Pop Artist Ed Ruscha Gives Us A Road Map For Our Journey Into The Future of Desert X

Ed Ruscha

WATER –– 5¢

That’s what the sign written on the back of a cardboard box at a gas station said. My dad saw it first, driving our Plymouth up a grade at the top of a hill entering the Mojave Desert. We were kids on vacation heading for L.A.  Dad was outraged and got real angry when he read that sign. So much so that he kept on driving past it and into the desert (hot radiator be damned). The very idea of having to pay anything at all for what we call water! We got past that incident and settled back into a kind of pure solitude. All was quiet and everything kissed with a coating of varnish, the kind that only comes from the desert and the kind of varnish I’d never seen before, and yes, the heat, and yes, the repetition.

Arrow straight dirt roads would go off the highway at right angles and disappear ten, twenty miles later over some hill to nowhere. Never-ending clumps of creosote bush (world’s oldest living plant) lined the highway and points beyond. We could see that the desert was much like the ocean with dunes that roll like waves. At more or less regular intervals we would pass concrete culverts going under the highway that divert great rushes of rainfall we could never imagine occurring. Lack of rainfall is an easy and accurate way to describe the desert. But if and when it decides to unload, it does so with fury followed by happy plants and animals. It is rainless…until it rains.  The aromas from rain produce an unforgettable elixir of resins that only these plants (and the soil) can produce. Otherwise it’s a place of glorious but died out things. Hey, is that an oasis or is that a mirage?

As you move on you begin to realize that you can make the desert as mystical, as majestic and as forbidden as you want and that the solitude it produces is yours to pay with. Here, multitudes of plants and creatures survive in a seemingly defeated system. Legends with the desert create the fragrance of glory stories of past times: Lost gold mines. Wooden plank roads. Phantom stagecoaches and mule teams. Death Valley Scotty. Pegleg Smith. Willie Boy. Cabot Yerxa. Noah Purifoy. Driftwood Charlie. Indian Nations. Bill Keys. George Van Tassel. Antone Martin. Health Seekers. Cattle Rustlers. The Button Brothers. Desert Steve Ragsdale. Devils This. Devils That. Rattlesnake Bites. Scorpions. Roadrunners, coyotes and more and more mirages.

This is a rough and tough geologist’s heaven. Formations galore. Rolling dunes. Canyons. Ridges. Mesas. Plateaus. Craggy volcanic drop-offs. Escarpments of ancient origins. Billions upon billions of years all in slow motion. My friend Robert Smithson once remarked something to the effect that, “One pebble in the desert moving one foot in two million years is enough action to keep me really excited.”

I was looking for something to describe the passage of time, and I found it at an air-conditioned stop-off in Lucerne Valley. I went to the cold box and there it was: Fiji Water $5.00.

2. Ed Ruscha, Water — 5¢ in Desert X, 2017.

(New York: PPP Editions, 2019), 13–14.

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