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High Desert Drifter

ANDREA ZITTEL’S HIGH DESERT TEST SITE PROJECT—AN ANNUAL EVENT THAT TURNS JOSHUA TREE INTO A HUGE ART GALLERY—RANGES FROM THE ARTY TO THE ENVIRONMENTAL, FROM THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO THE IRONIC—AND ALL OF IT ENDS UP IN THE DUMPSTER.
DISCUSSED
Wal-Mart, Roy Rogers, Chuck Jones, Anvils, Mason Jars of Whiskey, Wizards Disguised as Dogs, Joshua Tree All-Stars, Bobcats, Feral Kangaroo Rats, Roadkill, Finite Chances, Dream Catchers, Impossible Wasteland Geometries, Quartzsite, Spiral Jetty, “Funky Artist Retreats,” Military Bars

High Desert Drifter

Jim Ruland
13 Snaps

EASTWARD HO

If you look at a map of Los Angeles, the sprawling city is like a vast archipelago in a sea of desert, but aside from the occasional meth-lab explosion or cougar attack, Angelenos don’t think about the desert much. It’s too hot, too hard to get to, too weird. We tend to regard the nearby deserts as null spaces, places to cross on the way to Palm Springs, Las Vegas or, heaven forbid, Bakersfield. Subtract all the stolen water, nonindigenous flora, and legions of Latin landscapers, and L.A. would quickly dry up and revert to its natural state. As a result of this chronic dislocation, a lot of us here have lost our relationship with the space we inhabit. We’ve become creatures of an unnatural habitat.

Into this zone, Andrea Zittel has brought High Desert Test Sites, an annual art event that began four years ago when she moved from Williamsburg, New York, to Joshua Tree and started buying up property. Zittel, who grew up around boats and is best known for creating self-contained, highly customized living units, now owns eighty acres of land in the high desert: twenty-five acres surrounding her house to prevent other landowners from developing on top of her, and the rest in parcels located to the north and east of Joshua Tree that she uses as “test sites,” that is, outdoor gallery spaces where artists from around the country can show their work.

HDTS is different from other events of its kind in that the art isn’t fixed in a single location: it’s scattered across Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Wonder Valley. Zittel has created an art scene that challenges traditional conventions of ownership, property, and patronage. She strongly champions the idea that art needn’t belong to anyone, can remain in the environment in which it was created as an ephemeral presence, and eventually enfold itself back into the landscape. Naturally, this kind of art is evaluated and appreciated according to a different set of criteria than those of art-world institutions and galleries. Although HDTS operates outside of any preexisting center, it strives to find common ground between contemporary art and local issues. Chief among them is the interpretation of land use, for, as Zittel quickly discovered, the desert “means” different things to different people.

In the 1930s, homesteaders came to the high desert for the free land and a chance at a new life. Soon, these desert dwellers began to resemble the kinds of plant life that prospered there: tough, prickly and unaccommodating to strangers. For sixty-eight years, the nearly 800,000 acres of Joshua Tree National Park have been a beacon to nature lovers committed to leaving no trace behind—as long they can purchase souvenirs at the end of their vacations. In the sixties, the high desert was outlaw-biker country. Lately, the desert has attracted off-road enthusiasts of both the two- and four-wheel variety. The high desert is also home, at least temporarily, to 19,000 Marines (along with sailors, family members and civilian workers) assigned to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms who use the desert to prepare for operations in Iraq. Yet, for an increasingly larger percentage of the California population, the high desert is simply a cheaper, saner alternative to L.A.’s eastward expanding sprawl. Where consumers go, retailers follow. In homesteader times, a general store would suffice; today Wal-Mart requires dozens of acres in its disturbing quest to be all things to all people with a disposable income. These are the people Zittel would most like to keep out of the desert, but that’s probably wishful thinking.

