Photos by Arina Bleiman
10/14 As has become a common theme, I'm delayed once more, which is what gives me the time to detail some of my adventures. I'm stranded in Dallas, TX, which is easily the cushiest kind of "stranded" I've experienced so far. We're at Stephen's father's house. It's beautiful, and we're about to grill a steak dinner for the second night in a row. It's nice to breathe and I know I should be taking advantage of the rest., but I'm incredibly nervous. With every delay I have to shift the schedule around again: looking at the calendar, we're in the final third of the route with about 19 days left. I've got a lot of flying ahead of me still.
Yesterday, I waited out some cloud cover, but by the time I was in the air it still wasn't broken enough. I couldn't climb above it without losing sight of the ground (not okay if you're flying a trike). After 40 minutes I landed at Dallas Air Park, a rundown field in Plano. We were still only 20 minutes from Stephen's dad's but in the opposite direction. I parked Eddy under an overhang and tied him down.
Anyway, let's backtrack to Los Angeles.
9/21: Los Angeles, CA - Indio, CA
We lost two days while in Los Angeles. We spent them plugged into our friend (and fellow trike pilot) Henry's power supply and parked in front of his house. The second day I discovered that the bearing of my front wheel was broken; we spent most of the day chasing down parts, finding a machine shop to drill out the old bearings, and hammering in the replacements. Looking back on it, the tenseness of that delay is one that still unnerves me. "Weird weather for this time of year" has been a recurrent phase.
Finally the clouds were high enough for me to sneak out. So on a cool, grey morning, 5 days after setting out from Lodi, I found myself above Los Angeles, looking down at rows of concrete through a palpable haze. I had 3 alternate airports selected in case conditions deteriorated, especially given the nature of Banning Pass: a place formidable to pilots. It can quickly turn into a giant wind tunnel, and I was anticipating heavy turbulence for the 20 minutes it would take me to fly through it.
Of course, high winds are nothing in comparison to the events of Cal's flight to Banning in 1911: his engine exploded there, spraying hot oil in his face and causing him to land immediately. That he got back in his machine after an experience like that is still incredible.
I was tense approaching the pass, rolling hills and small peaks beneath me. Incredibly, the winds were calm. I was shivering a little at 5,500' and was briefly misted by a rain cloud. I leaned my head out the side to let the wind blow dry my face shield. Out of 100 windmills, only one turned.
I descended after Palm Springs and landed smoothly at Bermuda Dunes. A golf cart full of grinning boys escorted me to a comically-oversized hangar. I got to meet Angel, who works for the airport and who had arranged my arrival. Everyone there was very genial and made me feel like a celebrity.
Again we were delayed, this time by sandstorms which filled our teeth if we opened our mouths at all. The winds ripped through the rows of hangars, van and trike parked inside one of them, clanging and rattling like a banshee in a dungeon. Stephen and I sprinted outside in time to see a Cessna actually taking off into the storm; the winds must have been at least 30 knots. The craft rose 1,000 feet before it was halfway down the runway, lights flickering through the mask of sand grain. I couldn't decide if he was very brave or reckless.
The winds died after the second day, which we spent regrouping, sitting in a cafe and shooting off emails, etc. The town is dead there (when it's not a festival weekend).
9/23 - Indio, CA - Imperial, CA (& Slab City, CA)
I had to validate with Arina that we did everything I thought we did, in one day, on 9/23. "Yep," she said.
I took off at sunrise with a 20 knot tailwind pushing me southeast. The valley was mellow in the early light; manicured golf courses rolled away under me. No clouds. I flew along the Salton Sea, described to me as reeking of dead Tilapia. Near the sea the land seemed suddenly desolate, scattered in a sandbox, everything the same shade of desert beige. I was tossed around a bit, the strong winds swirling around the mountains to the west and the air above the sea. At least I was making good time.
The turbulence smoothed perfectly as I flew over the green fields near Imperial and I landed well ahead of Stephen and Arina. I sat in the pilot lounge, dingy and grey, and drank coffee. A lot of these flights are made so early that by the time I have coffee it feels like I'm just waking up.
I fielded two press interviews and we drove to a small Mexican diner before driving on towards our destination for the day, Slab City. Bumbling along a dirt road, the van wobbling irritably, it emerged out of the haze of my early journey, the harried morning, the coffee still seeping in my blood.
The first thing was that we were most definitely in the desert. We drove through the hot, dry road, hand-painted signs pointing the way to the Hostel, where Balu, our guide, would be waiting for us. It was so dusty and burnt out that it was almost pure white, a wave of heat throbbing and baking us the moment we stepped out of the van.
Balu had just returned from a trip to Iceland. He emerged from a cluster of haphazard trailers, a painted school bus, scrap wood nailed together to form rooms; all of it sewn together with fabric, plastic, tarpaulin overhangs to block the sun. He shook my hand through a coil of razor wire that ran along the fence.
We started by pouring drinks and toasting, I forget to what. Balu would pour himself at least 5 more over the course of our 4 hour stay. We toured the hostel; a Pandora station was spitting out a charming blend of 1970s folk rock and funk. The place was wild, an amalgamation of trash and time. We sampled moonshine that had been brewed locally, it's only label either "strong" or "mild."
Balu showed us an RV that he had used while touring with a band, something that he has done extensively as an accomplished Vibemaster.
"How many bands have you produced?" I asked.
"I didn't say produced," he said. "I'm a Vibemaster.
"Oh," I said. We looked at each other. "What's a Vibemaster?"
