Earth's most beloved podcast

THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Life Must Be Somewhere to Be Found (transcript)

Published August 4th, 2019

Wait, wouldn’t you rather listen? Reading is so 20th century, and besides, this is a transcript of an audio presentation that was meant to be heard with your ears. Follow this link to podcast happiness.

Okay, it’s not the Kingdom of Nye, that’s in Nevada, who wants to live there? But I am indeed coming to you from the high desert and the great American southwest, as the dear, departed Art Bell used to croak at the beginning of his lunatic fringe radio show Coast to Coast A.M. I’m not in the Kingdom of Nye, but I am at the end of the road. No, not Homer, Alaska, where Tom Bodett’s road ended, but the end of the road in the California high desert. The literal end of the road, since we just moved into a place that borders the Joshua Tree National Park. The road ends right outside the house here and the protected wilderness area begins. I’m not sure why I trotted out two dusty old radio references that no one will get in the first minute I’m talking to you, but what can I do? The heart wants what the heart wants.

So it’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Where you been? And yeah, we moved again, for the second time in 16 months. You might remember me complaining about the last move, because moving stinks and no one likes to move, but this time the move was voluntary, so it was much better. It was actually enjoyable, because we moved to a place that we both love, Joshua Tree, California. Where the Mohave and Sonoran deserts meet, a couple hours outside of Los Angeles. 150 miles east as the buzzard flies. It’s the first time I’ve lived outside Los Angeles in almost 35 years, but it’s good. It’s very good. It was time to exit the concrete jungle.

Let me say, right up front, that I love the city of Los Angeles. Not only the city, the whole area. The whole of Los Angeles county. That’s a big area, but I love it. From Pomona to Thousand Oaks. From The ports down in San Pedro and Long Beach to Palmdale and Lancaster. Yes, even Lancaster. 4,700 square miles, 70 miles of coastline, 10 million people, all of them crazy in one way or another. All of them. It’s a big place, and I’m not sure that I had a handle on it, even after 35 years. I don’t know if anyone can ever get a handle on it. But the minute I climbed out of the van at Crenshaw and West 23rd, I loved it. Crenshaw and West 23rd wasn’t the ideal place for two white boys from Minnesota to climb out of a van in 1984, but what did we know. We just needed a payphone. Remember those?

But I’ll tell you man, as dirty and hot and shitty as it was there on that corner, I just looked around, and I thought, motherfucker! This is it. This is where it’s happening, man. And I’m standing here. What a world. The first couple months were spent in really depressing weekly rate motels in Culver City and on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, and it wasn’t a barrel of laughs, I’m not going to lie. But I never thought, man, I’ve got to get out of here. I could still go back home. I just thought, motherfucker! I live in Los Angeles! There was nothing to go home to anyway. Everything I owned was in the motel room, and the van I’d come out in wasn’t even mine, so I would have had to walk back to St. Paul.

But the city, man. I can’t explain how intoxicating and mysterious and fucking amazing Los Angeles was to me. And over the years, I never lost that feeling. I’ve lived all over the city: at the beach, up in the mountains, in one of the valleys – and I never got tired of new neighborhoods and new people and new air to breathe. Such as the air is in Los Angeles. I say all this because eventually, in telling the tale of this move, I’m going to talk some shit about my beloved city, and I want to establish where I’m coming from. Historically, as the kids say. Just let it be known that I truly believe that Los Angeles is the greatest city in the world.

Then why did we move? Well, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the fact that no one seems to want to hire me, at least in the capacity that I was working in for the past 15 years or so. It’s not a topic I enjoy discussing, because it’s depressing, but it’s the world I’m living in, so why not. Well, one day back in May Carol said, “Look at this place…” because she was always looking at places to buy or rent out in the desert. I said what I always say, which was something like I can’t live out there, there’s no jobs, blah, blah, blah, and she said, “Well no one is hiring you here, so what’s the difference.” And she was right. She usually is right, which can be hard to accept when you think you know everything.

We didn’t move into the first place she showed me, but once we decided to really move, for real, in real life, it was less than a week before she’d found this place and started talking to the owner. That was only about two months ago, and here we are. Same size place we had before, but a thousand dollars less rent every month, and we’re in paradise. Not too bad. We always talked about “retiring” to Joshua Tree, but retirement – I don’t see that as a thing that I’ll ever be able to do. So when would we make the move to come out here? Probably never if it was up to me. I’d put it off forever, like I do with most things. So it’s good that Carol has the nerve and the foresight and the persistence that I don’t. She’s why we’re here, and here is great. She is great.

