Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wherever You Roam

But sometimes in a grosstel in Barstow, CA, you feel pretty alone.

Halfway between the Grand Canyon and Oakland lies the city of Barstow, California. It's basically a highway oasis of hotels & motels, box stores and fast food restaurants. Our hotel, the cheapest I could find at short notice, sat a few blocks off the highway. Everything in it had a mealy, dusty feeling. Only half the lights worked half the time, and none of the doors were hung right.

Outside of their room, a couple of contractors, waylaid for the evening, had settled down into a couple of plastic lawn chairs to stare out at the desert, smoke cigarettes and drink some cheap beers. The pool was closed by the time we arrived, and M was disappointed. It was the only amenity, really, and after a day of descending down from the heights and into the hot and dusty Mojave, a dip in a hotel pool, even a questionable one, would have been welcome.

I was stuffy from all the changes in elevation, and when I blew my nose, there was blood. I was dry inside and out and covered in a layer of grime. I remembered the first time I'd ever been in the Sonoran desert, how the friend I was with kept reminding me to drink water. I was used to the humidity of Michigan and didn't realize how easily a day in the desert could sap a person of everything. By the time M and I reached Barstow, I was sapped. She mentioned getting food. The thought of getting back in the Jeep or even eating was unappealing. I told her I would just have some of the bread we hunter/gathered at the Grand Canyon quasi-Whole Foods. After a couple of bites, I decided I would just have water.

Reading about Barstow I found out that John Steinbeck had spent some time there, and by time, I think just a night, while researching The Grapes of Wrath. When Okies and others from the great Dust Bowl diaspora of the 1930s made their exodus to California, they often stopped in Barstow according to my cursory Wikipedia research. I tried to imagine what that must have been like for them.

Just sitting in that grubby room with a bed and air conditioning and water and the wonders of the internet shaky as it was, I felt hopeless. What would it have been like to leave behind everything you knew and travel through an ecologically devastated landscape to something completely unknown? I figure, it probably felt something like the apocalypse.

The next day, driving through the Mojave towards the verdant Central Valley and home. I kept thinking about the Dust Bowl. I thought about my reasons for migrating to California. Michigan's economy was wrecked long before the rest of the country and this sense of tenaciousness punctuated by hopelessness seemed to blanket everything like clouds of dust. Michigan is a tough and beautiful place, and it was hard to abandon.

I wonder if it's just a deep, genetic human impulse to "Go West?" In any case, for whatever reason, I'm glad I did. I wish I could provide a bold, beautiful and sweeping description of California, something to recommend it above all else.

The only thing I can think is: California is grand. There's so much hope here. And while I don't mind wandering--in fact, I like it very much-- I sure do like coming home.


  1. Ah, California. Yes, she certainly is grand. (I wish I could smoke a pipe while sitting on my porch and gazing into the horizon as I say that.)

  2. As a "Californian" by choice and Ohioian by birth, I realize the depth and dimension of this beautiful state. Bureaucracy aside (what states doesn't have that), the scenery and access to beauty is overwhelming.


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