“We’re the bad people who are ruining the earth.”
I smile. He smiles. He looks like Sam Peckinpah, road-worn and grizzled. His friend is younger, a Brad Pitt lookalike stalled out east of Hollywood. The Southern California desert always reminds me of Charlie Manson and I am alone with two unshaven stragglers from this year’s orgy of off-road vehicle recreation in the Algodones Dunes, one hundred miles southeast of Palm Springs.
Dunes, even these dunes, any dunes, have a look of eternity about them. They mark time, moving in the wind, yet their spareness evokes timelessness. Dust to dust, one recalls, seeing the way sand dunes reach for, yet never quite touch, the horizon. The Algodones Dunes have in our time become notable for just such a paradoxical evocation of the eternal and the immediate. Perhaps it’s the proximity to Los Angeles, but here the elevated and the profane to rub up against each other in a desperately casual post-modern way: the director of the campy sci-fi movie StarGate used the dunes as a backdrop for Egypt in 8,000 B.C., where a malevolent alien took over the body of a young boy who might easily have been Isaac Mizrahi’s assistant during Fashion Week. (“Give my regards to King Tut, asshole!” was one of the film’s more memorable lines.)
Well, this is America, where eternity is a mass-market enterprise. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts flock to the dunes on winter weekends and holidays for big fun and some of them find something more profound; to wit, mortality. One Thanksgiving weekend saw a veritable pu-pu platter of violent crime among off-roaders: murder, two stabbings, two fatal accidents, and in the words of a New York Times reporter “innumerable brawls.”
I drove out here on the advice of an environmental lawyer who told me that this lookout point would be a good place to see the damage done by off-road vehicles: this is the line between the protected wilderness and the degraded landscape, pristine and debauched nature. But I’m not concentrating on the view. I’m wondering if I’m going to be raped and killed.
“What do you guys do for a living?” I ask in a voice full of false heartiness.
“We’re safecrackers,” says Sam Peckinpah.
The younger man nods solemnly.
I try to laugh. The older man hands me a business card. He explains that he – Dave Beck -- and the younger man, whose name is Kidd, David Kidd, reclaim safes that have been abandoned. The card is reassuring, although I’m not entirely convinced. I comfort myself by thinking that if they are safecrackers, at least they’re professional enough to have a business card.
“Have a seat,” the older Dave offers. I hesitate and again the thought occurs that I’m about eighty miles from anyone who might hear me if I scream. I wonder why I was less nervous interviewing a suspected murderer when I was a reporter just out of college. I guess it’s the isolation of this promontory, the undulating desert. The silence.
“Thanks,” I say, plopping myself in a plastic lawn chair.
“So what’s the appeal?” I ask, pointing at the all-terrain vehicles parked near the RV. I never saw any socially redeeming value to all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs – and if there is hedonistic value, it’s lost on me. They’re loud, they stink, and they’re kind of stupid-looking. But, hey, maybe I’m missing something.
The guys tell me about the high-end stuff, how expensive the whole scene can get. A loaded ATV can cost sixty thousand dollars. It’s the desert white trash equivalent of a Donzi, the Miami Vice speedboat, and this is a sea made of fractured bits of land. The men tell me that other parts of California have become more restrictive, so they’ve come out here, the last frontier. Another one.
The desert and the ocean are refuges for people who don’t like authority. I count myself in that group. In a peculiar way, I feel sympathetic to these guys. Whose side are you on? I ask myself, not for the first time. Temperamentally, I find myself more comfortable with the bad guys. They have appetites.
Appetites, as any adult has learned, are destructive, perhaps inevitably so. That’s certainly true here. The Algodones dunes, one thousand square miles of scalloped peaks and ridges made of old lake sediments, are not only as a Mecca for rowdy SoCal white trash, but a place where unusual configurations of plants, and animals have evolved to hang on to land that has all the stability of a melted clock. The Pierson’s milkvetch, for example, has the distinction of being the first plant placed on the federal threatened species list during the Bush administration. (One might well ask if it was the only plant placed on the endangered list during this notoriously anti-environmental presidency. But that would be too easy.)
