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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
“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.