Barstow, California-In the summer it is sometimes the hottest place in the USA.
In the beginning I could not see the mystery and magic that was the vast expanse of the desert. I was a child of the darkness. Born and raised in the foggy, rainy valleys of the Pacific Northwest. In the mist I could see a thousand shades of gray, a protective curtain that would provide me with safety.
As a preteen my mother moved me to the prairie and even though it was unending, the fall and winter came with a sky that brought the rain and the snow and a seemingly eternal night. It became a shelter, a place where I found comfort and became who I am. Semis whining down the highway in the blue/black darkness and the R&B radio stations which floated intermittently in the crystal clear night air were companions and friends.
Barstow-Old US 66, circa 1970 I lived down the hill about a half a block off of the old mother road
The pursuit of a teaching career brought me west and one day much to my dismay, I found myself teaching summer school in Barstow, California, halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Every mile that I traveled beyond Bakersfield I felt my spirits sinking further out of sight. This was not one of my dream destinations but rather one of Dante’s circles of Hell that I had been consigned to ironically for chasing the American dream, a college education and a career. At this point in my life, I was young and petulant. In so many ways I was ignorant, untraveled, and closed off to the possibilities that life invariably sends your way. I had not yet read the writings of Carlos Castaneda, books which expounded on the virtues, the mysteries, and the wonder of the desert and those who inhabited it. Opening to new things would have to come later, I was not yet ready.
A typical scene in the Barstow Union Pacific/Santa Fe Railroad switching yard.
In the beginning Barstow existed solely to house a Santa Fe/Union Pacific switching yard, a place to add an engine or two for the steep climb over the San Bernardino Mountains heading east or to leave one behind on the final downhill run to the glistening shores of the Pacific. Over the years, Ft. Irwin had been built, an Army munitions and desert training center. It was an excellent place for testing large military vehicles and blowing things up.
The road to Ft. Irwin
At one time Route 66, the Mother Road, ran through the center of town. The road that was and is an American icon, a legendary ribbon of blacktop running through the heartland of our collective soul. Both the darkness and the brightness of the American dream reside along its shoulders. The reality of it is mostly gone now existing primarily in the nomadic niches of our consciousness. Still once in a while you find a stretch which conjures up what used to be. A short stretch of the original blacktop and the signs sit just a little southeast of Barstow. Amboy is now a ghost town. The truck stops and motels that used to welcome travelers on the final leg of their journey to Los Angeles, the city of bright, shiny lights and sparkling dreams, are now, silent, empty and abandoned, with only the sagebrush and silence for company. Before the interstate made it a glorified rest area complete with a Stucky’s dispensing gas, rock hard divinity, free with a fill-up, and a ten foot high red neon sign, that could be heard crackling and buzzing in the oppressively hot summer night, Barstow was a part of the seductive gypsy-like ethos that is at the core of the American Soul. It was the last stop for rest and gas before the final push to the Pacific Ocean and whatever magic lay beyond.
A stretch of the Mother Road southeast of Barstow-2004
Upon arriving in Barstow I slowly but surely accepted my fate. Living the dream of being a rich bachelor school teacher with a chic apartment in San Francisco was not the path I was destined for. I abandoned all hope and decided to find a place to live. I settled on a place high on a hill with a view of the edge of town. It was an unending panorama of sagebrush, prickly bushes, beer bottles and abandoned automobile parts, especially seats.
Barstow-The Desert’s Living Room
I theorized that they were there for people stranded in the desert who were suddenly seized by the urge to take a seat in the searing heat of the day. I missed my girlfriend, cool night breezes and anything that remotely reminded me of home. The air conditioning provided noise, rattles but no relief from the unrelenting heat. On the up-side, it was across the street from the post office, not far from a gas station, Del Taco the local hangout/fast foot eatery complete with air conditioning and a super market, the source of all things cold. Unfortunately the refrigerator was way too small to accommodate the amount of cheap cold beer it would take to make the summer even somewhat less painful.
The apartment complex, if you could indeed call where I lived apartments, at one time had been a faux hacienda-style motel complete with beige stucco walls that had seen better days and a dilapidated faded orange tile roof. The residents were not your typical neighbors but rather more resembled extras in some now-forgotten 1940’s film noir. At one time in the 1940’s and ‘50’s it had probably been a traveler’s haven for those seeking answers in the emptiness and silence of Mojave.
