Monday, October 16, 2017
To look at, Joshua Tree is a perfectly picturesque desert expanse. As far as the eye can see, cacti and twisted Joshua trees litter the dusty ground, which, when one imagines it, is teeming dangerously with scorpions, rattlesnakes, venomous spiders and all sorts of slithering lizards. But it isn't really. Sure, we saw the occasional lizard, a bee or a beetle here or there, but nothing especially harmful. We ate and drank and smoked all the harmful things; beer, liquor, psilocybin mushrooms, pot, and festival-stand chicken tikka masala (which, it turns out, was an explosive hit in the portapotties).
From the path where I arrived, I could see tents strewn about the camp grounds like colorful anthills. In some places there were RV's, retro-fitted buses, Volkswagon camper vans and an assortment of other hippie homes lightly sprinkled with desert sand. As you could imagine, the sky was cloudless, and so the morning was fiercely hot, and getting hotter. As I trudged along on foot, not knowing where the path would take me, or how long it would be before I found my friends, I stumbled directly into our campsite. Paul, the tall, bearded, RV ringleader of our circus clan, gave me a haggard smile and a hug. Everyone was just waking. Because of a flight delay and an earlier-than-expected gate closure, I missed the party the night before and instead slept soundly at a Motel 6 nearby the Palm Springs airport. If camping in the desert teaches one lesson, it is that precious little time exists in the space between sunrise and sweltering sleeplessness, for few things are as unforgiving as the desert sun. Though the music generally started at or around noon, most campers hid in the shade sipping on beer for the larger portion of the day, just to wait out the heat. Now there were some intrepid souls who showed up for morning yoga and guided meditations at 7:00am, but none in our group.
The entire three days were to be devoted to psychedelic rock music and the continued pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. To aid in this search, located somewhere on the festival grounds was a magnetic field generator that was said to guarantee good vibes for all. I had read about the purported benefits of magnetic field exposure, how these waves are believed to align the chakras and re-balance the body's energy, and I have to say, it really did feel as though you were part of a positive vibration.
Not everyone had such a blissfully meditative, mind-opening experience, though. An outsider, brought into the group by a strange twist of fate, couldn't shake the dark cloud which hung over him. He was a bit younger than us, from Texas, maybe in his early twenties. I first noticed him as he lingered for a long while around my periphery before sitting down in the chair beside me. Alex was his name. He was of medium to average build, wore a short, shaggy haircut, and had generally round features and sparse facial hair. His eyes had a dejected, broken look about them, and his energy was all wrong; angry, jilted, apart instead of a part of something. Do you want to me leave, he asked me after some silence. In truth, I did. I didn't at all enjoy his company. But it was clear he was having a bad time, so I couldn't say that to him - even though he might have sensed how I was feeling. No, you're fine, I said. Were you guys talking about me, he asked. No Alex, I didn't know you existed until just now. I think I got dosed...twice. Oh yeah? Yeah, it was bad. Well, that sucks. Have some water, sit in the shade. I was in the portapottie before, and I couldn't find my urethra. Yeah, it happens, I told him, sometimes it just slips out like the ink cartridge in a pen. Then I tried to shit, and I couldn't. Have you tried the chicken tika masala from the Indian food stand, it works wonders. All my friends trashed my campsite. Jeez, Alex, you're a downer aren't you? Can you tell us about something nice that happened to you this trip? Well, I just shit. Like, right now? Damn, maybe you should go take a spirit hike or something, find your spirit animal, air out. He smiled vacantly and then stood up to walk away, dung spilling out of his shorts in small soggy clumps as he trudged off and disappeared into a dense brush of cacti. We heard them snapping and crunching as he went.
On the last day, half of our campmates had left in the early afternoon to get back home, so we stole out into the midst of the music. We were going to see The Allah Lah's, and we were eating a bag of mushrooms like it was trailmix. By midday we'd easily consumed our weight in beer, and we were smoking like chimneys - so much so that our only vape pen would later die of battery failure before nightfall. We made our way through the crowds with a Scottish couple we'd befriended at the bazaar, and took our place for the show beside a bunch of well-costumed people. One girl, tall and blond and wearing brilliantly shiny sunglasses and flared bell bottoms, was joined by her friend who held, at the end of a long stick which he thrusted again and again into the air, what appeared to be a paper mache palm tree wrapped in glow sticks. The entire crowd danced and swayed and boogied, kicking up little puffs of dust in tribute to the psychy, surfy tunes.
We got higher.
The sun had set and a pleasant breeze blew over us sweaty concert goers. We got cooler. Overhead you could see stars. After hopping from stage to stage, listening to music that seemed to get better and better, we arrived at the stage Spiritualized was to play. We got exciteder. In the center of the stage was a giant screen which had projected onto it images of the ocean. A desert oasis. Jason Pierce appeared and was met with a more than encouraging applause. He began strumming the guitar, creating a shimmering sonic texture which he had absolute control over. Never before had I seen an artist so expertly manipulate sound, and with such precision. Music flowed out into the open air and each note give birth to an ever deepening dimension of sound until the audience was awash in it. During a beautiful rendition of the song "Stay With Me," one of our friends, A., was so entranced, he fell onto the ground and found Jesus. He got spiritualized!
Early this morning, as we cleaned up camp before the sun made our work unbearable, someone realized we hadn't seen Alex since he took off on the Hershey highway the night before. What if he's dead? Has anyone checked his tent? I lent him the tent, and all his stuff is in it. But he isn't? No. We continued getting things together while maintaining a hopeful indifference he may return. Breaking down my tent was an altogether unpleasant experience. Countless barbs of cactus needles had imbedded themselves into the fabric of the tent, and as I rolled it up to pack it away, I got stabbed and poked repeatedly in my fingers and in the fleshy part of my palms until suddenly I heard a rustling from behind the cacti beside me. I looked up and Alex appeared. He was naked, wearing a bone necklace and was covered in odd, brown markings which gave him the jarring appearance of a wild Native American from a cowboy movie. But what caught my attention was his scrotum. It was swollen and full of cactus needles. If I hadn't known any better, I would have sworn he had a hedgehog in a leglock. I watched him as he followed my gaze to his fleshy, purple pincushion.
I found my spirit animal he said, triumphantly. It's the porcupine.