America Deserta

2014-02-11 11.11.49

Reyner Banham was a British architectural critic and writer who mostly lived and wrote in the states from the 60s until he died in 1988.  He spent time in many of my favorite parts of the Mojave, and describes his experiences and reactions in  “Scenes from America Deserta”.   Here is a passage that I copied down the other day:

The desert is also seen as a place of secrets, where the customary restraints of law and habit are suspended.  All true desert lovers are in the terrible quandary that if their beloved desert is to be protected enough to survive, it must also be regulated enough to cease to be desert in the sense that they love.  This is a crucial topic in all the desert fancying, and I will return to it….        The desert is also seen as an appropriate place for fantasies.  Not only the fantasies of a Bessie Johnson or a Curtis Howe Springer, but the fantasies of dune buggy maniacs and lone hikers, the seekers after legendary gold mines, the exploders of the first atomic devices, the proponents of advanced missile systems and the diggers of gigantic earth sculptures.  Never forget that it was in the Mojave that the first claimed UFO sightings took place, and the pioneer conversations with little green men from Venus.  In a landscape where nothing officially exists (otherwise it would not be “desert”), absolutely anything becomes thinkable and may consequently happen.

Reading this made me think about how it is almost always some ideal of “freedom” draws us to the desert and the bitter truth that having freedom means that one must allow others to have it as well.  My sense is that what truly makes this part of the desert something unique and special is slowly changing.  While I agree that the land needs to be protected – the act of doing so may also one day eliminate what drew us all here in the first place.  I don’t think that we will ever cease to crave autonomy and independence, but it is interesting to think about what options for freedom will exist once all environments are either “protected” or developed.

Truck Stalking


I have a long running obsession with Australian trucks and off road camping vehicles.  On this last trip I also saw some great flat-beds that are manufactured to fit on smaller trucks – each one comes with different sorts of attachments, work boxes etc.  We didn’t have much time to scout trucks, but I managed a few sightings while on a drive to a camping store with Lucina and Charlie.


Here are a few other Australian camping rigs that it’s easy to become obsessed with:  The Earthcruiser, the Wothahellizat, and trailers like the Conqueror series or another vehicle also called the Conqueror that looks a bit like a sci-fi motorhome.

panel works


One of the the most interesting projects happening in connection with the studio right now is actually being executed by a group of weavers located in various locations across the country.  Sheila Shanti, our head weaver who is based in Maine, has spent the last few months making countless samples to test out a huge array of options in color,  fiber,  and weaving technique.


By now I’ve accumulated an amazing library of test strips in all sorts of wools, cottons and linens.  The final products will be at least four different series of “panels” –  elemental forms that have the ability to slip between functional categories and social roles depending on subtle contextual shirts or overlaying value systems.    Curious?    More soon…


Palo Verde Breakfast


I started gardening this year in metal livestock troughs (24 inches high to keep the animals out).  Growing food in the desert has been both fun and challenging, with a steep learning curve that I’ll write more about later.  But all that hard work made me realize how smart it is to take advantage of native food sources that are both free and readily available.  One of my favorites is Palo Verde beans.  You pick the pods when they are still fresh and green, blanche or boil like edamame and then eat the seeds. Or they are just as good fresh off the tree.  I’ve also read that you can dry and store the beans and sprout them at other times in the year…  Other really good edibles that we have discovered at AZ West are Mormon Tea, Mesquite and Chia.


big saturday loop


On Saturday morning I set off into the desert in search of a particular strip of rock graffiti.  The graffiti consists of words and texts that are written out on the side of a railroad berm using different colored pieces of rock and gravel.   It is an amazing sight, and seems to run for an infinitely long distance.  I was frustrated that I couldn’t quite remember it’s exact location and figured that I could find it fairly easily with a long day of driving.  Plus It had been a mind numbingly busy week and it would be good to have some alone time in the car.  So I headed out through Wonder Valley, past Philip and Margot’s pink post office with their chakra healing pyramids,  turning up the grade on Amboy Road, noticing that something interesting seems to be happening to the cabin that Bettina Hubby bought from Chris Viet a few years ago.


Reaching Amboy I turned right on National Trails Hwy – with the idea that this is where I would most likely find the grafiti.   Unfortunately no luck, so I drove onto Essex and then took the poorly paved road north to the 40 – in the distance some amazingly huge and alien-like fiberglass tanks that had been abandoned and left to disintegrate into the desert.


I had been driving for two and a half hours thinking that for sure that by now I would have found the site.  There was a train nearby which added some element of hope – and since backtracking would be a long drive anyway, I decided to continue on to Needles and then head south to Vidal, making a giant loop.   Needles is near Near the Colorado River, when you drive through you can sense the water but you can’t see it. The town used to be route 66 and has some great old houses and structures, but seemed eerily empty for a saturday afternoon.


Finally right after town, a little rock graffiti materialized on the right side of the road, but not the kind I was looking for.  However the strip south on the 95 was insanely beautiful – dense cactus thickets and crazy jagged mountains.  There is no rational reason for this theory, but I’m convinced that the most beautiful roads are always north south rather then east west.   Finally at Vidal Junction I turned and headed back on he long stretch of hwy 62 toward Joshua Tree.


Finally, about 70 miles out from 29 Palms, I sighted rock grafiti – and this time it was the kind I was looking for – though not the astounding and complex motherlode that I had remembered seeing (which I’m still convinced is out there). Five and half hours of driving on narrow desert roads is a long day and certainly not a “correct” way to use fuel – but this failure may still yet be an excuse for yet another weekend winter excursion.  (though if anyone reads this and knows what I’m talking about, please feel free to drop a hint or two about where this thing is at)


Marcus’s Poop


Among the new amenities currently underway at the Wagon Station encampment are composting toilets. Being total novices to the world of composting, we thought we’d start with simple toilets that use five gallon buckets to collect the poop, then composting it in an official composting area closer to the future vegetable garden. The toilet enclosures were actually a lot of fun to make – we started out with a minimal plan and a pile of wood, but turned out pretty stylish!


