The Road to Hell

CA06

In 1987, California’s Coachella Valley was a vast, empty space dotted with a few luxury golf courses and resorts. Gleaming white temples to the gods of golf. I worked at one of these meticulously manicured monoliths. It had a boat that took people on tours of the grounds. I’d driven out to California alone with the two thousand dollars that I’d saved up from serving cocktails at a fancy restaurant in northern Michigan. I’d doctored up my birth certificate to say that I was twenty-three rather than nineteen. I was a good worker and kept a low profile. No one was suspicious.

J.D. was a bouncer at the resort’s night club. I needed a roommate and he needed a new place, so someone put us in touch. J.D. was from a small city on the Gulf Coast of Texas. He was tall, gaunt, and leathery. A walking piece of beef jerky. It took him five minutes to move his stuff in. His bed was a sleeping bag on the floor. I thought it was a little pathetic that a guy in his early thirties didn’t have a car or even a bed. I’d just turned nineteen, but I was doing so much better than he was.

J.D. thought it was auspicious that we both had the same initials. I was impressed that a guy who could barely read had such a rich verbal vocabulary. On our days off, he showed me the real desert: retro golf courses where the local desert rats hung out and the valley lookout on Highway 74. He took me hiking in the Indian canyons in Palm Springs and the San Andreas fault in Thousand Palms. While we hiked, J.D. would tell me about his girlfriend problems. I’d never met his lady. I knew her as the voice that shrieked at him out of the phone. “Tell me how to understand women,” he’d say. “You ain’t like the others.” This last statement was exactly why I couldn’t help him. I’d been shunned by my own kind for so long that their ways were as inscrutable to me as they were to him. I felt comfortable and safe in the company of men.

CA01

One time, I drove my 1965 Dodge Custom 880 as far as it could go up a washed out road off of Dillon Road. We hopped out and hiked further up the canyon. We scaled the canyon wall until we could go no further. High enough to make my head spin. We sat with our backs against a ledge and watched in silence as two eagles circled in unison overhead.

CA02

After a couple of months, I told J.D. to get lost. Once again, he hadn’t paid me money that he’d owed me for bills. I continued my desert wanderings alone. In my Philosophy class at College of the Desert, I discovered the works of Carlos Castaneda. The desert took on a whole other dimension. It was desolation and distance and freedom and magic. An empty canvas upon which to paint my future. It was so different from the lush green forests of Michigan, from which I had recently escaped. Now that I was free, I was restless for my life to begin. I ran my finger along the map and chose roads that I hadn’t yet driven. Faint gray lines that passed through places with intriguing names like Sky Valley, Ocotillo Wells, Mecca, and Salton Sea. These towns consisted of a few wind-scoured trailers by the side of the road. I didn’t slow down as I passed them by, windows rolled down, sand and the campfire smell of creosote blowing through the car on the furnace-like wind.

I can’t remember exactly how J.D. and I started hanging out again. We probably ran into each other somewhere and I decided to forgive him again. I missed his JDisms and his redneck ways. We picked up right where we left off.

Our excursions always began or ended with a big meal somewhere. The novelty of having enough money to eat whatever I wanted hadn’t worn off. J.D. invited his friend Greg to meet us for breakfast. Greg was a farm boy from Arkansas. Not long after that, I met Greg’s cousin, Duane. “This is the girl I told you about who ate two breakfasts,” is how Greg introduced me.

One night, Greg, Duane, J.D. and I piled into Greg’s 4WD. Greg had heard that the washed out road off of Dillon Road went all the way up to Joshua Tree. He wanted to see if it was true. We quickly passed the place where I had parked my old land yacht over a year earlier. The canyon walls constricted around the truck. The music on the radio was swallowed up by static.

Greg turned right down a side canyon. A few minutes later, the headlights revealed a sheer rock wall and dozens of barrels lined up at the base. They were slightly rusted, but the lids were still on them. A chorus of, “What the hell? Jesus! Holy shit! Let’s hightail it outta here!” Greg backed up to the main canyon, took a few deep breaths, and then continued towards Joshua Tree.

For a long time, maybe half an hour, none of us said a word. The road turned into jagged rock. The truck bounced. The headlights skittered across the canyon walls. We couldn’t turn back now even if we tried. Duane’s voice pierced the tense silence. “This here’s the road to hell!” His accent made hell sound like hail.

Suddenly, I felt a giggle begin to rise up. The situation was like something out of a slasher film. The claustrophobic canyon and sinister barrels. Greg and Duane’s blonde Q-tip heads sticking up over their seat backs. Their shrill, redneck proclamations. It was all so ridiculous. I turned to J.D. and mouthed, “Watch this.” I put my finger to my lips, and then took a deep breath and let out the deepest scream of my life.

Greg and Duane turned around, eyes bugged out, faces white, hair standing up.

“Go! Oh my God! Go!” I clamped my lips over my laughter. J.D. shook his head at me. He leaned over and whispered, “I’m not even sure you’re joking.”