The high desert. What is the high desert anyway? I have no idea. I thought it was a technical thing, like some certain elevation and some climate, you know, something scientists worked out, but it seems that there’s no technical definition of “high desert.” It’s whatever people say it is, and here in southern California, when people say high desert they mean here. Joshua Tree, 29 Palms. We’re only about 20 miles northeast of Palm Springs, again, as the buzzard flies, but Palm Springs is more than 5,000 feet below the highest point in Joshua Tree. So yeah, high desert. It snows here sometimes in the winter. But it’s a bit rocky what with all the boulders, and I don’t think the snow lasts very long, so don’t plan your Joshua Tree ski vacation just yet.

All right, if you’re still listening I’m sure you’ve heard enough about the desert. And you probably think anyone who lives in the desert is a little crazy, and you’re probably right. It’s a love it or hate it kind of thing. And you know whether you love it or hate it the minute you get out of your car. Or step off your private plane. It’s really not a gradual thing. I don’t think anyone grows to love it. You either want more of it, or you want to get back in the car – or plane – and head back to Los Angeles. Maybe one day you’ll see it for yourself. If you know me, consider this your invitation to spend a couple nights on the air mattress. Or, you know, at the Joshua Tree Inn nearby. I understand that you’ll want your privacy.

But Los Angeles though. I mean, we’ve established that I love it, right? Well, having said that…the last place we lived, in Monterey Park, which butts up against east Los Angeles, it was all right, but kind of suburban, and right under the flight path for LAX. I mean the planes would make their turn south right over our house. Directly above us. So close that I could read the name of the airline. I could see the people in the windows, like on America’s Next Top Model, when they’d fly those skinny teenaged girls to Barcelona or Prague and show a cartoon of them crossing the ocean in the America’s Next Top Model jet. Okay, maybe I couldn’t see the people in the windows, but you get the picture.

You kind of get used to that airplane noise after a while, as you might expect. You get used to a lot of things in Los Angeles. The bad air, which is much better than it used to be, but still not what anyone would call “good.” The general noise – like standing outside our Monterey Park house in the middle of the night when everything else was very quiet, you could still hear the 60 freeway. It was a little less than a mile south of us, and you could hear it. All night, every night. The freeways never sleep.

But maybe the saddest thing that you get used to – and the thing that really stands out to me now that I’m someplace else – is the lack of a really blue sky during the day and the complete lack of a dark sky at night. You think the sky in Los Angeles is blue until you leave Los Angeles and really see the blue sky. And obviously, there is a lot of light at night in Los Angeles. I could only see like a dozen bright stars and planets. And of course, the planes leaving LAX every two minutes.

But out here…well, Joshua Tree is home to one of the darkest spots in the country, so you see more than a dozen stars. We’re closer to the west end of the park, the less dark side, but it’s still dark, man. Like “Oh, look, there’s the Milky Way” kind of dark. The east end is even darker. When the moon is new, the stars are insane. When the moon is full you can hike without a flashlight. All in all, it’s a wondrous thing, being out here. It’s beautiful and remote and harsh and ridiculous. All those good things. I hope I never get used to the deep blue skies and the billions of stars I can see out here. I know that some of you have always enjoyed blue skies and stars, and to you I say, bravo. Keep up the good work. But if you live in a city, you know what I’m talking about. And yeah, I know that every star we can see is in the Milky Way since that’s where we live, but you know what I mean. That crazy cluster in the sky, that foggy band of stars. The heart of the galaxy we live in.

Anyway, Jesus Christ, maybe the thing I’ll miss the least about Los Angeles, and the thing I could never get used to: gardeners. I don’t know about where you live, but in Los Angeles, no one cuts their own grass. They all hire “gardeners” who show up once a week to, as the saying goes, mow and blow. It’s the blowing part that is so idiotic. The leaf blower. An extremely loud two-stroke engine wind machine strapped to the back of the poor bastard who has to use it all day. I don’t blame them, the mow and blowers, they have a dozen yards to do every day. If they had to use a broom or a rake, like civilized people, their workday would be 18 hours long.

But, really, who needs that service every week? We’re talking about Los Angeles, not Portland. The Los Angeles grass, if you have any, doesn’t grow two inches in a week. And the last place we lived – it didn’t even have grass. It had a patch of Astroturf out front and a hillside in back. But still, the gardeners would show up and trim plants and blow, blow, blow the dirt and the leaves everywhere. Because a leaf blower is not a precise, discriminate tool. It’s a wind machine, like I said, and it blows everything into the air, and usually out into the street, where it’s just left to blow back into the yards until the street sweeper comes and picks some of it up.

