I wrote this piece last year January, after a road trip. It's a mix of genres and it's almost bordering on hallucination, but it is a true story, about a time in my life that was a breaking point, a time when I had to change. I wrote this before I even had a website. I hadn't even submitted any work at that time, ever, except one lone essay that is now in the newest Lonely Planet travel anthology. I'm free falling right now, in my writing and creative life, but not that long ago, I was far from myself and lost. A place can often bring out the things about ourselves that we need to rediscover and find. A person can do that for us, too.
I've always been fascinated by risk-takers. Maybe not so much risk-takers as people who listen to some inner voice and follow it where it takes them. They follow it even though they aren't sure where they are going or how things will turn out. They go anyway. These people are the great travelers, voyagers, discoverers. And I'm not just curious about them: I need them. For life without them as guides is like being in a beautiful palace with all the lights turned off and the curtains drawn.
There have been times in my life I felt suffocated, that I walked as though there was a pillow in front on my face, blocking my sight, my speech. Muffled. Closed. Squinting at shadows. Sometimes it has taken me awhile to figure out that the pillow is there, and that my words aren't being heard, that I'm blind. It takes me time to see that blurred lipstick shallow breaths are not sustaining. That's when I start searching for risk-takers and I follow their trail, usually in the form of a road trip, a journey towards. Road trips, particularly of the driving-a-car-for-hours-and-hours variety, to some hoped-for destination, sight, or encounter, have a way of unshackling.
That's how I found myself driving ten hours to visit a man I'd never met. Not meet him in the flesh, but in the spirit.
His name was Noah Purifoy.
Purifoy was a risk taker. He was a Black American artist, born in Alabama in 1917, who left the deep South to attend art school in Los Angeles in middle age. In 1965, Purifoy was present for the Watts Riots, and collected piles of debris from the streets after the fires and destruction. He became a leader in the Black Power art movement in the late 60's, co-establishing the Watts Towers Art Center and creating a moving exhibit called 66 Signs of Neon, made entirely from the riot rubble. And while this history of his was rich and deep, this was not the part of his story that drew to me to him. It was, instead, his willingness to free-fall into a seemingly empty desert landscape when he was well into his golden years.
I came across a mention of his voyage across asphalt and sand to the center of the Mojave desert in California at the age of seventy-two, in an art book on alternative artists. What interested me was this slice of his life story: when he was a senior citizen, well settled into his life, a friend invited him to move to a strip of lonely land in the desert and make art. Purifoy took her up on the offer: within weeks he had left his old life behind and set up shop, crafting art assemblages out of trash and things long forgotten, in the middle of nowhere to an audience of the sky. He had said yes. I needed to say yes, too.
I set thoughts of Purifoy aside, until Christmas rolled around and I felt that loneliness that comes with having nowhere to go. My family was far away and not part of my life, and my relationship suddenly made me feel I was drowning. I felt unattached to my professional life, and longed to return to the days of travel and humanitarianism full time. I walked around stiffly, cautiously, feeling as though I was breathing in powdered cement instead of air. My chest ached, and I could no longer take deep breaths. The sadness I felt made my body billow out, beached and whale-like. Stranded.
I was at pre-Christmas party when someone asked me what my holiday plans were, and I heard myself say that I was taking a road trip alone. The words spilled out of my mouth as though they had been waiting there, for the right moment, dripping white pearl drops down my blouse and onto the wooden deck. I stood looking at the pearls for some time before I realized it was my necklace that had broken. Reaching down to pick up the beads, I recalled a picture of an art installation, of splintered wood shrines in the sand, littered with plastic pearls. Purifoy.
The next day, with almost no explanation to anyone, I set off to find him on the ten acres of grit and dust he'd taken over in the Mojave, swept up by the Santa Ana winds. I wanted to touch those pearls, see those sculptures being eaten by sand, feel the sharp jab of the of the spiny Joshua tree that grew like weeds in the desert.
It was a terrible time to choose going on a road trip: late Christmas Eve. The freeway was packed with minivans and after a single hour, my ankle ached from the constant need to brake. People sped greedily, yelled at one another, threw litter out the windows, changed diapers on the side of the road and gulped down coffee in gas station parking lots. California dreaming at rush hour, but instead of one hour, it took ten.
I did not mind. I was moving towards something, someone. Purifoy filled my mind, and I imagined him waiting at his trailer for my arrival, asking if I'd gotten lost along the way. I thought of his steady even gaze I'd seen in photographs. Work boots, the color of orange dusk. Overalls blue, copper buttons shining. I pictured him smoking a constant stream of cigarettes as I stood in long lines at pit stops and gas stations along the highway, buying snacks I hadn't had since childhood. Corn Nuts. Little Debbie snack cakes. Chocolate milk. The tasteless comfort food of travelers who have somewhere to go and aren't living in the present, but in some not too distant future.
Christmas morning, I finally arrived in the town of Joshua Tree, which was the nearest place on the map I could find to Purifoy's art installations. The town, in the Southern depths of California, stretched thinly across one of the strangest terrains in the Western world: an odd meeting of dry sandy earth and spiny cactus, peppered with tarantulas and biting fire-ants. The landscape was dotted with the famous, almost prehistoric trees that the area is named for, the Joshua tree. I almost expected a dinosaur or two to run alongside the car in such a place.
It felt strange to finally get out of my car and walk; instead I hobbled, ancient and tired. My right ankle was bruised, an oyster colored rectangle running across it like an arc, my ankles puffy and swollen. I limped into the National Park Service office and asked the rangers where to find Purifoy's site.
"Never heard of it." A park ranger wearing a Santa hat mumbled at me as he popped sticks of beef jerky into his mouth, his body wide, buttons on his shirt slit in-between like almonds, showing pinkish skin. He handed me a map which smelled of jerky, damp imprints from his hands marking it.
