December is not my favorite month. This has not been my favorite December. It wasn’t always like this. It is tempting to reminisce. But, nostalgia always nags me to sum up – which is the last thing I need.
The rocker covers are freezing. The fat, black bitch makes a harsh and feeble sound like a drunk girl puking before she stumbles then roars. I turn the little wheel under the bars that locks the throttle open. I look at my watch, add four minutes to the time and climb off. The bitch still shines from the last time I washed her. I have lost another brake pedal pad. Damn you Kuryakyn. All the obvious nuts are at least finger tight. I am convinced nothing will fall apart until the worst possible moment. When I climb back on I catch sight of myself in one of the mirrors. For the briefest moment I wonder, “Who’s that old guy?” I haven’t shaved for a few days. My beard has reached the point where I feel like I have bugs nesting on my face. My muse hates beards.
I ride through the golden past. It is the same route I have ridden to the freeway for thirty years. I take a street called Aviation that is named for a business that dried up just after Reagan. The street is impossible during the commuting hours unless you split lanes. When I do an old man in a car with tail fins glares at me. I bet he bought that car new. I roll past the glass building where a Falcon named Christopher Boyce stole state secrets and gave them to a Snowman named Daulton Lee who sold them to the Russians for money to buy cocaine. All of that is now a forgotten story in an old book.
I speed past the undersold condo development that used to be an Air Force base, brake hard, shift down two gears, and power through a tight turn onto a long street named for one of the worst Generals in history. His name was Rosecrans. He lost the Battle of Chickamauga. He has been dead since 1898. He doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but he has a 28-mile-long street in El Lay named after him.
Traffic is gridlocked for blocks. I weave back and forth across lanes. I may look like hell but I can still ride. A priapic toilet seat blocks my way. I kick at it but I miss. That should be the title of my biography. After an endless minute, I push onto the Four-Oh-Five – a freeway that got its name because it typically allows drivers to travel either four or five miles an hour. This stretch, the South Bay Curve, was new in 1961. That year, all the leading authorities predicted we would have flying cars by now. Our future was exciting and bright once upon a time.
A car in the far right lane sees me rounding the ramp and speeds up to cut me off. I don’t know why. The two cars behind him think he is accelerating because he has found a shortcut so they punch it before all the other cars see what they hope and it is too late for everybody.
I out accelerate them all, up shifting in the breakdown lane and snapping the throttle open two-thirds of the way. I’m in third going sixty-five when the traffic on my left staggers to a stop. By then I am already on the long exit for the One-Oh-Five. Properly, it is the Century Freeway because it took a century to build. It was completed in 1993 and as soon as it was drivable it was closed for a few days so some Hollywood millionaires could use it to get richer making a movie called Speed.
By general agreement, the speed limit on the One-Oh-Five is eighty. Like always, I have carefully arranged my itinerary so I am blinded by the morning sun. It is almost Christmas and the roads are stuffed with people who only drive their cars during the month of December. They drive like they are afraid. And it is the season when the college kids all come home from school. They don’t have cars at their universities so they have been waiting forever to play Fast & Furious 6 on a freeway. Two cars in front of me and a lane over a kid in a black Camaro makes a series of the fastest lane changes I have ever seen someone survive. All the timid drivers panic brake.
Fifteen miles later the One-Oh-Five T-Bones into the Six-Oh-Five. That’s the freeway dedicated to hauling gravel, sand and garbage between Irwindale and Seal Beach. It also has a bullshit name – something like the San Gabriel River Freeway. Only freeway bureaucrats and new in town news anchors call it that. It should be called the debris freeway. One of the trucks has lost its load of styrofoam popcorn, or maybe it is individual toilet paper sheets, or fast food receipts, or my shredded, top-secret, NSA surveillance records. Bits of something white and airy and chock full of grease and bacteria float up from the concrete, dance in front of me and then at the last second flit out of my way like nervous butterflies. A flatbed truck with a load of hay shoots pale, green darts at my face.
I gave my muse an ultimatum. “Him or me.” He is an ex-cop named Larry. He has the face he deserves. He looks stupid. She made her choice.
She knows me so she demanded to know, “I’m not going to wind up in one of your stories am I?”
This was in a bar in Redondo Beach that’s named for a kind of whale. The bar has a view. Tourists love it. Travelling salesmen love it. The waitresses all knew us. We were staring at a marina with a thousand boats I could never afford unless I got serious about my career, grew a pair and started moving some major product. My muse was rubbing my leg. I lied to her. “Oh no, Baby. I would never write about you.” If it was your leg you would have lied, too.
