Visions in the Desert

16 hours ago I was motoring up Juniper Drive to look at a room for rent and I realized I had an intense pit of fear in my stomach. “Do I really have to do this?” And “If I do this, then I really have to do this.”

If I rent this room, then I really have to sit down and write for the next three weeks. I can’t just say that it’s something I want to do and use excuses to not do it.

Fear is usually subtle. It normally takes the form of me resenting someone for something they do (which, I’ve come to realize, reflects something I do – you spot it, you got it) or of me being upset (muttering: “This is such bullshit.”) because life unfolded differently than how I planned or expected.

But this time the fear was so obvious, and so strong. I don’t remember the last time I was actually nameably “afraid” to do something.

“Road Trip!”

Woohoo!

Okay, maybe not that kind of road trip. Not the woohoo kind.

The plan that had formed during the month after I finished my six-month LA gig was to hit Joshua Tree National Park for a couple days, then head north to Sequoia National Forest, then slightly further north to Yosemite. After that, I wasn’t sure. Eugene and Bend and Portland? Seattle and Vancouver?

Whatever happened after Yosemite the plan was ultimately to come down the coastline back to LA. The coast and the ocean and the negative ions are what I’m after and if I could only do one, the parks or the coast, it wouldn’t even be close. The national parks are checkboxes for me: I’m here so I might as well do them, meaning I might as well cruise through them and spend a night or two in or near each of them.

The parks are not without a real draw. Yosemite because…well, it’s Yosemite. John Muir, Ansel Adams. And two friends told me I had to go, no matter what, even if I had to borrow warm clothes from them. (My mom mailed me my winter coat.)

Sequoia because I was at the Starbucks Reserve in LA and off the floor I picked up an NY Times travel mag and there was a piece on the majesty of the sequoias in that national park, and trees had become a minor thing for me after a breathwork course I took in Guatemala two years ago. And Sequoia is conveniently between Joshua Tree and Yosemite. One of nature’s grand wonders, a pit stop.

Pop Culture, that’s why

Why Joshua Tree? The only reason it was on my radar was because it has the same name as the U2 album. Really. I mean, c’mon, I was 16 or 17 when it came out, I had an angular 1985 Honda Prelude 2.0Si with sunroof and one of the cassettes always in the door pockets was The Joshua Tree. (Others I can remember without trying are The Police, Outlandos d’Amour, Billy Joel, Glass Houses, Rush, Whatever album Limelight and Tom Sawyer were on, and, of course, that Violent Femmes album.1)

Here’s a track listing if you need a reminder:

  1. Where the Streets Have No Name
  2. Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
  3. With or Without You
  4. Bullet the Blue Sky
  5. Running to Stand Still

Do I like the second side (remember those?) better because it’s better, or because the first was overplayed on the radio? Does it matter? When judging other people’s taste, definitely!

  1. Red Hill Mining Town
  2. In God’s Country
  3. Trip Through Your Wires
  4. One Tree Hill
  5. Exit
  6. Mothers of the Disappeared

The Joshua Tree is far from a favorite album but it is ridiculously, inescapably iconic. Mountain biking in Breckenridge four years ago all the mining remnants caused me to seek the album out because of “Red Hill Mining Town,” it had been years and years and years since I listened, unlike some cherished albums that come up once a year or more. But as with those other albums that I hear yearly, I knew most of the words, after fifteen years or more.

If the title is what brought it to mind (and which caused me to make sure I had it downloaded before leaving LA), longtime favorite track “In God’s Country” was the impetus for revisiting this time – its first line is “Desert sky…” – and the album continues to hold up (though this music video does not, if it ever did).

As far as the park goes, while I was in Los Angeles people would mention that they spent the weekend in Joshua Tree and how amazing it was, blah blah blah, so I put it on the checklist.

The real reason I’m meh about National Parks

Mountain biking isn’t allowed in National Parks; consequently I don’t seek them out. I lived in Boulder for five years and I “visited” Rocky Mountain National Park exactly one time, driving through on the way to Steamboat (to go mountain biking). We stopped at an overlook for five-ish minutes.

Three hours into my epic “Best Coast”2 road trip I stopped short of Joshua Tree National Park to visit a bike shop in the small city of Palm Desert to get the beta on some of the local trails.

Three days later I hadn’t left PD, having been on the first two rides of my season and spending an off day of outdoor yoga, reading, writing, and finding myself looking for a place to stay for a few weeks or a month.