A place similar to the one where I lived with an apartment cat and a delightfully eccentric landlady.
The Eisenhower years brought Interstate 40. As a result, Route 66 and my present accommodations ceased to relevant or for that matter even remembered. Now I lived in a place whose main attributes included a usually available laundry room, a seldom used swimming pool, and a chain smoking Jewish landlady named Gertrude who sported outlandish wigs, rhinestone bejeweled glasses and a willingness to lend you a vacuum or ironing board on short notice. She was the tolerant and charming de facto housemother of our little slice of “the Hotel California.”
Then there was the cat. He was the “apartment cat,” a large coal black mongrel, missing an eye and the tip of one ear. I was lonely and broke, with the prospect of waking every morning donning a shirt and a tie, and heading off to teach summer school history. My students were not exactly eager scholars. They had flunked the class once and were being forced to repeat it. They could care less. None of the prospects looming in front of me seemed all that appealing. My list of immediate needs did not include a cat but none-the-less when he knocked on the door that blistering hot Barstow summer afternoon I was powerless not to answer it. The second I let him in our friendship began.
Huey P-the irresistible greeter/apartment cat of the El Rancho Apartment-Barstow, California
I decided almost at once his name would be Huey P. after Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party who at the time was a household name, at least in the circles I traveled in. He proved to be a gracious guest and a delightful companion. He was affable, totally at home on my kitchen counter, asleep in my lap listening to music or on rare occasions, snoring at the foot of my bed. Mostly he preferred to sleep outside on the porch mat within easy reach of a midnight buffet of a variety of desert rodents. To supplement this somewhat questionable diet I bought him twelve cent a can “Puss ‘n Boots” cat food. He was not fussy as to the flavor. Once we had bonded, I went to the Salvation Army and purchased him a set of bowls for water and food. He was officially my roommate, even though I had to share him with all of the other tenants who also loved and cared for him.
Once I accepted the reality that the desert was my new home I settled into a routine, rolling out of bed at 6:30 am, putting on a shirt and tie (the dress code for male high school teachers circa 1970), and opening the front door to feed Huey and face the heat of yet another day. Upon arriving at school after picking up my mail, the next task was to throw rocks at the side of portable tin shed that housed my classroom in order to scare the nest of Mojave Green Rattlesnakes dozing in the shade of the building back into the middle of said shade so they would not be startled by my students climbing the rickety wooden steps that led to the front door. If you taught at Barstow High School, avoiding the occasional accidental snakebite and the lawsuits that would inevitably follow was priority number one. As I was finding out, in the Mojave it was all about co-existence and survival.
My first teaching assignment-Summer School,1970
I even found myself warming to the gaggle of misfits that was my summer school class. While they could be surly and inattentive, they were also funny, full of life and given a chance, eager to learn. I discovered they loved give and take and the chance to talk about ideas, issues and their perception of how the world worked and their place in it. It tickled me to watch them grow and change, to discuss global historical events and the personalities that shaped them, as if this type of intellectual exchange had always been a part of their lives. The eight weeks I thought would be an eternity passed in the blink of an eye and then as suddenly as it had started, it was over. For the moment I was utterly at a loss as to how I should feel. I was a first year teacher and my first class had come and gone. I was joyful and empty all at once.
I did not have long to reflect. I received a telephone call from Dr. Dorothy Blackmore. She was the head of the State of California Title lV Rural Teaching Intern Program, the reason I was in Barstow in the first place. Like me, Dr. Blackmore was bonded with the Pacific Northwest. She had been raised in Seattle and attended the University of Washington. When she had visited the San Bernardino County Intern Program, I had spoken to her of my homesickness and the desire to be closer to home. The telephone call was to grant my wish. For a long time afterward she would be known as Saint Dorothy Blackmore.
As fate would have it the intern who was slated to take the job at Sonora High School had failed to complete the requirements for his degree. They needed a history teacher and a wrestling coach and they were desperate. It was August and time was running out. As soon as I hung up the phone, I threw a few things in my 1965 Chevy, and drove all night like a mad man to Sonora for my interview.
Barstow, California-At one time a traveler’s haven on the Mother Road.
