From My Portfolio

A Restless Night on the Mohave

I hadn't planned to wear hiking shorts and a hot pink T-shirt that said, "CiaoAmerica" the first time I stepped into a bar alone. 

But I brushed the dirt from my hair, comforting myself with the knowledge that nobody would mistake me for a desperate woman looking to get laid. 

I didn't know I'd be the only woman in the bar. Or that off-duty Marines, with thighs bigger than Texas, would be my only companions.
I'd come off the Mojave Desert at dusk near Indian Creek. I braked my tin can of a rental car where a dusty road meets the highway in a swirl of sand. In the rear-view mirror was Joshua Tree National Park. A parched wilderness of pockmarked boulders, fan palm oases and kangaroo rats. Straight ahead was the world's largest Marine base, concealed behind immense stretches of sand, dry washes and jumping cholla cactus.
I pictured bare-chested Rambos cruising the dunes, blasting laser weapons at rabid dogs. 
I was supposed to be in Palm Springs that night, 50 miles away, where I had a private villa with its own swimming pool. But I'd finished the magazine story I'd come to write. I headed straight for beautiful Joshua Tree and spent the day trying to teach myself how to climb the red rocks. 
Afterward I felt empty as the sky. Saturday night came crashing down and suddenly it felt sad to be a woman traveling alone. I missed my husband. I missed my little boy.  
If I'd been a man, I would have taken that restlessness straight to a bar, but I'd never strolled into a bar alone. Where I grew up, in the border towns of Idaho and Eastern Washington, nice women simply didn't do that sort of thing.
When we get restless in the West, we drive and drive until we wear out the night.  A friend of mine once left an Idaho dance hall at closing time and drove west more than 300 miles across the Columbia plateau and the Cascade mountain range. She reached Seattle at daybreak. It really cheered her up.  
I wanted to keep moving, but where? I fiddled with the road map. Nothing but desert all around. Even I understood it would be crazy to explore a Marine firing range at night.Then I saw a sign stuck to a wooden stake by the highway: 

"Used Books. Store For Sale." 
A bookstore in the middle of nowhere? I had to see that. I followed the road and pulled up to a tiny plywood building. It brought to mind Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs, a detective tale set in the seedy parts of Palm Springs. Maybe it was a hideout for gangsters on the lam.
Nothing inside the joint which smelled of dust, brittle paper and cheap cigarettes, dispelled that notion. Books tumbled over desks and chairs and cluttered the floor. It took me a while to spot the owner, a tall man with spiked salt-and-pepper hair. He was shuffling papers at a chipped wooden desk.
Cliff Raven. The name sounded about as authentic as a Palm Springs waterfall. 
"That ‘For Sale’ sign has been up five years," he confided, revealing a set of tobacco-stained teeth. "It ain't going nowhere. Come back in another five years and I'll still be sitting in the same old spot."
I asked what it was like to have a Marine base in your front yard.
"Spooky. My whole building shakes when the boys get rocking. Don’t know what weapons they're testing, but they sure have a good time!"
He laughed, lighting a generic cigarette. "I also get lots of hikers coming off Joshua Tree -- women like you."
“Meaning what?”
He waved his hand, as if it were obvious. I told him I'd spent an hour watching a climber work a single cleft of rock in Joshua Tree. "I don't get out there much,” he said. “It's not my thing." 
"You should have seen this guy," I went on. "He had chalk, special boots, metal gadgets. A total yuppie. Then I noticed he had 'Operation Desert Storm' tattooed on both arms. Talk about gross."
Raven frowned and squashed the cigarette. Just when I thought he was going to reach for a .38, he pushed back the sleeve of his flannel shirt.
"You shouldn't be judgmental about people who wear tattoos." He showed me a series of snakes writhing along his arm, a veritable Garden of Eden. He let me know that under the flannel he rivaled Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man.
"I used to be in the tattoo business," he said. He bought the bookstore after selling a tattoo parlor in Hollywood -- not that he'd discuss his clients. "That's kind of a bush-league thing to do.”
He lit another cigarette, smiling shrewdly as if he knew something about me. I probably wasn't the first person to wander off the desert and into his shop, feeling jumpy and lost without knowing why.
"Where you headed?" he asked.
"Beats me. Maybe I’ll just keep driving."
"Say, I know a place you'd like." He chuckled. "I'm not going to tell you anything about it. You have to see it to believe it."
He tore up an empty cigarette carton and scrawled me a map. He said it led to the 29 Palms Inn, a short drive down the road on the Oasis of Mara.
I zipped through the town of Twentynine Palms, a major pit stop that cluttered the highway for several miles with liquor stores, tattoo parlors, delis and saloons. A rhinestone Stars and Stripes waved over the Little Church of the Desert and a billboard offered "Joshua Bail Bonds 24 Hours." 
The streets were full of the "few and the brave" -- handsome guys with forearms like Popeye’s. I hung a right and turned into the 29 Palms Inn.
"Bees! Stay Away! Watched by time-lapse photography!" read a cardboard sign planted in a grassy field. Pretty adobe bungalows and framed cottages, with fanciful names like Apache Plum and Tidy Tips, dotted a patchy oasis. I parked in front of a low white building labeled a "mock office." It was deserted. I thumbed through a brochure. It boasted that Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante and gangster incarnate James Cagney once hung out at the Inn. Film noir, my favorite.
A sign directed me to the bar. I crossed a strip of lawn and came to a swimming pool surrounded by tall lava lamps with dangling price tags. Off to one side was the door to the bar. I put my hand on the doorknob. I lost my nerve.
"Excuse me," a woman said. I turned to see a bride. Yes, a bride in a white veil and long wedding dress.  She was like a vision out of Woman in Whiteby Wilkie Collins. I waited a moment and then I followed her. I could not resist.
Everyone turned to stare at me. Men, all men. Gigantic men, pounding down cheap beers. They smiled, as if to say, Hmm, what's this?

