The Great Wide Open

The desert is America’s primordial sandbox—land of the free, home of the rowdy. Out here, names mean nothing, you can drive fast and the beer’s always colder at the next bar.

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  1. When I first set up camp in the Golden West, the terrain began to comfort me in unexpected ways. Here, at the edge of a desert, I sensed I was indigenous and could flourish. I liked the idea of sinking roots into this quicksilver garden—this false greenhouse watered by hijacked rivers and tended by gatekeepers anxious to keep the Emerald City from becoming too crowded. But the Santa Ana winds—foretelling of disaster and salvation—were calling, and I had to get to the source. I had to go to the Mojave, where the perfume is not of money but of creosote, ocotillo and sage; the Mojave, where the sound of silence is not the thunder of an unreturned phone call but of lizards who sit on rocks and breathe and listen.

    The maps will tell you the Mojave begins about one hour east of LA. But for me, it doesn't really begin until I see my first Joshua tree, and that doesn't happen for at least another hour—until I turn off Interstate 10 for Highway 62. The Joshua tree really isn't a tree at all; it's a member of the yucca family (Yucca brevifolia), which brings me to Rule Number One of the desert: In the land of make-believe, you can call yourself anything you want—as long as you pick up your own bar tab. Like the typical desert resident, the Joshua tire has no guile, possesses little more than a good view and is living a beautiful bald-faced lie. And so begins my ritual. I see my first Joshua tree, uncork my canteen and step on the gas. Rule Number Two: It's okay to drive fast. The slo...