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Kay Smythe

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Thursday, August 15

The Desert Is Not An Investment Opportunity

By the way your ears pop, you should know you’re entering a new dimension within the Wild West. You’re ascending to a topographical range where the lizards grow huge and the dormice drink booze. Watch out for the weirdos and Nazis and lovers and those of us who commune with the universe: you’re on your way to Joshua Tree. 

Starkness is the primary assumption upon arriving in California’s high desert. The land appears barren; wealth seems fleeting, abandoned. Stores like Independence Guns & Ammo, Carpet-N-Things, and The End, suggest that this is a place where fiction and reality merge. California’s desert is where you can bridge the divide between homo sapien and nature without pretension. As trucks lay rotting in glory, new homes appear for the coyote and cactus alike. 

Plenty of folks are flocking beyond the tropicana of Palm Springs, higher than the High Desert to find their primitive self. Historically, those who turned to the desert were the Easy Rider, Gram Parsons; more recently the demo has shifted to climbers and scientists, developers and hippies. Today, city people roam the streets after unloading their Chelsea Tractors, eyes wide and skin flushed in the day’s dawning heat. The furthest off-road they’ve been prior is the Mall parking lot. 

People who choose style over substance were quick to climb aboard the desert vibe for the last few years, filling homes with pastels and succulents - which are motherfuckers to keep alive, which is why the Urban Bloom, and others like her, need sainthoods for what they’re doing for carbon capture in their careers - yet there is an undercurrent of desperation that accompanies our yearning to bring the natural world into our homes, and that tempts us to explore regions even our recent ancestors have avoided. 

For the city people, a common activity is hiking the dried up riverbeds as scientists and climbers and hippies watch from the crest, hearts heavy for when the rivers will run again, taking it with it nature’s nirvana, but not before the ignorant have had their way. 

When the dried-up riverbed is a few feet from your property, and snow has started falling more and more frequently, at lower and lower ranges, the planet gives melt water and runoff. This, coupled with obliterating summer heat that comes seemingly overnight, is a recipe for many great natural disasters coming soon to a neighborhood near you. 

The most obvious to Californian residents is the wildfire. One drunken party in an Airbnb with a mishandled barbecue or electrical circuit, and residents of the San Bernardino desert can watch their homes and trailers and meth labs and soundbaths and biker gangs and environmental protection installations and homes and livelihoods either burn or be washed away into oblivion. This isn’t even the first time that the desert has rejected the liberal artsy transplants who ran away to Los Angeles and failed to achieve their dreams…

The story of the Salton Sea is one that California’s government and media have really failed to exploit, as it depicts the unadulterated attitude of the earth beneath us. 

The Salton Sea was the 1990’s Fyre Festival. 

Californian’s realized that there was a huge market for irrigating the Imperial Valley, initially for agriculture, and then for tourism. Multiple attempts succeeded and failed to utilize the land. Mother Earth refused to be raped and beaten for monetary wealth. The Salton Sea became a wasteland of lost Americana, which is actually more beautiful than anything our species could envision creating. 

The same attempts are being made to Joshua Tree. Transplants are trundling up the Morongo Valley in droves, forcing the question as to whether we’ve lost touch with why we protect these places, and why there are so few people live nearby?

David with the blue hair reminisces of contracting in a hundred-and-twenty-four-degree heat, because that is what you have to do to earn a living up there. Allison at the vintage store listens intently. She’s lived all over the world, been traveling since her early adolescence. This rural town, perpetrated only by silence, is where she has chosen to raise her children. Sarah at the Country Kitchen doesn’t understand, rightly so, why people get mad that she can’t seat them on demand. They also leave the door open, letting the air conditioning out, which is simply fucking rude and annoying as shit. 

Five years ago, we could walk Rian, the house-goat through the market, and people said hi. Now, out-of-towners have made it difficult to even own a house-goat and live judgement free as neighbors. 

Airbnbs are the new normal of the desert. They line the hillsides, mostly in residential neighborhoods, which exclusively mitigate the desert experience for anyone visiting. If you decide to book a vacation rental that is surrounded by other properties, you’re paying to sit in a sweatbox full of insects that bite and vermin that shit everywhere for a week. However, many of these Airbnbs will give you the chance to experience life in that plush desert aesthetic that makes you so wet when you turn on social media. 

Most of the people buying up in the desert have no idea what the fuck they’re doing. The only major boom seasons in the desert are winter and fall, meaning two seasons a year where a property is sitting half-used. As the Southern California homeless and various deviants cotton-on to the boomtown of Joshua Tree, the first places hit will be the vacant Airbnbs who can’t find semi-permanent residents (because they don’t exist). 

Some folks are investing up to half a million dollars in decor alone, and even though they’ll be insured to cover it, talk to the Venice community currently dealing with these issues; then decide whether you’re ready to take on the emotional risk for a minimal and short-lived financial return, which leads nicely into the final point… 

As the climate continues to reclaim her planet, areas already undergoing extremities are only set to get worse. Heating and cooling bills are going to increase to the point where they will likely outpace a mortgage, as will the cost of upkeep from external and animal threat. Freeze thaw is no fucking joke, and neither are ants.

The irony is that if you take Joshua Tree at face value, for what it is right now and could still remain, only mildly scarred by the city, it environmentally, geologically, and socially bridges communities in a swirl. It moves humanity forward by giving us a place to value and protect, traits that are fading from our normality. The desert is the most intelligent place on the planet, working in a lyrical amalgamation of every feature created on Earth. It is highly necessary that we do our very best to live in unison with such locations, as they are growing more and more distant from our reality. 

Drinking wine in an abandoned pool in a Cactus grove near Twentynine Palms, it’s easy to see why we stayed in the cave for so long. The natural world is really fucking great and we make it ugly. This planet does more for our physical and mental health than anything Big Pharma has created in the last hundred years. Our ancestors understood that it is only here that we can truly appreciate our individual insignificance, but our collective catalyst for utter self-annihilation. 

Environmental journalist, Lucy Sherriff noted the magical realism of her time in Colombia over fizzy wine atop a sunset illuminated hillside. If the designation of magical realism was true of anywhere else, it’s here. Joshua Tree may represent another avenue to merging the communities of our decaying society, and the dreamtime world our species was once able to inhabit peacefully.

From the distance comes a thunder of motorcycles seeking the wildest west, followed by an endless breve of silence. In the faded morning, a dormouse floats in leftover wine, the universe saying in no uncertain terms, that we do not belong here. Where our species goes, so does death. Even those of us with the best intentions seem to always fuck it up. 

We have a big responsibility to change the way we treat development. The Trend Forecast Summary for Joshua Tree and surrounding villages is stark: 
  • We’re destroying the desert, instead of communing with it 
  • Developing land to sell to people, who won’t be able to live there in less than a decade, does not, by definition, move humanity forward
  • It’s really stupid 
  • Our current relationship trends with undeveloped parts of the world, everywhere, are unnecessary in their current form 

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