This is the time of year when concerned relatives call to check in. We saw that you’re living in the hottest place on the planet. Are you okay?
No, we’re not. No normal person chooses to stay in the desert all summer. You have to want the heat.
A FEW MONTHS AGO, I went on a ride-along with a Joshua Tree park ranger. The desert air was still cool, at least when I climbed into the ranger’s SUV at around 9 o’clock in the morning. By noon, it was just under 80 degrees. Which is nothing for me. I don’t even put on shorts until it’s 85, and even then, it’s a production. Tourists wear shorts when it’s 72, but desert rats, we cherish the two months or so of the year that we actually get to wear a pair of pants.
“Grab a bottle of water,” the ranger said. We’d parked a good 5 miles off the main road and were going to hike across a flat expanse of sand and creosote toward a place I’d only heard talk of: a ravine filled with domestic relics that were washed away by a flood sometime last century.
“I’m good,” I said.
“Grab a bottle of water,” she urged again, “you don’t realize how hot it is and how far you’re going to be walking.”
Ever dutiful, particularly when a woman with a gun has orders for me, I took a bottle. Fifteen minutes later, I was a little dizzy and breathless, sweating through my jeans; if I’d closed my eyes and turned in a circle, I’d have never found my way back out of the desert. You could die out here, I thought. And of course, if there’s one universal truth about this desert life, it is that despite the beauty and solemnity of the desert, despite the resorts and golf courses, despite Coachella and Stagecoach and the film festival, despite the man-made lakes and surf parks proposed across the valley, this is a cruel and forbidding place if you happen to be outside and without water for too long. It’s not that you could die — you would.
After another 10 minutes or so, we came upon the relics of an old mining district homestead. A sealed well. A gutted refrigerator. The skeleton of a stove. Scattered cups and plates. “How did people live out here?” I asked.
The park ranger shrugged. “Not easily.” She looked at me. “You feeling OK?”
“You were right,” I said. I guzzled down my water. The park ranger nodded. She was wearing a full uniform, body armor, a gun — all that, and she hadn’t broken a sweat. I looked like I’d hiked through the desert wearing an entire rack of clothing from Banana Republic: moderately fashionable if totally inappropriate.
On the way back, the ranger gave me her bottle, too.
The heat has always been cathartic, the arrival of summer a forced slowdown.
I’VE FREQUENTLY THOUGHT about that day in Joshua Tree, not because I was ever in any real danger, but because of how many people make the same mistakes every day. If you aren’t from here, you just don’t know how quickly things can turn south.
We moved to the desert when I was 13. My family had been vacationing here since the 1950s, when both sets of grandparents fled the harsh winters of Longview and Walla Walla, Washington, for Palm Springs and golf, buying homes at Canyon Country Club and renting condos at Villa Alejo. Later, my mother, who yearned for a life of perpetual sunshine, would grow tired of the Bay Area fog and fly south for a life under palm trees.
For me, the heat has always been cathartic, the arrival of summer a forced slowdown, a system reset, a time to reevaluate, to see the world for what it is. So when it came time for me to figure out where I wanted to live for the rest of my life — after college and a decade split between Los Angeles and Las Vegas — I felt pulled back to the desert.
To set roots in sand is, of course, a foolish premise on its face, but I think of what Joan Didion said about living in California: “The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” I wanted something permanent.
A FEW YEARS AGO, when The Rolling Stones performed at Desert Trip, I remember Mick Jagger standing on the edge of the stage, a swirling 90-degree wind kicking up around him, and announcing, “This is a bit like singing into a hair dryer.” It was October. Fall. The onset of what we call winter. Mick would never last a summer here.
There is nothing more beautiful to me than the desert at about 10 o’clock at night, deep into July, when the temperature slides below 105 for the first time. I like to get into my car, put the top down, turn up the AC, fill the stereo with old Kyuss songs, and drive the empty streets. Everything is still, yet somehow the air feels like an animate object you have to cut through. Sometimes I’ll just roll, following the road where it takes me — into the darkness outside of Whitewater or up past Lake Cahuilla or through the old-money neighborhoods of Palm Springs, the ghost of Cary Grant cruising beside me, the stars flicking above like memories, the laws against light pollution good for these haunted nights.
On nights like these, the heat is a companion, but not an easy one. And it’s certainly no illusion. There’s always a moment of pure euphoria when you turn off the car’s AC and the heat drops in front of you like a wall; you realize that technology has made the world easier. But the desert is always waiting, just the same, for you to make the wrong move.
Joan Didion also said, “Stories travel at night in the desert.” A desert life is hard. It’s that duality that makes me love this place, this desert the tourists will never really know, when you park your car at the side of the road, hear the yowling of coyotes in the distance, and recognize that you are in a timeless place of savage, incessant, fluid, dry, and somehow welcome heat.