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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.