Greg stepped on the gas. Hands gripping the wheel, eyes focused ahead. When we came to another narrow passage, he slowed down.

“It’s the road to hell!” Duane screeched once more.

Finally, the canyon walls fell away. Joshua Tree shadows appeared in the darkness. Stooped over and menacing like ancient guardians. Their gnarled arms seemed to reach towards the truck. The tension slowly dissipated, but we were all too exhausted to speak. By the time we got home, it was daybreak.

I never did tell Greg and Duane that I was joking.

Very soon after this, I moved to San Diego. When J.D. asked me why I wanted to leave, I couldn’t give him a clear answer. I couldn’t put into words the gnawing restlessness that had overwhelmed me. I just needed to go somewhere, anywhere new.

In April 1993, I moved back to the Coachella Valley. By then, I’d discovered that there were indeed malevolent forces haunting the world and they were mostly in human form. Once again, I moved to the desert from Michigan, where I’d been convalescing for a winter after a nervous breakdown. Trying to repair the gaping holes in my spirit. I didn’t particularly want to live, but I knew that I had to, so I was trying to make the best of it. It was time to start over.

J.D. invited me to stay with him and his roommate, Butch. After I was settled in, the three of us would look for a house to share. He put in a good word for me at a nice restaurant. “We’ll get you all squared away,” he said as he gave me a warm hug. “Welcome back.”

J.D. was no longer friends with Greg and Duane. When I asked him why, all he said was that they had “crossed the line”.

I came home from work one day to find J.D. pacing around the apartment, pale and shaky. “Julie, you won’t believe what Butch and I saw today. Remember the Road to Hell? Well, we were shooting off our guns near there and…”

I sat down and let him speak.

On their outing, they’d discovered some small sandstone caves. Inside the caves were two Dalmations that appeared to have been ritually sacrificed. Their legs were stretched out in front of them and tied together. Their bellies had been slit open. He shook his head over and over. “I ain’t never seen anything like that before.”

I accused him of joking and trying to get back at me for my Road to Hell hijinks of yesteryear. “Okay, then. Take me there,” I said.

He shook his head. He had to think about it.

A couple of days later, Butch, J.D., their friend Ligia, and I piled in Butch’s 4WD. J.D. and Butch took their loaded rifles. Ligia brought her expensive camera. I brought the 35mm camera that I’d gotten for free in a family size box of Tide laundry detergent. Butch turned down the Road to Hell, but before we reached the canyon, he guided the truck off the road to the left. After a few minutes, we were on another dirt road, one not found on any maps. It led through some low sandy hills. Ligia held her camera in her lap and didn’t speak much. I couldn’t believe that she was only twenty-eight. Her skin was so taut and desiccated that she looked mummified. J.D. had told me about the unspeakable abuse that her father and brothers had inflicted upon her when she was a child. I reproached myself for not having been able to handle the relatively petty things that had befallen me.

Butch parked the truck behind a small hill. As we hopped out of the truck, the silence was shattered by a man’s scream. It echoed around us. We froze and ducked behind the hill. We peered around the corner, holding our breath. A few seconds later, a man ran out of the canyon, heading towards Dillon Road. He sobbed and looked over his shoulder. We waited for a few minutes after he disappeared, but no one followed behind.

J.D. and Butch double checked to see if their rifles were loaded, and then we set off for the low hill a few meters away. No one spoke. As we neared the top of the hill, we circled around to the other side. A couple of small caves, barely big enough for a human, came into view.

CA04

My heart pounded as we approached. Butch and J.D. scanned the area, rifles ready. Ligia whimpered under her breath. I crouched low and peered into the caves. They were empty. Reddish-brown symbols, mostly likely painted with blood, were splattered on the walls. White fur was stuck into the sandstone grooves on the cave floor.

“I tell you, they were here,” J.D. mumbled.

“I believe you.” I ran my hand over the rough sandstone grooves. The fur felt like feather down. Poor dogs.

Butch shuddered and turned away.

CA03

I snapped a couple of photos and then handed my camera to Ligia so that she could take one of me with the guys. As usual, I began to giggle and make jokes as a way to diffuse the darkness.

CA05

Not longer after that, J.D. and I went our separate ways once and for all. I’d recently begun dating a man of whom he disapproved. In all the years he’d known me, I’d never had a boyfriend or wanted one. I had become like every other woman. The guy did turn out to be a loser, but being involved in a relationship was part of my healing process. However, there was no explaining that to J.D. Once a friend crossed the line, there was no stepping back.

Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to J.D. I feel sadness that our paths diverged. But with age, I’ve learned to accept that many friendships have a time. And a place.

36 thoughts on “The Road to Hell

    • Hahaha. 🙂 Then you’re familiar with Deep South US accents. I tried not to imagine what was in the barrels. It definitely wasn’t anything good. Thanks for reading all of that.

  1. I think I am becoming attuned to your dark tales Julie – I was braced for something even nastier – And always keep ahold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse 🙂 Is this from a published work, if not it ought to be.