After environmentalists threatened to sue because the milkvetch, among other plants and animals, was getting smashed under the wheels of ATVs, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management signed a temporary agreement placing almost fifty thousand acres of dunes off-limits to motorheads. The Maginot Line is right in front of us. This contested border is what I’ve come to see, I tell the men.
Big Dave offers me a bottle of juice – not beer, to my surprise.
“It’s right over there,” he says, pointing.
On one side of the line, the dunes are cluttered with life. Sandfood, a water-filled plant prized by the early inhabitants of this region, grows in cartoonish clumps on the flanks of sand.
The dunes where people ride ATVs are just sand.
I realize that I like the bare dunes better. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That is so wrong, I think. But, still. Just visually, in strictly aesthetic terms….
The dunes were bare in the Gran Desierto, the largest dune field in North America, when I had returned to them. These dunes made by the Colorado River delta glow pink in the reflected light of sunset. I smiled to myself at the memory of how I had refused to turn back until we had climbed the highest of the dunes. The sun, the exertion, the bare flanks of sand, acted upon me like a hallucination. One thing those dunes did was erase time.
he English knew it first, those colonialists. Clock time, according to the British historian E.P. Thompson, created the arbitrary divisions of our lives that tore us away from nature, and ourselves. In Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole played a wonderfully peroxided T.E. Lawrence who goes native, robbing trains with an Arab warlord. In the film’s climax, an American reporter snaps photographs of Lawrence walking along the tops of the freight cars with the stride of a god. The screen is almost entirely filled by the motion of Lawrence’s high leather boots.
Afterwards, the reporter asks, “What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?”
Lawrence looks up from the task of buffing his boots.
“It’s clean,” he says.
A moment later, Auda abu Tayi, the warlord played by Anthony Quinn, shows up with an enormous clock, crowing that he has made a good trade with another looter. He winds the clock, then holds it up to his ear. It doesn’t work. He shakes it. Then he smashes it.
“I must find something honorable,” he growls.
Clock time, industrial time, time of the megamachine: not honorable. The desert is the antithesis of all that. I found something honorable, enveloped by the sun, walking without stopping in the dunes of the Gran Desierto.
Honesty compels me to admit I am not always quite so honorable. I crave the sublime whether it takes the form of sanctity or sin. Looking down from this paved promontory, I realize I don’t care so much if a landscape is pure, like the winter dunes of Desierto, or impure, like these battered dunes. I just want the proper aesthetic. I wonder if the illusion of purity – O’Toole’s peroxided hair - is as good or better than the actual thing. (“If you were any prettier, it would have been called ‘Florence of Arabia’” Noel Coward told O’Toole.)
“Are you one of those tree-huggers?” Dave asks.
Here we go again, I think. Debates between rednecks and tree-huggers (I prefer to be called a cactus kisser, I want to tell the Daves) tend to repetitious and, quite frankly, dumb. Like many journalists who have covered the environment, I have reached a point where I can bear neither the manipulative self-righteousness of environmentalists (“Are you going to mention our group?” asked one young male environmentalist, when I call to ask about the dunes) nor the ignorant rants of those who feel threatened by them.
“Let me ask you a question,” I say to Dave. “What if the environmentalists are right and you guys are messing up the dunes? What if you are killing the plants and the lizards?”
“That stuff grows back,” he tells me. “They’ve already taken us off, what is it, Dave? Sixty thousand acres? A hundred thousand? We’ve got twelve thousand measly little acres here.”
The buzzing sound of an ATV interrupts us. A man rides up, his ill-cut hair flying out behind him. Dan Conklin owns an off-road equipment and towing business in the nearby town of Glamis. Conklin, a high-cheekboned guy with deep-set eyes, broad shoulders, and an apparent lack of access to quality dentistry, grew up in San Diego but now he lives in this desert outpost with its locked-down windswept buildings. To the newspaper-reading public, Glamis is a byword for Ecstasy and cocaine-fueled redneck bashes. For Conklin, Glamis is a chance to find himself. The forty-two-year-old former trucking company worker rescues the rowdy ATVers when they get stuck in the sand, a common occurrence.