Somehow I managed to keep moving forward. I grabbed a barstool and sat down. 
My face was flushed from the desert heat, my hair sweaty on my back.  Not only was I the only woman, but the only customer not licensed to carry special weapons. I called for a Heineken to steady my nerves. 
The bartender, a New Age hippie type with long curly hair, smiled at me as shrewdly as Raven had. He handed me a beer. It was cool and soothing in my hands.
Stay or go, stay or go? I fiddled with my car keys.
"You know," the bartender said in a casual voice, "people get real caught up in the desert. Think they can drive forever. Maybe you ought to stay out of your car for a while. Have something to eat."
He brought me tasty grilled shrimp and wild rice, and I started to chow down. I noticed for the first time that it was a pretty bar, with a parachute hanging from the ceiling, a million knickknacks and a view of the swimming pool. 
Then a tall Marine with bristly blond hair and a bionic build started strutting around in a muscle shirt and jeans. Jean-Claude Van Damme in "State of Siege" had nothing on him.
Finally, he pointed at my Heineken and said, “Expensive beer." 
I studied the tattoos that ran like runaway trains across his arms. I remembered what Raven had said about not judging people who had tattoos.
“Did you get those locally?" I asked, pointing to the artwork on his arms.
"Sure did." He grabbed the barstool next to me. It turned out his name was Dwayne and he was a Texan. He told me how much each tattoo cost ("Paid $140 for this here eagle. It's a cover-up job. Used to be a heart, but I got sick of that."). He also had a bulldog, a dragon and a rose. He dreamed of “sleeving” both arms with solid bands of ink.
“Have you seen a bride anywhere?” I asked, just for a sanity check.
“Hey, that’s what we’re all here for!” A Marine wedding had just wrapped up, Dwayne said, not a typical affair because the groom didn’t drink. "Ordinarily we'd be in full dress uniforms with swords and all," he added with a sigh. "Things would get pretty damn wild."
Soon Marines surrounded me. They told me where to get the best ribs in Twentynine Palms, the best pastrami sandwiches. But when it came to trade secrets they were reticent as Raven. Being a Marine was a job, they were real proud, every day was a challenge. That's all they wanted to say.
I asked Dwayne if the desert made them stir-crazy.
“That’s true for lots of guys, but not for me.” He said he liked to explore the desert, because it reminded him of Texas. He knew where to find the wreckage of a B-52, a rusty tank left over from General Patton's era, Indian petroglyphs and an oasis with a stream and four palm trees. “You got to keep moving on your days off. That’s the trick.”
I nodded. I wondered if I’d gotten lonely not because it was Saturday night, but because weariness and the approaching darkness had forced me to stop moving across Joshua Tree. There was a word for people like me. Nomad.
Next I met Ralph, a dark-haired and furtive Marine who told me he was in "Special Services." I took him for a spy. “I go into a place before the other guys do," he said.
It was Ralph who escorted me to the parking lot when I finally got ready to leave. A half moon hung in the big dark sky. Cool desert air poured over us, soothing as tonic water.
My car waited for me like a long-distance love affair. I told Ralph that I might ditch the highway and drive back to my Palm Springs hotel through Joshua Tree -- even though the narrow, unlit road was treacherous in the dark.
"Shouldn't take you more than, oh, three or four hours," said Ralph, too smart to tell me not to try. "That's a real challenge you've set for yourself."
Then I saw something that spooked me.
"That your car?" Ralph asked.
There it was, gleaming in the dark like a white spaceship. Not only had I left the trunk lid straight up, but I had just left my camera and other valuables scattered inside of it for anybody to steal.
"I must've been crazed," I said.
Ralph smiled, as if he had known that all along. He said if I was too tired to drive, I could always stay with him.
I smiled and shook my head. I remembered a Joan Didion story about people "whose instincts tell them that if they do not keep moving at night on the desert they will lose all reason.” I decided I was one of those people.
I jumped into my car. I stepped on the gas and turned up the radio high. I headed straight for Palm Springs, chasing the moon all the way back under a  dome of black sky. I'd had my adventure. I had worn out the night.


by Candace Dempsey

From Passionfruit and Travelers' Tales Women in the Wild