The Bones of a Country: One Night in a Dead California Desert Town

The Bones of a Country: One Night in a Dead California Desert Town

Driving the 220 miles of road that lie between the Tehachapi mountains and the California-Arizona border, I started hearing the voice of Tom Joad ring in my ears. This here’s a murder country, he said to me. This here’s the bones of a country. Bones that have been picked dry and bleached white by a Mojave sun that sits so close you can just about smell it. I’ve been told there’s a diverse and abundant eco-system out here, but if there is, I’m just going to have to take their word for it because it all just looked like death to me. With the exception of the odd cactus here or Joshua Tree there, the only life I could see from the road was the thousands upon thousands of scrub brush that dot the hot cracked earth like mange on a dog’s haunches. Passing by small towns like Newberry Springs and Hinkley, I started coming across these odd, manicured plots of grass and the like that came in the shapes of building blocks and looked dry enough to use for kindling. It seemed as if, despite all the wonders of modern agriculture, the barren earth was still rejecting the foreign flora like a transplanted liver in a donor’s body. Grass was not meant for the Mojave. But then again, neither was I.

As the sun crept beneath the tail of the Sierra Nevadas and the sky began to orange on the horizon, I started looking for a suitable place to stay the night. Being on a major interstate highway, I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to find a motel, but I figured wrong. After going past Barstow, it was as if the desert had opened up and swallowed whole all trace of humanity from the landscape. For what seemed an eternity I drove on into the darkness, looking for somewhere in this dusty and miserable landscape to lay my head and found nothing. At around half past nine I reached the town of Needles on the California-Arizona border, where I finally caught sight of some of the iridescent beacons of commerce that we tend to take for granted on most motorways. I turned off at the town’s last exit and pulled into a Motel 6 that sat on the right hip of the highway, overlooking a Denny’s and the usual coterie of western off-ramp attractions. After paying the front desk attendant the $39.99 plus tax I owed her for a night’s stay, I walked over to the familiar environs of a room I’d never entered before and plopped my bags on top of the technicolor art deco bedspread that Motel 6 uses in all of their thousands of carbon copied rooms. The bedside light was out, the TV was so old it had a built-in VCR player and the shower had enough water pressure to strip the paint off a fire hydrant, but it was clean, climate-controlled and under $40 so I wasn’t all that bothered.

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The remains of the Overland Motel on Route 66 just outside of Needles, CA

Once I had everything settled in the room, I stepped out into the cool, 90° night air and decided to walk down to the 76 station on the other side of the highway overpass to cobble together another in a series of makeshift mini-mart dinners. I hadn’t been walking more than a minute when I saw a woman crossing the road in front of me. Her head was down and her arms were pulled tight against her stomach while she held onto an old flip-phone, furiously mashing her thumbs against the keys and paying little attention to where she was going. When she reached the sidewalk on my side of the street, she finally looked up and, after putting her phone back in her purse, began to walk purposefully towards me. She had stepped out from underneath the glare of the nearest street light by the time I was close enough to get a good look at her, but I could tell by the stillness of her head where her focus was. She wanted something. What I didn’t know is what that something was. As it turns out, it was my phone.

“It would only be for a second.” she told me in a throaty, chain smoker’s rasp. “I just need to call roadside assistance and get them to send someone out after me.”

The woman then proceeded to tell me that her name was Deborah and that her car had broken down earlier in the day when she was on her way to meet some of her girlfriends at Havasu Landing, a small resort & casino run by the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe on the California side of the Colorado River. Normally she would have just called the folks at Kia roadside assistance to send someone out to pick her up and tow the car, but Deborah had forgotten to charge her phone the night before and it was out of juice. After sitting on the side of the road for about 3 hours waiting for someone to pull over and give her a lift back to Needles, a state trooper finally saw her and drove her back to town, leaving her busted automobile all by its lonesome 15 or so miles down CA Route 95. I couldn’t say no to that kind of story, especially when it was delivered in the middle of the Mojave Desert, so I gave the woman my phone and sat down on the squat concrete retaining wall that ran along the edge of the Denny’s parking lot.

Back underneath the flood lights of civilization, I was able to see Deborah clearly for the first time. There was no doubt that she had been attractive once. When that once was I couldn’t say, but she seemed like one of those people who had been blessed with the sort of youthful beauty that its owner comes to take for granted and inevitably ruins by living harder than that beauty would allow. Everything about her appearance, from her freshly dyed red hair and silver nose stud to the Ed Hardy handbag she had slung over her shoulder, was there in an attempt to manufacture something that could never come back. I never asked Deborah if she had a husband or a partner or children nearby because I didn’t have to. The observable absences in her life told me more that she likely would have been comfortable sharing with a stranger. There was the absence of ornament on her left ring finger; the absence of a phone call to family to let them know she was alright or to ask for help; and the absence of any responsibilities on a Tuesday evening in July beyond hitting the slots at the local casino.

After about a half hour on the phone, Deborah was able to convince the customer service rep that she did in fact own the car she said she did and that said car had come with a warranty that covered the cost of sending a tow truck out to transport both the car and its owner to wherever they needed to be. Of course, the only tow truck available at the time was in Lake Havasu City, 45 miles and just as many minutes away from the parking lot in which we were standing. At the rate things were going, there was a definite chance that we could be waiting past midnight for the tow truck to arrive, so I walked up to the Motel 6 vending machine and bought a pair of lukewarm sodas to help keep us awake in the interim. When I got back down to the Denny’s parking lot, Deborah had hung up the phone and was sitting on the curb of the sidewalk with her knees balled up against her chest. I sat down next to her and handed her a coke in exchange for my phone.

