The Brown Bits of the Map

Hello friends and family!

If you open Google Maps and zoom out on the map of California, you’ll see the southern part of the state is divided into two halves: the green and the brown. The green covers the coastal cities and the forests of the mountain ranges that hem those cities in. I am afraid of the green bits, because there are too many highways and too many people and all the pretty campsites are at 7,000 feet and freezing cold in the winter. But on the eastern side of the mountains the map is brown to represent the Mojave and California deserts. As long as I stay on the brown bits, I can be alone in the desert and see the stars in the dark sky and sleep pretty much anywhere I want. Let this blog post serve as a travelogue for the brown parts of the map – though I recommend visiting when gas doesn’t cost $5.50 a gallon!

The Mojave

The jewel of the California desert is, of course, Joshua Tree National Park. It’s not just for LA influencers instagramming their mushroom trips or hardcore rock climbers eating cold beans out of the can! The principal draws for me are the hiking and the light (not to get too woo-woo, but the desert sunrise and sunset are less “something you watch” and more “something you feel”). You can hike through dense groves of Joshua trees, into secret spring-fed oases, through fields of teddy bear cholla cactus, past old abandoned mines, and up and down the scrub-covered canyons. The park climate is a paradise in the winter: having once visited in July without being able to leave the air-conditioned car for fear of heat stroke, I now appreciate the cold January nights of the desert. Outside the park you can find open-air desert art galleries, great Mexican food, and ample public land where various yahoos gather to camp and party between trips into the park. If experiencing the beauty of the Mojave on a shoestring budget is your goal, Joshua Tree is the place for you.

West of Joshua Tree lies the funky mid-century modern architecture of Palm Springs (and Palm Desert and Desert Hot Springs and Desert Edge and Thousand Palms – the naming conventions in the Coachella Valley aren’t particularly innovative). You might think that Palm Springs isn’t a brown bit of the map, but I assure you it is. They just keep building golf clubs and horse parks and green-lawned subdivisions in the desert. Palm Springs isn’t necessarily my ideal price point, but if you’re looking for high-end modern design stores and Italian trattorias with $36 entrees and shops that sell nothing but expensive swimwear, then you’ll love it. The conspicuous consumption and wealth butts up against the sizeable homeless population. Wealthy people have a knack for ignoring that sort of thing, leaving it to the local police force to keep the streets palatable to the consumers. “Wake up, sleepy head,” I heard a cop sing-song as he rather rudely poked his nightstick into a man sleeping in an alcove. One assumes this is the bulk of the police force’s downtown duties, unless the moneyed middle-aged golfers get crazy after too many glasses of Bordeaux. After all, the position of the San Jacinto mountains to the west means the winter sun sets incredibly early, so if you’re an adherent of the “sundown = happy hour” philosophy, Palm Springs’ nightlife starts at about 3 pm.

Just up the road, the town of Desert Hot Springs is the dusty underbelly of Palm Springs. Where Palm Springs evokes the retro allure of high-end vintage stores, Desert Hot Springs is more like a Salvation Army, or a thrift store in a church basement. Many of the hot springs resorts are untouched relics of the Rat Pack era, or else they have been transformed into greasy “lifestyle” spas (read: clothing-optional swingers resorts for people too cheap to travel to Jamaica). I’m a fan of the former, not the latter. At one such spa, a gem of mid-century modern architecture, a stretch limo is permanently parked at the curb, adding a degree of glamour to counter the resort’s rundown appearance. Pictures of Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe hang on the walls – unsigned, because surely the greats never came to a place with mildewed tilework and concrete change-room floors. Nevertheless, spending a day in hot pools amidst the fake-breasted and leather-tanned locals is heaven to me after a few weeks of cold whore’s baths out of my sink.

Retro glamour in Desert Hot Springs

If you head south out of the Coachella Valley, you must stop off at the Christian-themed date palm orchard where you can sip on date milkshakes while visiting a to-scale reproduction of Jesus’ tomb. Only in America! Then keep driving until you reach the big blue splotch on the map: the Salton Sea. It’s California’s (and perhaps the world’s) only accidental lake, created over a hundred years ago by mistake. The Sea isn’t much of a tourist attraction unless you’re really into ecological disasters. Because the lake has no natural outflow, agricultural run-off has made the water salty and polluted, so the Sea smells like an outhouse and has beaches paved with the bleached bones of dead fish. Its shore is ringed with the remains of resort communities that thrived decades ago, back when you could actually swim in the Sea. But on a sunny day, when the wind blows the stench away, the Salton Sea is beautiful. You can do a sort of beachcombing through the bones of dead gulls and rusty beer cans to find the ruins of piers and marinas and boathouses. Plus the birding is great, as migratory birds like stilts, snow geese, and ibises overwinter in the wetlands on the south shore of the Sea.

The Salton Sea can be beautiful

Artists have started settling in the semi-abandoned Salton Sea community of Bombay Beach, where they’ve created whimsical open-air exhibitions on the beach and throughout the town, transforming abandoned houses into interactive art pieces. It’s the next Marfa – I’m calling it now, so get in before it explodes in popularity. I’m sure it’ll be relatively cheap to purchase a rotted trailer in a dank-smelling town with only two businesses (bar and beer store, naturally) in a part of California where it feels like you’re inside an air fryer for half the year. Stray dogs will chase you down the street, but as you’re running away you can take in the art, like a fish/airplane sculpture made out of scrap metal, a drive-in theatre full of scrapped cars, or a huge mural of Chris Farley. The local bar proclaims itself the lowest elevation bar in the western hemisphere. It has walls pasted over with dollar bills, free pool, a menu of deep-fried morsels, and cheap draft beer. Could you ask for anything more? Not even Marfa has that feel of authentic Americana anymore. So in a few years when you see Bombay Beach written up in Conde Nast Traveller, remember that I told you about it first.

American charm

I’m currently in the Mojave National Preserve. On the map, it looks like a big brown blotch of nothing, but it’s actually a gorgeous expanse of Mojave Desert. It’s not nothing. What it’s empty of is people, and I mean that in the best way possible. In the past 48 hours I’ve seen only three people: two men in a truck with their rifles poking out the open windows, apparently heading out for a hunt, and a man who showed up early in the morning at the campsite next to mine, burned deadfall for the next 7 hours in a rock-ringed fire pit, and then left at sunset. He left a foot-high pile of ashes that I poked through this morning in case it contained human teeth or dental fillings that I needed to report to the police. The preserve also has some of the largest sand dunes in the western US, which are an absolute hellscape to hike up but let me tell you: there is no greater joy than running at full tilt down the 90 degree face of a humungous sand dune. You might be stuck pouring litres of sand out of your boots afterwards, but that’s just one of the many pleasures to be found in the brown bits of California.

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