I think leaf blowers are responsible for two-thirds of the bad air in Los Angeles. Not only the dirty little engines that run them, but just the shit blown everywhere. Leaves, dirt, dust, dried up animal shit, insects, pollen – it’s disgusting, I know, but whatever you’ve got on the ground, the mighty leaf blower sends it into the air. I don’t know how they are legal. The noise, the dirt…and no matter where you live, every house within sneezing or hearing distance is on a different gardener schedule. So there is not one single day of the week, holy Sundays included, that you don’t hear the machines. Not one day of rest from the noise and the dust.

Out here, there are no leaf blowers. There’s no need for them. No one has grass. Hardly anyone has any kind of shrubbery that needs weekly (or monthly or yearly) trimming. It’s mostly native plants that people have in their yards. So that may be one of the best things about living out here. No god damned leaf blowers. No lawnmowers noisily trimming a 32nd of an inch off the top of the grass that hasn’t had a chance to grow since the last time it was scalped. It’s a miracle, not hearing those machines every day.

And the poor guys who have to work with that shit…the noise of a leaf blower has to be 100 decibels. It has to be making those guys deaf. Not to mention breathing in the two-stroke gas engine exhaust, from a motor strapped to your back, and breathing in everything it kicks up. Why someone hasn’t raised it as a workplace danger – or a human rights issue for Christ’s sake – is a mystery. But people have to work, I know. Believe me, I know. And the mow and blow industry in southern California must be huge. I’m sure it puts food on the tables of thousands of people. But it’s like coal mining or asbestos fluffing or something. There has to be a better way.

Okay. Was that more than a couple of things? Probably. That was a lot of complaining about Los Angles, my adopted home city. But like all great cities, it has problems, and when you live in a great city you accept the problems, or apologize for them, or even claim them as part of what makes the city great. It’s only when you leave and finally exhale and look at the stars that you wonder why the hell you put up with it all. Why anyone does. But then if everyone came to the quiet places, they wouldn’t be quiet anymore. So there’s that.

I don’t know, man. Peter Tosh sang, “Flee from the city, it’s getting shitty,” and that’s certainly a very specific world view. When I came to California my friend Jeff – who also grew up in Minnesota – was already here, and he kept saying, “You’ve got to go out to the desert, man, come on, let’s go to the desert,” and I thought, what kind of idiot purposely goes to the desert? You know? I pictured what everyone who’s never been to the desert pictures: endless miles of flat dirt and blazing sun. No life anywhere, no breeze. Or the Sahara desert of the movies: giant sand dunes and blazing sun and camels and Bedouins with swords to lop off your noggin. That’s what I thought of when Jeff said, “desert.”

Then one day when I was living in Topanga Canyon, my friend Noel said, “You want to go riding with me and Tavis tomorrow?” “Riding” meant mountain bikes, and I was one of them mountain bikers, so I said, “Sure.” “Okay, we’re leaving at six,” he said. Six? What the hell? A.M.? In the morning? Well, whatever, I wasn’t doing anything, so the next day I put my bike into Noels’s Peace March van, climbed in and asked where we were going. “Joshua Tree,” he said, and I’m not sure I knew that Joshua Tree was the desert, but when we got there, I could see that it was indeed the desert. And holy Jesus, what a desert.

We came out here to ride many times, and each time I fell more in love with the place. It’s the polar opposite of where I come from, and where my ancestors come from, Ireland and Scandinavia, but there’s something here that speaks to me. Like I said, you’re either a desert person, or you’re not. I think a lot of people believe they are desert people and they come out here to Joshua Tree or Yucca Valley or 29 Palms and after a while they say, “Yeah, you know, maybe – maybe this isn’t for me. I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.” Which is fine. Los Angeles is a lot like that too. And New York, and London, and Paris. They all have their mythical bits that attract people, but they also have the reality bits that drive them off.

The third or fourth time we came out here to ride bikes around, Noel and Trevy and I had brought along some bread and cheese and various eating and drinking things, and after we’d been biking all morning we were sitting in the van, resting out of the sun and eating with our fingers, and in that moment I thought, man, this is perfect. Life is perfect right now. I think I could live out here. All I need is a place to get out of the sun and some bread and cheese. And now, here I am. We’ll see if all I need is bread and cheese, I think I may require more than that now, but the idea is the same. I still feel like I’m living in that moment, and life is perfect. As perfect as life can be, anyway.

Coming to the desert for a day or a week is one thing, living out here is another. But I suppose you could say that about any place. It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there! Or maybe you think you would. I actually lived out here before. Briefly. For six or seven months back in the 90s, in a 400 square foot cabin a few miles east of where I’m standing now. It wasn’t fun in the long term, mainly because it was kind of an exile at the time, a place of last resort during the break up of a seven-year relationship, and also because it was one room. No city water, no heat. Just a room with a wood stove and a 3,000-gallon water tank outside. So it wasn’t quite the same experience as I’m having now.

