Death Valley and the Burden of "Mr. Rhodes"
When I got a divorce and I was driving through the desert after seeing my ex-wife for the last time, I remember looking around at the ruddy jagged mountains, the sage brush, and the giant saguaro cactuses to the right and left of the narrow highway that cut straight through the desert until it disappeared into the horizon. The desert always reminded me of her. It was at once beautiful and hard to love. Ominous and tough but with a subtle fragility. Straight forward but also deceptive.
I had met her in the desert as a kid, we traveled all over America and in the process we both grew up and we both grew apart. Then, as an adult, in the desert I left her. And as I left the desert too, I decided I would leave the part of me who loved her there as well.
It was no small part of me, as it was no small love. We’d been together over six years and as I mentally tore away that part of soul, it ripped large parts of that six and a half years of my life away with it.
It’s funny, but as I drove away, I worried about myself. I worried about that part of who I was and what would happen to it out here in this desolate place. But I decided it would be better to leave a ghost in the desert than carry a dead weight on my heart.
I’ve always been like that. I compartmentalize chunks of my life into separate “lifes.” Every few years, my life undergoes some cataclysmic change -a break up, or a loss of job, or I move to a different place, but usually a breakup- and I have to kill my old self so that a new one can grow in it’s place. Each life might come with new clothes, hobbies, maybe even a new name. When my ex-wife and I split, I moved to Washington, started calling myself, “Drew,” got a new car and got rid of most of my old clothes. That’s how I deal with things. If I can’t handle something, I become someone who has no connection to it. Each life, a different life, but a part of the main.
My life now can be summed up with two detestable words: “Mister Rhodes.” Detestable because of the implications behind those words. Normally, I don’t mind being called Mister Rhodes. Like, if I’m at a bank or checking out at a grocery store or something. It’s not a matter of feeling old or anything. I like being old! But as my students use it -in reference to myself as a high school teacher- it is something wretched.
It implies a single-dimensionality. “Mister Rhodes,” is who I am to them. I am a high school teacher and that’s all. I am a less than. A jailer. A one dimensional sitcom antagonist for the virtual reality show that is their life. They assume that I’m the most mediocre, boring person in the whole world and that feeling seeps into the pores of my daily life. It’s an exhausting alter-reality. You start wondering, “Am I that person?”
It changes your outlook on things. Like when I had my first job. I was 13 and my step-dad got me a job in his nursing home facility. It was the most horrifying and depressing sight to which you could regularly subject a young man. Halls that smelled of acrid, musty, old pee filled with men and women shut into exile from their families and from their minds. Most were completely disconnected from reality, and you couldn’t pass them without them grabbing you by the arm and calling you by their child’s or grandchild’s name and begging you to get them out of this place. Men and women begged for the company of their long dead wives and husbands under the presumption that they had left them and abandoned them in that place.
If they did have their wits about them, which was rare, all they did was talk about this one golden, shining moment in their lives. Every day, all day, their life was boiled down to a mere moment. What happened to the rest of it? As a boy I wondered, is this it? Is this what happens when you get old? You either lose your mind or you wind up telling the same story over and over again? (I think I’d rather lose my mind.) The fear of it possessed me. It haunted me at night.
But now, looking at my life, I’m possessed by a different fear. It’s hard to enunciate it exactly, but I feel an abject dissatisfaction with it. It consumes me. I feel categorically mediocre. I feel an existential dread every time a student calls me, “Mister Rhodes” and coats me in the label of everything that implies. Life is like this lately, caked in layers of inescapable ennui. It’s like a cake with too much frosting. Frosting to the point of nausea. (I don’t much like frosting.)
But the desert, the desert doesn’t have layers. The desert is a mummified skeleton of a creature. It’s all exposed bones and decomposing sinews, cracked bark-like skin and tangled hair. No one looks at the desert and thinks of the creature it used to be. Of the forests and seas that covered it in eons past. No one calls a corpse, “Mister,” or rolls their eyes when it when it speaks.
I wanted this. I wanted to be that corpse. And when you’re in the desert, you are a part of that corpse. The dry sun strips your layers away. The endless rocky outcroppings give no foothold for your illusions to hold onto. You are in a barren place and so you become barren as well. But there is peace in the barren. There is solitude in desolation.
So, after the last school bell rang and my Freshmen moaned and shuffled out of class and into their weekend, I swung home to grab my camera bag and hit the road.
It was a long drive after a long day. I didn't arrive in Death Valley until 3 am. When I stopped the car to get my visitor’s pass from the automated machine at the Furnace Creek visitor’s Center, I was stuck my how dark it was. Even where parts of the visitor’s center were lit up, the aggressive darkness seemed to be actively trying to suppress the light, fighting it for as much territory as possible.
The wind was hard and warm. It kissed me and blew sand into my eyes. It made me feel welcome but told me not to stay long. It’s lover was the darkness, and the darkness, all around me, was a jealous man.
I parked my car near the shoot I had planned for the morning. I inflated my little backpacking sleeping pad and folded down the seats in my Subaru Outback. Within minutes, sitting underneath the open hatchback brushing my teeth, the sleeping pad had a fine layer of gritty sand over it.
I was putting everything away, about to go to bed, when out of nowhere a large man walked up to my car. I’m normally pretty open to talking to random strangers, but it was three in the morning and I thought this particular instance of conversation was a bit odd.
He had a thick Icelandic accent. I don’t know that much about Iceland, but I have seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and let me tell you, this man looked exactly like the rapist from that movie. Also, he saying things like, “So, are you all alone out here?” and, “You might be more comfortable sleeping in my RV.”
Yeah, this guy wanted to rape me. Hard.
I turned down his invitation and he sauntered back to his RV. I closed the hatchback of my station wagon and locked the doors. I was surprised how quickly I fell asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so comfortable as I did for that two and a half hours.
The alarm on my phone woke me up well before sunset. It was overcast and it was raining. That’s not the sort of conditions that make for good landscape photography.
I got my gear together anyways and started to hike up the mountain. I’d brought with me a rare film that I was hoping would make for an interesting print. It turns the color blue into copper and most everything else a shade of turquoise or aquamarine. I was hoping this odd combination would blend will with the desolate, big sky landscape of the desert.
I had to turn back because I forgot my coffee.
After grabbing the canned coffee I’d brought for just this occasion, I headed up the mountain and set up my camera on a cliff high above Zabriskie Point. I was glad I brought the coffee because I was up there waiting for the light to peak through the clouds for an hour and a half while the wind howled and continually knocked over my equipment. I was patient though, and even though the wind was screaming at me to get off her mountain, blowing my camera gear almost off the mountain, and blowing over my tripod every chance to could get, I was happy. Happy to be in the elements. Happy to not be “Mister Rhodes,” but a random ghost on a jagged desert cliff chasing the inevitable light.
I didn’t stay in Death Valley long. Only about twelve hours. I drove around to random places taking photos along the way, but always it was on the inevitable march home. The obligations of Mister Rhodes were calling him back. There was a dog to pick up from the sitter, papers to grade, errands to run, etc. A whole life of forgettable mediocrity that I’ll never remember when I’m locked into a urine soaked nursing home. But at least I got one more story to tell as I’m sitting in a dirty diaper waiting for the inevitable.
And when it comes, I think I’d like to meet up with that other ghost of mine. The one I left in the desert oh so long ago. The one who’s never known the taint of, “Mister Rhodes,” or so many of my other heartaches.
I think I’d like to see the me that I become when the desert has striped everything unessential away.