Sailing Around North America: Sandsailor

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"Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations." ~Thoreau

West with the rising sun, west to the distant ocean like some lumbering, migratory bird. West past the low, eroded mountains surrounding Phoenix. West into the zen emptiness, that timeless open space populated by mystics and madmen, at times the same person.

No man ever followed his genius until it misled him, wrote Henry David Thoreau, but most of us are lost without ever having genius added to the equation. One moment we're the madman, the next a mystic. And no roadmap between the two but lots of little, unmarked trails.

While I lived in LA, I often flattered myself, that I was an unrecognized genius gone astray, a colorful character with inventive stories to tell, stories that could be spun into entertaining movies, if given the opportunity. In other words, a scriptwriter. Half the population of Los Angeles probably thinks the same, licking their creative wounds, cruising through the canyons of LA, convinced they are the next Steven Spielberg, if only given half a chance.

An immense oasis at the edge of the desert, LA is a good place to live and a better place to leave behind, depending on your state of mind. If you can create a pleasant niche for yourself, LA is a dream interrupted only by brief moments of reality that seem fantastic, such is the unreal, dreamlike state of LA. More than most, LA is city of connections. The powerful players in the film and music industry, in TV and advertising, in professional sports and real estate speculation, became powerful through connections. If you cannot meet and make connections readily in LA, you are dead meat driving around, festering in the sun. You are lost without realizing you are lost, and no closer to finding yourself, or what you imagine passes for success.

Twice a year, I used to cross the desert between Los Angeles and Phoenix in my van, Tinkerbelle. I used to spread the trip, roughly 400 miles, over an afternoon and the following morning, allowing me to camp in the desert halfway across, where I would try and get my bearings. Getting out of LA, most everyone agrees, is one of the joys of living there.

But now, heading west from Phoenix (see Sailing Around North America: Leaving), I wouldn't stop. Instead I'd make a drunken beeline to the Salton Sea and from there map a course to Mono Lake to the northern edge of the Mojave Desert. My inner compass compelled me to wilder places now, lakes and inland seas, places offering more cool satisfaction, instant gratification in a liquid sense than any city could offer me. After all, there were no lakes in Los Angeles; the "Lakers," a pro basketball team transplanted years ago from Minnesota (Land of 10,000 Lakes!) were as much a fantasy as most LA films.

Really, we write our own scripts, our own episodes. We compose our own saga and call it our life. We're both the bit players and extras, the best boys and gaffers, the stuntmen and supporting players, the director and producer and, finally, the star. Our life story isn't scripted by any Hollywood insider but by ourselves. Or as Dr. Seuss said, in the ultimate travel book:

"You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

You're on your own. And you know what you know,

And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go." - Oh, the Places You'll Go!

If I knew what I knew, how much better to know what I didn't know? The good doctor lived just over the coastal range, in La Jolla (la hoy-ya) from the fanciful destination I sought. Had he ever jaunted there--to the Salton Sea--the only man-made mistake visible from space? Had Dr. Seuss ever water-skied over the surface, when the sea was once a popular resort, chuckling in the spray? I sure hoped so.

The desert is often a dead sea. Indeed, the Salton Sea occupies a dry lake bed, a vast, dead seabed from some defunct, shallow sea. What utter nonsense to think we're a creature of great importance. The desert convinces us otherwise and, I suspect, that is why so many motorists rush to get across it. The dried rivers and eroded bluffs and serrated mountains send a shudder down the spines of most. Sure, the abandoned ghost towns are a popular tourist destination, and I planned to visit the most intact one in the next few weeks--but all that fossilized emptiness is too much for most people.

I rolled through Blythe, California, on the banks of the over-allocated Colorado River. Rather than drive during the hot afternoon (no air-conditioner in my van), staring into the sun, I unloaded the sailboard and contented myself with a short sail across a lagoon. Shade trees bowered the brown waters. Most of the Colorado, this once proud river, would die in the desert long before it reached the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.

I camped in Blythe, in the small campground next to I-10 that night. The interstate, also known as the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway, runs from Santa Monica to Jacksonville, Florida. Next morning I continued west for the Salton Sea.

Passing Gold Nugget road, I smiled and scanned the top of the low mountain alongside the road. I once worked on an Alaska fishing boat called the Gold Nugget. But even more memorable, years ago I camped not far from here with a tall, curvy, perky girlfriend named Stacer. We were headed east to Phoenix, having left LA in the late afternoon. Most drivers make the drive in seven hours. Pulling off the road north of the Chocolate Mountains, we bumped over a rutted trail for several miles and rolled to a stop.

I built a campfire and we roasted weenies. We stared at the stars. "Look at those lights," I said, pointing to a strange looking quadrant on the eastern horizon. "That's a prison, maybe 20 miles away. I hope no escapees see our campfire."

Stacer pretended fear--at least I think she pretended fear--and we made passionate love. We pretended to be escapees. The campfire congealed into a glowing mass of rubies scattered across black velvet. I confess, with more than a little regret and considerable chagrin, that long ago evening was the first and only time I ever had sex in Tinkerbelle, in the dozen years I've owned the van.

The following day, Stacer and I climbed the rugged bluff overlooking Gold Nugget Road. We buried a glass jar filled with notes, coins, matchbooks and business cards in a cairn atop that peak. Because that's what explorers always did in the glorious past. Not the lovemaking but the note-making.

Explorers were forever building cairns and hiding notes; planting flags, establishing settlements and claiming this or that land for some spoiled emperor who never once glimpsed the land claimed for them. Ridiculous, right? But that was how geography was invented and why school kids are mostly bored by it.

And so I claimed that mountain in the name of all road-weary travelers and geographers. Named it Mount Stacer, since that's what I did. Others may have renamed it since then. Wonder if that pickle jar is still there, and the cairn too?

In the desert, you may climb any nameless peak or hillock or range and name it and claim it for yourself. Who is there to stop you? Not one army, expedition or empress. Even if all you survey from the top is empty "wasteland" (wasted on whom?), the hike is well worth it. You can do it for exercise and inner clarity--far better reasons anyway than territorial gain.

I love the desert almost as much as I love lakes. You can get lost--or found--in the desert. Become a mystic or madman, or enjoy lovemaking under the stars while all around you the world fossilizes.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 136

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman enjoys exploring the occasional ghost town or spooky conspiracy and can be found wandering the back roads of America. Recently Doug finished writing, directing and producing an independent feature film, naturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA.