Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Prison Mentality

Here's the good news first.

While I'm in San Diego, I give a phone interview to a reporter for the San Diego Tribune, and she writes a nice article about Ride Between the Stars. Invigorated, I take off for my next star, Portland, Maine, ride up and over the Pacific Crest, coast down the other side to the flat lands. Cycling is easy in the desert, especially when the wind is at my back. The sky reminds me of a porcelain dome and varying shades of brown sketch the landscape. Border Patrol vehicles, with their white and green paint jobs, whisk past every so often. To my right, about a mile away, a metal wall runs along the border for a few miles. The wall, which apparently exists to keep undocumented workers from crossing into populated areas, peters out on a remote hillside. A well-traveled path winds down the hill on the American side. A border patrol officer in a jeep watches the path, and I cycle past with a wave of the hand.

I need to layover for a few months—winter is coming—and I decide on Slab City. It's an easy ride and I arrive two days later. A few miles from the Salton Sea, Slab City isn't really a city. Nor is it a town, not in the cohesive sense of the word. There is no local government, no utilities, no upkeep of the roads, no local law enforcement. I hesitate to even call Slab City a community, though communities do exist within the chaos.
Salvation Mountain in the background

Slab City, known to its inhabitants as the Slabs, once supported a military base. Most of the structures are long gone, but their bases, concrete slabs of varying dimensions, remain in the desert. I cycle over severely degraded roads, ride past beat-up trailers. Garbage lies everywhere and the squalor reminds me of the poverty-stricken areas in the southern Appalachians. Dogs run free, but to my relief none of them chase me. I pass several compounds where high-dollar Rvs gleam in the desert sunlight, come up on a man squatting next to a mesquite bush. His eyes are glazed over and a vodka bottle lies next to his foot. I drift to the other side of the road and continue on, hear shouting to my right. The voices sound angry and feet pound in my direction. Carrying a machete, a woman runs across the road, slows and walks toward a shack. Her hair is in dreads and she wears threadbare clothes. Sheathed knives dangle from the rope belt around her waist. She ducks into the shack and drapes a blanket over the opening. The shouts continue and more voices join the irate chorus. I do not know if there is a connection between the shouters and the woman; no, let me correct that. I don't want to know if there is a connection.
It gets windy in the desert

I turn and cycle back down the road. The Slabs have a Wild West feel, where people take care of their own issues, sometimes violently, and I do not feel good about staying here. The danger is palpable and my intuition screams for me to leave. Against my better judgment, I decide to give the place a chance and head for the hot spring.

 A dirt bank rims three-quarters of the spring, and on the outlet side someone has installed a handrail and plank for easy access. The water is the color of mud. Fully clothed, with a balaclava over her ink-black hair, a woman sinks to her chin and gazes up at me. The air temperature is well over 80 degrees, and I do not understand why she wears the balaclava, am not about to ask. We talk for a bit and I discover she's an Indian. She tells me all about how she came from LA for the winter, on a personal quest to purify herself.

 “I drink this water,” says Sherry Rose. “And I put the mud on my skin. Green mud is best. It's over there if you want to try it.”

She's an older woman, with the wrinkles to show for it, and her black eyes seem wise and kind. Maybe the Slabs isn't such a bad place after all. I just got here and I've met someone who can teach me about life.

 A naked man steps down into the muddy water, soap and washcloth in hand.

 “I'm a genius at microbes,” Sherry Rose says. “And this water is full of them.”

I glance at the man, who at that moment is scrubbing himself where the sun doesn't shine. She drinks this water? I want to throw up, smile at her instead. Maybe she boils the water before she drinks.

“Nope,” she says. “I drink it while it's pure.”

I look for insanity in her gaze, anything, a fleeting shadow, a gnarly scream wanting to get out, something, anything that would explain why she'd subject herself to that kind of nastiness. Dressed in a shirt and shorts, I wade into the water, up to my chin, close my eyes to the soothing warmth. I slip on the mud and slide deeper in an instant, go underwater and come back up with my lips squeezed shut. Crap, I'll probably get sick from this experience.

“I have worms in my head.” Sherry Rose breaststrokes to the deep end. “They screw up my brain and that's why I'm here. If I soak long enough, the mineral water will draw them out of my skull.”

“That's crazy,” I say.

 Her gentle eyes blink. When they open, they carry a blaze that makes me sorry for speaking my mind.

“No, no,” I say, “I'm not saying you're crazy. Having to go through all that . . . must be a crazy time for you. Weird, you know?”

She blinks and the gentleness returns. Back in the shallow end, she cups her hand and peers at her palm. She speaks with mystery in her voice. “I've seen them twice before. I've held them in my hand and watched them squirm around.”

Sherry Rose studies her hand with an expression that says the worms are currently squirming, and I back away and exit the water. She gets out and follows me to my bike.

 “There's a tree out close to where I live.” She gestures vaguely toward the desert. “It has shade. . . . You're welcome to move in, if you want.”

I fiddle with a bungee cord, glance at her now and then. I've never knowingly lived next to crazy, suspect she's the harmless kind as long as I agree with her. I shrug and follow her down a canal road and she points out the tree. The tree, rare for these parts, is large enough to provide some shade. The ground is strewn with bottles and cans and plastic, textbooks and various household items. Forty feet away sits the burned skeleton of a trailer. Farther down is another trailer. It's empty because its owner is currently in prison on meth charges.

Sherry Rose invites me to her camp and I follow her to a clump of trees next to the road. She introduces me to a black-haired boy who lives in another clump. Tray's young—maybe fourteen or fifteen—no doubt a runaway. I don't ask questions.

 A man lives in a compound on the other side of Tray, and Sherry Rose says the man has two mules, two geese, a wolf, and solar power. He's been living out here for a long time and lays claim to the clumps of trees along the canal, which means you have to work for him if you live in them. Tray and Sherry Rose gather firewood, dig the occasional hole. The man is a squatter, an ex-con with a prison mentality, and he is not someone I have a desire to get to know.

“That tree you showed me,” I say. “Does he consider that his?”

Sherry Rose looks perplexed, says he might. She starts a fire in her fire pit and warms up a pot of beans. The sun is almost down, shadows long and thin. The air is cooling; her sleeping pad is a sheet of cardboard. She has two blankets, one to cover with and one to use as a pillow. Without a doubt, she sleeps cold and can't wait for the morning sun to warm the desert.
Bloody sunrise

I turn down an offer of beans and push my bike through the trees to the road. Then I ride up and down the canal until dark, trying to decide where to camp. When it's almost too dark to see, I push my bike deep into the desert. I do not turn on my headlamp, do not make a fire. I want no one to know I'm out here, and that includes the ex-con with the geese and the mules.