This excerpt is taken from Caroline Butler’s forthcoming book “Scattered” about her travels around America.
Writing from dark and rainy London where the wind is shaking tender blossoms from the trees, I am so pleased I made the drive out to Rattler just days prior to leaving for Europe. The warmth stored that weekend in my bones will sustain me until I can get back once more. Nothing too tender, other than the welcome, survives out in the Joshua Tree desert of course. From Diane Best’s cabins you are only some fifteen minutes drive from Wonder Valley – so named, she explained, because you might think it’s a wonder anyone would or could live there (though the original homestead shacks are testimony that people do), but also because, when rare rain falls, the ground is suddenly sprung with verdant life, exuberant fecundity. As you behold the transformation with a now different sense of wonder you may find you have also recovered some long mislaid sense of potential. As I write now, in Spring, the flowers are there I know, but the first time I went to Rattler Ranch, one late June, mad dogs and English(wo)men were the only things out in the midday sun.
The drive from LA took us through breathless mountain scenery. When you’re almost there, the elegant corps de ballet of wind machines wave their arms in welcome. More stumpy in stature are the ancient tortoises who amble around the Rattler Ranch cabins – on the way out be sure to check your wheels in case they have sought shade beneath them. Diane and her dog Chief (a VIP, RIP) greeted us and we put our bags in the cool of the Mustang cabin. The three rooms were as neat and perfect as you could wish – done up with taste and sympathy and some great touches like signed pictures from The Lone Ranger, Lee van Cleef and Jane Russell hung with best wishes on the wall. As the sun began to set we stepped outside and drank in the panorama. Diane then gamely accompanied us for a real drink, up to Pioneer Town, built in the 1940’s by Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry, the actors, to serve as a living set for their cowboy movies. It narrowly avoided being destroyed by fire not long before our visit – charcoaled trees stood the other side of the road marking the lucky break. At the bar of legend, Pappy and Harriet’s, hairy old bikers bulging in their leathers and bandannas leant on fabulous chrome machines and carefully stubbed out cigarette butts in the sandy corral. We, meanwhile, drank beer and tequila and ate our dinner at the bar. Military boys milled around as the Marine Corps Training Centre is nearby in the Bullion Mountains. Either side of those lie two dry lakes, Deadman and Baghdad. Whether named for recent tours of duty was not disclosed. The house band went on break. We moved outside to gaze at Venus outshine the Moon. A girl stepped up to play. The place is renowned for great music and it drifted out now to reel us back in. Amy came from Memphis, in the state of Tennessee, she wore a ruffled dress quite some way above the knee. Her chestnut hair was tumblin’ long and her heels were mighty high yet her pretty face could barely kiss the neck of her “dog house” bass. Her skinny arms embraced it, just, while she sang up a storm, and between each tune she gave her band some good ol’ country sass.
And outside scorpions clicked their fingers and snakes rattled their tails. You’ve never seen so many stars.
Musicians and artists have long been drawn to the area and when you’ve admired Diane’s own work you should check out the galleries in town. On the way to Vegas, in Amboy, a dice-throw of buildings in a dustbowl where the 49 runs smack into the 28, we saw a train so long you couldn’t see the end of it, and on another visit, later in the year, we caught the night-time video projections of artist Helena Bongartz. She sits in her van, alone in the spooky night, to see if people will pull in and come look. They may not still be there by the time you go, but for sure something else will be around. There’s a desert myth that Charles Manson comes from out there but he was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and maybe hung out in Amboy, New Jersey, maybe not, but not here. People also say the folk out in the salt flats are cannibals but I sort of cleared that up too by reading the Soldier’s tale, “Jar Head” people like to scare themselves and would say the green glow from the chloride plant was the steam from cauldrons in which the bones of passing travellers were melted down for glue. Then again, who’s to say.
The next morning, after a sleep as still and silent as the land around us, Diane cooked us eggs for breakfast while fresh coffee brewed on the stove. A few minutes back up the road is the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. The Saloon standing on the corner was offering a $300 prize to the winner of the Saturday night bikini contest and an “open mic” on Tuesdays. Unfortunately our visit fell between both. Less profane were the strangely articulated trees, Christened, as surely you must know, by the Mormons who likened the upturned branches to the arms of the prophet Joshua pointing to the Promised Land. We drove around the loop road and saw maybe three other cars? It was akin to awe, the sensation we shared as we looked around. I felt my heart expand to accommodate the hugeness of it all, the horizon so limitless, the beauty and the scale – it gives succour to the soul. For our own Communion, we stopped by Skull Rock and dismounted. only to leap back aboard pronto-Tonto when we saw a wasps’ nest hanging nearby.
We exited the park at 29 Palms, where everywhere was shut for lunch, late as we were in setting off, as usual. I was beseeching the Innkeeper to take pity on a couple of hungry travellers, when Diane’s kimosabi Charlie, with whom we drank the night before, appeared out of the kitchen. She rubbed her hands on her apron.
“I’ll cook sumtin’ special up for those two!” she rasped.
They wouldn’t let us pay. We, the grateful fed, left a tip and embraced the chef. Back on the main road, we attempted to fill up the car but still hadn’t got the knack of twisting off the over-designed petrol cap. A burly lady emptying the trash on the forecourt did it for us with a crooked smile. There was beauty in everyone we met, everything we saw. Nobody here was going to boil our bones. And if they did, no glue would we give up – happy to the marrow as we were, they would have a pot of sunshine stew.
© 2008 Caroline Butler