She accused me of the same charge federal prosecutors are always trying to pin on me. She called me a “romantic.” Everybody’s a tough guy.
I said, “Goodbye.” It is my least favorite word. Goodbye says it all.
I loved my motorcycle for a few days. I gave her a set of Screamin’ Eagle gold plugs and a little us time for Christmas.
Sometimes I find myself in two places at once.
I pushed the Dyna onto the Two-Ten and wedeled between sparse lines of cars at ninety miles an hour. The bike growled. A shark’s mouth of brown hills flanked my sinister side. The sun climbed out of my eyes and I concentrated on the cold, the roar, the wind, the still and the stark and the thin winter light.
Swirling north winds startled me back to reality. It is impossible to ride a motorcycle in Los Angeles and think at the same time. Anybody who gets stubborn about it dies.
Head winds and cross winds made a flag of me. The winds at the bottom of the Cajon Pass hit eighty all the time. They weren’t that bad but they were bad enough to concentrate my mind. A truck transited the entire width of the freeway and then stopped. It was such a stupid stunt that I refused to believe my eyes. It is the second time in the last few years that the same thing has happened to me in the exact same place. I never learn. I grabbed and stood on the brakes. The fat, black bitch began to fishtail. I thought I was going down. My body, the part of me that never thinks, kept me upright. The moment passed. All these sounds you can see are just moments passing.
The Cajon is where the doom seekers say Southern California must inevitably break. The naked San Andreas Fault cuts through it like a bowie knife. I stuck to the far left lane and climbed as quickly I could. Two thirds of the way to the summit I caught four cars driving side by side. I shifted down two gears and then again into third before I rushed through the gap between the third and fourth lanes.
The winds lessened at the summit. I didn’t look back. It was one of those winter days when you can see a hundred miles, all the way to the faint, blue mirror of the sea, all the way to Redondo Beach. I bought gas where I always buy it, at a station on Mojave Drive. I used to stop at a place on Roy Rogers Drive. That is how I have changed.
I seem to be in a hurry. I don’t know why. I am in the station three minutes. I don’t know where I’m going. It is either Barstow or home. I point the front wheel at Barstow, the far outlier of metastasizing Los Angeles, and the emptiness beyond.
This emptiness in history was cheap and useless land. Now there is no longer cheap land. Just yesterday, the riches of the Mojave were the minerals it was believed to contain. A legion of dreamers and their parasites moved here hoping, hoping, hoping for easy money laying right on the ground. Mostly they found worthless rocks. The parasites offered tough credit terms. Some of the dreamers found themselves marooned out here. There are still nests of them between Barstow and Vegas.
In less than an hour I’m smiling at the sign for Zzyxx. A radio evangelist made up the name in 1944. For the rest of his life he insisted that Zzyxx was the last word in the English language.
People have been coming to the spring near Zzyxx for ten thousand years. The evangelist – his name was Curtis Howe Springer – filed a mining claim for twelve thousand acres around an ancient quarry and a timeless spring. Probably he ran off all the water sprites and muses. He called his scheme the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa. He tried to convince people it was a resort. He stole the spring water, bottled it and sold it to thirsty travelers. He was ahead of the curve on the bottled water thing. The resort lasted thirty years until federal agents showed up one day and wanted to see the mine. All Springer could offer them was a cool, refreshing drink so the government voided his mining claim and stole back the land.
Baker, is seven miles away. You can see it from the “Zzyxx Road Exit” sign. Baker started as a whistle stop on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. The railroad moved borax out of the mines in Death Valley. The town is named for Richard Baker who happened to be president of the railroad. But the town that memorializes his blessed memory was actually the dream of Ralph “Dad” Fairbanks. Fairbanks had tried to make a living around the spring that would later be Zzyxx but he was clueless about the whole bottled water thing.
Instead, Dad Fairbanks dreamed the dream of the automobile. Before founding Baker, he sold gasoline in another town he started. He named that one Shoshone out of respect to his neighbors. Shoshone was fifty-five miles closer to the mines. Fairbanks hauled in the gas in five gallon cans and sold it for a profit. Then he founded Baker and opened a gas station there. He almost went out of business when the banks started failing in 1929. Then the town almost disappeared in a flash flood. The Standard Oil Company, which is usually a villain in stories, kept Dad Fairbanks in business until the Second World War. That was when the railroad disappeared. The tracks were ripped up and melted down to make tanks.