I bought the moist and aromatic map from him and examined it, but Purifoy's site was not marked. I'd come without a guidebook or even researching the location of the site on the internet before I left: I liked leaving road trips unplanned, folded. Sometimes I didn't even bother asking for directions once I got to a place, but drove around, lost, until I found it. Each time, it was a new grace. A lack of belief turned into a miracle.
I wandered into the coffee shop next door, where a single woman dressed as a Christmas elf seemed to be the only employee. I was surprised she was open on Christmas, and thought I'd better order, as I hadn't seen anything else open in the town except bars. I ordered several sandwiches and she insisted on making me something she called a Mojave Chaser, which was a single cup of coffee with extra shots of espresso. I asked her about Purifoy.
"You're going to go straight that way, and then you're going to go left. You'll keep going until you think you went too far, on the dirt road. That's when you'll see his sign. And you're going to need this," she said, gesturing towards the Mojave Chaser. "That's a funny place out there. You need to be alert--the desert changes things."
Ominous. But I'd come so far already to meet him in one way or another. I got in my car, started driving, and promptly got lost: everything looked the same. And then, just like the woman had said, I was found. The sign showed up just as my tears started to fall.
I drove down the dirt road, following the signs, but I didn't really need to: Purifoy's art installations could be seen from a distance. Towers. Stacks. Piles. The earth was covered in groupings of objects which looked familiar yet not, as they had taken on new forms. Televisions turned into castles. Toilets turned into sailing ships. Bicycles and washing machines tied together with Christmas tinsel, braided and glinting.
I stopped my car and didn't get out. There is always that fear of being let being let down by a place. I sat, my windows rolled down, and noticed how quiet it was. There were no sounds of any kind, no cars, no people, no animal rustlings. Even the wind was quiet and the sand was still. Anything could happen to me out here and no one would ever know about it. I rolled the windows up and swallowed down some swigs of the Mojave Chaser.
I talked to myself: I'd come all this way to meet Purifoy, to get a sense of him, to learn from him. I realized I was more desperate than afraid, and I got out of my car.
The site lined itself up along the road, and it seemed Purifoy had known I was coming, for the entrance to his world sparkled, the brambles having swept the path clean to his welcome archway. Glass bottle bottoms in round mosaic greeted, and I walked in.
Seeing the site in person was so much different than looking at it in pictures. It was, for all practical purposes, a different planet. I was no longer anywhere familiar, but in a place between-time, of Purifoy's own making.
It looked, at first, like trash. Remnants. Broken. Bound with string. An unwieldy juxtaposition to this powerhouse of a man, who had moved to this place only guided by some unknown force. Why this place, so forlorn, so empty?
I walked slowly, for everywhere there were installations of all sizes: huge barn like buildings, circus tents made of painted scrap wood, wooden planks covered in glass and nails, leading to nowhere. The more I walked, the more I saw, and the details, the intentionality of the place began to order my vision. Gallows and trees with nooses were repeated images, as well as themes around black and white: separate drinking fountains, labeled; half bodies lined up like children; segregated entrances going nowhere. Turrets and houses with no door to get in or out, tracks with machines which moved in a circle, and buildings lined with old clothes, that looked like someone had left seventy years ago but the kettle was still on.
There was something about the place, the earthiness of it, the wood mixed with metal and glass and paint; the way everything seems both attached to the ground and the sky that made me feel imaginative. I hadn't felt original in a year. Here, the branches on the ground danced and trembled and the clouds were shaped like flowers and chariots, something I hadn't seen since I was child.
In the center of all of the structures is Purifoy's trailer. I really did expect him to come out--the desert air is a great housemaid, everything new and crisp and polished. His front door looks like the handle is just turning-- I can almost hear the click and creak of his footsteps just behind the door. There are still holiday lights strung up, and an ancient, faded plastic wreath dangles from a rusted nail. A reminder that today is Christmas.
But Purifoy died here some years ago: an avid smoker, he was found in his trailer which was full of smoke from a fire. There are no signs of the fire now. It looks perfect and pristine, and I sit on his front porch and imagine his voice. I tell him my life story and wait for his advice. I tell him of my unhappiness and deep grief at my lack of mothering and fathering, and my frustration that despite my best efforts, I am not content with the trappings of normal life.
Purifoy is silent.
I rest my hands at my sides. I lean against a wooden wire spool which holds broken glass and bowling balls and tiny art assemblages of rusted bottlecaps and mirrors. I sit until the sun goes down, until I'm in the dark, until the shapes of his sculptures change into animals, people, and trains.
That's when I see what he has made.
It is a circus, it is a moving picture, it is a protest march. His art is not a series of objects, but one, come to life.
At last, Purifoy speaks. One must curate one's life, and everything in it. One must have space to be. One must allow oneself to fall. He moved here to create his own world, because there was space for his vision in the Mojave, in this no man's land of silence and sand. One has to have a place big enough for who one is supposed to become. One is supposed to be visionary about one's life.
I've been holding on and living a small life so I wouldn't fall down. Like Alice, falling through the rabbit-hole, my fall started a long time ago, but I've been so terrified that I reached out to anything that was nearby. I run sand through my fingers, and as it sifts, I let go of all of the things, ideas, and relationships that are holding me in one place. Tomorrow I'll go home and change things.
I'm so tired.
The sand is cushiony and warm, almost hot. I fall asleep on my sand pillow, and dream vivid dreams, of flying machines made of scrap metal with flapping wooden wings and cockpits that double as shrines.
I jump, and free fall.
(Oh yes! Do comment, like and share. Just click the arrow below to share and to comment scroll down. If you'd like to know more about Noah Purifoy, check him out here: http://noahpurifoy.com/index.html.)