by Izaak Diggs
It would be easy to dismiss Barstow as a wasteland: You've got the heat in the summer and the poverty year round. Faded mobile homes and salvagers making monkey shapes as they strip valuable tiles off collapsing houses. To the casual glance it is just a place to fill your gas tank or grab a burger or use a restroom. Just another desert town, just another exit or two along the interstate to somewhere else. Why was I there? Was I following a genuine spark of inspiration or had I lost my mind? All I could do was wring my hands, question my sanity, and take more notes.
Barstow has always been a hub. Starting in the nineteenth century it served long distance travelers and the mining towns in the region. The desert is a popular place for mines: Men digging holes in the ground, getting a little closer to Hell in the hope of cheating the Devil at poker and getting a monopoly on brimstone. Gamblers with chin beards and suspenders who directed other men into the dark recesses of the earth. They oversaw the creation of towns that thrived for awhile only to die and be reclaimed by the desert after. Fortunes made and lost; a story told countless times in the history of mankind. The story of Barstow is nearly identical to scores of towns scattered like seeds throughout the Southwest.
I went down to the desert with nearly every penny I had. I stood on a salt flat, waited for the wind to rise, and tossed all the bills in the air. They were carried in every direction; to fast food restaurants and cheap motels and gas stations. Like those men with chin beards and suspenders I gambled everything I had on a dream, on an idea. I gambled it on the desert; I gambled it on all the little towns like Barstow and Lone Pine and Tuba, Arizona and Capitan, New Mexico. I rolled the dice that there was a story there lurking like a scorpion in a yucca.
Right up until this moment, I am second guessing myself. I could have spent that money on the down payment for a place for my girlfriend and me or gotten a car. Instead, I spent it on traveling the deserts of four states for twelve days. I look at travel magazines with their glossy pictures and upbeat stories about quaint little towns, good places to beachcomb, and local cuisine and wonder how the desert fits into all that. If you get lost in the wine country that surrounds Lodi, you risk ending up sipping a poor Merlot in a second rate winery. If you get lost in the desert, you could die.
I was turning that over and over in my mind as we approached Barstow from the west. It was six days into the trip and every town had presented us with leathery apparitions with four teeth and a suspicious gaze clearly earmarked for city slickers such as ourselves. I knew Barstow would be no different; I have found myself in Barstow many times over the past twenty years. Coming in on California 58 you see battered mobile homes on the edge of green fields and cars not fit for a demolition derby. A billboard proclaims "Water Board is useless--they work for PG&E." Another warns us "Don't drink the water."
Don't drink the water? What sort of place is this? Why would anyone want to travel to a place like this?
All I could do was wring my hands, question my sanity, and take more notes.
The sky over the desert was as blue as a contract killer's eyes as we exited off the freeway and onto another Main Street. Main Street in Barstow used to be US 66 before the interstates came and murdered towns like Amboy seventy miles to the southeast. Barstow survived because there is nothing else for fifty miles in any direction. If you need a bathroom or are dying of thirst or the needle is closing on'E' it's the only game in town. Whatever real character or charm the city had is long gone; most of the local restaurants and hotels have become faded and crumbling curios on the side of the road. It's all about the iHops and Burger Kings and the WalMart on the east side of town. I see the shuttered El Rancho Barstow and imagine all the stories there, just whispers sighed in the language of ghosts. This is not a place I could sell a story about to one of those glossy magazines. I tell Candy to stop, and I climb out of the car to stare at a building most people would consider a ruin. Ruins are beautiful to me because they are simply the end of long, interesting stories. The question is, who would buy that story? I am a writer, this is how I am supposed to make my living; creating marketable stories, not being so self-indulgent. And there I was, rubbing my hand over some dead hotel and feeling something foolish in my heart.
We left Barstow behind and joined all the Mustangs and Yukons and Hyundais speeding up to Las Vegas. Everyone drives as fast as the law or their courage allows. To most people, the desert is a wasteland to speed through on the way to somewhere else. Why do I feel differently? Why am I in love with a place most other people find hostile, ugly, hot, and generally devoid of charm? I am lost. I know where we are on the map, but I am lost in my heart. I gaze into the distance at the red cliffs with all the striations in the rock and think of distant planets. I wring my hands, question my sanity, and take more notes.
Izaak Diggs is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He is currently at work on a book about his travels through the deserts of the Southwest.
Photography by Candy Jones.