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January 22, 2004

The Living Desert

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/the_living_desert_20040123

As I write this, it's 64 degrees in Santa Monica and Sub-Zero is just a brand of refrigerator I covet. On the East Coast, there is a record cold spell and everyone is paying rapt attention to the wind-chill factor.

The climatic difference can best be explained not merely by boasting or gloating -- but by the fact that Los Angeles is a desert.

For most Angelenos, heading out to the desert means driving on Interstate 10 for about two hours to reach the desert communities, so-called: Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert and La Quinta. Here the desert blooms green with golf courses and condos.

In some ways, the relationship between the desert and Los Angeles is as if some mad scientist had extracted variant strains from the local culture and seeded them in its own petri dish (not unlike the relationship of the Hamptons to New York). There is the Palm Springs of the 1950s, of Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby and, to toss in a literary reference, Norman Mailer's "Deer Park." You can even board an air-conditioned bus to tour the movie stars' homes. A whole cult has arisen around the architecture and furniture of the period that the more serious-minded refer to as "mid-century." To paraphrase Mr. Eliot, in the consignment shops cool hunters come to play / speaking of houses by Richard Neutra and Albert Frey.

In downtown Palm Springs, you can feel the hipness quotient rising. Trina Turk has her first boutique there. Hotels for the hipoisie are sprouting right and left: there is the Korzen-Wearstler-designed Estrella Inn (think of it as Viceroy Jr.), the Jetson-like Orbit Inn and the Moroccan-inspired Korakia Pensione. The early adopters are buying second homes nearby. There is an enclave by the airport where trend definers like Lynda Keeler of www.la.com (my wife consults there) have purchased '50s desert abodes and redone them. People more wise in the ways of money than I (regrettably that's not saying much) believe Indian casino money (both people spending it and hoping to earn it) will continue to fuel the current upgrade.

This is the resort life and I'm a resort kind of guy. For Team Teicholz, that means sitting by the pool at midday in between trips down the water slide; seeing every family movie on view at the many desert multiplexes, capped by some wardrobe enhancement missions at the Cabazon premium outlet mall. There are also some excellent eating opportunities: from the breakfast at Keedy's Fountain & Grill (big on classic ambience), to Crazy Coyote Tacos in Banning, to Fleming's for steaks (I don't know why their rib-eye is better than anyone else's, it just is). I have yet to make it to Gramma's Country Kitchen in Banning, but my fellow fressers, Eric Rahn and Rob Stavis, put it on their top 10 breakfasts at No. 3, just behind Pasquale's in Santa Fe and the Camelia Grill in New Orleans.

However, like Los Angeles, it all depends what road you are on. Stay on Highway 111 and you are in the resort world. Take Highway 62 off the 10 and you are headed into Joshua Tree and toward Twentynine Palms. Highway 62 reveals the natural beauty of the desert, and some of the ugliness of the broken dreams that we would like to forget.

Deanne Stillman knows this world. More than any writer I know, the desert speaks to her, and she speaks for it. Stillman grew up in Cleveland, but even as a child the desert captured her imagination. After attending college in New Mexico and despite a flirtation with New York (where we first met), she made Los Angeles home. Still, the desert called to her. In articles for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, Stillman started to cover the desert. Exploring the Mojave, which she has called "this windswept museum of hope, this weird bakery of the impossible," and Joshua Tree (in her words: "the ecstatic vegetable"), she followed Highway 62 until it led to Twentynine Palms.

One day in a desert bar, she heard a story about two girls who'd been killed: Amanda Scott and Rosalie Ortega. Mandi and Rosie. Mandi was two days shy of her 16th birthday. Deanne asked who they were.

"Just two girls," someone said.

"They partied too hard," someone said later.

In a nightmare version of "An Officer and a Gentleman," they had been murdered by a Marine from the local base, recently returned from the first Gulf War.

Stillman spent the next 10 years researching, writing, living the trial, soaking up the desert till she had to run away -- and staying away until she had to come back. The resulting book, "Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave" (Perennial, 2002), is a true crime story in the tradition of "In Cold Blood" and the "The Executioner's Song." They used to call it the nonfiction novel, today they call it narrative nonfiction. It's just fine writing, a searing story and tour of the desert most people prefer to avoid. She did justice to Mandi and Rosie and to the desert, as well.

So when I knew I was going to write about the desert, I called Stillman. Most people view the desert as arid and barren. To her the desert is alive in a literal way, filled with surprises from the most sublime wildflowers, to offering her a spiritual and emotional center. It is, in her words "the elusive core of Los Angeles."

The desert is what you get when you pare away the city -- good and bad, high life and low life, real and fake. As Stillman told me, Joan Didion wrote about the disconnect in Los Angeles. Stillman feels it's just the opposite: the desert is the connection.



Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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