Savannah in the Desert
Under skin-tingling sunbeams, silence becomes tangible. Touch, taste, listen — all there is to sense is the impenetrable cloak of thick nothingness. When it is this densely quiet, every sound amplifies to the point that even a lizard making its way through some brush turns into an exhilarating aural experience. Suddenly, the largest bumblebee-beetle-monster-bug hybrid flies straight towards you, causing you to almost fall off the rock you spent so many nervously meticulous moments climbing up and for a second you fear death.
In retrospect, none of this was actually as dramatic as it seemed, but last weekend in Joshua Tree with my friends Zoie and Marie, this felt like a pivotal moment in my life’s trajectory. Zoie had a miraculous weekend off from work so we decided that a trip out to the desert before that world got too hot was the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday. So, we filled up some water bottles, neglected the sunscreen and made our way to the wild, wild east.
Nobody really tells you this but the desert is a scary place. And it’s huge, so not everything is as close as you probably would have in mind. We had a long list of sites to scope out by sunset — the Cabazon dinosaurs, the Integratron in Landers, the International Banana Museum in Mecca. Our ultimate destination, however, was the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Structure.
This ended up being a rather ambitious itinerary so we just stuck with the dinosaurs and outdoor museum to get our desert fix, plus a few spontaneous adventures along the way. We stopped if we wanted, drove when it felt right, all the while the hairs on the back of our necks never seemed to relax.
Cabazon’s towering dinosaurs, featured most significantly in “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure,” welcomed us into a nonsensical world of whimsy that would remain the theme throughout the day. Marie, who had never seen or heard of the prehistoric structures before, remained the most bewildered. We kept coming up with theories as to how and why they got to this patch of sand down the street from the same market that sells the world’s best date shakes. Never mind logic or reason, just take some silly dino pictures, grab a date shake and keep moving.
Leaving Cabazon and continuing down Twenty-nine Palms Highway further east, our journey got progressively weirder. Somehow, I still can’t remember what exactly compelled us to turn off the highway and start driving up a dirt path, we found ourselves at a ranch with a flat corral-type front yard. No one was around so of course we took this chance to take even more photos of the vast desert landscape and reenact the cowboy scene in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.”
Lynch’s cinematic spirit stayed with us the whole rest of the day; everything we saw reminded us of one of his surrealist movies. Expansive, beautiful with an unwavering sense of doom, like something bad was about to pop out at us at any given moment.
“Why does the desert look so much like a movie set? Nothing looks real.”
“Maybe because our only concept of what the desert looks like is from movies.”
“If someone were to find us right now and kill us no one would even know. No one could even hear us if we screamed.”
“Don’t worry, we have pepper spray. And we look really tough.”
Driving long distances gives a person the perfect conditions for deep contemplation. While off-roading through Joshua Tree, in search of outsider art displays, Zoie curated the perfect soundtrack, primarily consisting of Martin Rev’s self-titled solo album. Combining synth space sounds with pulsating rhythm sections, his music plunged me further into this surreal mindset of expecting the unexpected and fearing the unknown. Contrasting the richly blue skies and quintessentially puffy white clouds, the deathly terrain made sure all of my thoughts stayed on the Tim Burton side of imagination.
My entire attitude changed once we finally reached the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Structure. Purifoy was a relatively successful artist who also founded the Watts Towers Arts Center in the 1960s. In 1989, he moved to Joshua Tree and spent the next 13 years filling 10 acres with Assemblage sculptures addressing various themes from environmentalism to urbanization.
Purifoy’s assemblage art is essentially him taking mundane objects — newspapers, bowling balls, toilets — and creating large-scale sculptures from it. Some of the pieces in his free Outdoor Museum were “Everything but the Kitchen Sink,” “Sixty-Five Aluminum Trays” and “From the Point of View of the Little People.”
“The Shelter” struck me most because of how detail-oriented it was. Purifoy built a trailer/ shack shelter structure and filled it with dozens of knick-knacks and household items, basically recreated modern society but condensing it to show the living conditions of the impoverished. He made “The Shelter” from wood salvaged after a neighbor’s house burned down, reinventing the cliché of one man’s trash being another’s treasure.
As I wandered through the Outdoor Museum, seeing how Purifoy was able to take anything and recreate into something completely new, I thought about my own need to create. I grow somber sometimes because I don’t think any of my ideas are original, that everything has been done already and my own creation will ultimately be meaningless.
After exploring Purifoy’s own unconventional forms of creation, I realized that even the simplest artifacts can mean something. Even an article for the school newspaper.