MAD DOG: Scenes From the Desert

All you have to do is spend a few hours in the desert to realize that things just ain't right there. You might say they're a bit wacky. Go ahead and say it, you'll feel better if you do.It might be the heat. It could be the isolation. Of course it could just be the people it attracts. Case in point: I was there.I get to Joshua Tree National Park late in the afternoon. The well-scrubbed park ranger is in a hurry to close up and doesn't care whether I pay my $10 or not. Neither do I. Since it's late, he recommends I hike to the top of Mastodon Peak to watch the sun set over the desert. There's a couple walking 50 yards behind me the entire way. They make it to the peak and sit a bit away from me. I watch them snap a few thousand pictures of each other, taking turns framing the other against the beautiful boulder-covered mountains. As I leave I ask if they'd like me to take a picture of the two of them with the gorgeous red-streaked sky and the dramatic rocks behind them."No thanks," they say.Go figure.That night I stay in Indio, California, which is the date capital of the world, yet I don't see a single personals ad anywhere. There are a lot of date trees, though. And date shakes. And date candy. The signs and postcards trumpet the "Secret Sex Life of the Date," which turns out to be that they have trouble pollinating by themselves and need human intervention. Big deal, so did Melissa Ethridge. The date trees have ladders permanently attached at the top, but they stop halfway down. This, I guess, is supposed to stop the date rustlers. With the strange Secret Sex Life they have, date rape must be a bigger problem than you'd think.The next day as I drive through the park heading north I find a very cool modern rock radio station. One of the better ones I've heard. When the announcer comes on he's speaking Spanish. The commercials are all in Spanish. But the music is English. At least it's better than when it finally fades away and all I can get is an AM station broadcasting Rush Limbaugh. Like there isn't enough hot air in the desert as it is. I make a mental note to contact the Park Service and recommend that they broadcast U2's Joshua Tree album in an endless loop so you can hear it throughout the park. I decide to let them have the idea for free.You learn a lot about how things get named in the desert. The Mormon settlers thought the big yuccas looked like Joshua raising his arms to the sky so they called them Joshua trees. Motel 6 got its name because the room next to you always has six kids who scream for six hours and wake up at 6 am. But the town of 29 Palms is an exception -- I don't think there are a dozen palm trees here.There are ways to spot a good place to eat when you're on the road. A line of people standing at the take-out window of a nondescript cinder block building buying tamales is one. An old beat-up restaurant with the front sign blown out and a cooker out front sending up mesquite smoke signals is another. Who needs 29 palm trees when you've got Don's American BBQ?The ribs are heavenly. The picnic table atmosphere is just what it should be. They even have a menu section called "Epicurean Delights -- Exotic Entrees," which includes buffalo, caribou, kangaroo, alligator, smoked duck in orange sauce, rattlesnake, and rabbit. In the land of scorpions and tarantulas, duck l'orange is exotic. The next day I go back, stick my neck out, and have an ostrich burger. Surprisingly ostrich is one of the few exotic foods that doesn't taste like chicken. It tastes like a hamburger.I hike to 49 Palms, an oasis which I figure will be 50 percent more interesting than 29 Palms. The guidebook says it's a 1.5-mile hike but they lie. It's at least 15 miles each way. You go up a mountain, across a ridge, and down into a canyon, dodging lizards and wondering about the cacti that look like fire hydrants, imagining what would happen if a dog were to think the same thing. I come across the oasis. A real live oasis just like in the movies -- a stand of palm trees and a small spring. Except there's no way there are 49 of them. I make a note to talk to my lawyer about suing the desert for false advertising. As I sit among the cool calm of the trees I can't get the song "Midnight at the Oasis" out of my mind. Or during the 20-mile hike back. I never did like that song.When I'm leaving the falsely billed oasis -- which I consider proposing as the new name for the place when I make my U2 suggestion to the Park Service -- I hear a frog. At least it sounds like a frog. But what do I know? The name's not Mad Muir, you know.I whistle to it. It croaks. I whistle again. Another one croaks in the distance. I whistle twice. One of them croaks twice. I consider saying "Bud" and seeing if they know enough to say "Wise" and "Er". Or maybe yell "Marco" and hope they say "Polo". But I don't. We play the whistle and croak game for a good ten minutes until I get bored with it. They don't. It must get lonely out there in the desert.On the hike back I see roadrunners all over the place. Not a one of them says beep-beep. At least not to me. I have yet to see the first coyote, wily or otherwise. When I get back to the motel I check the Yellow Pages. There's no Acme Dynamite Company listed. What a gyp.The next morning I'm on my way to the Mojave National Preserve, which varies from a national park in that it's free. I drive through Wonder Valley, where all the roads off the main one are dirt roads, yet they each have a big street sign with a name. At each intersection, as it were, is between 10 and 20 mailboxes, yet there are no houses in sight. I make a note to contact the Wonder Valley Chamber of Commerce when I get back and offer to let them use the slogan, "Wonder Valley -- We wonder where everyone is."At the edge of the Mojave Preserve there's one final sign of civilization -- an Easter egg tree. You've seen them, they're the new suburban tradition where you hang brightly colored Easter eggs on a tree like baby pinatas.The Mojave is more desolate than Joshua Tree National Park. It also seems to have a bigger grove of Joshua trees than Joshua Tree. This is akin to finding more yellow stones in Yosemite than in Yellowstone. It just shouldn't be that way.At the northern end of the Mojave is Baker, California, a truck stop masquerading as a town that lures people in with the slogan, "The Gateway to Death Valley." Obviously "Last Chance Humanity" was taken. I get a room at the Bun Boy Motel, which is behind the Bun Boy restaurant. In Baker it works. In San Francisco it would get more than a few snickers.Not 50 yards away from the motel is the World's Largest Thermometer, 134 feet tall and covered with 4,943 lights. It's there to commemorate the highest temperature ever recorded in the continental United States, something that happened not in Baker, but in Death Valley. If you can't put up a monument at the gateway, where can you?There was more on the way home. There was the Calico Early Man Archeological Site, which doesn't show any artifacts but is, literally, the pits. There was Rainbow Basin, the ancient lake bed with the signs that say, "Turtles Crossing, next 5 miles". And there was Exotic World, billed as the Burlesque Hall of Fame and Museum, in Helendale, with hundreds of photographs of exotic dancers, many of them autographed to owner Dixie Lee Evans, who would have given me a guided tour except she had to get to the bank and I had to get back on the road.Did I mention that things are just a wee bit wacky in the desert?

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