Welcome to the Mojave. I’ll be your tour guide today.
Buckle in and prepare yourself for majestic slot canyons and breathtaking vistas. If there’s time, we’ll stop for alien jerky and soak in the hot springs. But first, a word of caution: unless you’re looking to add the hospital to our itinerary, please avoid rattlesnakes, scorpions, and desert people.
Yes, I said desert people. Why do you look incredulous? Haven’t you watched The Hills Have Eyes?
In it, a family becomes stranded while on a drive just like this one. They saw the same stretch of sun-bleached asphalt ahead of them, the same deceptively-distant mountains looming on every side. And over the next hour and a half, they’re terrorized by a group of vicious mutants.
It’s only a movie, of course… but the concept came from somewhere. The same is true for every story that takes place in the desert. They’re fiction, but also… they’re not.
I see how you’re staring at me. And okay, I haven’t actually encountered mutant cannibals in Nevada. But there are desert people. They live in trailers amid the cracked-open salt flats and shifting dunes. If we run into them, keep your distance. If someone chooses to live alone in an inhospitable environment, odds are they don’t want company.
And for the most part, they won’t have to worry about human interaction out here. Just read Desperation by Stephen King and you’ll understand just how isolated the Mojave is. It’s about travelers who are abducted by a rogue deputy and taken to a town where he’s murdered the inhabitants. Turns out, he’s possessed by an evil force with the ability to jump from host to host. Not knowing who or what to trust, the travelers fight to save themselves—because in a place as desolate as this, no other rescue is coming.
Desperation is only fiction, of course… but it’s also not.
Anything can happen to a person in the desert. Anything.
We’re coming up on a town now, just past this cluster of Joshua Trees. It’s not a ghost town, though it may look it. This is Pahrump, Nevada, home of Art Bell.
What? You’ve never heard of him? He ran a radio program called Coast to Coast AM, a call-in show about the usual supernatural stuff: aliens, ghosts, cryptids.
I like to imagine Art Bell inspired Welcome to Night Vale, the hilariously weird podcast (and book series) set in the southwest. It takes the form of a mock radio program and covers the strange happenings in a town where the paranormal is, well, normal. If you happen to live in the desert, you’ll probably listen to it and think yes, yes, this is what home feels like.
Welcome to Night Vale is fiction, of course. Probably most of what Art Bell discussed on Coast to Coast AM was also fiction. But if you spend a lot of time in the desert, you start to think… maybe it’s not.
Oh hey, if you want to stretch your legs, we can pull over up here.
You don’t want to? Why not?
That’s just the Clown Motel.
Is there a problem?
I mean, sure, we can keep driving if you insist.
You know when I first realized the desert was creepy? When I read a Christopher Pike book called The Hollow Skull. It has the usual Mojave fare—aliens, secret government experiments, ancient evil being awoken. It follows a teen who’s forced to take drastic measures when she discovers that the inhabitants of her dusty, Nevada town are infected with something that’s stripping away their humanity—something that came from a tainted pool in an abandoned mine.
Which leads right to our next stop on the tour. Let’s leave the car for a moment. I know it’s hot—we’re in Death Valley now, so it’s actually scorching—but I promise we’ll be fast. You’re wearing sunscreen, right? You have plenty of water? Then come over here and see Devil’s Hole.
It may look like a small gouge in the ground, but it goes deep. Charles Manson thought it was the bottomless pit referenced in Revelation. He thought he and his Family could wait out the apocalypse here—if only they could figure out how to navigate the labyrinth-like caverns. According to legend, an explorer during the Gold Rush claimed Devil’s Hole held evidence of an otherworldly civilization.
Want to know something weird? There’s a fabled cave in the Grand Canyon with a nearly identical backstory. A prospector found relics from an ancient, perhaps inhuman, society, but no one believed him. So he returned to the cave for evidence… Except, of course, he vanished.
Don’t you find it a little alarming that this happened twice?
If this story intrigues you, check out the novel, The Anomaly by Michael Rutger. It explores the lore of the Grand Canyon cave through the viewpoint of a documentary filmmaker set on exposing its secrets. When he and his crew get trapped inside, they discover that the cavern might be home to something more sinister than they’d imagined. Fair warning: the book caused me several sleepless nights.
But then, so did the legend it’s based on.
They’re only tall tales, of course. They must only be tall tales.
Except… maybe not.
Are you ready to head back to town now? You look tired and hungry and there’s nowhere to stop for food—at least nowhere that doesn’t conjure images of the Donner Party. Besides, we shouldn’t be out here after dark.
The nighttime desert reminds me of It Only Comes Out at Night, a story by Dennis Etchison. A couple stops at a rest area during a late night drive through Nevada. Only something seems off. There are so many cars, but what’s happened to the people they belong to? The story captures the sensation of being alone in the desert when the sun goes down. The eeriness. The slow, creeping dread. The feeling of being watched.
The hills do have eyes, after all.
Tell me, now that you’ve spent some time here, what do you think of the Mojave? Can you see how some inherent strangeness seems to live deep in the caliche, radiate from creosote bushes?
I suspect that’s why certain books are set here. Books by people like Paolo Bacigalupi, Hari Kunzru, Paulo Coelho, Joan Didion. Science fiction and thrillers. Stories of people who are lonely, lost, desperate. Books that illustrate how the bleak landscape can warp a person’s mind.
One thing is certain: the Mojave doesn’t inspire love stories.
Of course, there’s horror to be found everywhere, in every region. Just think of the American south with its gothic, moss-dripped ghost stories.
Just think of the hungry creatures that stalk the cornfields of the Midwest.
Which makes me wonder… where are you from? You must have grown up with stories too.
Maybe next time you’ll give me a tour of your area—your woods or plains or swamps. Maybe you’ll tell me about the legends that grow there and the fiction they inspired.
Maybe you’ll remind me that they’re all just stories, of course.
Except, at the same time, they’re so much more.
Originally published August 2020.
Chelsea Sedoti fell in love with writing at a young age after discovering that making up stories was more fun than doing her schoolwork. (Her teachers didn’t always appreciate this.) She now focuses that passion by writing about flawed teenagers who are also afraid of growing up, like in her novels, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett and As You Wish. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she avoids casinos but loves roaming the Mojave Desert. Visit her at her website.