There is a lesson I recall from my days as a schoolboy…
Miss Veuve, my 3rd grade teacher, would purr to the class, acting out said lesson with a long and pointy stick that resembled a single whisker protruding from her body.
Taking to the whiteboard, she would begin.
Clack. Clack. Clack. “D. E. S.“
“‘D-e-s-S-e-r-t,” she’d clack. “Dessert has an extra ‘s’ because it is sweet. Unlike the desert, which is not sweet.”
I took issue with this statement. And Miss Veuve’s inflated ego. I presume she became cocky when that bougie orange label coveted by coeds was popularized. And yet, I recently found out that Ms. Veuve’s lesson proved true. The desert is not sweet. The desert is, as Rebecca Solnit personifies it, seductive. Like dollar oysters. Or an eclair filled with ecstasy.
And that is better than sweet, Ms. Veuve.
When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, the past year that clung to my skin and dirtied my pores evaporated.
Two bottles of wine, paced at a glass every half hour and poured into a chalice that was chilled by frozen fruit, paired with the willingness to embrace the delusion that the end of a calendar year brings about change, did the trick. I didn’t care if this momentary swagger lasted 2 minutes or 2 years. I gave myself a blank slate. I carried this light for 6 consecutive days. Then, after an unintentionally aggressive wine Wednesday, I woke up with a visceral hangover.
You’re pathetic for thinking happiness is stable. You’ve been through enough to know it couldn’t last.
There is no absolute truth.…
I can’t tell you how many times Marilyn, my therapist, has explained to me that being happy all the time is by no means the end goal. And still, that is what I crave most. Always. Balance and perfection. What’s worse, I want everyone around me to be as happy as I am. Happier would suffice. A symptom of ADD or OCD? A part of my nature? Or my nurture? Perhaps!
A symptom of ADD or OCD? A part of my nature? Or my nurture?
I ponder what psychological turbulence came of my parents giving into my demands that I have a playdate with every kid in my kindergarten, first, and second grade classes. They must have known I couldn’t juggle so many relationships forever.
I love people and being around them. Sometimes too much, perhaps. I am liable to forget about myself.
So while you were right, Ms. Veuve, that the desert isn’t sweet, it does satiate another craving. It calls, or seduces, those who are lost. Or those who are looking for something. I heard it call out to me after I shook off the worst of that Thursday hangover. Just 24 hours later, I pulled into a nameless town on the outskirts of Palm Springs where I had booked two nights in a guest house at $74.00 a night. A small sign that read, “The Cove,” was the only marker at the entrance of the community. I found it inexplicably comforting that this name had not been registered on Google Maps, or any directory at that.
The Cove sits on that part of the drive where the windmills first pop up in the distance. Yeeees. The first marker that leads to pool houses, unforgettable benders, and retirement homes. Massive, towering, white windmills that blink red when the sun goes down so planes do not kamikaze themselves into the white propellers that are bigger than their own. That strip of highway is where The Cove is situated.
I am reminded of Don Quixote who valiantly set out to rid the land of windmills, mistaking them for ferocious beasts and a threat to humanity at large, with his partner Sancho Panza. Don Quixote was the subject of my mother’s stories, a motif in my bi-annual travels to Spain, and the bible of my Spanish AP Lit class. Over the years, it was drilled into me that this unlikely literary duo were out of their minds, and yet, absolutely brilliant.
I unpacked my bags, just a handful of highway lanes away from Don Quixote’s arch nemeses, and got situated in the guest house on “La Vida Drive.” God dammit. The life! I looped the community and stopped at The Cove’s single establishment, a Valero gas station, to stock up on water and cashews. Two children, clearly locs, giggled by the gas pumps. “We’ve been here every day this month.”
Freelance work. A glass of wine. My first desert sunset in months. The windmills cracked humor amongst themselves. Damn Dude, you’d scare the hell out of Don Quixote. Windmills have evolved dramatically since 1605 when the book was written.
