Coachella: The Other 50 Weeks

Words: Augustus Britton
Images: Augustus Britton & Abram Fischer

April 10 2016

My knuckles were white. This usually happens when I drive through the San Gorgonio Pass. This particular passage, located in The Coachella Valley, is said to be the second windiest place in America, and you feel it, especially if you’re driving in a Toyota Prius. The wind lifted my little silver car off the road as eighteen-wheelers roll by like demons. The valley is lined with gigantic white windmills scraping the sky. This is prime ground for anxiety attacks. The windmills smack of the monsters in War of the Worlds, minus the undulating tentacles. Some of the propellers sit ominously still, while others move in slow-motion, whipping circles around an endless blue sky. There is no way to avoid this stretch of highway if you’re driving in from the south. My starting point was Los Angeles, which is about 2 hours from Palm Springs depending on traffic.

Coachella Valley is 45 miles of desert stretching from Riverside County to the Northern tip of the Salton Sea. It seems like so much more though. I can’t really get a grip on where I am. It doesn’t feel bigger than Texas, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s only 45 miles from one end to the other. A bunch of cities belong to Coachella Valley including Cathedral City, Coachella, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage.

I’m headed for different spots in the valley, highlighting what else is out there besides the infamous Coachella music festival. My first stop is the Salton Sea. It’s an eerie place where everything seems abandoned, even the places that are “lived in” look inhospitable in a way. The Salton Sea, which is the largest lake in California, is the remainder of an erroneous Colorado River flood. At one point it promised to be a sultry swimming spot for desert locals, but this sea never flowed, and soon became a decaying, stagnant swamp.

I drive along the coast of this unmoving body of water that breaths like some drugged behemoth. I pull off on a dusty road. Park the car. I approach the lake and death surrounds me, corpses of small fish line the water’s edge. Small furniture and tires wade in the shallow water. Skeletons of boats and anchors dot the beach on little dunes. The murky, grey and heavily salted liquid at it’s deepest point is only five feet. It is so deafeningly quiet that I become fully aware of my breath, something I can only compare the sensation to being deep in a forest. 

A man in a border patrol truck approaches me, cigarette plugged in his mouth. He patrols Bombay Beach, the small community that I’ve just pulled into to reach the water. He gives me a thumbs up, without bothering to roll down his heavily tinted window. I wave back, pretending to not be dismayed by his presence.

Everyone that I’ve seen in the town is burnt to a crispy Donatella Versace-like brown. They are either covered in tattoos or covered in baggy clothing. They’re either morbidly obese or frighteningly thin. The men walk with very determined gaits. Some of them are adamant about waving to you, some are keen on turning their cheek. A fire truck sits abandoned, but it’s red paint job glows in the hot sun. If you want a vintage Mustang or Volkswagen van, venture out this way. It’s the perfect climate for them to stay intact, and there’s plenty of them. I’d say the cars look to be faring better than the people.

I leave the water and ride south to reach Salvation Mountain. It’s a monument to God, created by Leonard Knight who recently died in 2014. The mountain is covered in lead-free paint in a bevy of colors, with a yellow-brick road leading to its peak.  In the center of the mountain is a heart, beckoning you to chant along with it: say Jesus I’m a sinner please come upon my body and into my heart…

I climb to the top and look down into the hazy valley. To my left are various farms of nondescript vegetation, probably growing nuts or dates. To my right is Slab City, a place where residents live off the grid and lose one tooth at a time, and at a very slow pace you trip with spider monkeys and live the good, unobstructed life.

I drive into Slab City. A sign reads: THE LAST FREE PLACE, and urges you to leave your luggage in a hole in a little blown out concrete structure. I didn’t leave any luggage, but I did have a look inside. It was filled with garbage and I heard a faint squealing sound of a varmint, so I stepped out quickly.

Slab City is also equipped with a church. I assume the inhabitants brains are fried and the only available sustenance was scripture. To each their own. I saw a few people on swings, fixing cars up with tin ornaments, and decking out heaps of garbage with slogans on living a peaceful life and drawing various body parts in miniscule alien shapes. It’s all very Mad Max.

I leave Slab City and stop in at a torched gas station. Up ahead there is a statue of a cowboy with his hands out and a smile on his face about fifty feet tall. It looks like at some point he was holding something in his hands. An axe maybe.

A small Mexican man with a big belly is standing there looking at me. I approach. “Hello,” I say. He says his name is Frank and he doesn’t want his picture taken, but I’m welcome to take pictures of Mr. Muffler, as he points toward the big statue. Frank goes on to tell me he fixes tires at the old station, but I see no one else around. I wonder how he eats, what he eats, how he lives when nobody seems to need any tires fixed.

