. "Sometimes I get the feeling she doesn't believe me. Thinks I'm off tomcatting or some foolishness."
"Is that the reason you brought me along?" I'd said.
"Is what the reason?"
"So she's think you weren't tomcatting?"
"You're not even sure what tomcattin' means, are you? You're seven years old. How could you be sure what that means?" Slave of the Camera
At the bus stop I meet Cassie, a young woman who lives in the town of Joshua Tree and is going the same way. We have nearly an hour to kill so we talk, trustingly look after each other’s bags, record Back in the Woods from Day Out of Days and board the bus together when it arrives.
"How was it out there on the dumb American highway, days on end? Have any revelations?" Back in the Woods - Day Out of Days
A quick bathroom stop heralds the arrival of a large pierced and studded woman with an even larger cup of soft drink and five or six huge stuffed bags, seemingly packed with all of her belongings. Cassie and me help her to carry them to the bus. She says she’s from Seattle but I can’t see how she could have conceivably brought all of her stuff from there all on her own. She can’t even make it across the parking lot without help from at least two strangers. She says she’s going to Las Vegas. It all starts off good-naturedly but she then insists on the driver going off course, which amazingly he does. She says she doesn’t have any friends here to help. What the hell is she doing out here? Cassie reckons she’s a drug dealer, her jaw grinding constantly. Does that make us accessories? If she is a drug dealer then she is the least organised one I can possibly think of.
We eventually get to Yucca Valley and change buses. It’s the first time that I have felt even slightly nervous, probably stupidly unnecessarily so. We’re now in the company of itinerant travellers, old men with dirty beards and dirtier clothes. Cassie leaves me half way through the journey at Joshua Tree. I promise to return to the Joshua Tree Saloon the following night to hear her and a friend sing there.
Half an hour later we reach the end of the line, 29 Palm and it’s clear that I am not in L.A., or even Duarte, even more. This is a true desert town. I am met with men with sun blasted faces. A short walk and I am at my motel, met there by a charming French woman Maggie who bought the place a few years ago. I wonder what has brought her from Nice to small town California. I walk around 29 Palms, relishing the strangeness of it all. Strange, and yet familiar from Sam’s stories. In fact, I can see why he was always itching to leave the safe greenery of Duarte. There’s a lot of America out there to discover and I’m still only on the edge of it all.
I try to hire a bicycle from a number of motorcycle stores to no avail and somewhere to get my bulging bag of dirty washing cleaned, which I eventually do. There is an edge to this place too. One moment you come across little artistic communes and murals depicting early settlers and mining communities on the sides of the buildings. But the next building shows murals of young Amercian soldiers toppling Saddam. There is a marine base just up the road and every dry-cleaner is full of uniforms pressed and ready to be inspected. A soldier is being fitted in another. Signs for Chevrons Fitted. The hairdresser offers Civilian and Military Cuts.
I walk up to the very start of the North Entrance to the Joshua Tree National Park between houses with empty lots next door of sand and sagebrush. The friendly guide at the visitors’ centre helps me out as best she can, but it’s clear I am going to have to get a taxi into the park if I want to get close to the good hiking routes.
I take a short walk around the Oasis of Mara by the visitor’s centre, which was originally an Indian settlement, now dried up if it weren’t for the Park pumping water to it. I leave the paved walkway to read some elemental Sam from Hawk Moon out loud to the darkening desert.
Like a man
Worship the animal
Moon Prayer - Hawk Moon
I walk back, passing a young marine and his girlfriend, hand in hand. “Hey man, how’s it going?” he asks. I sit outside the motel and watch the sun going down over the mountains.
Tuesday 4th March evening 29 Palms Motel, 29 Palms
I met the locals last night in the bar across the highway. It doesn’t seem to have a name, but COCKTAILS is illuminated on a high sign outside. At first it seemed empty but the bar-tender invited me out back where the locals were drinking, smoking and listening to and talking one-hit-wonders. One older guy with grizzled stubble and a stained baseball cap could be Sam’s father, but drunk in a seemingly happy way. We talk of Joan Jet, Suzi Quatro (“Leathers!”) and the Proclaimers, who the bar-tender is pleased to hear are from my home city and still making music. “Good for them.”