I carried this energy until I woke on Saturday with nowhere to go. I perused the internet for a clean, isolated, and under 100 bucks a night destination. Swipe. Ugh. Click. Woah. The Sarkisian Ranch Tortoise Preserve. Newberry Springs, California. It’s on the way to Three Rivers which also looks sick…
An Airbnb confirmation. 5 chapters of Inherent Vice on Audible. I hit the junction at Barstow that leads you to Vegas. I’m closer to finding something. There’s always a fork in the road before something cool happens.
I had made it this far, so I forced my own hand at a Smart & Final and put in a request to spend Monday and Tuesday at a small cabin in Three Rivers, California following my stay on the ranch. By the time I made it back to the parking lot with a large styrofoam cooler and 4 days worth of groceries, it was confirmed.
When you pull up to Sarkisian Ranch Tortoise Preserve, it looks and feels a bit like True Detective, Season One. The fine line between art, sculptures, and junk is blurred. Once you’re through the gates, woooooooow. A dozen haciendas, an oasis with boats docked at each corner, a train car, a peacock, an emu, tortoises (so long as it’s not winter), and an impressive number of spiritual activities built into the property.
The owner, a Hollywood veteran in her 60s named Judi, had her husband greet me at the gate. He was sweet and patient, laughing as I squeezed my compact car through the 3 telephone poles that frame the entrance. I parked by my allotted trailer and a new friendly face pulled up to the patio in a golf cart–Judi’s brother. I walked as he drove next to me, and he dove into his autobiography. He, too, had lived in Hollywood. He told me he wrote most every one of Chuck Norris’ films. He flew fighter jets for 17 years after unsuccessfully evading the draft. He moved here with his wife once he was out of the industry. She had passed 7 years prior. He described her as an angel of sorts. She was the one who brought spirituality to the ranch and built a number of ways to channel or access it into property before she passed. He most definitely communicates with her still.
To treat his broken heart and PTSD that came of the war, Judi’s brother had a service dog. Elton. Named after Elton John. A fighter pilot with a heart of gold sitting next to the Rocket Man. Un-fucking-real.
As the tour looped back in the direction of where it began, I spotted a statue of a slender Spaniard brandishing a spear. That’s fucking Don Quixote, man! I snapped a picture and sent it to my mother to confirm that it was not some other skinny, literary legend. In an impressively fast response, she confirmed my suspicion and sent a screenshot of a Google search: “What is the moral of Don Quixote?”
“He had the moral courage in him to go beyond the ordinary in spite of those around him thinking of him as an outlier. He could imagine what others couldn’t- the first step to greatness and leadership.”
Fuck, if I’m not onto something here…
Later that evening, I walked to the maze that was situated on the far corner of the property. They have a similar one at UC Santa Barbara that I walked a handful of times in college. Unlike the Gaucho version, this maze offered two unique paths to choose from. Halfway through the maze, something caught my eye in the concerto of rocks at the finish line. I walked faster. Sure enough. The center rock. The last rock that completed the pattern. It brandished my last name. McHugh! First, S-E scribbled in red and then in blue, A-N M-C-H-U-G-H. What was 80% of my name doing on this rock? And the “SE?” South East? Where the hell am I?
I woke up the next morning and spent the day reading, peddle-boating around the Oasis, walking the maze, drinking wine, and then cheffed up some locally marinated chicken, biscuits, and bacon-wrapped asparagus for an early dinner.
Wrapped in blankets, I watched Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen on DVD and got some writing done before bed. Brilliant. The purring of the heater tranquilized me. Purrrr– short, long, short. I slept better than I had in weeks.
I left the ranch early Monday morning and set out for Three Rivers, four hours north east. More Inherent Vice. More desert. Desert turns to mountains. A ranch. Horses. I drive down the road and see the small blue cabin that was marketed on Airbnb as a spitting image of a cabin that the American naturalist, Thoreau, frequently spent time writing in. I spent sunset laughing on my lonesome. I’m alone. Why is this so dank?
I ventured off the property the next day and peaked while skating down a paved mountain river trail. I looked around to see if anyone was there to recognize how fucking cool I looked. Nope. Wooooooooo!
It felt as if the world had stopped. Anything and everything that I did was of the utmost significance. Issues were out of sight and out of mind.