For one weekend a year, hipsters, artists, and journalists journey to the high desert to look at art. As a writer whose work appears primarily in punk-rock fanzines, I understand the urge to express oneself outside of the channels that have been established by the prevailing cultural forces; but as a navy veteran who drives a truck, watches Monday Night Football, and finds himself once again sporting a #2 all-over buzz cut, I suspect I share as much in common with the folks who call the desert home as those who go there to “make art happen.”

RIMROCK RANCH

I pointed my truck east on the 10 around four p.m. and an hour later I could still see downtown L.A. My truck is old and a cassette of the Clash is stuck in the tape player’s maw.The radio works but the antenna snapped off about six months ago. Two hours into my journey I was still stuck in traffic and all I could pick up on the digital dial was neocon nonsense. I drove the rest of the way in silence.

Just past the Palm Springs exit, I took Highway 62 North nineteen miles to Twentynine Palms Highway in Yucca Valley. I was supposed to meet some artists at a party in Joshua Tree but it was past eight p.m. and if I didn’t make my way to my overpriced cabin at Rimrock Ranch soon, there was a good chance I’d lose my reservation. I got off the highway and went up into the canyons. I passed Pioneertown, the site of an old movie set with accommodations for actors that Roy Rogers was involved in building in the forties. It’s the kind of tourist attraction that survives on nostalgia for a West that never was, and in the blink of an eye I was well past it.

Cut off from the ambient light of the city, there was something oddly unnerving about driving in the darkness of the desert: one wrong turn and I could end up among the ranks of the last-heard-froms. I reminded myself there was a Wal-Mart within walking distance. Nine miles later I reached the ranch. It took me four hours and seventeen minutes to travel 125 miles, but at an elevation of forty-five hundred feet the air felt thinner, crisper, colder. I’d achieved an atmosphere appreciably closer to the moon.

My cabin was bigger than my apartment and a hell of a lot nicer: woodstove in the den, pinecone and horseshoe art in the dining room, and a Dwight Yoakam gold record on the wall.There was even a dream catcher draped over the lampshade in the bedroom, its web perfectly poised to capture the low-wattage dreams of the bulb sleeping in its socket. If Roy Rogers and Gene Autry ever snuck away to play two-in-a-saddle, this is where they would have come.

I went around back to the ad hoc campsite behind the cabins, where some artists were setting up their tents. Aaron Garber-Maikovska, Erick Pereira, and Erick’s brother Josh were drinking beers and complaining about the cold. Aaron, a tall, slender man in his middle twenties, was dressed in a leather bomber jacket and kept his hands thrust down the front of his pajamas, which, incidentally, he didn’t bother to change out of all weekend.Their project, he told me, was something called SXS Book, but during the course of our conversation he referred to it as a swimming pool, a pool table, a table saw, and a vineyard. He also referenced a “Frank Roid Light” and something called “SDS.”

“SDS?”

“Slick Dick Sticks. It’s kind of an homage to Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field.”

I got the distinct impression Aaron was fucking with me.

“So there’s some kind of narrative element at work here?”

“Oh, yeah, a big old narrative.”

Erick was more succinct.“Most of this stuff is going to end up in a dumpster on the way home.”

My hands were freezing and I wanted to get back inside and cook dinner on the Eisenhowerera stove. I felt somewhat guilty that the artists were going to sleep on the ground in their tents while I curled up in the spacious Buckaroo Suite by myself, so I invited them over for a drink. They showed up around 11 p.m. and I poured whiskey into mason jars. After an hour of discussion that was by turns earnest and baffling, they retreated to their tents. I heated up a can of albondigas soup and went to bed.

TEST SITE 1: THE FALLOUT SITE

I woke to intermittent hammering, the occasional whine of a power drill. It was a little bit before eight a.m. The dream catcher had done its job: I had total recall of the previous night’s dream, which involved haggling over a pink surfboard. I heard something scratching at the door. I found an Australian shepherd on the stoop looking up at me with these weird eyes that looked like they’d had all the color blasted out of them. I shared some of my breakfast with him (you know, in case he was a wizard in disguise or something) and he spent the rest of the morning following me around the ranch or sleeping on the stoop. His name was Chipper.