Over a fresh coffee the next morning, made lovingly in the general store store a stone’s throw away from the bar by the store-keeper Jaweeb, I ask again about bikes, but there is nothing to be had in town. Maybe I should open a bike hire business after all as one of the Joshua Tree rangers suggested last night. Jaweeb though recommends his friend Alex who drives a cab. I call him up and we drive out to Indian Cove camp, just inside the park. It’s only the second time he’s been inside. He drops me off at the campsite and I set off on my first trail, an easy fifteen minute round walk that takes round the Cove where the Serrano, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla tribes use to live before being driven off the land by the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and then the Americans settlers.
I strike out further into the park, past climbers belaying each other up one of the incredible rock formations that root up from the desert floor. Their instructions in French float across the sand as I try some bouldering of my own. Then I hike into the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon. A sign warns all to be careful where you put your feet and hands; the canyon is named Rattlesnake for a good reason.
A hard scramble over boulders takes me towards the gurgling sound of running water that further up flows between the bleached white rocks in cascading waterfalls. My 7-Eleven tuna sandwich, energy bar and one of two banana for a dollar are far more appetising eaten sitting on a sunny rock overlooking the Mojave mountains than I thought they would be when I bought them some hours ago.
The route becomes more and more treacherous; my first slip sends me hurtling down a tall stone, taking all of the friction on my backside. Then, leaping from rock to rock I push on higher up the canyon, now and then jumping inwardly at coiled branches and once from the darting movement of a lizard. My knowledge of rattlesnakes is pretty much limited to what I have seen towards the end of the Coen Brother’s True Grit. They stay hidden out of the sun during the day right? Avoiding any dark moist galleys, I leap, scramble and slide across boulders or get scratched trying to walk between bristling bushes. I make it as far as I think I safely can, then stop to get my breath and look across the desert with the afternoon sun behind me.
I turn back and start following a wide wash, where water must flow down when it rains. I only have a dotted line of green to follow on a side of A4 paper and my expensive but invaluable compass that I got from the visitor’s centre yesterday as my guide. I follow North, hopefully back to the freeway, somewhere out of sight. There is no path to speak of but it is easy going, although I have to constantly zigzag my way through razor edged branches of the trees that feed off what little moisture there is underground.
Jackrabbits keep me company, running and leaping with glorious little bounds as though they are doing them for sheer fun, always ahead of me as though they are showing me the way. Their long ears and joyful bounce make me think of those jackrabbits blasted by handguns by torchlight in Motel Chronicles and referenced in The Holy Ghostly.
"I always like to think of the two of us as blood brothers. Ya' know what I mean? Not father and son but blood brothers. I mean ever since you was old enough to shoot a thirty-thirty. The way we used go out in the jeep late at night and flash the headlights on them jackrabbits. Blastin' them jackrabbits all up against the cactus ... Them jackrabbits was as big as puppies. Not enough left to even make a decent stew out out of them by time we was through." The Holy Ghostly
I pass cacti and old tin cans rusted a dark bown, complete with gaping bullet holes They can’t be the cans that Sam’s father shoots at in The Real Gabby Hayes in Cruising Paradise as he’s too drunk to hit them. A helium balloon professing "I Love You" has found its final resting place at the foot of a tangled tree. I negotiate an unexpected barbed wire fence and then there are buildings and across the sand the sight of vehicles on the freeway. I make it to the blacktop just past midnight London time and text back to Britain to say that I am safely out of my first day in the desert.
Wednesday 5th March evening 29 Palms Motel, 29 Palms
On Tuesday night Alex is late due to having some pick up some marines but I make it to the Joshua Tree Saloon just before ten. Cassie’s there at the pool table. I’ve missed her sing unfortunately but I meet her boyfriend and don’t embarrass myself at pool. Twice. In fact I win the first game as my opponent, Jeremy, pots the black in an unnamed pocket.
The saloon has a very different vibe from my local in 29 Palms. The townsfolk seem a heady mix of artists, ageing hippies, young folk with spiritual crystal-sound-wave-healing leanings, transvestites, landscape gardeners, skater dudes and squaddies happily fitting in.
Cassie’s boyfriend is sound, offering me his personal pool cue and we talk over pitches of beer. He is a climber but has given up taking tourist groups climbing to tick a box and have their picture taken at the top, as it was sullying what he loves. He is now an apprentice butcher but he is such a good-natured guy I find it hard to imagine him shooting pigs in the head, which he does admit to finding hard emotionally. “But I do love meat.”