After checking out the next day, I drove an hour into Sequoia National Park, climbing 6,725 feet. After parking in a snowy lot, I sludged past a WARNING: DO NOT FEED OR APPROACH BEARS sign in the direction of a park ranger. “Excuse me, what trails are open?” In a lisp that diluted his sense of authority, the ranger replied, “They all are, sir.”
45 minutes later I scaled the staircase built into Moro Rock that would have been made illegal if it were closer to a public school or any established civilization. I made it to the top and gasped. I have to share this experience with fucking somebody. I opened Tik Tok and did a goofy dance framed by the stunning view.
On my descent, I stopped to read a sign that marked the distance one could see given the air quality on any given day. LA was the furthest point on the bar graph, visible to the naked on eye on the clearest of days.
Three men leaned against a post at the bottom of the stairs. “Shit, what was it? 15 years ago we first came here.” I considered who I would bring with me if I returned. The thought of returning alone felt unrealistic. I left the park feeling accomplished.
I had run out of groceries the night before with the exception of condiments and Swiss cheese, so I reasoned that a cheat day was in order. I hit a lodge promoting an off-season discount 3 hours north in Bass Lake. After a regrettable drive through Fresno and Modesto, I arrived at an all but abandoned hotbed for summer lake parties. The lake was dry and 90% of the cabins were empty. After checking in, I walked the property and stuck my hand in the pool, a piercing 40 degrees. I sat in a white cabana and looked out over the vast nothingness. I could picture frat bros on jet skis, fireworks, and first kisses that immortalized middle school summers.
On my way back to my cabin, the frat bro day dream turned into a very real migraine. A homophobic slur was spit through the screen door at a 20-something in a cut-off flannel who was drinking on the deck. A girl barged out and doubled down on the homophobic slur du jour. It was a picture perfect showcase of misguided nurture. I refrained from passing judgement or getting upset. Zeroes.
I looked for a final 2-day destination in the general direction of San Francisco. I’d done the desert. I’d done the mountains. I’d done the lake, or lack thereof. Fuck it, Gold Country. Sonora seemed pretty and would position me right off the highway that would bring me home to The Bay. I excitedly left the dystopian lodging and stopped for some BBQ and thrifting about 30 minutes into the drive.
My head was held high cruising into Sonora. I drove down Main Street and turned up a hill to an isolated cabin at the highest point of the town. Beep, boop, beep, boop. Final self-check in complete. I decided to walk to the nearest grocery store, a mere 2 miles an hour away. I passed maskless teens with a confused and consistent, goth-PacSun-mountain-trucker style. The shelves at the grocery store were bare and people walked the aisles like zombies. A certain dark energy fogged my vision and thickened the air. It was the same energy that, years prior, had caused me to run out of a massage parlor in fear that my organs would be harvested. I jolted out of the store, self-conscious. Was the coat I thrifted earlier too pompous? Too flamboyant for this town?
When I made it to a liquor store up the street, a drunk woman yelled in my general direction. With so many people around, things had stopped going exactly to plan.
The sight of a local Sauvignon Blanc that claimed minerality sobered me up. I continued my walk down the road and then spontaneously veered off to check out what looked like a church or high school. A middle-aged woman sat in an isolated office window. Look at her typing away. What is she working on at 7:30pm? On a Friday! Maybe she was working, trying to save up, to find a way out of this darkness.
Am I being negative or is there something off? A thought I have often. Something is off. And then, I became mindful of a woman pulling dozens of flyers down lethargically. She stepped into someone’s car that had #JUSTICEFORKOLTYN markered neatly on the window. I googled the hashtag followed by Sonora.
2 years ago, on the same day I was there, Koltyn was murdered. He was two years old and the case never went to trial. The babysitter was the boyfriend. Koltyn was left in his care. I paused on a photo of a woman. The flyers… Koltyn’s mother. So much darkness.
FUCK. Is this the sign? This has to be the sign. Or the something. Why the fuck am I ending on this? It’s not about me… it’s about the fucking evidence. This is a case closed unless someone has a good story and he’s not talking. He’s not fucking talking and it has been 2 years since Koltyn was killed. And here I am, in Sonora on the 2 year anniversary, being waved across the street by Koltyn’s mother. I do my best to think of anything with grander importance and come up short. What am I good at? Research. Getting things done my way… Fuck, why did I listen to Inherent Vice nonfuckingstop in the car? I asked for this.
