Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch is a jeweled oasis located off Route 66 in the High Desert. It is owned and operated by Elmer Long, a Californian native who decided to expand his father’s bottle collection by quitting his day job and creating a gilded forest full of carefully welded metal trees adorned with rows of colorful discarded bottles.
Walking through Elmer’s bottle trees is like walking through a grove of weathered wind chimes. As we headed deeper into the ranch toward Elmer’s tool shed, a gust of wind picked up and the trees howled in unison — a sweet, raspy collective sigh in the middle of the vast arid expanse that is the High Desert.
I’ve always had a deep respect for folk artists like Leonard Knight, Art Beal and Elmer Long. The ones who not only contemplated art, but lived it. The ones who chose a Thoreau-esque life of deliberation in the margins, both intellectually and geographically. The ones who walked the walk.
Elmer’s intricate bottle apparatuses seemed to reflect my bland existence in the capitalist circuit, devoting an innumerable amount of time and energy toward making a living. But am I really living? I glanced over at Elmer’s camper parked beside his toolshed teeming full of vintage toys and dangling buffalo jawbones —
Nearly 200 miles east of Los Angeles in California’s Badlands lies a tight-knit squatter settlement known as Slab City. A smattering of festively painted RVs dot the parched land amongst concrete slabs from abandoned WWII marine barracks. Residents — also known as “slabbers” — endure 120°F summers with little more than shady tents and macgyvered electric generators. “Here, a beer can actually kill you,” laughs Jen, a resident of eight years. “One drink too many and you can die from dehydration.” She glances over at two young, deeply tanned slabbers laughing uproariously in the hammocks. “Not that that’s stopped anyone.”
Slabbers are as diverse as they come. Some are abandoned seniors driven here by poverty and strife. Others are marginalized youth trying to live off the grid. Some are dedicated recluses wanting to be left alone. Others are retirees wanting to stretch their retirement income. But slabbers have one thing in common: they look out for their neighbors. As I walked about the RV community in my stupid city clothes and a camera in hand, I lost count of how many times I got a friendly hello from a nearby trailer or saw two slabbers chatting it up in their front yards adorned with sun-bleached tapestries.
In fact, upon arriving to East Jesus I was immediately taken under the wing of Jen, a young, sun-kissed blonde in a weathered tank top and a bleeding cut on her right ankle. She whirred toward me through the arid desert in an electric wheelchair without a care in the world, kicking up a mean trail of dust behind her. I watched her intently, peering back and forth between the cloud of dust and her crusty leg wound. “I’ll give you a tour of the place,” she offered cheerfully as I stood there like an idiot, trying to assess the situation.
We made our way through the front entrance, an elaborate gate made of carefully balanced car parts and scraps from the junkyard. A winding path unraveled before us, taking us through an array of statement vintage cars and various art installments. We came across a lopsided house, complete with a furnished living room. The couch and TV were artfully “sinking” into the ground at a steep angle. “You can go inside if you want,” said Jen. “We love putting people in there, especially if they’re on a bad trip.” It was the Madhatter’s garden of Eden.
Jen was not shy to impart us with her political views. “Democrats, Republicans. They’re just a bunch of white men yelling at each other.” I chuckled at the grand simplicity of it all. For the past four years, I’d dished out thousands of dollars for a social science degree, discussing political theories and partisan values and diplomacy for months on end, only to have it boiled down to a mere sentence by a woman cruising around the desert in a wheelchair. “I can’t disagree with that,” I replied.
Jen later invited us to her art colony, where she shared a cluster of trailers and a common space with four other men. “Things are a bit slow around here during the summer,” she said as she took us through a shaded sitting room, a terrace with a hot tub, even an outdoor music studio complete with an old grand piano and four amps. “Everyone ducks out for the summer, you know, ’cause of the heat. But come winter, this place can fill up to 25 people.”
The camp was a true spectacle. There was a carpeted yard with dozens of antique sofas and tufted armchairs scattered about, where residents gathered to smoke and play chess. There was a small trailer known as the Library, lined with shelves upon shelves of books ranging from plant encyclopedias and religious documents to graphic novels and porn. There was even a mini-bar set up, complete with fancy wine glasses and an array of hard liquor, most of which came in plastic containers.
As we parted ways, Jen invited us to come back on the Fourth of July, where we can all “sit around, drink beer, and watch sh*t blow up like real Americans do.” Though I knew I would be in NYC by then, I smiled and told her I would. “Hey, before you go, you have to check out this skate park I built,” interjected a burly man covered in tattoos. “It’s on the way back to Salvation Mountain. You have to go check it out,” he said with a toothy smile. I was floored — scared, even — by how comfortable I felt there. “I’ll keep an eye out,” I told Burly Man. “Thanks for having us.”
