Some Conclusions About the High Desert After Five Months of Desert Life
it's a beautiful place
Cities whisper, as Paul Graham says. But also, everywhere whispers. Every place has an implicit message, a dialect. Our new home of Joshua Tree has its own vernacular. It speaks in long, sustained vowels, like a whale. It tells you about the inevitable, mentions that we’re all taking varied paths to the same destination. As my friend D’Arcy once said, “You’ll have better relationships as you age, and then you’ll have an impossibly perfect relationship with the soil.” That’s what the desert says, by way of illustration. That statement has all sorts of implications that get teased out the longer you’re here.
We assumed, when we bought our desert house, that we were just taking a break from LA. The plan was that after an interval, we’d turn the house into a short-term rental property lickety-split and go back to Glendale, occasionally returning to meditate and check our email in a more relaxing climate. We’re finding ourselves less sure that we’ll relocate over time.
You go to cities for commerce, optionality, stimulation, sex, culture, bright lights, and the feeling of being relevant. Cities tell you that, whatever human life is about, you are right on top of it. New York instructs you, through a million signals, subtle and otherwise, that you are part of the heart of all that matters. To own that city is to be assured that you’re the royalty of the world, to be sure that you’re getting the maximum juice out of your short lifespan.
But you notice, eventually, what everyone does—that the novelty doesn’t tend to extend to the structure of the experience. Absent dramatic intervention on your part, it’s the same patterns with new data. All different, all the same. When you’re single, it’s parties, hobbies you maintain for the sake of the mating dance, the feeling of seeing someone else’s apartment, evaluating whether they’re befitting of your future company. When you’re married, it’s different date nights, fretting over grocery choices, or being amazed by a new restaurant, before you get bored of it so you can be amazed by the next one. There is a certain sadness to this. You’re a mouse addicted to pellets, but the pellet givers are very skilled at the production of new flavors.
I still do return for a night or two, about twice a month. LA is great, I love it. It’s a 2.5-hour drive back, which isn’t bad. As you approach the city you feel the ambient stress levels start ramping up. Slight inconveniences make other drivers explode. Everyone is broadcasting a million messages at you as they walk down the street, with their manner of dress, gait, and comportment. Some messages are along the lines of don’t fuck with me I’ll kill you. Some messages are more like, longing for me is the point of living if you hadn’t noticed.
As you have a glass of wine and some escargot with a lovely friend, who has an extensive perfume collection and a shoegaze band, you feel desire for more of this, more fattening of your eventual corpse, more gleaming countertops, laughter echoing off the good interior decoration. Of course you do. It’s really nice. What you’re experiencing has survived competition against every legal desirable good in the entire world. It is accomplished with unprecedented excellence. And if that weren’t enough, you’ve been taught to want it. Being at this restaurant says important things about your identity. Then, in the morning, you engage in psychological theorizing with other great friends, a bunch of other people with Asperger’s from Twitter, and your thoughts seem important, and maybe they are.
Meanwhile, nothing out here has to be done very well, or be very important. There’s less competition, so everyone cares less. It took three phone calls for the garbage company to fully consent to take our money in exchange for their services. When they delivered our new garbage cans, they were left in the middle of the dirt road. Meanwhile, we accumulated a pile of garbage near the garage, and then the dudes with face tattoos from Craigslist who showed up to take it away refused to remove the yard waste. They did not explain why, I guess they just didn’t like handling twigs.
But occasionally someone is an odd genius, taking more care than is logical. The guy who maintains our hot tub is definitely on the spectrum—he cares more about pH levels than anyone I’ve ever heard of. The guy who sells coffee at the farmer’s market has an encyclopedic knowledge of wristwatches. He told me details about mine that I was completely unaware of as he poured my cold brew. Nobody is trying to monetize this uniqueness with a YouTube channel or anything. They just exist that way.
So things happen inconsistently. Sometimes your needs are fulfilled instantly and perfectly. But, just as often, appointments are postponed, businesses close at arbitrary times, people don’t show up. You get over this pretty quickly, when you realize that it’s ridiculous to insist that you need landscaping done right this second. (You do not actually fully get over it.)
This lack of optimization extends, as well, to the way people live near you. There is a certain relaxedness. The other day, a couple of dogs we didn’t know were running around in our yard. We had no idea who to call. A guy came and picked them up in his truck a few hours later. He explained that they broke out of the yard of a woman down the road, and that this was the second time in a month this had happened. She didn’t want to collect them herself, she was tired. She has no plans on repairing her fence—she is not particular. The dogs won’t die of running around, they’ll come back eventually.
You don’t get to be totally particular either. The lack of social selection, specifically, is striking. You don’t get to only hang out with Democrats. Former Trump voters are the people who drag your car out of the sand when it gets stuck, or help you fix your bathroom, and they are extremely nice, and don’t turn their noses down at your fussy jute rugs or purple sofa. The world, you find out, is held together by sturdy guys with beards named Jim who don’t give two shits about what you think or how you behave. Some of them say “God bless” and “have a blessed day” without a hint of irony.
Stuff happens less outside you, so more stuff happens inside you. Though I do maintain a meditation practice here, you don’t really have to sit down for contemplation to occur. The environment forcibly meditates you. Vast spacious awareness, otherwise known as simply being outdoors. Introspection on the trackless carpet of cosmic time, otherwise known as looking up at night. Each footstep as you’re walking to the car is obviously the only moment that’s ever really existed, or, equally obviously, part of a string of parallel infinities stretching back to an untouchable beginning, if there was one. Time is fake as hell.
But then there’s still lots of great bougie shit out here, given the proximity to LA. I have the urge to mentally point out how I’m different from the people who come up for the weekend—the skinny blondes who manage to rustle up a cowboy hat to complete the themed leisure costume, the men in $500 chukka boots who stare into their phones as their wives evaluate $11 rustic soap. But I’m really not different at all. It’s salutary to remember that you are just a type of guy, as my friend Adam reminded me. I sing the praises of the non-consumer wilderness, but will still go to great pains to obtain a fancy croissant. To the longtime residents, I am instantly identifiable as a recent Angeleno, even if I’m wearing a dirty t-shirt and cut-off shorts. My hands are too soft, my body language is too awkward. Maybe if I live out here for like a decade it won’t be accurate to accuse me of LARPing anymore.
Even all of the bougie stuff, though, has a different vibe. You tell the owner of the new brunch place that the shrimp roll nearly moved you to tears, because that’s the truth. She hugs you, twice, tells you adorable anecdotes about her wife, then invites you to the pool tournament at the Moose Lodge.
Everything is beautiful. The sunrise, the sunset, the climbing, those weird trees the place is named after, the brief rush of green life after the rain, the dry brambles left after that, the rabbits, the evening pink in the east, the coyotes, their distant chorus at dusk. There are two shops that sell wine and rocks. But why wouldn’t there be? Rocks are a smart option for retail. Low overhead, very long shelf life. The owners probably just drive around and find them. There are a lot of nice rocks around here.