“Thanks for staying out here with me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I told her as I pulled out and a lit cigarette in the dead night air. “What the hell else am I going to do around here? Everything’s closed.”

“You mind if I bum one of those?” Debrorah asked, pointing at the pack of Pall Malls in my lap. I handed her one without saying anything, which she lit with a little BIC she had attached to her keychain.

“Thanks,” she said as she blew a blue-gray stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth farthest away from me. “I needed that. But, seriously—this town gets scary at night. I’m telling you, they should call the place ‘Hypodermics’ instead of just Needles, there are so many junkies around this place. Just wait til night comes around…2, 3 in the morning they all just come crawling out like a bunch of zombies.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously, it gets bad. Sometimes it feels like Night of the Living Dead out here.”

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The Motel 6 and Denny’s in scenic Needles, CA

“So, I suppose the cops around here keep busy most of the time.”

“Needles doesn’t have any cops!” Deborah screamed, waving her non-smoking hand in an arc over the horizon. “They use the San Bernadino Sheriff’s Department for most of the problems, but then you’ve also got the highway patrol and tribal police coming by and taking people in every now and then.”

“Tribal police?”

“Yeah, tribal police. There’s a big Indian reservation over by Lake Havasu and they’ve got their own police force. It’s a giant fucking mess, but they’re busy out here, that’s for sure.”

“Sounds lovely.” I said as I stubbed out my cigarette and got up to throw it away in the nearest trash can. “If you don’t mind me asking, why do you live in Needles if it’s so god awful?

“I don’t know…I really need to get the hell out of here. I was only supposed to be here for a couple of months anyways and all of the sudden I’ve been living here two years.”

“What happened?”

“Well, it all started back in ’07 when I hurt my back. I was in this liquor store that my friend owns up in Yorba Linda—that’s where I’m from originally—and she had just mopped or something, so the floor was real slick. I start to walk over to her and the next thing I know, BAM!” she said, smacking the sidewalk by her side. “I’m on the floor screaming bloody murder with two fractured vertebrae.”

“God…”

“I had to quit my job because of it. The pain was…I can’t even describe it. Imagine having somebody stab you in the spine over and over again for six months and you’ll be on the right track.”

I nodded and told her that I had a pretty good idea of the sort of pain she was talking about, even though we both knew I didn’t have a clue.

“Did you take any painkillers?”

“Did I?” she cackled. “God, I gobbled down painkillers like they were tic tacs. I never had a problem or anything. I mean, I’m not a junky. But there was a period for a couple years there when I was popping 7 or 8 Vicodin a day, every day. I’d still be taking ‘em right now if my doctor hadn’t stopped prescribing them to me. She said something about all the Tylenol in the pills eating up my liver and wouldn’t give me any more. That was…god, a year and a half ago. I’m still in pain all the time, but it comes and goes. I go through one of those big 200-count bottles of Advil every couple of weeks.”

“Christ, that sounds just as bad for your liver as all the acetaminophen in the Vicodin you were taking.”

“I don’t know.” Deborah told me as she shook her head and rummaged through her purse to show me her personal stash of ibuprofen. “This guy at the CVS told me the main medicine in Advil was different than the main medicine in Tylenol. So I figured I’d just switch ‘em up to give my insides a break. The guy also told me I shouldn’t drink when I took the Advil and I was like, ‘woah, buddy—hold the fucking phone’, you know?”

I didn’t really know what to say to that, so I didn’t say anything. After an extended pause, I asked her she’d been able to get Social Security Disability after her accident.

“The whole system’s a joke. I just started getting my Social Security payments in January and I started applying for the damn things back in ’08. I lost my house applying for Social Security.”

“How’d you lose your house?”

“Well, I didn’t lose the house, but I might as well have.” she said as she flicked her extinguished cigarette butt into the street. “I was going through all of this shit right when the housing market decided to crash so pretty soon I was eating through all my savings and the only way I could get any money was to sell the house. Only problem was no one wanted to buy the house and, even if someone did, they’d only be giving me half of what I paid for the damn thing. I ended up leaving Yorba Linda before I’d even sold it.”

“Where did you go from there?”

“I moved in with my parents once I finally ran out of money. I guess that would have been the summer of ’09. I finally sold the house about six months later, but I gave it up for pennies on the dollar. That’s when I moved to Havasu and got the shitty little apartment I have now.”

There was another long silence, which was broken by the sound of an 18 wheeler’s brakes screeching as it pulled off the highway and drove past. It was about then that my phone rang with the tow truck driver calling to say he was about 15 minutes away and asking where we were. I told him to just drive to the Denny’s parking lot right off the exit and we’d be waiting.

“Pretty soon I’m going to get the hell out of this place.” Deborah said after I’d gotten off the phone. “Move up to Bullhead City. It’s a lot nicer up there, you know. It’s an actual city, unlike this godforsaken place. They’ve got a big outlet mall up there that I always go to with my girlfriends and they’ve got an Outback and a big movie theater. It’s nice.”

“Sounds nice.”

“It’s just that it gets so boring out here, you know? I don’t really know many people out here and I don’t drink like an alcoholic, so all there is to do is just go to the casino and gamble.”

“Well, have you ever thought about picking up a new hobby or something?”

Deborah paused for a moment. “What do I need to pick up a hobby for? Gambling is my hobby.” 

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