Conjuring a Sense of Place: Interview with Calexico’s John Convertino

John Convertino of Calexico playing in Melbourne Australia March 2016

Tucson-based band Calexico will tour Europe again in July 2016 promoting their 2015 album, Edge of the Sun (ANTI-). This tour includes the Larmer Tree Festival in Dorset (16 July 2016) and the Citadel Festival in London (17 July 2016). Calexico enthrall their audiences around the world, who are treated regularly to the band’s passionate and diverse live repertoire. Their music is intent on “negotiating borders” and is often derived from exotic landscapes and cultures they have immersed themselves in. On their recent Australian tour, Melbourne writer Venita Munir interviewed Calexico co-founder and drummer John Convertino about what influences his songwriting, from literature, landscape and place.

Generally speaking, how do books and reading fit into your life?

I love books and reading. Nothing is more satisfying to me than reading a really good book. My wife and son are ferocious readers and can go through books much faster than I can. There are always lots of goods books to read around the house, and that I can take on the road with me.

What books have influenced your thinking and your songwriting craft, and how? 

I think The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy was a big influence on our early songwriting in Calexico. Getting out of Los Angeles, into the desert and reading those books, put us in a place mentally and physically that was a good fit for what we were doing musically.

The beautiful short novel by John Fante, Ask the Dust, was important as well because the romance involves immigration – what it’s like to be an immigrant in America, trying to understand how to fit in and find an identity.

Your music evokes your country’s landscape as clearly as a portrait. When I listen to your music I see a desert in Arizona or a colourful busy city in Mexico. How does landscape influence your songwriting?

A sense of place, like the Sonoran desert, can certainly conjure up images, and like painters or writers, it is important to have a connection to your subject, to express what you see around you. But there is the inner landscape as well, how the place where you live sinks into your heart, how it troubles it, how it brings it joy. This comes out in the music in ways that are harder to explain, or maybe even inexplainable (sic).

There is no set method of songwriting, or recording. Certain perimeters can be set in place, but things always change and there are so many variables. Allowing the song to find its way to you usually gets the best results, but that takes a lot of intuition and trust, that can take years to develop.

How do you write landscape into music, both instrumentally and in lyrics?

Allow for space. Break the silence, but don’t fill it up too much. Like in writing, it’s important to allow for the reader to use imagination. Same in music. Tone and sonic texture can direct your thoughts. Words can give you hints, but it’s the space that will allow the listener to imagine his own take on it. The song can become a part of the listener in this way.

Do you write lyrics too? Or is that Joey (Burns)? And do the lyrics come at the same time as the music or after?

I have written some lyrics. On the record Algiers (ANTI-), Joey asked me to write lyrics for three of the songs: ‘Epic’, ‘The Vanishing Mind’ and ‘Para’ … Joey rewrote most of the lyrics on ‘Epic’, but the other two he liked and kept them as I wrote them.

On earlier records I would help him make word choices. We would go over lyrics together and I would help him find more abstract ways of saying things. Lyrics usually come at the end after we have put the music together. Joey is the main songwriter. He has a million ideas all the time. I think he enjoys working with other people to get perspective. I happen to be one of those people.

I do write songs and present the ideas to him, and on occasion, he will develop them more and they become songs for the record, or for our tour-only CDs. I wrote a solo record a decade ago called Ragland. It’s instrumental, only three instruments: drums, vibes and piano. I had been working on another solo record when it turned into a collaboration with Naim Amor. It’s called The Western Suite and Siesta Songs and is going to be released on the LM Duplication label.

How do you form such precise observations of nature and inner insights that can shine through in your music? Do you write inside or outside?

I think we are writing all the time. It never lets up. Once you write your first song, you are always thinking about the next. Inside, outside, in bed, walking around, in museums, reading, movies, books and conversations, eavesdropping; all of it is part of songwriting. Heartbreaks, children, even pets. It’s all there. Just looking at the scenery as the miles drive by. It’s so important to daydream.

Australian Aboriginal people have a concept of ‘Country’, not like ‘country music’, ‘country & western’ or Australia being ‘a country’. It’s a totally different concept that encompasses the land, flora, fauna, water, sky, people and spirituality all integrally linked to their Country. How might you describe this notion of belonging to your own Country?

I have been thinking about this a lot. I once was a very religious person, put a lot of faith in God and spirituality. I feel very different about that now. I feel more connected to the earth and its natural state. I feel that is where I am from, and that is where I will return. My spirituality finds itself more on a molecular level. Indigenous peoples have their beliefs seemingly much more connected to the earth.

I love the book Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks), about the native American boy who meets a missionary’s daughter and they describe to each other their beliefs in God.

A sense of belonging to the earth and the human tribe becomes so much more open to me, taking any notion of religion out of the equation, or nationality or borders.