They head off and I listen to some rocking renditions of the Stones’ “Love in Vain” and Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” before Alex picks me up.
Next morning it’s a coffee from Jaweeb’s store, pancakes At Denny’s and then into Joshua Tree National Park proper. Me and Alex enthuse over the landscape; its like a different planet, bulbous rock formations with the distinctive trees dotted over the landscape, each unique, growing in it’s own weird shape.
Alex leaves me at Ryan’s Campsite and we arrange that he will pick me up in five hours time. I am nervous heading off on my own on the Lost Horse Mine and Mountain trail as it means hours out in this unforgiving terrain and heat. The path quickly disappears, to be hopefully found again minutes later, treading in the reassuring footprints of previous hikers. Its easy to start following a wash by mistake as I do, completely going off the route for a good hour, getting light-headed with a strange energy and thoughts buzzing through me from the midday sun.
I am rewarded though with a stunning view of a wide empty valley, beautifully desolate. I have lunch and read The War in Heaven out loud. I am the only person for miles and miles around. I turn back, following my own steps before discovering the correct route, almost indistinguishable from washes amongst the brushwood.
I don’t now have enough time to make it up to the Lost Horse abandoned mine so I loop back, cutting across country at one point. It gets to a point where you stop taking pictures and just walk, utterly alone, your water depleting bit by bit. It is a strange mix of confidently knowing where you are thanks to your map reading skills and then suddenly doubting yourself, thinking you are completely lost. When you stop walking the dry silence is almost absolute, a light breath of wind, the buzzing of a fly, the march of a beetle. You only have your head and a landscape it struggles to make sense of, not just in navigating it, but in its unending vastness.
And I have Sam’s words too which I speak out loud at times to keep me company.
I get back to where I had arranged to meet Alex forty minutes early, I could just have easily been a hour late, so I climb the huge boulders that the campsite sits around like a corral and once more read The War in Heaven as the light begins to pale, casting a purple glow on the rock formations around.
Now, a pizza from Rocky's Pizzeria back in 29 Palms and an early night.
Thursday 6th March evening 29 Palms Motel, 29 Palms
Jaweeb isn’t at the store today, so I climb behind the counter with his father to make my coffee. Then, the morning ritual of breakfast at Denny’s followed by the purchase of a cheap sandwich, energy bars, two bananas and four litres of water from 7-Eleven. Then back to Ryan’s Campsite in Alex’s cab. I am hiking out east today, along the Californian Riding and Hiking Trail, before following the Stubble Spring Loop, a longer walk of over thirteen miles. The trail is much easier to follow than yesterday and I have learned not to start following a wash mistaking it for a wide path. There are dozens of startled small birds that constantly fly off in front of me in the early par of the walk and the now familiar sight of small lizards scurrying for cover as I pass. Soon I am climbing a canyon through which wild fire must have raced through recently. Jet-black trees twist their burnt forms up out through the sand. Charcoal litters the ground, the harsh smell of burnt wood still hangs in the air.
Pushing on and on and I’m making good time. I come out on a high plain with views all the way out to snow capped mountains and on to Mount San Jacinto which looked in at my window in Palm Springs. Every now and then I come across footprints in the sand. Yesterday I took this to be a sign that fellow hikers had passed this way hours or even minutes earlier, and I took a reassurance from them that I was on the right track and that there were others ahead of me. Today though, I realise how completely alone I am. The total stillness in the atmosphere, the lack of wind and rain must keep these footprints intact for days or even weeks after they have been made. These thoughts occasionally leap up in my mind, coupled with the dependence I have on the water that I have brought with me, and the real possibility of encountering a mountain lion. I find myself imagining what I would do, what should I do? Play dead, make myself as large and loud as possible, run away? Moments of fear keep coursing through me.
A shorter trail juts off from the loop to Fan Canyon View, a precipice with a large dead tree lying to one side. I can see all the way to the San Bernardino Mountains. It's incredible. The perfect spot for my 7-Eleven lunch.
After lunch I read Orange Grove of My Past from Day Out of Days out loud.
"I thought I had done my level best, done everything I possibly could, not to become my father. Gone out of my way in every department: changed my name, first and last, falsified by birth certificate, deliberately walked and swung my arms in exact counterpoint to the way he had; picked out clothing the opposite of what he would have worn, right down to the underwear; spoke without any trace of a Midwestern twang, never kicked a dog in the ribs, never lost my temper over inanimate objects, never again listened to Bing Crosby after Christmas of 1959, and never, ever hit a woman in the face. I thought I had come a long way in reshaping my total persona. I had absolutely no idea who I was but I knew for sure I wasn't him.