I elected to stay at the Rimrock Ranch because it was the official HDTS map-distribution point. I spent the morning drinking coffee and studying the map with its description of the various test sites, which were indicated with a star and numbered 1 through 16. The names of the sites ranged from the arty (#2 Andy’s Gamma Gulch Site) to the environmental (#10 Ecoshack), the incomprehensible (#5 Krblin Jihn Cabin) to the ironic (#16 Future Wal-Mart Super Store). The Fallout Site was an exhibition unto itself organized by Martha Otero. Artists were waiting to set up their installations while the property manager cleaned out the barn. Glendale artist Kristen Botshekan was arranging posters she’d mounted to stakes around the property.They were curious things. One featured a pair of jackrabbits and the caption read “J-T All Star.”

When I asked her about it she told me she didn’t want to do what other artists had done in the past, which was take whatever was in their studio and dump it in the desert. So she designed a series of posters that were influenced by advertising and old L.A. punk-rock zines like Flipside. Their subject was the local fauna: goats, sheep, and snakes—the Joshua Tree All Stars.

She fretted about the positioning of her posters.

“We’re always so concerned with gallery space,” she said, “but when we come up to the desert we get all scatterbrained. We don’t know what to do with all the space.”

“I guess it’s difficult trying to figure out where the boundaries lie,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“No boundaries,” Kristen’s boyfriend, Erik, added. “Remember that.”

Aaron and Mike, who were now joined by their girlfriends, and Adam, who along with Mike is a builder for the artist Paul McCarthy, and Thor, the mysterious photographer whom I never actually witnessed take a photograph, wandered around with their hands in their pockets. They’d run extension cords back to the barn to power their tools and rockabilly music blasted from a car stereo. Joe, who wore a beaverskin hat and a clock around his neck, was industriously sawing wood. The girls, incredibly, were frying bacon and eggs.

Every once in a while someone took something out of the trailer: plastic tubing, white shapes that looked like the tops of clouds, sheets of fiberglass. As near as I could tell from all the materials lying around the site, theirs was a process-oriented installation where the construction became part of the outcome, but with their coolers, lawn chairs, and tables laden with bags of potato chips and crackers it looked like a tailgate party.

“It’s all about bringing information together to create a situation,” Aaron said as I was getting ready to leave for the next site.“Do you want a beer?”

TEST SITE 2: ANDY’S GAMMA GULCH SITE

The directions were as follows: “Leave Rimrock Ranch and drive 1.8 miles to Pipes Canyon Road. Turn left. Drive 2.2 miles to Gamma Gulch Road.Turn left. Do not drive more than 25 miles per hour on this road! Drive 1.6 miles to God’s Way Love.Turn right. Drive .4 miles to the green flagging tape.”

Test Site 2 is six miles from Test Site 1, or about a thumbwidth apart on the HDTS map. Test Site 13, however, is all the way on the other side of the map, printed on 11″ X 17″ paper, which corresponds roughly to the distance between the tip of my elbow to the heel of my palm. According to my calculations, it was roughly seventeen thumbs to Twentynine Palms.

The roads were rough. The scenery was mind-blowing. Cacti, rocks, cliffs, sky. I absentmindedly switched on the radio. No music played. The radio cycled through the stations in a never-ending loop, searching for a signal.

I stopped the truck and followed the flagging tape to the site. I heard spooky celestial music emanating from an ingeniously camouflaged fake rock straight out of Chuck Jones’s Looney Tunes ACME catalog.Why not? This is roadrunner-and-coyote country after all, and the precariously perched rocks, pink and purple mesas, and plunging ravines are instantly familiar from Saturday-morning cartoons. The Joshua trees, with their anthropomorphic forms and long spiky arms, look like they could sprout eyeballs and toes a lá Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius, tiptoe over to the side of the road, and drop an anvil on my head.