“It’s a small gold mine,” he says. “I’ve made more money in the last six months than I made in San Diego in an above-average job. My family has some money, but I wanted to do it on my own. They respect me for it.”
The American dream. The season at Glamis lasts only six months but Conklin tells me that he sticks around in the summer to protect his investment. Probably he’s just gotten used to living out here. There is no electricity and no potable water in Glamis, where the water table is polluted by cyanide from a gold mine. But in the summer evenings Conklin has the dunes to himself.
“I just come out here and think. Watch the sun go down,” he says.
Conklin doesn’t believe he hurts the dunes. None of them do.
They’re wrong. These ATVs kill plants and animals, especially when a quarter of a million of them descend on the desert. It’s been documented that ATVs kill desert tortoises, which are endangered here in the Mojave. Kangaroo rats go deaf from the engine noise. There doesn’t seem to be anyplace that can withstand these things, unless it’s already bereft of life. In a Virginia wildlife refuge, ORVs have decimated ghost crab populations, wiped out thousands of sanderlings, and compacted sand so that sea turtles could no longer nest.
In an hour of walking the dunes I’ve seen three flattened, dried-out lizards, crushed by tires. Flat-tailed horned lizards, common here but rare enough to be candidates for federal protection, burrow under the sand to stay out of the heat. These guys wouldn’t see the lizards even if they were looking for them. Which, of course, they’re not. Besides, ATVS are so obnoxiously noisy and polluting that my cousin, a sensible gray-haired former science editor in her seventies, tells me she fantasizes about taking them out with a sniper rifle. If she takes out one of the riders by mistake, well, let God sort ‘em out, is her attitude.
I don’t mention any of this. The men gossip about the last big gathering, which took place on New Year’s Eve. My attention wanders until I hear the word “rape.” I stop breathing and I only start again when I realize they’re talking about a seamy murder case that’s been in the newspapers and on TV. A man abducted a little girl and killed her. He was in this parking lot, just a few months ago. The little girl was, too, locked inside his camper; still alive, presumably.
Conklin says he towed this guy’s vehicle when it became stuck in the deep sand.
“They said he burned her body.” Conklin shakes his head. “He had all this wood with plastic wrap around it outside his RV.”
“Do you think she was in there?” I ask.
“I know she was.”
We are quiet. Conklin stares out at the sand.
Conklin makes a living getting people out of trouble. He also makes a living helping people destroy plants and animals. This is the paradox of environmentalism: we struggle against the inconsistency of our own nature. Human nature. That’s the real reason we lose.
I try to understand these men. I’d rarely felt this rush from a machine, but I know it’s possible. I had recently stopped seeing a Yale-educated emergency room doctor, a perfectly respectable National Public Radio-listening soccer dad, who, like Conklin, made a living getting people out of trouble, people with every kind of trouble you can imagine. He was also an adrenaline junkie. He loved cars. Among his many vehicles was an M3. When I mention this car to men I rarely have to add the acronym “BMW” or the description “rally car.” They all know this car. Driving the M3 made me realize why middle-aged men, and middle-aged women, buy hot cars. Taking the M3 just short of a skid on the rainy streets of suburban Sacramento one night, I felt an excitement I hadn’t felt since I drove stick for the first time at nineteen with a head full of coke and a big-city reporter trying to kiss me every time I slammed it into neutral.
Was my doctor different from these men in the dunes? Was I? The Doctor wouldn’t ride an ATV on the dunes, of course; he’d grown up on the other side of the class divide. Yet he had caused me enormous pain, mainly because he could not face his pain, or the pain of others; pain, ok, is that uncomfortable?; that kind of pain was fine with him, physical pain, but not the kind he couldn’t control. He possessed a subterranean anger whose proportions were all the more impressive because the anger was never seen. My experience with the Doctor had convinced me that attempts to expunge our destructive tendencies are doomed to fail. The will to destroy is not only ineradicable, it is mysteriously allied to the desire to protect. With the right trigger, they feed each other. Over time, destruction is likely to win, if only because it has the power to erode what lies in its path, while protection only maintains the status quo. At least with destruction something happens.