"I keep it real man! Make sure everyone's getting along, having a good time."
I had never heard of this profession but decided that if I ever started a rock band, an amiable, portly hippie named Balu was probably an excellent investment. I grew to like the Vibemaster a great deal. He showed us the VW bus that had belonged to his mother: he'd painted it with rich primary colors, icons, and symbols. From the passenger-side, an Indian woman looked out from a veil under the glow of a sickle moon.
Wherever we went, Balu careened forward first like a bowling ball, clearing the way. We read from a gossip magazine in the middle of a trash site, where Balu said the waste management companies of Imperial dump illegally. He told me that eventually the sun would burn out all of the trash we saw, baking it into dust, the soil of Slab already a toxic, diseased thing anyway.
At one point, making a wrong turn, the van was chased by 2 dogs and Arina cautiously turned us around. "This guy likes to come out and take shots with his rifle, sometimes," Balu said nonchalantly. I was about 2 seconds from screaming "DRIVE, ARINA! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STEP ON IT!!!" Flash-forwards of my child's future danced wildly: "Well sweety, your father died of buckshot wounds from a crazed desert hobo. It was a very unfortunate thing, but he loved you very much, even then."
We swayed through the library of Slab, shelves that had survived the fallout stood in the desert, proudly offering their titles. A thin woman with a boy-cut was conversing with Balu about where to build her shelter. She'd arrived a few days earlier and had decided to live there. I wondered why. Balu would tell me later that he thought she was lying. "Sometimes people say they're staying because it makes them feel "in" with the Slabbers," he told me.
There was a time in my life when I considered everywhere I went as somewhere I might live. In that time I might have considered Slab in the way the woman with the boy-cut was. To try something new, entice a new way of living, a place to seek happiness. Thinking about this, I understood that I was no longer seeking. I had a tribe already, a place I belonged to. That place, bizarre and inexplicable, was hundreds of miles away already, in Sacramento, California.
Not to say that I didn't stay open to the wildness and oddity that was Slab City. Even now, I can't seem to put my finger on it. It was dangerous: an odd mixture of artists, seekers, wanderers. We met a Portuguese, ex-US soldier who looked and swayed like a pirate. He yelled a greeting from the fence in front of his shack and invited us in; he'd washed up there a year ago in his trailer and built his home around it. Handwritten signs littered the yard, some extolling the virtue of obedience in slaves; one said "You say you support The Constitution? I say f&*% The Constitution / Y'all support the Institution!"
A crib sat empty in his front yard, and Balu asked where the baby had gone. I asked who that was and was told it was a real baby who The Pirate had been caring for a couple of months. "People around here know The Baby," said Balu. "They feed it and sh%$ if they see it wandering around." I still don't know if he was joking; some mornings I wake up and wonder if I should call CPS just in case.
The evening ended in East Jesus, an art commune right next door to West Satan, a neighbor they've purportedly had shooting matches with. East Jesus stretched out in front of me, a garden of reclaimed art rising up from the trash and heat of the desert: manakins thrust through the roof of a Cadillac, a VW bus with iconography superglued all over it -- mostly rows of whippets. "Charlie loved his whippets," Balu said, referencing the eccentric and deceased founder of East Jesus, whose curvy nude photo rested atop the baby grand piano I would later play.
I sat with Balu and looked at a wall of TV sets, their screens smashed through and replaced with white slates and red letters: "YOU'RE TOO THIN" "BLAH" "I WAS YOUTUBE" "BE LIKE TV" "FREE THOUGHT * ONLY $89.99"
A little toddler named Nou Nou was wandering around and handed Arina a card: one side with the number 2 on it, the other side 3. "That's weird," I said, "23 is my lucky number." Balu looked at me. "That was Charlie's number." It was also September 23. 23 is also Stephen's and Tyler's lucky number (my girlfriend), one that oddly pops up in our relationship often. I'm not a numerologist, but something about Balu sitting next to me, quiet like The Ghost of Christmas Future, and stumbling on the number 23 ... I felt comforted. I've come to associate, in some pseudo-OCD way, seeing the number 23 as an omen of good progress. Finding it here made me feel, in an important moment, that I was on the right path.
The trip still felt impossible; I couldn't grasp at it's realness. This would all end soon. It was insane that I'd even come this far. It was as unreal and impossible as the day I'd gotten my pilot license.
I left Slab City in the same way I had entered it: not knowing quite what to make of it. A mirage in the desert, a haven for creativity, a hideaway for ex-cons and addicts, or people who just want to be left alone.
A disturbing darkness there also. A woman passing through on a road trip, mechanical camera in tow, badgered Balu with questions about a murder/rape that had happened there. According to Balu, a woman had been flirting with a man who was spoken for; he and his girlfriend took the woman outside, raped her together, and carved an anarchy A in her chest with a knife. They left her there to die; someone found her crawling in a ditch and she was airlifted out in time to save her.
"But don't quote me, I wasn't there." To be fair to Balu, I'm paraphrasing.
Thinking of something this grisly amidst the quiet, fleeting oasis of Slab seemed odd, impossible. It was like wildness itself: beautiful but liable to shift, become unfriendly. Full of potential and demanding of respect. A place you might go at a suggestion from a friend: "hey man, you want to meet some really freaky people?" Vagabonds from all over flowing through it, to experience, to be free, to wander in the desert like Jesus. I'd been one of them for a day.
I left that wilderness and planned my next flight, falling asleep in the pop up roof of the camper van and hoping to be in Arizona the next day.