Chapter 19: Shannon
Unknown I-10 Gas Station
Cactus City, CA
She’s the smartest person in the room, at least in my purview.
I watch her expand every time we’re together, asking questions about human behavior and personal accountability and pop culture gaffes. Her mind is a portal into a unique vision of the world, constantly teetering back and forth between complete irreverence and absolute goonishness. Her mind shocks and awes me each moment we spend together, and she is, without a doubt, the funniest person I know. A skilled comic with precision-like timing and a knack for quick wit — with room to make fun of herself first. Her humor knows no bounds but is always sincerely inviting and comforting, even if you become the butt of the joke.
She hates to center herself but has been learning to accept when she should and exudes an almost fatal humility that can get her into trouble sometimes. She rocks back and forth between self-love and self-doubt like a true, bonafide artist would, teetering on the brink of her greatness with a delicate balance of self-inflicted shame and thought patterns that have been instilled in her by the insidiousness of patriarchal realities. She boldly stands up for what’s right and has a knack for experimenting with how she lives in the world in an effort to keep searching for happiness.
Moreover, she challenges me and influences me and supports me in ways nobody else ever has.
And did I mention that she knows exactly how to make me laugh?
Around her, I am wholly free to be myself, every corner of my existence, and when we share our time with one another, she encourages me to live in my shoes and walk the walk and feel good about who I am and what I have to offer. She’s a sturdy travel companion who has an ease about her that’s comfortable, and she is the wiser younger sister I never thought I’d find.
As we drive through the California desert en route to a casino in Maricopa County, site of the tense 2020 presidential election showdown, I watch her hands grip the wheel as we blast Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This,” unironically, a song she’s admitted to our friend Henry and me that she’s fallen back in love with, hard, and brings us aboard for the nostalgic ride, on repeat. I smile to myself as I enjoy the spectacle of her fearlessness in the safety of her Toyota Prius that pummels past the October horizon, just over the speed limit, as dusty cactus towns whiz by.
Each time we pass by an abandoned structure, I chicken out asking her if we can pull over because the drive is long, much longer than we anticipated when we booked the tickets for my birthday bash a few months back. We’re going to see Chelsea Handler, live, and both of us have expressed ferocious excitement. Since I don’t want to slow us down, I decide now is not the time for a pitstop at the ruins of the sandy, crusted landscape that is the California desert.
Once we cross into Arizona, I sheepishly come clean and tell her how many abandoned spaces I feel like I’ll have to come back to at some point, locations dotted across the map of our journey from Los Angeles to Harrah’s Ak-Chim in the Phoenix suburb. Without pause, she says, “We can totally stop at one on our way back if you want” which catches me off guard as she’s never expressed interest in going on that kind of adventure with me. Thrilled at the prospect of sharing that sacred space with her, my already-lifted birthday spirits rise even more, and I feel like a million bucks as we quickly drop our bags off at a cute little AirBnB and get ready to go, exchanging ideas on what outfit each of us might wear.
The show is great, and afterward we try our luck at the casino, but our cashless-ness, broken ATMs, and my general, lingering fear of Covid-19 (even though I just had it a month ago) keep me from feeling cozy at the idea of being in crowded rooms with all the spittle and sweat slinging through the air on this warm Saturday evening. We retreat back to our AirBnB and drift off, fast asleep until the morning when the six-hour drive back to LA lies before us.
I’ve forgotten my excitement over the possibility of getting to do a little exploring inside a crumbling desert relic, a timestamp of the days when Route 66 was a mentality, a lifestyle, and a destination for adventurers like me. A moment when nobody had a cellphone, Instagram wasn’t a thought, and everyone knew everyone else’s name in every small town that dotted the deserts of the southwest. We’re over halfway back to LA when we blaze past an abandoned gas station on our side of the interstate that snags me by the cheek, a fish hooked into this dusty ocean, and I collect the courage to quickly ask her if she’s okay with taking the next exit so I can go poke about. There is no hesitancy in her voice, and we veer off to a service road running parallel to the freeway where my colossal treasure awaits.
As we pull up, I ask her if she’d like to join me, but she declines. “It’s not really my thing,” she replies. It’s a sentiment I’ve sort of gathered from her over the course of my time working on this project — but she continues to say that, by all means, “Please take your time.” I’m not sure why I feel a tiny bit bummed and suddenly a little self-conscious, but as I close the door and start walking towards the structure, a sight for sore Urbex eyes, those fleeting feelings evaporate into thin air.
