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Twentynine Palms

Prologue: Prelude to a Kill

The concern here is the Mojave Desert, the dry, baptismal font of national consciousness, mythological birthplace of America. It takes a big, white-hearted desert to fuel the pursuit of happiness, vast stretches of emptiness to suggest that the world can be possessed like an oyster, extreme tableaux of beauty to obliterate all memory of bad news. “Have a nice day!” the Mojave Desert tells the crossing parade — the Donner Party, the seekers of buried treasure, the cowboys, the ranchers, the people who rush for Hollywood gold — “Good luck! Think positive!”

Called the Mojave Desert after the Indians who once lived there, this blank, sunny slate bears a name that has defied the plundering of linguists, the meaning of the original term, hamakhaav, long ago swept away by the Santa Ana winds, that strange atmospheric condition born in the desert which raises the skin on all living creatures and is said to warn of earthquakes. But the mysterious name fits; the unknowable is unnameable, too. The Mojave was here before California, Nevada, and Arizona planted their flags in it, and it will be here tomorrow. Not that it’s keeping track of time — history doesn’t matter out here; it’s space that counts, space that drives the country, space that suggests the possibility of declaring bankruptcy and starting over somewhere else, space that maintains the illusion of hitting the jackpot on some get-rich-quick scheme, space that whispers, make bombs and bring down the government all by yourself. In a weird bakery of the impossible, a vast scape of tortured beauty where all things are equal and do what is necessary to survive, personal demons aren’t demons at all, but just some other creatures who need a drink.

Senseless violence, the world calls it, but the Mojave knows otherwise. The Mojave knows, has always known, that the violence is not senseless, the disturbing acts that unfold on its sandy stage in fact make perfect sense. For that is the very nature of the place, to convey meaning, to show events in living color on a giant screen in bas-relief, to make it seem as if everything is happening for the first time, even if for some, it is the last, or simply the latest in an endless spiral of repetitive, nowhere acts. And this is the nature of the people who come here. They are starting over in the oven of American Zen, refracting into new souls with each infinitesimal turn of the earth, cranking up the Van Halen as the sun becomes the moon, being right here, right now, this is it, but Officer, last chance for new ID.

But the concern is not really with all of the Mojave, just a part of it — one aspect of is character — its very heart. This is the town called Twentynine Palms, which is found at an elevation of four thousand feet at a longitude of 34 degrees 08 minutes 09 seconds North and latitude of 116 degrees 03 minutes 15 seconds West, one hundred and eighty miles east of Los Angeles, a short distance but a long way. Its stage props are the tortured rocks and freak-show plants of its progenitor, but it is a heightened version of the Mojave; from it the Mojave might have been cloned. It sits on top of seven known fault lines and perhaps countless undetected cracks in the earth. The bottomless fissures crisscross and zigzag for hundreds of miles in every direction, creating the most volatile web of geography in the American West, a region geologists call the Eastern California Shear Zone. To the north and east runs the Emerson Fault, epicenter of the 4.5 Emerson Quake in 1975. To the west run the Galway Lake Fault Zone and the Pinto Mountain Fault, site of nonstop temblors ranging from one-pointers, which are imperceptible to all but the most highly attuned desert creatures, to jolting slip-and-fall three- and four-pointers, which make for a noisy response among cactus wrens and mourning doves and send jackrabbits skittering across the sands and collapse the fragile nests of the desert tortoise and snap its freshly laid eggs in two. To the south and east run the Cleghorn Lake Fault and Homestead Valley Fault; these two cracks in the earth met fiercely tens of thousands of years ago, and they have continued to collide with each other so violently and so frequently that they have shaken and thrust upward the Coxscomb Mountains — a peculiar range outside of town that always looks bruised. In 1992 the intersection of the Cleghorn Lake and Homestead Valley faults ruptured in a quake of 7.2 magnitude, epicentered near Twentynine Palms in the town of Landers. As the ground in the Eastern California Shear Zone fell away, the Coxscombs lurched skyward — some say the ancient peaks gained two inches in the blink of a raven’s eye. The Landers Quake echoed across the West, at the beach in Santa Monica where the palm trees swayed in response to the distant ground shivers, in Las Vegas where the casinos blacked out for a moment, hinting that there might be such a thing as time, in Montana where a truck driver drove off a two-lane, and in New Mexico where nervous desert dwellers in white helmets checked and double-checked missile silos that seemed relics of a distant global configuration. In Twentynine Palms, some residents were so alarmed by the force of the quake that they did not sleep inside — under a roof — for days. Was the Mojave Desert beginning to eject its latest squatters, reclaim itself? Perhaps so — in one way or another, every so often, perhaps when it tires of its own stillness, it likes to scare people away, to writhe in pain and shake uncontrollably in delight, to stir things up, to make people think — otherwise how can its treasures be callipered, appreciated?

And then there are the times when the Mojave Desert gets serious, wants more than fear and awe, demands a blood sacrifice. The personal-rights party has gone too far. Things must happen. Often, a girl is involved. Often, some boys. Generally, a knife. And then there is the military. In this case, the few, the proud... the Marines. The blood must flow, attention must be paid: the desert says, “Don’t tread on me, I’m where the party started and one of these days, I might just shut the whole thing down.”

This is an excerpt from Deanne's book Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave.

all material © Deanne Stillman, 2002 is a site