Falling in love so easily

The past few years I’ve been lucky to be able to go to very cool places where I want to spend extended periods of time. “Slow travel.” I’m not indiscriminate – I visited Portland and enjoyed it during an early July week when it was sunny and warm, then I flew home and that was fine. Portland, check.

Six years ago I spent three weeks visiting Boulder from New York City. Back in Brooklyn I had a craigslist bike that happened to be a mountain bike, just to get around town; during my CO visit I found myself on a trail on a borrowed bike and realized, Oh, this is what my bike is for. I brought my bike back to Boulder for the summer, which turned into a job and a community and though I’ve been traveling most of the past two years, I still consider Boulder home.

Last year was jammed with great places. All cities, I guess I’m a city guy. I was in sultry Oaxaca for five days and would have stayed there or gone back right away if not for already-booked flights and obligations. A month later I landed in Bangkok which was a little too much for me (which surprised me because of my many years in New York, but talk about being turned up to 11, Bangkok, man) and after two nights fled north via overnight bus to much smaller city Chiang Mai (population: one million) where I ended up for two months, in part because everything was so easy there – a scooter, apartment, and coworking space totaled $350, and they all sort of fell into my lap.

I left Chiang Mai only because I had to leave the country to get a new visa, my plan was to come right back. I landed in Asia with a visa for Vietnam so I chose Saigon for a five-day visa run – I’d grab some pho and a bahn mi or two and head back to CM. Over two months later I still hadn’t tried every food dish I knew about – when you’re addicted to pho and need it at least once every two days, your eating opportunities are lessened – and faced with an expiring Vietnamese visa and one month left to stay abroad I found myself agonizing between remaining in Saigon or heading back to Chiang Mai. (I went to Chiang Mai and fell in love even harder.)

When I returned from Asia I couldn’t have been happier to be back in the US in general and Boulder CO in particular. (Relatively) clean air and water, monetary transactions I could easily compute, and everyone spoke English.

Previa origin story with cultural aside: Right when I got back to the States I needed a way to get around and that’s when I found my 1994 Previa. (One morning in Saigon two months earlier I woke up and my first thought was, I’m gonna buy a Previa when I get back.) I got it from a Hmong family in Westminster who were originally from Northern Thailand not far from Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai I routinely saw young families numbering four and sometimes five on one scooter; in Westminster I was buying the minivan from a family of five who had six cars. The American Dream.

Towards the end of summer with a dwindling bank account, I had a job opportunity in Los Angeles CA and man, what a great city. Weird, and ubercool, and not necessarily for me in the long-term but after seven months there I left feeling not quite finished. Dormant loves for moviegoing and restaurants were roused; except for Paris (haven’t been) there might not be a better place to feed that combination of passions.

And then, a few days ago, I was in Palm Desert where the weather is perfect. 80s-90s. Dry. The terrain is moonlike yes, and it was wildflower season – purples and yellows everywhere. Like Boulder, PD is a city that abuts foothills, in this case, those of the San Jacinto Mountains. There’s also a mashup of Boulder’s Eben G. Fine park with Mt. Sanitas, it’s called Cap Homme / Ralph Adams Park. In the morning you can see locals going for their early hikes before work, or before their tee times.

There was an art installation project called Desert X taking place all over Palm Springs and spilling over into Palm Desert. As of this writing I haven’t checked it out yet, save for the one in Cap Homme park. I imagine for locals it’s pretty cool to have this place that’s so familiar have this wall plopped down in it for a period of time. When The Gates took over Central Park it created a magical vibe both in the park and in New York City.

A calling

I have no idea where it came from but for the past two months I’ve had this calling to write. I’ve had it for longer but it’s been especially strong lately.

Over the past few years I’ve started four different essays to document moments in time that were epochal for me. Three of them stand at multi-thousand words and one is two years old and barely started, but along with the others, it nags at me every day.

It’s easier to start things than to finish them, and the second 90% is way harder than the first 90%. I’ve done the first 90% of these essays, then found other first 90% things to do. I don’t know what I would do with them when finished, I have no motivation other than to preserve these four moments in time in essay form, hopefully not sucking once they’re finished. (I know how ambitious that sounds.) I just want them done.