    • Well, I didn’t know what to expect either and am glad it wasn’t worse. There are some truly evil things going on in this world. It’s important to know that they happen, so that we can protect ourselves, but witnessing the gory details isn’t necessary.

      Thanks for the compliment on the piece, too. I was thinking about submitting it for publication, but decided to post it here instead.

  2. I have many many more places here in SoCal that I should go… But at least I already found my way to Joshua Tree and Palm Springs.

    As always, your story is so compelling and I can’t stop reading. 🙂 And I do agree about the friendship thing. They come and go. Have a nice Sunday!

    • Thanks, Prem. My husband and I went to Palm Springs for a couple of days in 2003. It looked so unfamiliar, yet the town itself hadn’t changed much. The rest of the Valley – Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Bermuda Dunes, etc – is so much more developed than it was in the late 80’s. I regret never having visited Joshua Tree other than during that drive. I think I was a little creeped out at the time and avoided it.

  3. “The past is never where you think you left it.” Katherine Anne Porter

    Funny thing – I like going backwards, but the time portal seems to shift a little when I step towards the memory. In many ways, I see clearly things I missed, even though it seems like I am looking at a faded photograph. Time, in our finite experience, is relative and misleading. Yet, I am beguiled by the promise of remembering – not because I want to relive the moment – but because I want to feel the emotion that came with the adventure.

  4. Wow, what a very, very captivating story. The best (undry) desert and cave story I’ve ever read! Totally took us me the 4WD drive with ya! Loved the pic of you sitting outside of the cave with J.D. and his friend. You looked so cheery, as if you were just kickin’ back outside of an ice cream parlor! Fun!

  5. Julie I though I had left a massage,this post was so eerie the photos and the story, thank god nothing happen, one place I do not want to go too lol.

  6. Love this desert tale. I’m dying to know what was in those barrels. I’m now the sort that can never look away or let it go but fortunately my husband has survival instincts. Last year we were in the remote Nevada desert exploring a new (to us) road when this pick-up with two men and a woman inside came flying at us out of nowhere. The driver was dressed in desert expedition garb and seemed a bit jacked up. He jumped out and confronted us about being on the road. We thought it was nothing more than a dog pissing on a stray that had wandered into the neighborhood. But he returned to his truck, drove about 500 yards down the road and parked. The three watched us. So we turned around. They tailed us but we were raising so much dust we didn’t see them until it was too late. At our next stop, they pulled up beside us, got out, surrounded us, and overtly inspected the contents of our vehicle. My husband had forgotten to bring his gun that day. They hung around for a long 40 minutes before finally taking off. They must have thought we were feds.

    I often say to my husband, let’s go back and find another route onto that road and investigate. It’s kind of ironic because in my youth, I was a coward, not like you at all. I would never have headed out to that cave.

    • Wow, Viv. That’s a crazy tale. They must have had something really dodgy going on back there. I’m not sure I’d go back there if they could recognize me. Then they’d get really paranoid and who knows what they’d do. Curiosity is hard to stifle sometimes, though.

  7. Thank you for sharing this adventure from the past. As life continues on I too find that certain friends weave up certain tapestries of time with us, and then trail off into someone else’s life while you find yourself in another up and down, over and under with completely different people. Sometimes we just have to revisit the fibers of the past in reflection and appreciation. Cheers.

  8. It all seems so unreal, at some point I thought I was reading fiction! What an alien place the desert appears to be… at least in the eyes of this city person, reading curled up in her sofa, on a wintery Sunday aftenoon, in sleepy Brussels!

  9. Often I find myself suffocated by the complete futility of it all. Your posts give me wanderlust and inspiration. This one especially makes me wanna just pack some shit up and head towards the road to Hell, or somewhere. I loved this story and am curious about the screaming man running through the hills. Your twenties sounded like so much fun.

    • I spent most of my twenties battling against the suffocation caused by the complete futility of it all. These wacky experiences are what kept me alive.

      If you need directions to the Road to Hell, let me know. 🙂

  10. The places we go, Julie; not sure if I’d be driving down/up through a canyon that gets narrow gutted at times in the dark only being able to see the track ahead, I’ve been up through gorges and ravines on foot at night though. Some people think nature a great disposal ground for their manufactured waste, only if no one finds it. Pollution of water tables and aquifers by the contents of dumped barrels is just not nice. But what an adventure in three acts you have above, a theatrical tale with all the suspense and a mix of characters. Found myself thinking of an old film, “It Came From Outer Space” for some reason, but that’s just me story thinking and drifting off.

    • The places we go indeed. I take it as a HUGE compliment that this made you think of “It Came From Outer Space.” What an opus of B movie mania. You just made my day. Cheers, Sean.

      • It was a whole lot of small parts to your story that gave to similar thoughts and sensations as the yarn progressed. It was the first time I had ever seen or heard of a Joshua Tree, back when I was about 8 watching and listening to “It Came From Outer Space.”

Comments are closed.