The night sky is that out of a storybook. A crisp, dark, coffee-ish purple. The moon is giving off a soft, burnt orange glow. As i open the car door the air, dry and an unfamiliar mix of pungent and sweet, meets my face like a pillow in a pillow fight. The scenery is exactly how i expected to arrive at the junction of Death Valley – dreamily hazy and, if such a thing exists, just the right amount of creepy.
Olancha is a sleepily slow hamlet verging on Death Valley and it’s 192 inhabitants all seem to be in the safety of their air conditioned homes. We step inside the dim entrance cabin of our little ranch motel and are hit by the spicy odor of tabacco and whiskey. The owner leads us to our room, searches it for rattle snakes and we’re set. We’re hungry but it’s late and the next open restaurant is half an hour away. So we just inhale our surroundings and go to sleep.
Matt wakes me, calling out from the front porch to join him watching the sun climb over the mountains in front of our cabin. All dawns are calm and slow, but desert dawns are sedately slow. Colours exploding out of nothingness, spreading over nothingness and hydro poles.
After a while m. goes back inside. I sit down on the gravel path beside truckers dragging past to watch the mountain range skirting the valley turn from rusty lavender to dusty orange. I take a shower in cold spring water and after breakfast we follow Highway 190 to the mouth of Death Valley.
Gorges of black rock, the hot morning air, unmoving. Oddly romantic colour palettes settled in the angularity of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Stone desert, dotted with shrubbery. Salted nuts and water. The way sand falls, blurry but somehow sharp, like rippling water. A cracked, saffron landscape. Rusty pipes on the roadside and graffiti on forsaken one story buildings. All of this we pass in just a few hours.
It’s still early and i am woken up by the ice clinking in the soda machine. I sneak through the crack in the sliding door and sit down on a rust stained lawn chair in front of the clover shaped children’s pool. Nobody else is around yet and it is most probable that nobody will be, for the soporific September heat seems to be more smothering here than anywhere we have been.
The circumambient mountains narrow in on, but at the same time isolate themselves, smooth and beige, from the Fata Morgana-esque valley, highlighting the artificiality of the latter.
Yesterday it was over 122 °F and even after the sun went down there was nobody out. Nobody but us and one woman waiting at a bus stop amid the constant nebula of lawn sprinklers in a drought. Surrounded by countless interior decorators’ shopfronts and biliously green lawns.
This place is air-sealed in a annoyingly fascinating lack of self irony, born in the thick of it’s settled affluence.
At the supermarket-checkout in front of us: a slender lady in her 60’s, seemingly arisen from a Joan Didion novel, buys copious amounts of 4,5l bottles of vodka and cream cheese and with a shaky hand and high toned manner advises the cashier on how to do his job. I imagine her driving home to white leather couches, abstract expressionism, her purchases on a light marble surface, with certainty a pool in the backyard. Probably no clover shaped one.
At dinner elderly women, bejeweled and pink-lipsticked, tiptoe-talk in polite and hushed manners (more to themselves than to their starched companions). Their heeled feet dangling just above the floor as they slip into the backrest of the padded benches. Places reveal themselves in glimpses.
We pass by road workers and date palm fields. After 2 hours the latter cease (the former never do). A leaden, yellowish shade seems to emanate from the emerging Salton Sea, staining the air that smells of rotten eggs. Rusty chains carry signs that advise caution on entering the beach. Everything in sight is broken. Everything carries rust and the spooky somnolence of abandoning things in a hurry. Trees have decayed to wiry praying mantises. A dilapidated billboard is pointing to a deserted gas station. A strip of beach made up of fishbones bears the disjointed relics of an armchair.
We take a few byroads and find, among nothingness, Slab City made up of trailers and sofas, coloured glass and empty tin cans. Salvation Mountain is looming atop like the evidence that the most beautiful things are to be found in the wasteland.
The midday sun is so bright that it takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the bright colours of Leonard Knight’s work of art. It’s quite a beautiful and whimsical thing that someone would have a revelation and then go ahead and devote his life to creating something so striking, so palpable, so matter of fact in the heat of the desert. Something people can not only look at, but walk on (which underlines the whole message).
I guess that’s a true testimony to vision. The fact that there are still people taking the detour and the fact that there are still people maintaining it. Although their maintaining it means that it’s not his mountain anymore. It’s kind of ours as well.