Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape

Excerpted from Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape by Rubén Martínez. Copyright © 2012 by Rubén Martínez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador .

• Introduction •

Snow In the Desert

Long before the boom of the aughts, long before the bust, I made a pilgrimage to the desert. When I arrived, snow suffused the sand, icicles hung from yucca spikes. It was late 1997, the beginning of an El Niño winter.

I’d come running from Mexico City and stopped in the Mojave because it was close to Los Angeles, my hometown, and because that’s where people from L.A.—in trouble with the law, their lovers, their creditors, themselves—go to hide out, lick their wounds, end the affair, bury the body.

I went because my friend Elia was there. She, along with a small crew of L.A. expatriates, optimistic bohos, was creating a life for herself in the village of Joshua Tree, at the edge of the famous national park. Their presence unwittingly helped set the scene for a full-blown art colony and a season of wild speculation in the mid-2000s.

Me, I was simply trying to save my life. I was supposed to be finishing a book. I had “completed the research,” as writers like to say to editors when they miss the deadline.

I had just enough in the bank to put down the first and last month’s rent on a house down the road from my friends, in Twentynine Palms, a small town sandwiched between the iconic vistas of Joshua Tree National Park and another massive, equally iconic tract of public land: the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, the largest corps training facility in the United States, whose sand dunes had served as a simulacrum of the Middle Eastern desert for the first war in Iraq and would again for the second. The rent was $275 a month; I’d talked the rental agency down from $400. There weren’t many takers at that time for shacks in the Mojave sand.

My pre-boom hovel was a small, ordinary stucco A-frame with thin walls and a composition shingle roof, pale yellow with white trim. Names were etched in the cement of the patio, and a year: 1952. There was a fenced yard in the back, and a big garage empty except for a truck engine block lying on its side. Next to the house were a couple of big tamarisk trees that whooshed in the wind. The “street” I lived on (it had been paved once, but now it was mostly broken asphalt and big pools of sand) ran north–south, and the house faced west, the direction the wind blew from, pecking the living room’s picture windows with sand. A sign nearby read, “NEXT SERVICES 100 MILES.”

I had never seen snow in the desert, had hardly even imagined it, but that is how the Mojave greeted me. A frigid wind blew, and thick flakes fell to efface the land I thought I knew.

On one of my first nights in that thin-walled house on the edge of the one-hundred-mile nothing, I heard what I thought was the hiss of a gas leak. A thorough inspection turned up nothing. It wasn’t a rattlesnake or wind through the tamarisks. It took me a long while to realize that I had never before been in a place of such perfect silence. What I was listening to was the blood coursing through my own body.

Natives of Los Angeles consider the desert their backyard, and sometimes—especially when the Santa Ana winds blow hot and dry— tell themselves that the city itself is in the desert. But no, L.A. is “west of the West,” as Theodore Roosevelt once famously surmised. What L.A. does is imagine the desert, and it projects those representations to the rest of the world.

I’d been to Joshua Tree before, to the actual place on a couple of occasions, but mostly it had been imagined for me. I’d seen its expressionist boulders in Star Trek episodes (the original series) and “heard” it on U2’s eponymous album. In the L.A. music scene there were stories about “country-rock” legend Gram Parsons and his untimely demise in Joshua Tree from a cocktail of morphine and tequila. Joshua Tree was American desert cool incarnate.

During an earlier trip to the desert I started wearing a cowboy hat to declare myself a Cowboy—a man of the West, feet wrapped in snakeskin, guitar slung over my shoulder. I am actually a second-generation cowboy. My father, born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents, was the first to play the part, having been weaned on the Western via radio, film, and phonograph records: the Lone Ranger, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers and Marty Robbins. This became my pop culture cradle.

As I grew older, this influence largely turned into a source of embarrassment; the Western as genre was well past its prime, and although I liked the Eagles (everyone did in 1977, my freshman year of high school), I had only a vague notion of who Gram Parsons was, and the alt-country movement was still a generation away. Being Mexican back then was almost cool, insofar as being able to play “Malagueña” on guitar to romance white girls looking for something a little more exotic than the parade of boys with feathered blond hair. But my brownness mostly embarrassed me, too.