The local Sauvignon Blanc was unbelievable. I dove headfirst into every document, article, and social media post pertaining to the case. 7 dollars for access to court records from the preliminary hearings. I familiarized myself with the names of everyone involved. I know who did it. I know who fucking did it. I called some friends and one asked me if I’m alright. I changed the subject to avoid sounding manic. The wine is gone and I feel sick.
I woke up the next morning and immediately celebrated that the darkness had passed. I walked down the hill to grab a coffee and a pastry. Teens were well-dressed. The coffee was delicious. The cute cashier pulled down her mask to flirt with me, “Hi there hunny, and where are you from?“ I leave my mask on and tell her, “I’m from San Francisco, I live in LA, and I’ve been on the road for 10 days writing and heading wherever feels right!” With the world in her eyes, she handed me an iced latte that her bouncy step had blended to perfection. A quick sip. “Well, nice to meet you! I do hope you find yourself back here soon.” I smiled to myself.
That type of shit never happens!
It’s not that I woke up and stopped caring about Koltyn. More so that I recognized that I had gone too deep. Too quickly. It was unhealthy. It could wait. I refused to spend another second of my trip in that dark otherworldly realm. I got some work done, watched a show, and smiled! Ya did it kid, this is the last night! Bored of drinking, I leaned on reefer for inspiration and a good night’s sleep.
On the drive to The Bay the next morning, the framework of what I had found and why I had been looking for it materialized. My 25th birthday, that quarter life marker, was only a matter of weeks away. Of course I’m looking for something. I’ve always viewed 25 as such a significant marker in my life. I told myself I was going to live in New York at 25. I told myself I would have a Great Dane and a matching G Wagon when I was 25. I was going to quit smoking at 25. With just weeks to complete these impossible feats, you’d think the pressure was on. But nope, not really.
My quarter life crisis symptoms and dreams of expensive cars and canines were replaced with simpler dreams after 2020. The pandemic shattered every industry that I had work experience in and sucked my savings dry. I hope I can see live music when I’m 25. I hope I can legally travel to Europe this year. I hope I can find a steady job. I hope I can hang out with my family without being anxious that something goes wrong. Just months prior, I cancelled Thanksgiving mid-panic attack after a man coughed behind me in line at a testing center. “Yeah man, I definitely have it. Everyone else at the dinner got tested and they’re all positive.” What a weird time to be alive.
If you’re going to San Francisco, Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. If you’re going to San Francisco, you’re gonna meet some gentle people there.
I pass James Dean’s crash site without giving the existential significance of the landmark much thought, and turn up the music.
For those who come to San Francisco, Summertime will be a love-in there. In the streets of San Francisco, gentle people with flowers in their hair.
My parents were cooped up at their Airstream in Sonoma for 3 days so I had the apartment to myself. After hoisting my bag up the stairs, though I was still alone, I started to feel real for the first time in 10 days. I ordered dim sum for 3. I called all sorts of friends, old and new. “We’re proud of you dude. That is really sick you did that. We know it must have taken a lot for you to keep trekking and spend so much time on your own.” I’ll always be a sucker for amicable affirmations.
The drive back to LA took me 11 hours as thunderstorms caused two semi trucks to flip over on The Grapevine. I wrapped out the final chapters of Inherent Vice as I pulled into Mid City. Hell yeah, Doc is going to crack the case and get the girl! This book kicks ass.
At 20, I was still under the impression that Miss Veuve’s lesson was bullshit and that the world at large was sweet. I’d tell myself that I was the type of person who would go trek into the desert alone with no plan and see where things took me one day. I thought it was a personality type as much as something that I’d actually ever do. Yup, that’s me. Kian who would go on a solo adventure. Totally…
Now 25, I’ve done it and most definitely found something over the course of those 10 days. It took just over 1,500 miles and 24 hours to figure out what. Unfortunately, I won’t divulge to you what I found.