These dunes will be opened and closed, fought over, treasured and marred. In the end, only fragments will remain.
I may have given up on environmentalism. Tucson, the place I once loved, a pottery shard of Mexico broken off from the mainland, a separate world where the desert informs every beat of life, is nothing special anymore, just another bastion of dull vulgarity and suburban sprawl. Recently, I’d found myself taking comfort from mundane things I once would have considered pathetic: a saguaro cactus at the side of a suburban street, the sound of rain, children running outside a house. I wondered if moments of grace are all we have left. I once felt intensely alive. I wonder what happened in the meantime.
Was I trying to find purity in the desert? Again? In southern California, of all places? Did I expect it to be clean? This ain’t the movies, sister.
I rise to leave, my questions answered.
“Sun’s over the yardarm,” I tell the men. “I better go.”
“I bet you’ve never been on one of these,” says grizzled Sam Peckinpah Big Dave, nodding toward the ATV parked in the sun.
“It’s not my kind of thing,” I say.
“You can’t write about it without trying it yourself,” the older Dave says.
“If I tried everything I wrote about, I’d be dead.” I smile. One of my standard lines.
“It won’t kill you,” Dan Conklin says. He looks at me pleadingly, his face vulnerable, and I can’t refuse.
When I climb on behind him, Conklin delicately avoids pressing his body against mine. Any woman who has danced with a man, that is to say, every woman, will understand the subtlety I am describing. It’s like this: In the Negev desert I led a camel and felt his muzzle at the back of my head although he never touched me, not once. This eight-foot-tall unwieldy beast never lost the breath of contact, yet at most, in nearly a quarter of a mile, he grazed the outer hairs of my head.
Conklin drives slowly, then winds it up as we climb a tall dune. When I squeak, he slows down. After a while I’m not squeaking.
“Gun it,” I say.
“Did you say gun it?” he asks, incredulous.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “Go.”
I take off the tinted goggles. I want to feel closer to the blistering white sand and the sky. The sky is deep and bright in the desert. There is nothing like it.
My mind is very clear but I am not in this place. I am remembering the Desierto. I was breathless, then, but in a different way. I followed the contours of the dunes: star-shaped, crescent-shaped, their flanks moving subtly, turning the pages of sand as if they are a novel that will never end. The sun held me. I heard the wind, knew the salt presence of the Sea of Cortez. Clock time stopped. I lost myself and found myself. Perhaps it was only chemical, the exertion of the climb producing endorphins of a higher quality than mere adrenaline.
Whatever it was, it felt clean.
“This is fun,” I tell Conklin as we roll to a stop. “But it’s not as much fun as walking.”
“You don’t like it,” he says.
He looks crushed. Oh, I feel terrible!
I’m pretty sure Conklin doesn’t meet too many women out here in the land of gearheads, and what is more elemental, more natural, than small gestures of consideration between men and women, cease-fires in our unending war? There is clean, and there is ordinary life. Negotiating between the two may be the real work; perhaps it is the only work. Or must we choose sides?
Small kindnesses ennoble us even as they soil us with compromise and mendacity. I am a collaborator, an appeaser, a Neville Chamberlin of the desert. I’ll never be as beautiful or as blond as Peter O’Toole. Worse. I will be a suburbanite, because, face-to-face with this lonely man, who is not a bad man, after all, and whose loneliness I understand more than I care to admit, I cannot hurt him.
“It’s fun,” I say. I look at him with my sweetest, most girlish expression.
I am protesting too much, forcing him to pretend he believes me, because I cannot bear to look upon his unhappiness. Perhaps I am doing violence, humiliating him, forcing him to show the click of belief in his eyes, to show me that I am kind.