John Tanner has published a collection of poetry, Pieces, and his work has appeared
in various UK magazines, including Poetry Wales and Acumen. His study of the writer
Richard Brautigan, called Landscapes of Language, is based on his doctoral thesis, and
he has presented papers on Brautigan and the San Francisco Renaissance in Europe
and at the Cascadia Poetry Festival. He lives in North Wales, UK.
The headless palms of Desert Center
There used to be a chorus line of palms. A brief mirage of glamour along I-10. Then the palms were beheaded. So Desert Center's centerpiece is now a line of black stumps. They mark the site of an exodus; ditto the abandoned school and store, the unintended sculpture park of scrapyard machines.
Countless sights like these in the West—deserted truck-stops, cafes, trailers, shacks and motels. Sizeable towns abandoned. Rhyolite had a train station, a newspaper, a bank, saloons and diners. The gold mine closed and the town did too. Use it up and leave. Always another promise.
Pioneers set the tone. They left homes, families, friends and before the journey West was over, many had left almost everything else as well. In their wake, a trail of discards: clothes, tools, furniture, livestock, even the wagons they rode in.
Among the discarded items in the travelling season of '48 were these: a boy and his sister. Their parents had died, their oxen had died, they had no food. The boy had cholera, the girl was nursing him. Destitute orphans without transport, one of them sick and the other a girl, were a burden. The wagon train laid that burden down.
The revolution begins in Palm Springs
Walk from a bar in Palm Springs, looking down, checking the phone, and then look up: a couple of hundred yards ahead is a hunk of red-raw mountain. Wilderness at the end of the street. Only a dog-walk away.
Once I drove into Death Valley and the car engine died. In the minutes ahead of resurrection, the desert stopped being scenery, came creeping, knife between its teeth, to open the door.
Las Vegas gave the desert its due. The god Mojave was a jealous god, a vengeful, unforgiving god. That deserved respect. Casinos were named as offerings: Sands, the Mirage, the Desert Inn, the Dunes. Then came Bellagio, Paris, the Venetian, the Palazzo and the rest. Las Vegas no longer acknowledged the desert. Too much like looking at its own grave. "This is not an unreal city," says lofty Las Vegas. "It's the desert that's a mirage."
In Palm Springs, among the resorts, an acre of scrubland; I'd normally see an absence. Today it's a vivid, avenging presence ready to arise, reclaim. First it will make guerrilla raids on small businesses nearby—Bob's Pizza, for starters—and from that base it can over-run the Renaissance, the Hilton, the Hard Rock Hotel.
Soon the entire town will succumb; pretty palms shrivelling, sprinkler jets no longer hissing, hotel pools forever cracked and dry. The scrubland and the raw hunk of mountain will be one.
Phoenix will be next. Then hubristic Vegas. Even from this distance, the call of coyotes in the Hollywood Hills is clear.
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