The composting bins were conceptualized by Ari (and built once by dry stacking) and then remade with mortar by David Baker.  Later on they will get a coat of white paint.  According to the Humaneur Handbook, the “compost” should age for a year before we use it – hence the two sided bins.  Cement block was used for the bins in order to keep out rodents (later lids will be added) and to keep moisture and humidity in.

Since all this happened in November, which is fairly late in the season, the only humanure guinea pig left living in the wash area was Marcus, our month long resident of the Magasin 3 Wagon Station.  By the time that Marcus traveled on he had left us a five-gallon bucket filled with pure goodness – stay posted for the results!



After Thanksgiving we decided to visit Garth.  Garth lives way up off of Gamma Gulch in Pipes Canyon.  Living year round in a small concrete teepee with no electricity and no phone – on a huge spread of amazing high desert land that has been meticulously landscaped, Garth has become a pretty famous character around these parts.


To meet or visit Garth you just drive the x-odd miles of dirt road out to his domain – since he doesn’t have a phone there isn’t any way to stick to usual formalities such as calling first or making an appointment. After a visit it is customary to leave something in the donation jar – which helps to subsidize his amazing undertaking.


It was a really cold afternoon when we got there and everything was going into shade.  We checked out the swimming pool and sauna that were built into the rocks.  The pool was covered with a thick layer of ice.  The sauna has a bed of brilliantly colored stones that you can lay in after they get hot.


We experimented with the pool of “meteor dust” and then we shared some of the solar oven stuffing with Garth in the outdoor kitchen.  Did I already mention that it was cold?   By mid afternoon the only warm spot was the teepee which is heated with a wood burning stove.  Emmett sang a ode to Garth and then Garth reciprocated by showing us his super far out and fabulous desert bling – which is mostly all custom designed by him.




This week we had a slew of visitors including Alberto the awesome curator who organized the exhibition of my work at Palazzo Pitti last June, Michael and Alyse some of my favorite  friends from LA, and Joachim Hamou another really great friend and collaborator of the film Gollywobbler (about the huge concrete floating island that I built in Scandinavia about twelve years ago)


While Joachim worked on a new film of his in Desert Hot Springs, Alberto, Michael, Alyse and I braved the 106 degree heat to visit Amboy (it gets far hotter in the dead of summer) – stopping at the salt trenches on our way there.


About a week ago I thought I saw that Amboy had come up for sale again on Zillow.  After getting super excited about the abandoned town with a population of 8 (all male)  possibly coming back on the market again I now can’t seem to find anything about it on the listings. Bummer!


My former photo professor and friend Walter Cotten introduced me to Amboy about 25 years ago, and I’ve been making the pilgrimage back ever since.  There are so many rumors associated with this place – from ones of a witches coven that used to occupy the church to another that might be true about the town not having any water (or the water being salty) which would explain why a Cafe, Motel, Post Office, Church etc were offered for sale on Ebay in 2005 and eventually sold to for $425,000 in cash.  In any case if anyone wants to buy or give me this town I promise to love turn it into the most amazing High Desert Test Site compound ever.


By the way – the shirt that Alyse is wearing in the photo below is a rectangle.  Completely unbeknownst to each other we both started sewing rectangular panel shirts this summer.  Hers is a lovely Japanese looking print with the selvedges still showing at the bottom – very stylish and smart in the summer heat!


Last Trip Post (swear)


For years I’ve scoffed at tent owners, preferring the canopy of starry skies at night.  But not having BLM maps for most of Arizona and New Mexico I realized that we would probably be staying in a lot of public campgrounds – and finally broke down and bought a really comfortable REI car camping tent.  Not as glamourous as a little high tech backpacking tent – but it is pretty darn nice to be able to stand up when you pull your pants on.

This was the best campsite of the trip – right on the edge of the waters of the Rio Chame, not too far from Georgia O’keefe’s hometown  of Abique.  The campground was 11 miles down a bumpy gravel road leading to a monastery – even on the even of Labor Day weekend there wasn’t another camper to be seen or heard.


The travel book described Taos as being capable of inducing spiritual enlightenment – however the town itself felt a bit touristy and homogenous.  However Michael’s Kitchen provided sustenance in the form of heavily spiced breakfast burritos and Ms. Quick-stop on the northern end of town managed to likewise revive the struggling Subaru with a radiator flush, oil change and new air filter.

The biggest regret of the trip was arriving at the Earthships 9 minutes too late for a self guided tour.  I’ve been wanting to visit these for years and discovered that there are a few that you can even book for overnight stays.  Later we found this one for sale on Zillow (hard to tour the country without the Zillow Ap on your iphone honed in on every possible purchase)


I heart Earthships.  They both bring out the hippy in me and make me want to make love to a sci-fi alien being.



My much yearned for camping trip through the southwest was a long time coming (years actually) – but last week it finally manifested itself a 2,000(+) mile journey that Thomas Stevenson and I took through the California Desert, Arizona and New Mexico.

Once-upon-a-time I used to go camping all the time – sleeping out on BLM land and exploring sketchy dirt roads that sometimes felt like little more then goat trails.  This trip however was more of a research expedition – targeted at checking  out further regions of the southwest – and finding greenery and cool temps in the August heat.


We got a late start on Monday afternoon and drove into the night to Gila Bend where there was a “space age” Best Western and giant desert creatures both past and present.