Then, in the fall of '75, I discovered a bottle of Hornitos tequila; pure white, green label. I just stumbled across it like you do some women. I was swept off my feet. I became so completely enraptured that the rest of the world fell away and I never heard the pounding on my door until it was too late." Orange Grove of My Past - Day Out of Days
I am due to meet Alex in just over two and a half hours so back onto the trail, the path taking me between high angular rocks and down and out of washes to the Stubbe Spring. Not wanting to waste time trying to find the spring that could be nothing but sand I walk on and on, sweat trickling down my back, the sun burning down. My head feels much calmer today, happier with my own company, though I still incant Sam’s stories as I walk. At one point I stop, looking out across the vast valley and find myself calling “Worship the Animal! THE ANIMAL YOU!”
I haven’t seen another human being for over three and a half hours when a figure suddenly appears, as I am midway through recounting when me and Tim Ford stole a car once in San Bernardino. I don’t know if he heard me talking to myself but we have the open talk that all walkers seem happy to have.
On and on and on and then I’m back on the Californian Riding and Hiking Trail and then back on the track that brought me out this way this morning. It looks utterly different now from the opposite direction and with the sun at a different angle. I know where I am once more and the road is now in sight. It’s been an amazing day, the landscape is extraordinary, hard to fathom and always unforgiving. You can never completely relax, you are testing yourself against the place, but you want to connect with the land, a desire that comes close to the spiritual and sexual. It overwhelms you and gets inside you. You give yourself up to it but still hold on to the lifeline of the motel shower and TV. The survival instinct I guess.
On and on and on and on and then there is Alex waiting in his cab, exactly where he was this morning. I’m only ten minutes late, having walked for just over five hours. I gulp down more water than I realised I needed, then back to reassure Maggie I’m safe and to say goodbye. She is genuinely sad that I am leaving tomorrow. And I am too.
I pack and then back to Rocky’s Pizzeria where I ate last night for spaghetti, hoping that the very pretty blonde waitress with the great smile is working again. She is and I get to ask her for some cheese. It’s right on the table in front of me.
Now that it is dark the plan is to creep some way into the desert and read The Holy Ghostly, Shepard's play of a father and son on the hunt of a Navajo spirit set at night in the Badlands by torchlight...
Friday 7th March afternoon Greyhound bus between Palm Springs and L.A.
I walk out past the last lights of town to the stretch of road that leads to the Oasis of Mara Visitors Centre. I climb over the short wall and hunch down on the dried mud. The twisted sticks, the jagged branches all look deathly white in the glare of my torch. Cars pass by on the road beside me and it is this that disquiets me more than being out in the wild lands with the possibilities of rattlesnakes and scorpions. Some guy on a motorcycle keeps violently whining back and forth, traversing the same stretch of road. I hunker down every time he passes, not wanting to feel his headlights sweeping across me.
I read light and fast, seriously thinking about stopping at points. The vehicles, the clacking noises from the bushes. It’s not a spiritual moment. I get through it as quickly as I can and I’m glad that I’ve done it. I wasn’t alone in the middle of the badlands, I was just squatting the other side of a wall with headlights and engine noises swinging by, but it was the desert and it did teach me something about the nature of fear, one thing the play is certainly about.
I return to the COCKTAILS bar across the way from my motel and have a second read with a beer. Then I order a second beer and a shot of Hornitos tequila, the seducer and destroyer of Sam’s narrator in Orange Grove of My Past. At first it tastes diluted, I even suspect it’s been watered down. This can’t be the liquid fire that gets inside men’s heads and makes their life fall apart surely. I have another. I’m soon skunk drunk. I meet an older man named Bob who I like a lot and who says his favourite Shepard play is Dream City, a real rarity. I then smack pool balls around the pool table for no discernable purpose with a couple of younger guys, forget the name of the singer of one of my favourite songs of all time on the jukebox, in fact I forget what music I even like, then go careering around 29 Palms on my own.
Shepard’s narrator is right. It sweeps you off your feet, or kicks them out from under you, and replaces them with another pair of feet and a brain that makes you become a person you hate when you wake sweating, dry mouthed, with a tightly gripped head, shamed at 6.30am.