The site featured installations remaining from former HDTS weekends, as well as new additions. The first piece I stumbled upon was a Joshua tree wrapped in plastic bags bearing the Target logo. It was a statement on how the retail superstores were encroaching on the desert and looked like an eyesore, which was precisely the point.

I moved from piece to piece, sometimes following the path of green ribbons tied to the shrubs, sometimes not. On more than one occasion my eye was drawn to the places where the art wasn’t: Joshua trees twisting in impossible geometries, boulders arranged like pins in a gargantuan bowling alley. Off in the distance, I spied an object that resembled a giant arrowhead. As I drew closer I could see it was a big red twelve-foot-tall arrow driven point-down into the earth.A little podium like the ones you see in national parks stood to the side. I went over and read the three words that trans- formed the entire site, indeed all of Gamma Gulch Road and God’s Way Love into a living, breathing, three-dimensional map: “YOU ARE HERE.” It was a joke that Chuck Jones, a man who devoted his entire life to marking the spot, would have loved.

TEST SITE 4: SUNFAIR PARCEL

The dirt roads to Test Site 4 were narrow, rutted, and poor, and the directions were sketchy (“Drive past wrecked cars and look for information”). The HDTS map was neither comprehensive nor drawn to scale, and the lacunae made it feel a bit like a treasure map. It was designed to indicate,not explicate. Still,the farther I strayed from the main roads the more hesitant I became, and I kept checking the map for indications I knew weren’t there.

For all its vague playfulness, the HDTS map was far more helpful than the official map and guide of the area published by the National Park Service. That map, which I’d purloined from my cabin, was cluttered with sixth-grade science-textbook illustrations of dangerous-looking bobcats and feral kangaroo rats, and contained weirdly excitable prose about death: “As the Joshua tree continues to decompose, stinkbugs may nibble on the fiber, helping termites eventually consume their home!”

I was somewhat relieved when the crumbling mesa gave way to a vast, gently sloping plain stippled with a half-dozen gutted automobiles. In the distance I heard the whirring of a motorcycle engine. A white mailbox nailed to a post contained a single sheet of typewriter paper. One side announced the title—“Site: Nonsite: Quartzsite.” On the reverse side, a map. The title was a bit of a puzzle. Site referred to the actual test site (duh). Nonsite is the term Robert Smithson made famous with numerous installations that presented materials like glass, gravel, and slag from a specific site in Patterson, New Jersey, for example, to bins in a gallery. Quartzsite, the sheet of paper explained, is a town in Arizona whose population balloons from 5,000 to 1.5 million every year when the snowbirds descend on the sleepy desert community like a swarm of all-you-can-eat-buffet-bred locusts. The artists—a group called the Architecture Urbanism Design Collaborative— laid an imaginary map of Quartz-site over twenty acres of desert; within this map they’d posted photographs of life in Quartzsite at the corresponding locations.The piece seemed to be saying something about the arbitrariness of why people live where they live, or go where they go, a statement that echoed my own thoughts that morning as I passed evocatively godforsaken dwellings and wondered,“Could I live there?”

It also underscored the unreliability of maps, and as I left the site and drove down into Joshua Tree I resolved not to consult mine for this particular leg of the journey. Instead of counting miles and staring down street signs, I examined the land and imagined where I’d put the roads. Sure enough, they were exactly where I needed them to be. I was feeling quite proud of this achievement when, at the intersection of Sunburst Street and Twentynine Palms Highway, I realized I was almost out of gas. I stopped at the Circle K, where strange things are always afoot. A big burly guy in a truck the size of a small frigate asked me,“You from around here?”

Was he calling me out? It was hard to tell. Maybe this was one of those my-truck-is-bigger-than-your-truck type things that I’m always seeing on the commercials during football games.

“Nope,” I said.“L.A.”