After the war an entrepreneur named Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel gave Baker another shot in the arm. Siegel opened a giant hotel and casino in Vegas just in time for New Year’s Eve in 1946. He named the place after his girlfriend. He called it the Flamingo because she had long and slender legs. For years after that Baker was the main gas stop between Los Angeles and Sin City. That boom lasted until hotels, casinos and gas stations began to crowd the Nevada side of a town called State Line. Now they call that town Primm.
At first, there was plenty of business for everybody. You already know where this story is going. Baker became “The Gateway To Death Valley” and then “The Gateway To The Mojave Preserve.” Tourists, particularly Europeans, particularly Germans love to have medical emergencies in the Mojave in the summertime.
The big restaurant in Baker was a classic fifties place called the Bun Boy founded by the ironically named E.B. Failing. When E.B. died he left the Bun Boy to his son, J.O. Failing and J.O., in need of a cash transfusion, took a partner named Willis Herron.
Herron was a dreamer. Herron looked at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrooke, Arizona and the dinosaurs of the Wheel Inn in Cabazon, California and he believed with all his heart that Baker would boom if only it had a tourist attraction like that.
The Bun Boy burned down in a grease fire in 1990. While it was being rebuilt bigger and better than ever, Herron sank three quarters of a million dollars into his dream: A giant thermometer visible to incoming tourists from as far away as the Zzyxx Exit sign. He hired the Young Electric Sign Company to built it right next to the Bun Boy. Long ago the Young Sign company had erected about half the signs on the Vegas strip. Herron imagined millions of tourists stopping to take a picture of his thermometer and then lingering to gas up and enjoy a nice burger or a piece of pie. The Bun Boy was famous throughout the Mojave for the excellent quality of its pies.
The Baker thermometer was 134 feet tall, in honor of the highest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley. It was made of thirty-three tons of steel and five thousand light bulbs. It marked the temperature in ten degree increments. And, it blew down in the fierce Mojave winds. When it blew down it fell right on top of the brand new Bun Boy gift shop. But, Will Herron was not deterred. He was the kind of man who refused to believe that any cause might be lost so he rebuilt his thermometer and filled the thing with concrete. It is frequently said that the Baker Thermometer could survive a nuclear blast. At least it outlived the new and improved Bun Boy.
The thermometer became an object of civic pride – as Cawker City, Kansas loves its giant ball of twine and Mitchell, South Dakota loves it palace made of corn.
Then the recession set in – or as it is officially called, the economic recovery. Baker’s five motels began to close one by one. But plucky Baker didn’t give up. First the town bid to become the United States of America’s official repository of atomic waste and when that beautiful dream died Baker did what dozens of dying towns have done. Baker attracted a prison.
It was a minimum security prison designed to house 262 minimum security inmates and it provided jobs for almost 100 locals. The problem was that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation came to believe that the scoundrels in its care are better rehabilitated in maximum security prisons. The Baker Community Correctional Facility was down to 175 inmates when it shut down.
Herron sold the world’s tallest thermometer and the gift shop to another dreamer in 2005. He soon unloaded it on another visionary with dollar signs in his eyes. The thermometer broke in 2009. It went eccentric for awhile, reporting temperatures of 63 and 74 simultaneously when it was actually 106. Then it began to fade as the bulbs burned out and were not replaced. Finally it went dark.
Sales in Baker – sales of everything – dropped by twenty percent. There isn’t much to Baker except it is a place to pull off the freeway and gas up and maybe grab something bad to eat. There are no banks or drugstores or markets in Baker. The thermometer has become an embarrassing reminder of the lost time when the Mojave was full of men with dreams. Some locals want to tear it down.
A local entrepreneur named Luis Ramallo, the owner of a store called Alien Fresh Jerky, thinks Baker needs a new tourist attraction. Ramallo, who came up with the name for his shop after about the third time he had to prove to a Deputy that he was a resident alien, wants to borrow $12 million so he can build a new motel in the shape of an alien space ship. Ramallo envisions a very large space ship with many lights that would be visible at night from miles away. As Ramallo explained to a public radio station about a year ago, “The potential here is great!”
Potential or not, this is still the heartless Mojave. There is no room here anymore for dreamers and romantics. Last July a 24-year-old named Ryan Singleton moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles dreaming he might become a movie star. He was last seen in Baker. In October they found his body about a mile out of town. His eyes and all his major organs were missing.
I rolled in off the interstate about ten-thirty in the morning. The cold wind was getting to me. History was getting to me. I was a little more alone than I had been for awhile and as soon as I stopped moving that started to get to me, too. I paid eighteen bucks for four gallons of gas, washed the bugs off my sunglasses, climbed back into the saddle and turned the key. I had to keep moving. I had no choice. And, there was nothing left in Baker to see.