I was bleary-eyed, hung over from too much coffee and too much highway. I was not at the top of my interview game and in fact I was barely coherent. The principal at Sonora High School was tired of interviewing people; I was candidate number twenty-three. All he really wanted was to have a warm body in place the first day of school and to salvage what was left of his summer vacation. It was not love at first sight-that would come later, but at least I got the job.
I was beside myself with joy. I was teaching in the heart of the Sierras, one hundred miles from the ocean and my girlfriend. Yosemite was less than an hour away. There were lakes, mountains and Gold Rush towns to explore and teachers my own age to get to know. As an added bonus I would get to teach a subject I loved and coach my beloved sport of wrestling. I had gone from what I thought was despair to the pinnacle of ecstasy in the space of twelve hours. I was twenty-three years old and had somehow managed obtain everything I had ever wanted.
Sonora-the heart of California Gold Rush Country
The four-hundred mile drive back to Barstow flew by. R.B. Greaves singing, “Take a Letter, Maria,” played as if an endless loop had been plugged into my car radio. Over the next week, I obtained my release from the San Bernardino Intern Program, said good-bye to the people I had taught with and my supervisors, both of which I had grown surprisingly close to. I saved the task of cleaning out my little apartment for last. In actually I had few possessions so the task was fairly simple.
My final morning in Barstow, I packed the last of my belonging in my car, fed Huey and then picked him up in the same way you would rock a baby. I kissed him on the head and held him tightly against me. He snuggled and purred. Along with my apartment key, Huey and I headed up the driveway, past the empty pool to Gertrude’s.
The beauty of the desert-It took a while for me to discover it
“You’re up early,” she said. The sentence washed over me as something familiar, reassuring.
“I’ve got a long way to go, I should get after it, beat the heat you know.”
“Silence replaced the warm morning air that was already beginning to fill the apartment.
Suddenly Gertrude reached out her left arm and hugged me, pulled me close. Her right arm remained at her side, her hand holding the lit cigarette that was a fixture there. She was quite short, her head fit neatly under my chin.
“I am going to miss you, Michael. You are a good boy, a son your parents should be proud of. Be safe, and be well. By the way we will all take good care of Huey. We all love him. Please don’t worry.”
On the way out the door I stopped to give Huey one last good-bye kiss and a huge hug. He was already well into his second breakfast, one that Gertrude had laid out for him on top of the kitchen counter. I drove out of the driveway and down the main street of the funky little desert town that had been my home for the last two months. By the time I reached Mojave and turned northward, the desert wind blowing on my face through the open car window had dried most of my tears. At that stage of my life I was not introspective enough to fully understand what the desert had given me and what I had lost by leaving. The passing of time would provide me with that knowledge. The best I could do in that moment so long ago was turn my old Chevy northward and anticipate adventures yet to come.
The sign says it all about my feelings upon arriving in Barstow.
For years after my stay in the desert, I swore I would never return. The dry, endless, open emptiness was not something that moved me. Still the blue-black satin texture of the night sky, embroidered with a million luminescent stars and the faint scent of mesquite and sagebrush became forever embedded in my consciousness. It would not let me go. In the end the high plateau that is Eastern Oregon, Nevada and the grand Mojave Desert of California called to me and I could not resist.
I floated the rivers of Eastern Oregon, surrounded by their canyons, more magnificent than any cathedral. I followed the empty lengths of highway that are US 95 and US 50 into perfect pale pink, purple and blue deserts sunrises. Without knowing it, I became addicted to the silence and the sense of freedom that that the desert offers. It is a gift that is always there, waiting, if you will just reach out and take it.
Barb, my wife-like me, a lover of the desert
One sunny April evening, I found myself along with my wife sitting on the tailgate of our dusty, well used Honda Element. We had parked at a roadside pullout in the middle of the Joshua Tree National Monument. We had come simply to sit in the early evening quiet and watch the sunset and to be alone with our thoughts and memories. Like me, she was a “desert rat.” Years before she had lived in the desert near Twenty-Nine Palms. She had married young, shortly after graduating from high school, forgoing college and a career as a librarian. Her husband had been a marine and after his tour of duty in Viet Nam, he had been assigned to the Marine Corps base just outside of Twenty-Nine Palms.