Up and out into the sun warming the mountains feeling as though I’ve done them wrong. My travel plans seem to work somehow though. The local buses seem to be running as promised. I meet a couple of friendly guys who ask me if I “smoke” at Yucca Valley bus stop and then produce a cheeky pipe. I decline.
Then it’s a long wait at Palm Springs airport before an Uber to the train station and another wait there for the Greyhound bus that will take me back to L.A. One of my earlier travelling partners tells me “I love the Greyhound. They always have both Jesus and the Devil on them.”
We are at Claremont now and have just been boarded by the police and a sniffer dog. It’s all very relaxed as far as random drug searches go. “Don’t worry if you’ve got a little bit of marijuana on you, we’re not looking for that. We’re looking for pounds.” The dog seems very content climbing onto empty seats and panting while his handler keeps ordering him to “Search!” It does not appear that we have any drug smugglers aboard this time, so onto L.A.
Have just found another reference to Duarte and Sam's desire to leave there...
“Just waiting to roar off to anywhere but here… Anywhere but here.” Choirboy Once - Day Out of Days
... and in Victorville, California (Highway 15) from Day Out of Days he ponders the naming and renaming of places after discovering that there is now a mountain range named after the TV cowboy Roy Rodgers.
"I had no idea he got some mountains named after him ... I wonder who decides that, anyway. Who decides to give mountains a name - or streets? They must do that by committee or something ... And then, of course, they're always renaming stuff too. Taking the old name down and putting a new one up. That happens all the time." Victorville, California (Highway 15) - Day Out of Days
Some years ago Valley View Satellite Park in Duarte was renamed Glen Miller Park, after the big-band leader who built a ranch nearby in 1941. Will there ever be a Sam Shepard Drive in Duarte I wonder? It would need to lead out of town.
The pinpoint clarity of the San Antonio Mountain range that the bus parallels fades until only its silhouette is seen, the smog from L.A. a wash of grey smeared from west to east. “Next stop Los Angeles.”
Saturday 8th March afternoon LAX Airport, Los Angeles
It's strange to be back in L.A. after my recent adventures. When I first arrived here this exotic industry metropolis was the event. Now, it almost feels like coming home. I am staying with my friend Adam tonight and have dinner with him at the posh "sushi-fusion" restaurant Yamashiro, which is situated in the hills with amazing panoramic views of Los Angeles.
When I go to the bathroom I pass Rutgar Hauer tucking into sushi at a table nearby. Perhaps I'm not quite home yet.
I am keen to see my friend Jeffrey Vincent Parise again who took me in when I first arrived in L.A. It was only last week but seems like months ago now. I arrange to meet him at a friend's birthday party for a drink after dinner. Imagining another long expensive drive I am pleasantly surprised to discover that the bar where the party is taking place is a fifteen walk from Adam's house. That's the equivalent of the next room in L.A. terms.
It's brilliant to see him and to meet even more friendly actors and writers. With the promise to meet again soon and the offer to return the favour of a bed if ever he's in London we have a strong goodbye hug and I walk back to Adam's under the heat and stars of my last L.A. night of this trip.
The next morning I have a great Mexican breakfast with Adam and then we walk and talk around his neighbourhood, passing the Dresden once more. I love that it has now become somewhere that I recognise as I stroll pass, it's become part of my landscape.
I pack and have a last long chat with Adam, then it's my final cab ride, L.A. receding as we approach the airport, with a final glimpse of the HOLLYWOOD sign.
Sunday 9th March early afternoon Earls Court, London
With turbulence knotting my stomach I watch Sam in the film of August: Osage Country. He's the best thing in it. I manage to get three hours sleep with restless hemmed in legs. I arrive in London under a bright cloudless L.A. sky. Spring has arrived.
We have just reached Earl's Court tube station, just down the road from where my old drama school the London Academy of Dramatic Art used to be. A few days before starting there I discovered a copy of Slave of the Camera by Sam Shepard in a second-hand book shop. My friend Christopher Naylor directed me in a section of it in my second year at LAMDA. Since then I have dreamed of creating a show based on it, a dream that has now taken me to Los Angeles, to Shepard's old family home and out to the expanse of the Californian desert. In a few weeks time I will start rehearsals for that show, for the whole CHORALE Roadshow. But right now, as the tube doors close to take me home, I am back where it all began.