TWENTYNINE PALMS, CALIFORNIA
After dark, there are flares out at Twentynine Palms. To the east. Is that the east? – Way out in the desert, towards the mountains, at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. Today, a man told me there’s an entire Iraqi village out there, a mock-up for training during the war. They used to give tours of the village, but they don’t anymore.
The flares are transfixing, like a mysterious militant god. They appear and disappear every few seconds, little lights close to the horizon. Floating in unmarked space.
How do you mark space in the desert? You mark it by fire that scorches the sand. There are fires in Palm Springs and Idyllwild. The air, thick and gray, as if a volcano erupted. No one can breathe. The local news says to stay inside.
I think that maybe the flares are the fires, spreading.
But no—there are no fires here. Just strange and unknown places like Twentynine Palms. It sounds like a resort. A retreat. The desert itself, a kind of retreat, a place apart. The Joshua trees rising out of the ground like fans.
I learn that this is a subtropical desert. The nights can be cold. Frank Sinatra wrote a song about it. A song about a lady who breaks hearts. Doris Day sang it, as did the Andrews sisters.
I learn that the combat center was built in the early fifties, for live-fire training for the Korean War. Before, it was an abandoned airfield called Condor Field, like a bird of prey. An empty glider base in the desert, a ruin of World War II.
Other things have been built out here in this sea of sand.
Right up the two-lane a mile is the Integratron, a white dome that promises freedom from gravity and time. The building was constructed by a former aircraft mechanic, according to instructions he received from visitors from space. He said it was an electric field. He said it was a time machine. Now it is a perfect sound chamber, and people come to be bathed in sound.
And there is Giant Rock, quite far out, away from any houses. Crowds gathered at the rock for the Millennium. They drank beer and marauded about. They wrote graffiti on the stone, marking it. Maybe they thought the world would end. During the Second World War, a German immigrant built a dwelling under the rock and lived there for some time. Lonely, apart. But then it was decided that he might be a spy—yes, he was probably certainly a spy—and a crowd set upon the place and killed him.
This rock and this dome: they are there, visible. This military base with its mysterious village: it is out there somewhere, invisible. Each of these ancient monuments a sign of secret rites.
It is late, too late for anyone to be up, and the flares out at Twentynine Palms scar the mountains, claiming them as their own.
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Susan Harlan is a Californian by birth but now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she is an English professor and a committed road-tripper. Her essays have appeared in The Toast, Nowhere, Skirt!, 5x5, Public Books, The Manifest-Station, Literary Mothers, Render, Artvehicle, Cocktailians, Smoke: A London Peculiar, Airplane Reading, and Open Letters Monthly. Her online travel diary Born on a Train, which narrates a long-haul Amtrak trip she undertook in full 1950s dress – complete with hats and vintage luggage – is about old-school train travel (www.bornonatrain.com), and she has a monthly column for Nowhere magazine entitled “The Nostalgic Traveler.”