On my way to and from Los Angeles where I do a festival, in the very middle of the California desert between Blythe and Indio, is a mostly abandoned town called Desert Center. A sad circle of dead palm trees on the side of the highway attest to better days. Desert Center once hosted General Patton's army training corps during World War II.
I'm old enough to remember when the old diner was still in operation, if very dilapidated. I used to like to stop for some not very good soup so I could sit at the counter and imagine the soldiers sitting there on stools at the counter in prosperous times, maybe big band music playing on a radio while cooks fried eggs and potatoes. But now it's just boarded up, and has been for a decade, and dust blows through the remains of every structure there, except, surprisingly, the post office - which suggests the presence of life and commerce somewhere, hidden away in the seemingly barren recesses of Desert Center, California.
However, the ghostly town of Desert Center is not what I write about............actually, as I sit here in a coffee shop in Los Angeles, having traversed the desert, enduring now the ubiquitous sound of pounding rock and roll in the background (why is silence seemingly so terrifying to Americans, even at 6:30 in the morning? Why does it seem that people no longer seem able to eat, drink, shop, walk, or even talk with each other without a pulsing backdrop of guitars and drums or screaming singers proclaiming their lust?).........ah. The vast cacophony of the 21st Century, in which Silence is rarely tolerated.
Yes. Sitting here over coffee, what I reflect on is actually a strange oasis some 15 miles from Desert Center's ruins called Lake Tamarisk.
I first discovered it when I noticed, driving on the interstate at night, a circle of lights past Desert Center. On a whim, I decided to investigate. What on earth is that, I wondered, in the middle of no where? What I found was a lake reflecting the moon, lawns with the tinkle of sprinklers, a wading white crane, and Silence surrounded by the dark mystery of the desert.
So ever since I've stopped for an hour or two at Lake Tamarisk as I've made that long trek to L.A. Like the movie Pleasantville, it seems to me sometimes that Lake Tamarisk is a kind of mirage, suspended in time. That someday I'll look for it and it will have simply disappeared without a trace.
It seems to me as well that it's always about 1970 there, or maybe 1960, when the little town was built to house the Kaiser mine workers and their families. I don't know if it has always been surrounded with lawns for golfing, but its little man-made lake reflects the colors of the desert, and birds float on its placid surface, and it derives its name from that.
There is no store, no gas station, no restaurant there, and for such amenities one must go some 50 miles. But there is a fire department and a community center and a little library. They are always closed when I get there, the deck chairs stacked, the barbecues padlocked.
I'm always there in late spring or summer, when the winter people have left, and Silence is what greets me in the empty parking lot beside the always closed community center. Along with the occasional call of la Paloma, the desert dove, wind in palm trees, distant sprinklers and perhaps a duck on the lake. In all my rituals of visiting Lake Tamarisk, I've never heard the sound of a human voice, although clearly there are people who live there all year. I've walked around the lake, never meeting a soul, and walking to the edge of the grass or the paved walkway I marvel at the way everything simply ENDS. Take a step further, and you are in the vastness of empty desert.
There is a swimming pool that looks exactly like every swimming pool I remember from my Southern California childhood, complete with round metal tables and a snack bar with rusty signs proclaiming Coca Cola! .........but it's usually empty, the gate locked. I have only seen it filled once, but no one was there..........still, it is not just a mirage, if it is sometimes full of water. I always find myself standing at the gate to the pool, and I can almost hear the faint sounds of people drinking cokes and eating hot dogs. Men in swimming trunks, women with one piece bathing suits, kids splashing and bouncing on inflated inner tubes. Girls in polka dot bathing caps with hula hoops. I always feel a bit sad at such moments, as if they will all appear after I leave, when the sun goes down maybe. And I'm not invited any more, because somehow, I grew up.......
But what I do breath in, en route and returning, is the Silence I find at that strange little Oasis. Silence to hear the sounds of the desert, the wind, the here and now of nature. Silence to relax into, silence with room for gratitude, silence enough to hear the sounds of sweet memory and the bittersweet voices of ghosts as well. Silence out of time.
"Poets live with silence:
the silence before the poem;
the silence whence the poem comes;
the silence in between the words,
as you drink the words,
watch them glide through your mind,
feel them slide down your throat
towards your heart
the silence which you share with the poet
when the poem ends, sitting side by side"