One night not long ago, my 6-year-old staggered out of her room for the fourth time, hellbent on conveying the specific anguish of insomnia. “It’s like I’m a puzzle piece for … a puzzle about nighttime but I’m a … daytime piece and I just can’t fit.” My first thought was, Go the heck to sleep (though not in those exact words). My second: The kid’s ready for the desert.
Certain trips require a little deepening first — the capacity for abstraction and clunky poetic metaphors about existence. In Cora’s young mind I sensed room for some next-level travel, aimed not at museums or beach resorts but eerie vastness. And so: to the desert! We arrived in Palm Springs on a hot Friday evening and pointed the rental car in the direction of the greatest darkness.
As we drove I reviewed our agenda: four days, multiple locations, a sweltering tent, a focus on emptiness. All those vacations heretofore? With the activities and the fun? Sayonara. Absence would be our primary attraction, featurelessness the feature presentation. Except you can’t fully convey that to a first grader, so I added that she’d be able to shout as loud as she wanted in the desert.
Creepily, gorgeously surreal Joshua Tree National Park was Stop 1, and our approach wound us clockwise around the 1,234-square-mile park’s perimeter. The moon showed pale hills in the distance but little else. We ventured in and nosed our headlights around towering granite outcrops until we found our campsite.
Desert camping is like camping anywhere at first: tent setup, futzing with the camp stove, the discovery of the broken lantern. We put down the gear and wandered out among the creosote and brittlebush. The darkness was thick, and Cora noted it, though she also noted some developments in her latest Ramona Quimby read and how to make a more realistic frog-croak with your throat. But then we stopped walking and looked up.
“It feels like space is falling on top of us,” Cora blurted out. She was right, in an abstract, divide-by-zero kind of way. The stars, too, looked worrisomely low. We beheld them, in part because there was nothing else to behold. Except for those weird outcrops, barrenness lay in every direction.
As with many of her species, Cora’s life overflowed with the opposite of barrenness: that 21st-century saturation of play dates, art projects, bike rides, Netflix. Compared with history’s more boring childhoods, hers lacks for nothing but nothingness itself, and that’s what I wanted to show her.
One thinks of Edmund Burke at such times.
The 18th-century writer’s formulation about the sublime versus the beautiful had been formative for me, dividing the aesthetic world into the tidily pleasing and the compellingly terrifying — think cheerful daisy versus boundless and stormy sea. The dark awe of the sublime is the stuff of your most memorably destabilizing travel experiences, I’d argue. But it’s also the stuff you kiss goodbye with parenthood. Children exist in the realm of the beautiful, and you swap dark awe for a nice beach with non-pokey rocks.
But then one day you sense an opening. I’d conceived our ascetic desert romp not out of some joyless parental imperiousness, but because in California’s great nothingness I saw a path into the sublime. Cora and I stood in the hot night air holding hands, being small.
“What do you think about all this?” I asked. Rookie parenting move. No open questions. But to my surprise she answered: “It makes you feel like going inside a house and cuddling up.”
Seemed like as good a definition of the sublime as any. We walked back to our tent and I read Lemony Snicket to her longer than usual.
In the light of day, Cora and I discovered a robust and lively high-desert scene. We ate breakfast at a thronged health food place, and loaded up on fruit at a buzzing farmers’ market. And then we drove south, into nothingness, because vegan scrambled eggs and browsing fruit are not sublime.
There was parched earth and there were smudgy clouds. Occasionally civilization crept in — a military recruitment billboard, some low industrial building — but it only underscored how dwarfed civilization was amid all this absence.
We arrived. You’d be hard-pressed to call a 350-square-mile body of water a desert. But the Salton Sea is immense and still and unsettling; California’s largest lake feels desertlike. We staggered out into the heat, about 235 feet below sea level, an otherworldliness absorbing us. “By the Salton Sea, in the night, the rest of America does not exist,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in 1961.
These days the Salton Sea itself doesn’t exist as much either. Half a century ago the so-called Salton Riviera attracted royalty like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and more visitors than Yosemite. Then a combination of drought, pollution, salinity and algae started destroying the health of the lake, and the resort became a ghost town. Cora dragged me out to the ghoulish carpet of beached tilapia at the water’s edge. If you’re worried that your beach conveys insufficient gore, a million fish corpses will get you there. We poked fiendishly in the name of science.
As wastelands go, the Salton Sea area contains multitudes. We drove south to Salvation Mountain, one man’s remote, paint-drenched monument to God in the Colorado Desert. For Cora, a kitchen table artist, a homemade hill draped in ecstatic color was apparently mind-blowing. She kept climbing into nooks and crannies saying, “Oh my God.”
It wasn’t much farther to Slab City, the longtime squat community occupying a former Marine barracks. I don’t know how Edmund Burke would classify the place, but the absence of electricity, running water and sewers — it’s some kind of profound. We chatted with a father and son building a shade structure out of pallets, and picked up a hitchhiker on a hot, rutted road. She had a high voice and had lived at Slab for 10 years. I asked how she ended up here in the first place. “Got dropped off,” she said.
Cora and I found a secluded campsite near the Salton Sea. More tent setup, more time stunned under the stars. When the sublime is vaguely terrifying, it occurred to me, part of the terror is the capriciousness of the universe. There’s caprice in the formation of a fluky inland sea, giving rise to all kinds of lives and livelihoods and art projects. It’s caprice, too, when it all dries up and goes away.
Cora and I broke camp on Day 3 and climbed back into the hot car, nearing peak ripeness. We beat a path north to Morongo Valley, past a wild mustang feed store and a dig-your-own cactus place. We were winging it by now.