We emerged from Slab City with chapped lips and sand in our hair, dizzy with wonder — or was it the heat? It’s hard to tell. We rode home in blissful silence on the four-hour-drive back, trying to make sense of it all. How was it that a quick visit to Salvation Mountain had turned into a 3-hour detour to Slab City? Moreover, how was it that a matte-haired woman living in 120°F weather with nothing but an electric wheelchair and the clothes on her back had proved to be the most easygoing and clearheaded woman I’ve ever met?
Still, as we burnt rubber on the 111 heading back into city lights and civilization, I could feel the shimmering magic escape my clenched fingers and dissipate into thin air. The radio was starting to kick in, we had phone reception again — and it was too late. As we left the panoramic Badlands behind us, we’d left behind the marrow of our souls; the part that makes us lonely, proud, dangerous.
It was one of those nights when the air is still and the temperature is just right. I was having beers with an old friend of mine in a familiar backyard under the fading stars; we were talking about this and that, my recent breakup and her life back in the desert, after years of living in the lush redwood forests of Northern California.
We were both feeling mildly nostalgic, a tad bit introspective — the beers might have had something to do with it — but most of all, we were feeling a little deprived. After we’d acknowledged that we were both poised for change, a nagging thought of mine blossomed into words:
“Let’s go on a long drive.”
And so we did. We took five blissful days driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to Humboldt County and back to LA to steep in California and all its glory. We stayed in hostels, crashed on couches, went on day-long hikes til our limbs grew numb. We stood under towering redwood trees, felt the cold ocean spray on our cheeks. We left our footprints on the great sand dunes rippling in the coastal winds. We climbed over boulders to see the jagged coastlines emerge beyond the fog. We ducked through a dilapidated house built by a charming garbage collector with a broken heart. We burnt some rubber, felt the ground beneath our feet. We cheers’ed at a Humboldt dive bar, paying a restless but endearing, lost but well-meaning tribute to our Home State, the beautiful state of California which has watched silently over us as we grew from giddy children to angsty teenagers to secretly angsty adults.
As the raw Californian sunlight filters in through the window I sink deeper in my chair, steeping in the warm, buttery familiarity of it all. The barren hills, the parched stucco walls, the faint smell of eucalyptus, burnt tires and dust — they all seem to culminate into a low-key, unceremonious epilogue for my four-month-long journey from the dewy solace of Vancouver to the arid expanse of Santa Clarita to the intoxicatingly warm and familiar embrace of motherland Japan.
I rarely write on the go. I have an impossibly low threshold for stimuli — a slight turn of events sends my mind off on a sensory roller coaster, flooding my neurons with robust vibrations and a hardy emotion akin to panic. I often wait weeks to write about an event; I wait for it to sink in, to ferment. If I don’t, I tend to sound batsh*t crazy.
Truth is, even now, two weeks since my return from Japan, I’ve still a bit of a buzz going. Japan shook me on so many levels, rigorously testing my cultural narrative as a Japanese-American while validating my existence, all at the same time. I met people whom I connected with on a basic, almost cellular level — people who spoke my language and dialect, people who knew my birth town like the back of their hand, people who saw the rather unusual Japanese character for my name and said, “I’d like to meet your parents one day.” These conversations were natural and effortless — they were comprised just as much of uttered words as the brief moments of silence in between.
As a marked attempt to reflect on my trip within a somewhat reasonable time frame, I’ve written a short piece for Provencial Magazine. You can find it here. Otherwise, consider me a work in progress — I’ve still got a bit of fermenting to do. I will give you guys a proper update soon, promise. That being said, I’ve got some exciting projects and a roadtrip (!) on the way. Stay tuned for more updates!
I’ve been unbelievably blessed to be able to spend the past three weeks working at Miyama Satoyama-sha, a traditional Japanese minka house boasting tsuchikabe walls, ishiba foundations and breathtaking tategu architecture. My stay here has been nothing short of life-changing.
My heart fills to the brim as I think about the days spent at the workshop oiling tategu planks which bled seamlessly into late nights soaked in shochu and good company, talking into the wee hours about everything from traditional architecture to the undeniable charisma of Shinsaku Takasugi to showing up to a party on a motorcycle dressed like Freddie Mercury. The house was a revolving door with new faces on the daily — I was able to talk to an array of students, hyakusho farmers and lawyers who were all immeasurably passionate about preserving the Japanese way of life.
I will be writing more extensively on Satoyama-sha for an upcoming project, to be released in the fall. I absolutely cannot wait to share all the details with you. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: my heart is full. So, so full. Waking up to the rich aroma of cedar every morning and working until my limbs go numb has truly been the most restorative experience of my life. Stay tuned for more updates!