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

Lance Gerber promo

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.

Related Articles


Ace Hotel | March 27, 2023


Brigitte Shim understands light, form and landscape on what must be a cellular level. Along with her partner, A. Howard Sutcliffe, their acclaimed firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects helmed the design of Ace Hotel Toronto. Brigitte returned her expertise to our Toronto home during “How Do You Design A Feeling?” — the panel we hosted in partnership with Wedge Studio during DesignTO festival. We caught up with Brigitte about inspiration, a sense of place in design and her love of Toronto.

person standing against wall

Ace Hotel Kyoto | March 14, 2023


René Redzepi is among the world’s foremost culinary talents owed to his transformative take on Nordic cuisine at Copenhagen's noma. For the fourth time, René and the noma team are moving their Copenhagen culinary mecca around the globe, settling in for 10 weeks at our Kyoto home. Over the past two years, the team has prepared, working alongside local foragers, farmers, ceramicists, hunters and fishmongers to create seasonal culinary poetry. We caught up with René to chat 5 points of inspiration in Kyoto.

person in interesting facial makeup

Ace Hotel New Orleans | February 23, 2023

WILDS OF THE INTERIOR: A conversation with phlegm

A conversation with phlegm, a New Orleans born and based artist who works in face painting and self portraiture. He is inspired by Black cultural tone from across the diaspora; pulling inspiration from the Black Masking Indians of New Orleans, the Dogon of Mali, the Fulani of Nigeria, and the Zouli dance of Ivory Coast.wilds of the interior is a collection of work that aims to answer his question, “what parts of myself are hidden to me?”.