“Me, too.” He told me he was here to buy some property and he’d gotten lost. He swallowed his pride and asked if I knew where such and such was, and as it turned out I knew exactly the spot he was looking for. I hauled out my fabled map and showed him where to go.

TEST SITE 6: HDTS HQ

There were no cheese platters or carafes of wine at the big white tent that constituted HDTS HQ. Instead, I found friendly hipsters and artists who directed me to a table with maps,T-shirts, brochures, and information about the various events. After gathering some information, I moved on Test Site 8: A-Z West, which is Andrea Zittel’s house, and the place where I was supposed to  meet Chris James, a former Williamsburg artist who now makes his home in Silverlake and possesses the relaxed and easy-going demeanor of a native Californian.

We investigated some of the art both at Zittel’s house and farther down the road at Test Site 7. We could see a good bit of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms from there and Chris described his contribution to HDTS: an interpretive guide that includes a map of the Joshua Tree vicinity (pictured, above).The map, he explained, was based on the composition of a painting by a nineteenth-century Frenchman named J. L. Gerome, who was fascinated by “the Oriente,” then understood as the desert spaces stretching between North Africa and the Near East. For Chris, Joshua Tree is L.A.’s Oriente, and as he described the contours of the map, the colors of its legend, I could see a map hovering over the desert, an invisible assemblage of all the road atlases, field guides, and whimsical abstractions I’d been consulting for the last twenty-four hours.

Chris, incidentally, was the first person to spot Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty protruding from Utah’s Great Salt Lake after twenty-nine years of submersion. This was in July of 2002, after years of drought and when, as Chris knew, the water level was receding by the day. The Christopher James, Interpretive Taxonomy for the California Oriente in the Vicinity of Joshua Tree. The entire guide may be viewed at http://highdeserttestsites.com/catalog.html (click on “brochure”) woman working the visitor desk at Golden Spike National Monument (which services the Spiral Jetty, fifteen miles farther down a dirt road), gave Chris a map and told him the last visitor to the jetty, two weeks earlier, had seen “nothing.” In 1970, Smithson contracted a crew of earthmovers to build a massive manmade jetty out of black basalt in the shape of a spiral. Generally regarded as Smithson’s masterpiece, the water level of the lake rose over the years and the jetty disappeared, just as Smithson must have known it would.According to Chris, the jetty’s once-black basalt gleamed white, completely encrusted in alkaline from its years beneath the ultra-saline sea. It was as if Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973, had somehow managed to speed up the geological clock from beyond the grave in order to refill and drain the massive inland sea.

The immense appeal of Spiral Jetty is that it’s both physical and ephemeral at the same time. Now you see it, now you don’t. Even though you can put it on a map, it belongs to no one. In the process of being reclaimed by the sea it has been transformed into something much more beautiful. Unfortunately, little if any of the work on display at Test Sites 7 & 8 aspired to the ephemeral. It stood out and attracted attention to itself. It was the opposite of nonintrusive. Not only could it be owned, much of it was for sale. If anything, exposure to the elements and the natural processes of decay are going to turn this stuff into junk—that is, devalue both the object and the space it occupies—if someone doesn’t get it back in a studio before long.

Zittel seems to agree. After four years in the desert looking at the landscape as an artist, curator, homeowner and steward, she now prefers land without anything on it. This goes a long way toward explaining why HDTS organizers have begun to encourage artists to emphasize the ephemeral in their exhibitions. The irony is that she may not be able to afford to practice what she preaches.The taxes on the land she owns are high, which makes it costly to own land for the purpose of preserving it. Ownership is a burden to those who wish to leave the land unmolested and a potential windfall to those with an eye toward development.