#Productivelife

I can’t quite reconcile #vanlife with productivity. (Maybe vanlifers are not the most productive people, by definition.) Objectively there’s no reason why I can’t wake up early in the van and make my way to a coffee shop and write. That’s what I’ve been doing for over a month and I’ve been minorly productive, writing some things that aren’t necessarily great but that I’m happy with as part of the process of developing a skill. I got ready for this roadtrip, ate some good food, and read some great LA-oriented books.

It might be because I’ve also been reading Steven Pressfield’s writings on creating and the things that stop us (The War of Art, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, Turning Pro), and in one of them he talks about the magic that gets created in a room that gets used over and over, day by day. I have some experience with that: in Saigon I rented a room (in Japantown; trippy) and day-by-day built an ecommerce website. Every day I woke up, did yoga, meditated, “brewed” “coffee” (hot water and a powdered substance), and got to work. A month later I had a website.3

Also, recently I saw a post on Facebook by a friend who just finished a six week work retreat and accomplished much, for work and for self. I was inspired, and maybe a little jealous.

So even though I can live for free in my van, I found myself on craigslist looking for rooms. I didn’t have the easiest-to-match criteria: start ASAP (mid-month, on April 11 or whenever) for about a month only (because of an early-May commitment), and not costing a ton of money (or else I would just check into a high-end spa).

It’s craigslist, and if you dig and are willing to adapt to what you find, you can usually find something suitable.

Fear Valley

After seeing two places in Palm Desert I realized that it didn’t make sense to spend money to share a space with someone to have a bed and shower and then leave to work. That’s what I was finding, which wasn’t far from living in my Previa. I needed a workspace and privacy.

One promising lead was for a small room in/above a highway strip town between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. Too far from anywhere to be easily distracted by city life.

45 minutes from Palm Desert, Morongo Valley is a highway strip town. I turned off 62 and headed up the inclining road towards the mountains. This thing that I had been wanting – this sacred space to move towards full self-expression that’s so clearly burning to come out of me, for whatever purpose – it was possibly about to happen.

So of course the fear showed up. Or, as Steven Pressfield characterizes it, the Resistance. The internal force that wants to keep us from becoming our higher selves.

Call it what you like, it wasn’t subtle enough this time; it overplayed its hand. Having become more familiar with it in recent years, I’m able to recognize it for what it is even when it’s more devious, and though I didn’t laugh in its face, I acknowledged it and kept going.

A few minutes later I met the owner of the ranch where the room for rent was located – Lynda, with whom, it turns out, I share a birthday. Platinum blonde hair, hale, 50s, desert skin, she built this place herself and she reminds me of a few other can-do women in my life – gregarious, ebullient, self-assured. She creates the future with words and then lives into that.

We agreed on a price and then I was moving most of my van’s contents into my room for the next three weeks.

Today, 12 April 2017

It’s 8am and I’m sitting at a table in my small room. I just finished my oatmeal muesli, I have a steaming hot cocoa next to me, and I’m typing (obviously).

I wrote the beginning of what you’re reading shortly after I woke up; after a few hours I sat on the patio and read a Raymond Chandler short story, took a quick nap, explored the area on my bike, and sat down again at the keyboard to finish the first 90% of this post. There are desert brush-covered hills with yellow wildflowers everywhere, I have a small patio with a view of massive snow-peaked Mount San Jacinto, and the birdsong soundtrack has evolved during the day along with the light.

This is pretty much everything I had hoped for, which is probably why the fear was so strong.

Before I tackle the one essay I want to focus on during my time here, I had to get this one out “for some reason” that I’m listening to. I hope it illuminates an aspect of your world that was previously dark or dim; I think that’s what I’m trying to do here, though I’m not sure. If I stick with it, maybe we’ll find out.

Cheers,

L.R.

  1. Want to travel back 25 years? Here’s a Spotify playlist with those classics, and others that came up for me since writing:  https://open.spotify.com/user/louisralph/playlist/71EB17bfLroG4Qjc95hm3x
  2. Classic inferiority complex sufferers needing to pump themselves up – Burger King, Pepsi, West Coast, etc. As soon as you reference your superior competition, you’re done – doesn’t everyone know that? The funny thing is, haha, if you want to get into it – as a coast yes, West is probably best. LA. SF. PDX. SEA. Vancouver. But individual cities? Haven’t been there in a few years but New York probably still takes on all comers and emerges on top. Does New York City even think about LA or anyone else as competition?
  3. The White Stripes’ 50 second “Little Room” pretty much nails it.

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