Coachella Valley’s staple crop isn’t flat tires, but agriculture – primarily dates. And you see date trees everywhere. If you put your palms up over your periphery and peer into one of the date farms it wouldn’t be hard to imagine you were in a tropical paradise. A faded red Cadillac parked next to overflowing palm trees and the sun spraying at will all over the scene. It’s slightly intoxicating and hard to resist lighting up a joint and going for a walk among the trees. That is, until you reach the end and you’re in a deep…flat…nothing.

Ah, but isn’t that what Coachella Valley is? A source for unexplainable magic? A place where artists venture to get away from streetlights? Where not only artists but all humans with an inkling of a relationship to their soul can get away and just hear themselves. No matter where you are out here, you aren’t far from some sort of natural peace and quiet.

Before I stumble out into Joshua Tree National Park to partake in some of that silence I hit Shield’s Date Garden in Indio. It’s a place to get a date shake, which is a vanilla milkshake with little bits of date in it, and some Mexican fare. It is also a kind of ipso facto shrine to Jesus. I paid five bucks to take a tour of the date garden, which turned out to be a Disneylandesque tour of the life of Christ. Grotesque sculptures of apostles and friends of Jesus were hanging out all over the garden. Little plaques described the tableaux you were witnessing. I started to break out into a cold sweat and left. On the way out I poked my head into a small cinema showing a continuous run of a short film entitled The Romance and Sex Life of The Date. I was the only occupant under the age of seventy five and above the age of six, so I slipped out a side door, a bit confused as to who I was, an existential upheaval growing inside me.

The date shake satisfied my dry mouth. I passed up on smoking the loose joint in my glove box due to a lingering sore throat I’ve had for two weeks and I took off for Pioneer Town. After driving about an hour and a half I reached the main road in Joshua Tree and took a left up a hill. Pioneer Town is an Old West movie set that people used to live in. It’s now a motel and restaurant, and bar called Pappy and Harriet’s sits on its premises. I’m quickly in love with the place. Everything is rotting. Everything blends in with the ancient desert landscape. Pappy and Harriet’s is a celebrated spot for bikers and music lovers alike. Superstars like Robert Plant have played impromptu sets in the bar.

But I soon lose interest in the man-made structures and start walking toward an old Joshua Tree. It seems that at any point you can walk off the road into untouched nature. The Joshua Trees are settling. They look patient and willing to be approached. I feel as if these trees are unsung because there are so many of them out there, but they are all unique. Each one has it’s own array of spiky geometry and strong trunk.

Thirty yards away from the tree I see gorgeous magenta flowers springing from a deep green cactus. The flowers are technicolor. They offer such a psychedelic contrast to all the shades of brown surrounding it.

I come down off tripping on the local flora and drive into Joshua Tree. I stop into one of the many vintage shops that dot the town, this particular one is called The End. There is a mural painted on its façade by Los Angeles based artist Elena Stonaker. I speak to one of its staff, she recently moved to the desert from Hawaii, “you know, it’s just a bunch of good people out here…” and she goes on to wax on the chill life that Coachella Valley has to offer.

Maybe it is like an island oasis, minus the swimmable water. Everyone’s eyes are slow and bright. Everyone is tanned, ready for vacation, ready to drink rum-cocos and spark up a joint. Everyone is willing to get their hands dirty and try to grow something in that dirt. Or maybe I missed something. After all, Palm Springs is half known for the uber-decadent Parker hotel and erstwhile denizens like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Dezi Arnaz, and Bob Hope. Who I can only assume would rather go in for a chilled martini instead of a hike alongside wildlife that includes the frightening vinegaroon: a half scorpion, half tarantula looking earthly terror.

A bustling music festival like Coachella might be what this valley needs, and vice versa. I suppose the festival has become so popular because of the liberation the desert affords. The only real eyes on you are the stars and empty sky. A music festival in a metropolitan area is just more noise, while out here, it can run free, and there is definitely enough space.

So, roll the dice. Take your pick. There’s plenty out here to do the other fifty weeks out of the year when the Coachella Music Festival isn’t going on. Romantic vistas. Swinging parties. Hip culture. Shops on shops on shops. Cowboys and western juke joints. Date shakes and dead seas. Sun and fresh air. Hot springs and cool nights. So much irony. A desert oasis. Real pretty if you open your eyes, or close them…and listen.

Augustus Britton is a writer and filmmaker residing in Los Angeles, you can read more of his work online.

Abram-Fischer is a storyteller and explorer based in Los Angeles. He can be found at www.abramfischer.co