The world of 2021 disappears. I walk through a portal into a version of the past that my imagination has laid out before me. I remember that I will be 34 tomorrow and smile big at my kid self, allowing the wonderment and curiosity I feel at each and every abandoned space I venture to envelope me.
I walk underneath the metal ceiling where four gas pumps used to sit. As I scuff my feet on the shattered concrete and hear the echoes of the highway reverberate beside me, I enter 1979, when the Carter administration was wrought with the oil crisis and “gas line” integrated into the cultural lexicon, a collective experience in cities across America — and around the world. But this is Cactus City, CA, an unincorporated community in Riverside County, a barren chunk of the Ariza-Borrego Desert, a few miles north of the Salton Sea oasis, just south of Joshua Tree, roughly 40 miles east of Palm Springs, and 140 miles west of the Colorado River Reservation. Though I’ve been teleported back to 1979, the sparse population and blaring heat have spared me of the gas lines today. I see Trixie, the gas station owner, standing inside as ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” plays softly over the radio inside the station. I go to pull out a nozzle and remember that it’s no longer 2021 and that I’ll have to pay inside with cash.
I pass through the cracked and graffiti crusted door of the building and into a convenience store. Trixie looks up from her copy of The LA Times, and I see the front page headline: “House Votes to Keep Gasoline Price Curbs.” “Hot one,” Trixie mutters as I hand over a $20 and ask for a fill up on pump 2. Prices are $1.07/gallon, unspeakable for 1979, but I know I don’t need more than $12’s worth anyway.
Trixie starts pressing buttons to rev up the pump as I start wandering the aisles of snacks and Coca Cola beverages in the fridges that line the outer rim of the store. I grab a glass bottle of Mexican Coke and add it to my tab, an additional $0.45. I look up at the ceiling. Spinning fans whirr above, and I scoff at their uselessness. This is pre-AC, and like Trixie said, it’s hot. “Yeah, they just blow the hot air around,” she scoffs back. I thank her and step back through the time portal into 2021, leaving Trixie and her shop behind.
I round the back of the small complex to a side door that leads me into a service garage. I half-expect that my imagination will take another deep dive, but it doesn’t. I stare at the empty cavern, once full of cars being fixed up, high on lifts, the smell of oil and feeling of grease on my fingers, the sound of metal machines clashing on the underside of broken-down cars. Light from the midday sky blasts through the fractured glass on the windows of the garage doors, and I feel a stillness that sets my mind at ease. I glance outside through an opening in the wall and see her leaning up against her car, cool as a cucumber, looking at something on her phone. I feel big love pummel through my chest and a sense of gratitude for her time and care.
I climb through the hole in the wall and head towards a small gulch behind the station where I find a cement slab that used to be the foundation of some sort of structure, likely a storage shed, surrounded by cacti (apropos) and old tires (also apropos) basking in the glow the desert. Remnants of visitors’ past are strewn about, torn clothes and chipped pieces of plastic and stained paper billowing in the wind. I take photographs with my Polaroid that I purchased in San Francisco back in June and let the sun cleanse my pale skin and feel the dry heat wrap me up in a sturdy embrace. I feel a little sad that I’m only in California for a few more days before I go back to New York. I’m wearing cutoff sleeves and jeans and hear the sounds of the desert as I turn back to stare at the gas station sign, now just an empty skeleton, no way to identify what the name of this monument to American capitalism used to be.
I make my way back up the small embankment of sand and stone and stand under the canopy one last time, sponging up any lingering molecules from 1979, gently sticking them into my pocket to pull out any time I need to recharge my spirit as the pandemic continues to wax and wane, as we continue to hold our breath, unaware that in six months time, gas prices will once again skyrocket, just like in 1979. Fucking Putin.
I look down at the remains of the pavement under the sturdy metal covering and stoop down to examine the dust. I wonder if any of these grains have been here since 1979. I pick one up and inspect it as another car with two much older Urbexers pulls up, my cue to leave and get back to my friend patiently waiting for me. The couple, a man and a woman, get out of the car. The man barks at me, “They just don’t make ’em like this anymore, huh?” “No,” I agree. “No, they do not. Enjoy your visit.”
Just before I get back to the car, I turn back and see the couple has stepped back in time too. I see their hippie 1979 selves. I realize I’ve made an assumption that they’re a couple and see the man begin to poke about, just like me, as the woman stays in the car, just like my friend.
And I have to wonder, as we drive away, if they weren’t a couple at all, but two dopes spending time together, in the middle of Cactus City, CA.