The embarrassment gradually turned to ethnic pride, as I felt summoned to fight the good fights: against, first, U.S. intervention in Central America and, later, the cowboy Know-Nothings who sponsored the reactionary California ballot initiatives of the mid-1990s. Propositions 187, 209, and 227 sought to deny public services to “illegals,” end affirmative action in California’s public institutions, and ban bilingual education. With a ponytail, goatee, and flamboyant ties, I railed against the propositions as a commentator on TV and radio, as a spoken-word and performance artist, and as a writer. Support for the measures came from an aging, demographically diminishing, and economically insecure group of voters, middle- and working-class whites reacting to growing income inequality and the latest waves of immigration. This slice of the electorate canonized the measures with overwhelming electoral majorities—chiefly because most of the new immigrants lacked citizenship or even papers and, thus, voting rights—and crushed my political idealism.

For all my activism, there was no room for a brown cowboy in this debate. I felt the familiar discomfort. It just wouldn’t do to sing a Marty Robbins song, even if it was about the border, at a rally for immigrants’ rights.

So I went south, to Mexico, to experience another kind of difference. I was a restless thirty-something, and Mexico was a restless place. I found my subject: migrants crossing the border into California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. So I crossed the border too, all along the line of barbed wire and occasionally trampled chain-link that has since been replaced by hundreds of miles of a great wall. Each leap fulfilled a deep and quixotic desire to reconcile my mixed parentage (as the son and grandson of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador). I crossed from Tijuana into San Diego, from Agua Prieta into Douglas. From Columbus to Palomas, from Juárez into El Paso.

I’d come in a big circle. It happens all the time in the desert—the view is so vast that you can’t be sure sometimes where you’re headed. The land does not change from one side to the other. The flora, the fauna, the mesas and buttes and playas are the same. But the landscape is not.

“The problem,” wrote the literary critic Raymond Williams in The Country and the City, “is one of perspective.” Any particular place can be imagined and represented any number of ways, and the various versions often contradict one another. Landscape is about who is gazing upon the land; the position of the observer creates a frame and necessarily edits the view. It says more about who is doing the gazing than what is being gazed upon. It is impossible to gaze upon the land itself—Sierra Club true believers notwithstanding—because of the layers of imaginaries that overlay it. Raymond Williams referred to such an accrual of imagery and sentiment and ideology as a “structure of feeling.” The notion of the desert as a spiritual and healing place, or Native land, or cowboy cool, or the Big Empty—all these are supported by structures of feeling, by human history, by contradiction and desire.

In my romantic elision of a very real divide, I had wanted to deny the imaginaries by creating a new one, willing the landscape to be of a continuum from one side of the line to the other. In the end, by following brown footsteps back and forth over the border, I “returned” to the West, which in a sense I’d never really left. I came running to it with a nosebleed from Mexico City’s altitude, smog, and cocaine.

In my shack in Twentynine Palms, I began a long process of “recovery”—one that, in fact, lasted throughout my decade-long desert sojourn—and I consciously revisited the West I’d been raised on. I rescreened the films Pop had fed me when I was young, the best from directors John Ford and Anthony Mann. Hollywood had thrust me into the West via the big screen and the little one, representations I carried with me to the actual desert and border and farther south (a typical narrative route in a Western). Now I read the films as an adult, recognizing both their ancient prejudices (Mexican or Native as dark other) and the nuances that had escaped my childhood vision—especially Mann’s “psychological” renderings of conflicted Western characters played by Jimmy Stewart, cowboys who questioned themselves and, by extension, the entire cowboy project.

Perhaps the brown cowboy could have the best of both worlds even as he negated the worst of each. In my journey to the desert I was also indulging cowboy cool for its own sake, which is what people who visit Joshua Tree (or Tombstone or Monument Valley) invariably wind up doing. The interpretive signs of Joshua Tree National Park underscore cowboys and Indians (the latter ancient, nameless wisps who disappeared; the former, with names like Rusty or Bill, unfailingly “colorful”). Walking in the desert with my Akita mix, Bear, rescued from a local animal shelter filled with pets abandoned by Marines transferred overseas, I felt very much like Harry Dean Stanton’s character in the touching Euro-pop desert of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, a favorite of desert rats who aren’t really from the desert. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar, a unique hybrid that echoes both the blues and Mexican folk, played as hipster Southwest sound track. And although in the beginning I didn’t consciously imagine myself in any representational context for the pain I was in, I came to understand that it wasn’t just my friend’s fortuitous presence in Joshua Tree that had brought me there.

After a few years in the Joshua Tree area, I moved deeper into the West, to the village of Velarde, in northern New Mexico, where I married into the Garcia clan of Albuquerque. More than an exotic location to find or lose myself in, New Mexico became my home, even if I was constantly reminded that I was an outsider by the “natives.”