Property values are going up all over the high desert, and whether this has more to do with the influx of “high-falutin’ artists with their hard-to-understand art” as Chris likes to say in a serio-comic voice, or the new Wal-Mart Super Store slated for Yucca Valley is up for debate among those who live in the area year-round. Earlier in the day, someone pressed a flyer into my hand. It was a real-estate advertisement some enterprising property owner had made on his color printer. The ad featured a simple bungalow that in years gone by might have been described as a modest ranch but was spun here as a “funky artist’s retreat.” Perhaps the local property owners knew their audience better than the artists did.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH

I agreed to meet Chris at Test Site 13 for a beer later in the evening. I realized I was starting to feel somewhat at home in the high desert when I decided to fill the two-and-a-half-hour hole in my schedule by driving the twenty-five-odd miles back to Rimrock Ranch to check on the progress of SXS Book.

The scene at Rimrock was different yet the same. Everything was just as disorganized, but through the clutter I could see that a great deal of progress had been made. The crew had welded a square frame together, sealed it with sheets of clear fiberglass, and started filling it with water. A few feet away stood a pool table, except the felt was pulled back to reveal a fully functional table saw. (Adam demonstrated by turning the sucker on and screaming “Nature!”) Mounted over the table was a worklight housed in a case like those over pool tables in dimly lit bars, only this one had been decorated to resemble a stained-glass Tiffany lamp from the art-deco era. Next to the table saw, stakes had been driven into the ground and decorated with fake grapes. The strange jargon Aaron had used the night before suddenly made sense. I understood that I was looking at a swimming pool, a pool table, a table saw, a Frank Roid Light, and a vineyard.

It didn’t really matter that the water had leaked out of the pool because the fiberglass hadn’t had time to properly set, or that the pool table had no pockets. They existed as perfect little Rube Goldberg machines that were physical manifestations of an idea, yet entirely impractical facsimiles of the objects they represented, just like the contents of the ACME catalog, the complete oeuvre of the Coyote’s bag of tricks.

Aaron, the conceptualist prankster, stood in the middle of it all, surveying his team’s work. If he felt a sense of satisfaction or pride he didn’t show it. For him the piece was neither complete nor incomplete, masterpiece nor failure. If he was making a statement about the desert, it wasn’t obvious to me, particularly since none of the workwould have been possible without poaching electricity from the barn at Rimrock Ranch. I could see Aaron and his crew in the forties building sets for Roy Rogers down in Pioneertown, or hammering a soundstage together on the Warner Bros. lot for Chuck Jones. If the high desert does become an enclave, in all likelihood Aaron and his crew, or men just like them, will be the ones solicited to build the studios and funky retreats.Yet for all the sawing, soldering, and stitching their project required, the hours and hours of intense labor, they would leave no trace of the work behind.There would be no enfolding, no nothing. I began to understand their installation as a kind of performance. They came, they built, they disassembled. And then they went looking for a dumpster.

TEST SITE 13: STARS WAY OUT

It was fifteen degrees coolerup at the ranch than it was in downtown Joshua Tree—one degree for every hundred feet of elevation. I said goodbye to Aaron, Erick, and their merry crew and headed east. It took me half an hour to get to Joshua Tree, another half hour to reach Twentynine Palms, and I was still barely at the midpoint on the map between Rimrock Ranch and my destination—the Stars Way Out bar in Twentynine Palms.

Gone were the Circle Ks and Jack in the Boxes. Streetlights disappeared and the roads that intermittently crossed the highway were no longer paved. I lost cell-phone service. The straight ribbon of highway was starting to make me anxious, scratching at the fraying edge of a primal fear of the unknown that my meager collection of maps, both real and imagined, could no longer allay. When I passed a sign that read “Last Service for 100 miles” I was convinced I’d gone too far.Then, like a beacon at sea, the lights from Stars Way Out hove into view.

I sat down between two gents: Dave, the cowboy-behatted proprietor whose business card read “Home of the Misfits and the Ugly Man’s Contest” and Late Freight, a former trucker who wasted no time in telling me that “this ain’t a bar, it’s a hobby.” My strategy for dealing with men of a certain generation in local bars is to swap stories about being in the service. Once we’d established that Dave and Late Freight had been army regulars during Korea and Vietnam, respectively, and I’d been in the navy before the first Gulf War, it was only a matter of time before we started trading insults and buying each other beers, which the friendly bartender slid into personalized crocheted cozies.