The cabin was isolated. There were a few scattered neighbors, but they were on the other side of giant mounds of boulders, so I could go weeks without seeing another human. Just Mountain lions casually strolling by, desert tortoises, rattlesnakes everywhere, tarantulas, all manner of dangerous creeping things. Here where we are now, a few miles west, it’s much more green. Desert green, but green. More wildlife. In the first week here a coyote strolled along behind the house about 10 feet away from me, I watched a bobcat pounce on something and carry it away in its teeth, and about a million jackrabbits, chipmunks, quail and other desert dwellers. And birds. Damn, I hardly ever saw birds at the cabin over in Panorama Heights. But here, lots of birds.

Just like the cabin, this place is right on the border of the Joshua Tree National Park. 1,200 square miles of pretty special desert. To call it a different world is an understatement. It’s an alien kind of place, and I guess that’s why people come from all over the world to see it. Germans love it, for some reason. Germans built the house we’re living in, but they only lived here half of the year. I don’t know which half, but I’m glad they sold it to the people who are renting it to us. And I’m glad Carol found them. They’re our kind of people, and they had an unusual way of sizing us up as prospective tenants.

Whenever we had to look for a place to rent in the city, it was a never-ending mountain of paperwork and phone calls to employers and social security numbers and credit scores. One guy in Monterey Park made us fill out detailed applications with copies of IDs and social security numbers and who knows what the fuck else before he’d even let us walk through the house. It was beyond ridiculous. The couple that’s renting this place to us – we talked to them on the phone, filled out a one-page sort of application-type thing, and they just said, “You guys feel right, we want you to have it.” And that was it. Well, Carol did talk to one of them a lot on the phone before that phone call with all four of us, but from my end, it was pretty brief and easy. I trust people who operate like that more than I trust lawyers and real estate agents and just about anybody else you can name.

What I mean is, it’s easy to trust people who trust themselves, you get me? They were obviously making a more or less gut decision based on how we came across to them. Their decision was correct, because we’re reliable, long-term, pay-the-rent-on-time kind of renters, but they couldn’t have known that without some more involved checking than I think they did. They took our word for a lot of things and trusted their impressions. Very unusual. I didn’t think anyone did anything like that anymore. I’ve been in Los Angeles too long. The dentist in Los Angeles wants to talk to your lawyer before they clean your teeth. Everything is cutthroat and profit and getting what you can get from the other guy. Everyone wants to appear to be successful, appearances, appearances.

There’s less room for appearances out here. When you see those young women on Instagram smiling and skipping through the Joshua Trees in their platform sandals, just know that as soon as the pictures were finished, they were back in the air-conditioned SUV drinking their cucumber water or whatever they drink these days. The kids. Hurrying back to poolside at the 29 Palms Inn. Not that there’s anything wrong with the pool at the 29 Palms Inn. Carol and I have stayed there many times. But now we don’t have to stay there. You know, unless we want to go for a swim. But the park here, it’s been taken over by Instagram somehow. On those biking trips I first took out here, you could pedal all over the place and not see another person for hours. It’s not like that anymore. But maybe the National Parks will become passe to the kids soon. They’ll be all Instagrammed out. All the selfies will be taken. It won’t be novel or cool to post a picture of yourself kissing a Joshua Tree. Friends will just LOL and say, “Why are you still going out THERE?!” LOL. Then they’ll move on to trample something else in their desperate quest to be just like everyone else.

Moving sucked as it always sucks, and it took weeks to get all the appliances lined up and whatnot. I gave away our refrigerator and washer and dryer before we moved because those things were already here. Only thing was, it turned out the refrigerator here didn’t work, and then the clothes dryer didn’t work, so we had to get new stuff. Some of it paid for by the landlords, some by us. We also paid to carpet the place, because the old carpet was…old. And dirty. And very green. Who pays to lay carpet in a rental? I guess we do. But it was worth it. It’s really nice in here. And when we told the landlords we were buying our own washer and dryer, they said, “Well, take $500 off the rent this month, make it a little easier on yourselves.” Again, that kind of thing – not happening in the city.

So yeah, moving sucks, but it really didn’t suck as badly this time, because we were excited to get out here. It’s still stressful and exhausting, the whole process, but I can’t complain this time. The blisters and scrapes and bruises will go away soon enough. And every time I look out of a window here, any window, I can’t believe how wonderfully marvelous and spectacular everything is. Be sure to tune in next time, when I’ll probably be complaining about living in the desert. God damn this small town! Get me back to the city! Nah, don’t count on that. I mean, who knows. The future is unwritten! Now ease on out of the driveway and get out of here. You’re completely welcome to come back next time, but I don’t want to see you around here before then.