Another good book that touches on that for me is The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck). Humans lose touch with the earth getting wrapped up in their creations, their walls, their beliefs, etc.

How do those ties to the land influence your sound and songwriting?

I think where you are conceived, where you are born, the bloodlines, they all make up who you are. Any culture is a learned culture. When someone says, ‘It’s in your blood’, there is something else going on there, something not learned, something more instinctual. You are feeling something for a reason… it’s not learned. It has to do with where you were born, where your cells came together to form you, your blood. Yes, you have license to write about your country, but you can write about what you learn too. What compels you to write about is there for a reason. What you choose to write about is in your blood. What you may reject or not want to write about is in your blood too. I think cells influence our thinking.

I relate to Italian culture. I love a lot of things about it, and Irish culture too, but really, I am a human being. The cells came together to make me a human. What I am trying to learn everyday is not to be Italian, Irish or American, but to be human. To fight off the things that bring us down, and look for the ways to bring us up.

Have the countries of your ancestors, or their cultural landscapes, influenced your music to date? For example: have the songs, lullabies, fables, poems and urban myths of those cultures found their way into your songwriting?

Yes, very much so. I will choose to pick up an accordion and try out a melody because I feel it’s in my blood, but the accordion is also German and South American and Irish. There are themes that are universal. I love how when the early rock bands started experimenting with different forms of music and blending them in with what they were doing, how it opened up so many people to different cultures. The same happens with food too.

Obviously you’ve lived and worked in the U.S. for most of your lives but do you perceive that as your Country?

The U.S. is my country. It is where I was born. I woke up in a bed made by Europeans conquering a land and a people. The history of my people is something not to be proud of, but I can change that with my own life. How I bring my kids up, what I can teach them and what they can learn from so many different cultures.

I read that you moved to El Paso, Texas. Has it changed the way you write? Has the landscape or political environment been inspiring in different ways to Tucson?

I love being in El Paso. It is different than Tucson in that it is the border. Whites are the minority and in some areas Spanish is the preferred language to be spoken. It’s something I’ve always felt, but becomes increasingly clear living here – there really should be no border fence or wall between us and Mexico. I know that’s easy for me to say, and it’s much more complicated than that, but that’s how I feel.

I think wherever you are or wherever you live is going to affect your writing. How it does that, or in what way it will influence is never really known until it happens.

My belief is that we modern humans disrespect the land and have been too greedy and consumerist for too long. I really hope that we can all learn to cherish what we have and keep the bigger picture in mind. 

Yes, I agree, humans do not respect the land like they should. Capitalism and greed are the roots of this seemingly endless abuse. As much as we know how to solve the problems, there is no turning back the fact that we are the problem. So we have to keep chipping away at what it is we do that brings it all down and find the ways to bring it back up.



Total Engagement: Darren Almond: To Leave a Light Impression at the White Cube, Bermondsey

To Leave a Light Impression: Darren Almond at the White Cube
Darren Almond: To Leave a Light Impression at the White Cube, Bermondsey. Photo by Ben Westoby.

US philosopher Arnold Berleant, one of the world’s foremost scholars of aesthetic theory, is particularly eloquent on the awesomeness of nature:

The boundlessness of the natural world does not just surround us; it assimilates us. Not only are we unable to sense absolute limits in nature; we cannot distance the natural world from ourselves. Nature exceeds the human mind… The aesthetic mark of all such times is… total engagement, a sensory immersion in the natural world.

I was reminded of Berleant’s words on seeing To Leave a Light Impression, an exhibition of new works by photographer and sculptor Darren Almond at the White Cube’s Bermondsey space, one of the most hypnotic exhibitions of recent years.

Primarily, To Leave a Light Impression is an exhibition of largescale landscape photographs. Taken over a period of thirteen years during his travels across every continent, Almond’s Fullmoon images are among the most compellingly beautiful representations of the natural world available. Long exposure images taken by moonlight, the images are both bright and haunting as the colouring mutates into something unnatural, both dark and light. Rivers are transformed into billowing silk and rough shrubbery is cloudlike as the long exposure transforms any movement into the gentlest blurred forms.

Fullmoon @ Glacial Crossing is a fantastic triptych of images, marking glacial ice melt over a single night. Huge and imposing, these overwhelming photographs are quasi-religious in form. The three pieces mimic church panel paintings, interchanging the traditional crucifixion of martyrdom scenes for the fall and slow destruction of nature, capturing a quiet reverence for one of the world’s most magical and disappearing landscapes.

Whereas in Glacial Crossing man’s presence is merely suggested, in Fullmoon @ Tasmanian Tracks man’s interference in the natural world is explicit: train lines run directly up the centre of the image, disrupting the calm landscape. Although the tone of this image mirrors that of Glacial Crossing the effect is slightly underwhelming in comparison. Perhaps to hint at our place in the natural world rather than to make it the predominant marker on the image forces more introspection in the viewer; perhaps train tracks are not as visually intriguing as ice. Either way, beautiful as they are, not all of Almond’s images pack the same punch.