There were only a handful of people in the bar and I quickly got to know everyone by name. Sailors and marines get along as well as mongooses and cobras, but sandwiched between the two army vets I found myself in a kind of DMZ. Chris and Wendy, a friend visiting from Boston, showed up a few minutes later, and Dave stood to shake Chris’s hand.The mood was convivial and warm, and I felt as though I’d been coming here for years. Before Wendy could protest she found herself posing for pictures behind the bar wearing a cowboy hat and clutching one of the shotguns Dave pulled down from the gun rack. Up above the bar a squadron of beer-can biplanes dangled near the television set, where the Boston Red Sox engineered a victory in the first game of the World Series. I couldn’t understand why the bar was considered a test site, but I was grateful it was on the map. So was Dave.

“A round for the house,” Dave announced.

“No wonder you never make any damn money,” Late Freight cackled.

“This place is for sale, you know,” Dave said to no one in particular.

We couldn’t stay long: the HDTS party was already getting underway at yet another remote bar called the Palms, ten miles distant, but the atmosphere was so friendly I could have stayed all night. There was a bed stashed under the pool table for just that purpose—so overserved servicemen could catch a few hours of shut-eye under a clacking constellation of striped and solid stars.

TEST SITE 14: THE PALMS

Streaking westward down Twentynine Palms Highway a coyote loped across my high beams. It paused on the sandy shoulder and looked to see what fate it had narrowly missed.  What I didn’t do was press gently on the horn, twice. I swerved into the left-hand lane to put as much space between me and the coyote as possible, but my plan backfired. Something about the way my headlights suddenly shifted caused the animal to panic, reverse course, and scurry headfirst into the road and under the right rear tire of my pickup truck. I felt terrible. I’d broken one of the golden rules that governed the Looney Tunes universe: the roadrunner shall cause the coyote no harm. I’d wiped out one of the all-stars.

I overshot the dirt road, looped around, and followed Chris the rest of the way to the party at the Palms. I walked immediately to the bar, ordered a portable hole—manufactured by ACME and bottled by Budweiser—and crawled inside. But a party is a party is a party and this was a good one. It had the air of a post–scavenger hunt celebration. We’d all logged some serious miles traveling in the desert to look at art, yet few, if any, of us had taken the same path. It was great fun to share our experiences about the things we’d seen—both at the sites and in between.

Chris introduced me to Giovanni Jance, the artist who created the massive red arrow at Gamma Gulch. We talked about it for a while and he told me about how it had been vandalized. Someone had made his or her own statement about land use by painting the arrow brown so that it would blend in with the environment, but Giovanni seemed more amused than perturbed, even though vandalism was becoming more of a problem each year, particularly in the dry lake bed where an anti-Bush piece had been wrecked by some off-roaders during the Iraqi invasion.

“I just wish someone would shoot it full of holes,” he laughed.

The crew from Stars Way Out arrived and joined Kristen and Erik from Rimrock Ranch at the bar. Even Thor, inscrutable behind his dark cop shades, had made the scene. A band playing in the back sounded like the house act for the next David Lynch movie. On the back patio a performance artist impersonated a cockroach and did tricks with a flamethrower. Some people were starting to call it a night. Others were mobilizing for an assault on a strip club. Chris and I tried to follow but ended up drinking whiskey in a marine corps karaoke bar (easily the most foolhardy thing this sailor has done in recent memory).The night ended where it has ended for so many tens of millions of desert highway drifters: at a Motel 6.The next morning I bought a paper, sucked down a complimentary four-ounce cup of machine coffee, and hit the road. There was art I hadn’t seen, people I hadn’t met, but unlike the cartoons, one only gets a finite number of chances to square oneself with the universe before it’s all over.You are here and then you’re not. I had a long way to go and I was looking forward to the drive.

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