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.