Sunday, September 24, 2023

Naked in the desert

You know you have left your vacation planning late when the only accommodation available is a nudist colony.

“Okay,” my sister, Heather, sighed into the phone. “I might have something for our first night.”

Heather and I had just spent 20 soul-crushing minutes trying to find separate nights’ accommodation for an epic road trip that would start in Vegas, tour five of California’s national parks, and end back on the Vegas Strip a week later. We had booked a Mustang convertible because when you are Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fans, you book a convertible. It was the ninth of June. We were leaving on the 16th. Left it late was an understatement.

We had imagined screeching sideways into dusty parking lots of quirky motels that caught our fancy. We might not have the Gilligan hats, Hawaiian shirts, and pencil-thin cigarette holders, but we would channel Hunter S. Thompson with a “let the open road and our whim be our guides” sneer at the safety of advance, online bookings.

Until June ninth arrived, and the imaginings shifted to sleeping roadside in a hot Mustang with no running water, cell service, or reclining seats. Living hundreds of kilometres apart, we decided to hop on the phone to book motels. Everything was sold out.

Until Heather stumbled on something that wasn’t – for our first night, anyway.

“Delights Hot Springs and Resort in Tecopa. Near Death Valley. It’s available, and the reviews are good.”

“Book it!” I urged.

I listened to the tap of her keyboard while I searched for night two.

“Oh,” she said.

“What is it?”

“Well,” she paused and then stifled a laugh. “It says clothing is optional.”

“Huh?”

“Except the pool.” This time, she laughed out loud. “Bathers must have swimsuits for the new, underground pool. The rest – hot springs, common areas, bathrooms – nude all the way!”

A pause while we considered the implications.

“I’ll pay extra for a private bathroom,” Heather said before entering her credit card and clicking “Confirm”.

At 2 p.m. on June 16, we steered the Mustang out of Vegas toward the Mojave National Preserve, determined to tour as much as we could before arriving at Delights to see the nudists before sundown.

“What’s that?” I asked as we flew along Amboy Road, an immaculate but desolate ribbon of two-lane asphalt that wound its way through towering hills of crumbling, ochre rock and stunted trees that looked like a cactus met a palm tree. To this point, the only break in the unobstructed views had been the occasional weathered trailer protected by a high fence or wall, landscaped with rusty cars and trucks, and adorned with flapping American flags.

We had just passed something distinctly different: a colourful display that stretched 50 feet or so across an empty patch of flat desert. I turned into a side road and headed back.

“It looks like an art installation,” Heather said excitedly. This was exactly the type of oddball serendipity we had wanted for this trip. Stuff the average tourist would not stop to see. So, failing to comprehend the full meaning behind the “Soft shoulder” sign at the side of the road, I slowed the Mustang and pulled off the asphalt.

Minutes later, after touring a series of multi-coloured, plexiglass boxes housing strings of beer-can tops tinkling in the desert breeze, we were back in the car to snap a smiling selfie and continue to Joshua Tree National Park. I hit the gas. The tires spun. The Mustang did not move.

“Shit.” All thoughts of Delights and its promises of bare flesh evaporated in fear.

“Soft shoulder” meant sand, and sand meant stuck. Suddenly, it registered how hot it was; easily 40C, and we had not seen another car in a while. We tried digging the sand away from the tires, flagging down the only car that passed our way in 40 minutes, and pushing the car. No luck.

I looked toward one of the trailer compounds, and said to Heather, “I think we have to go find help.”

Two women alone in the Mojave Desert – helpless, and unfamiliar with the area – could be forgiven for fearing that the locals might be hostile and armed. My suggestion sent Heather running into the desert to find anything that would get us out of there.

Back she came with a piece of fender and two pieces of rubber tire. Stuffing her finds into the wells I had dug around the back tires, Heather told me to get back in the driver’s seat.

“I’ll push!”

And she did, like she has never pushed before, and, one hour after pulling in, we were back on the asphalt. I spun the Mustang around and sped toward Joshua Tree National Park. With the jubilance that only follows escaping certain death, we celebrated our calamity in Hunter S. Thompson style. We were alive! What a story! We might make the nudists after all!

Except Joshua Tree defied rushing to make up the hour we had lost. Whereas the hills in Mojave National Preserve had looked like God piled loose rock with a bulldozer, the towering structures of Joshua Tree National Park looked like He had carefully stacked smooth boulders by hand. Dotted with those famous trees that reach elegantly from the ground to show the sky a cluster of golden and green thistles, Joshua Tree begged photos and moments of quiet admiration at every turn. For some of those moments – always ensuring that we parked on solid ground – we climbed to the top of the structures and looked out at a sun that was getting lower in the sky.

By the time we left the park and headed back onto Amboy Road toward Tecopa, the sun was kissing the horizon, and we were famished. About a mile from the infamous soft shoulder, we pulled in – on asphalt – to The Palms Restaurant, a local pub and restaurant that looked dilapidated from the outside, but was cozy, artsy, and welcoming on the inside.

When she heard about our adventure at the art installation, our bartender Kelly grinned from under her Carly Simon fedora.

“Well, you live here now,” she said with a chuckle. “Everyone who lives here gets stuck at least once.”

The Palms Restaurant was full of people, many of whom were artists and musicians enjoying a cheaper and freer existence in the desert. Friendly laughter and chatter filled the place, defying the stories we had been telling ourselves about the nature of the trailer dwellers.

“When I first moved here,” said a woman with leathery, tanned skin and hair that looked permanently blown away from her face. “I got stuck four times in six months.”

She nodded as we went into more detail about our ordeal, including my suggestion that we walk to a compound and ask for help.

“You don’t ever do that out here,” she said, switching the nod to a serious shake of the head. “You don’t knock on doors in the desert.”

So, our instincts were correct – to some degree. I don’t think Hunter S. Thompson would have it any other way. Following your nose and flirting with disaster in a tucked-away part of the world that could unearth a paintbrush-wielding artist as easily as a gun-toting libertarian.

Back at the bar, Kelly knew about Delights.

“I wouldn’t call it a colony,” she said. “But if you arrive at the right time, you will definitely see nude people.”

By the time we pulled into the deserted parking area outside the office of Delights Hot Springs and Resort, it was closing on midnight, and we knew this wasn’t the right time. We rolled over the gravel to our room through grounds that were dark and quiet. Any frolicking nudists had packed it in for the night.

We got out of the Mustang, grabbed our bags and were walking away from the car when I called to Heather.

“Look at this!”

She rushed back to my side, turning her head right and left. Maybe a naked night owl? But when she saw where I was looking, she followed my gaze. Up.

The sky was a cluster of stars crowding out the black sky. With no city or town lights to steal their brilliance, those stars shone with all the beauty of nature in the raw. This was the serenity of the desert. The naked we had arrived to see. We kept our necks craned for a moment, quietly absorbing the magnificence hanging casually in the sky above us.

Then the reality of fatigue set in, and we looked toward the door to our room. We laughed.

It was a trailer.

Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart is a Carleton University journalism grad who avoided real work by travelling to 53 countries and writing about her adventures. In 2012, she founded Perfect Pitch Consulting to help businesses across North America tell better stories about what they do and why. In 2020, she published her first book, The Story Compass. Every few months, Colleen gets the itch, and that means escaping real work to travel and find some adventures to write about.

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