“Welcome to California,” the sign read. I was excited but also disoriented. We had just completed another long stretch of our journey across America. After traversing the edge of the southern border, driving through El Paso, Texas, and witnessing the desolation of New Mexico (except for a few gas stations), we were yearning for a good shower and a clean bed. We were crossing from Arizona to California, and the vibrant redness of the Arizona desert, along with its saguaro cacti disappeared almost immediately as we crossed the Colorado River into the Golden State.
I was faced with a vastness wholly different from the one I experienced in Texas. The inherent possibilities that I saw in Texas’ landscape as well as its constantly churning oil wells were not to be found in this Californian space. Instead, my eyes were burned by a desolate and barren land. Much like Texas and New Mexico, it stretched into the unknown, which inevitably brought uncertainty. Suddenly, the lyrics of Steely Dan’s famous song, “Kid Charlemagne” began to go through my head: “Is there gas in the car? / Yes, there’s gas in the car.” These lyrics were disconnected from our journey, yet somehow they brought comfort in the midst of disorientation.
Either way, there was gas in our car.
We were bound for La Jolla but that was still hundreds of miles away. I was happy at the possibility that the goal was within reach but, being born Bosnian, I didn’t dare assume that everything would go well. Instead, I tempered myself (if one could call it that) and only saw what was in front of me. Our destination for the night was Palm Springs, and I knew nothing about the town. It was a good stopping point according to the map, however. As we moved closer to it, the landscape once again began to change.
Although the still quality of California’s barrenness was not pleasant, I found myself almost wishing for it once we were entering the Palm Springs area. It was windy and getting progressively worse. My disorientation grew exponentially. Am I on Mars? Why would anyone live here? What’s wrong with people? The sand was drifting through the road, sometimes in the shape of a tiny tornado, other times, moving on the surface of the road like an illusory snake.
The imposing mountain didn’t help either. I felt that it was about to swallow me. The sand began to hit the side of the car, then the windshield. All I need right now are locusts, followed by the plague, I thought. Little bus stations began to appear and contrary to my opinion that no human being would want to live in the desert, I saw outlines of human figures patiently waiting for the bus. Flat roofs of the surrounding apartment buildings and drive-thru restaurants seemed like anomalies in an uninhabitable space.
There was nothing to stop the brownish dirt from making its way across the road, except human figures at the bus station. A woman was holding on to her plastic bag as strongly as she could, trying to avoid the sand that was mercilessly hitting her body. Her hair became tangled and the dirt was no doubt embedded into it.
It was dusk and the night was fast approaching. We didn’t have a reservation at any hotel, and save for a peek at the few reviews of the local hotels, we knew nothing about the place. Price was a factor, too, so we chose a motel.
I approached the reception area of the motel cautiously. There were a few people milling about. I was fatigued and I had trouble understanding what the receptionist was saying about the price and the amenities. The only thing that was going through my mind was whether we should stay or go somewhere else, but where exactly? At this point, darkness overwhelmed the space and my confusion escalated.
The receptionist, whose name was Angel (I would consider this to be a good sign if I allowed myself to fully believe in such things) was extremely polite, but she was constantly interrupted by an old man with bad and missing teeth, holding on to his cane and a pack of Marlboros with equal strength. He most likely lived in the motel. I caught the exchange midway and it was impossible to figure out what he was droning on about.
“Can you do this for me?” said the old man in a shaky voice.
Angel appeared annoyed. She was trying to take care of me but he kept interrupting. The matter was unimportant to her.
“I don’t want to bother you,” said the old man. But there was nothing polite about his (unknown to me) request. He was, in fact, bothering her, and she was used to it. He left reluctantly. As I was finishing our check-in, a middle-aged man came in who spoke only Spanish but he had a young companion who was also a translator. The older man was terrified of not being understood and the fear on his face was that of someone lost in a language wholly alien to him.
“Tell him that he shouldn’t put the room key card near the cell phone,” said Angel. The young man quickly translated Angel’s warning and the man’s face revealed a relief. We settled in and were happy to find our room to be clean, yet my morbid self couldn’t shake the ridiculous thought of something bad happening to us. This existential negativity is a permanent feature in my brain, which tends to err toward catastrophe rather than a pleasant event.
Before settling in, we made a quick run through a drive-thru to get some food. The fluorescent light above the car’s sunroof kept flickering in and out in the most perfect Lynchian way. I was half expecting the “Mulholland Drive” cowboy to appear from nowhere and tell me something totally unexplainable but that, too, was just part of my overactive imagination.
The night passed on. Morning brought clarity and ease, and even the imposing San Jacinto peak was welcoming. This inland empire of the windy dirt and rolling tumbleweeds looked better with the rising sun. I exhaled as I looked at the mountain, and the charming grime on the sidewalk. We loaded up the car, on our way toward what seemed to me the edge of the earth. We were moving toward the Pacific.