During the time I lived in Velarde, in a development I could not have foretold, parts of New Mexico and locations in Texas, Arizona, and California were swept up in one of the largest economic boom periods in American history, the main effects of which were a rapid transformation of the built environment and people moving—or being moved. The term “gentrification” was originally coined in 1960s London and in subsequent decades was refined in the United States to describe the reversal of “white flight,” the movement back to the urban core by the professional class. This movement resulted in the displacement of the erstwhile working-class denizens of color. It was both a literal, physical marginalization and a more symbolic, representational one. The structure of feeling of particular places was transformed, rewritten by the new arrivals, and “branded” to help set the stage for the speculation— and the ultimate, spectacular collapse of the boom—that came to define the first decade of the millennium.

In the desert West this movement occurred everywhere, from the “techno-urbs” of Phoenix and Denver to much more remote and sparsely populated areas, some of which had been boomtowns a generation or a century ago under utterly different economic and cultural orders. As with the urban model, rural gentrification brought new arrivals—often as not, scruffy or not-so-scruffy artists and assorted bohemian types, the “art colony”—who shoved the “native” population aside with the raw combined powers of speculation and representation. I was a witness to the birth of the boutique desert.

I came to the West during a time of change as profound as any since the opening of the frontier. Migrants were arriving from the South, from the East, from west of the West, a motley cohort that would transform the demographic profile of the region. All this movement meant extraordinary wealth for some and darkening prospects for many others.

As surely as the bloody scrim of Manifest Destiny swept across it, the West tells Americans about themselves. It is a place writ large with desire over many generations—for water, for silver and copper and gold, for timber and oil; as the place where consumptives came to soothe their lungs, where environmentalists see sacred space, where multinational corporations beat back environmentalists to exploit the land. The story of the great American boom of the 2000s and its culmination in the Great Recession is told well as a Western.

By choice and by pocketbook, first in Twentynine Palms, California, and then in Velarde, New Mexico, I observed the margins of the boom. In a futile attempt to embrace the entire expanse—of land, of landscape, of history and representation—like many others before me who craved the immensity of the desert, I roamed farther out, to the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona and to what is certainly the remotest art colony in the West: Marfa, Texas.

With their wildly contrasting landscapes and human geographies, these four places nonetheless share multiple characteristics—all borderlands, all changed by the boom. In each, colonial history is not abstract but embodied: the descendants of the peoples whose lands had been stolen generations ago still live there, and they will tell you that you are not where you think you are. Also, these places all have bona fide Western tourist destinations in them, or nearby: Joshua Tree National Park, D. H. Lawrence’s cabin (just north of Velarde), the oldest “continuously inhabited house in America” in Santa Fe and the Indian pueblo just up the road where you can see the Turtle Dance on New Year’s Day, the Rio Grande where it takes its “big bend” in West Texas, the land set aside to preserve the iconic saguaro cactus along the border in Arizona, the landscapes Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams framed.

And they all, to varying degrees, have a “drug problem.” The “problems” are acute and specific to place. The U.S.-Mexico borderlands are a region of smuggling and related abuse. Because of the sense of loss of land, of status, of history, many people may consequently be more vulnerable to what drugs offer. Get high, in other words, to take the edge off—of history. The boom only exacerbated the experience of dispossession. And I had come with my own drug problem, related to theirs but not entirely. I was inside and out, among and beyond: the brown cowboy, always on the border.

One way or another, all the actors on this stage displayed tremendous hunger—for a reckoning with history, for justice, or, as in Velarde, for heroin. Or, like in Marfa, to scrub their souls clean in the desert wind (and surround themselves with high art and haute cuisine). In Joshua Tree there was a peculiar and all-consuming lust for landscape, to own the best view of yucca-spiked vastness. In Arizona the neo-Know-Nothings were utterly obsessed with their dark other out in the desert, while the Mexicans were utterly consumed with their single-minded drive to get to “el otro lado”—and, of course, with narco noir, a few as producers of it but most as its hapless spectators or victims. In the tourist traps on or near the Indian reservations, there was the lust of non-Indian for mystical Indian.

Each of these intense desires created a tendency for people to erase their neighbors.

I lived in and among them all. The only way to tell my story, it seemed, was to tell theirs.

Photo (partial) by © Angela Garcia

Rubén Martínez, an Emmy-winning journalist and poet, is the author of Crossing Over and The New Americans. He lives in Los Angeles, where he holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University.