Present Form, another series of photographs on display in To Leave a Light Impression, explores the monumental, both through size and content. Within each image of this collection is a single example of the vast standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. Dating from approximately 3,000 BC, these standing stones are among the oldest known rock formations in the British Isles. Thought to be an astronomical observatory, these rocks are concerned with the passing of time, just as Almond is concerned with the time that has passed since they were erected. They are ravaged with age and inclement weather, covered in vegetation – a man-made monument that is returning to nature. In a clear alignment with Fullmoon, Almond is openly considering our effects on the landscape, altering and changing the world around us, the only difference between pre-historic and modern man being that our changes may not allow nature to grow back.

Recording astronomical markers and moonlight brings forth the final, otherworldly theme in Almond’s show: space travel. Not content to mark man’s tracks on the earth, Almond is also interested in our footprint byond it. Explored through bronze sculpture, this explicit look at space travel are the least commercial of Almond’s offerings.

To Leave a Light Impression, the sculptural work that gives its name to the show, is bronze street sign. A place marker, it’s a brutally obvious way to demonstrate the themes that are so subtly evoked in Almond’s photographs. How does man declare he was here? He writes down that he was. A written demonstration of our impact on the world, the juxtaposition of the phrasing compared to the object openly condemning man’s large effect on the environment.  We all make a mark, but it should only be a light one.

By placing it between Almond’s environmentalist photographs and his pieces named Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 & 17, there is a dual meaning implied by this work; the other meaning of the piece, of course, being the light footprints put on the moon by earth’s astronauts.

These Apollo works are small compared to his oversized photographs. Bronze cylinders, they look scientific and unnatural. Placed on the floor of the central room they could easily be overlooked, especially if the gallery is busy. On top of each cylinder are the initials of the two astronauts who stepped on the lunar surface in each mission. They stand upright in pairings or lie flat on the ground, dependent on their namesake being either alive or dead at time of instillation. This macabre tally of living status mirrors the standing stones: time passes and man dies but the marks he makes outlive him.

Everything in To Leave a Light Impression is attractive. The messages may not be particularly understated, but the exhibition as a whole can give you many hours of enjoyment due to the sheer mesmeric nature of Almond’s images. Sure, the themes may hit you over the head somewhat, but that’s a curse of having a strong viewpoint; you can’t help but make it clear to all.

Darren Almond: To Leave a Light Impression continues at the White Cube’s South Galleries until April 13. See the White Cube website for more information.

The Written World: The North Pole

Ali Shaw looks at the enduring idea of the North Pole in imagination and literature, a mysterious place of supernatural beings, prisons, snow palaces, eternal nights and endless days, the point where the world stops turning.

Photo by Marie and Alistair Knock
Photo by Marie and Alistair Knock

At the top of the world is a white land where the snow decides everything, where the wind blasts so cold it can burn you, where prismatic lights dance in the sky. Here a year is but a single day and its torturous evening. To here all compass needles point. The god of this land is the white bear, making red riddance of the seals who gasp up through the ice. To come here you must risk not only the bear’s meathook claws but the jaws of the orca, the nose of the wolf, perhaps even the magic of some stranger being stepping across the tundra, for in the far north they tell tales of mad devils and snow witches, and of Qalupalik and the Waheela.

Few even try to journey here, and those who do are adventurers all, seasoned by easier extremes. To come here means sleds and huskies, ice picks and snow caves, frostbite and hunger and perhaps even cannibalism and perhaps, worse, a seeming eternity spent with only the blizzard of your own thoughts for company. Should you survive, should you break far enough through the ice, you may come at last to one of only two points on the planet where the world stops turning, and it is this place, this North Pole, that draws all brave souls just as it draws their compasses.

Or so it goes.

In truth there are two North Poles, and neither of them stays still. First there is the northern axis of the Earth, currently poking out of the sea about 430 miles off the coast of Kaffekluben Island.  Second is the North Magnetic Pole, currently wavering towards Russia from Ellesmere Island, where you will find yourself if you follow your compass to its utmost. Often the North Poles are underwater, often they are sealed up by ice. It is dull up there and very cold, and while there are occasional signs of bears and detouring seabirds, there isn’t much in the way of wildlife or spectacle.  Do not believe them when they tell you that real life is stranger than fiction.

In the early 20th century, the idea of the North Pole drew many an intrepid explorer, often to their deaths. There is still controversy over precisely who got there first, so Robert E. Peary’s subdued account of his arrival there, heralded as the first by any human being, may be a work of polar fiction.

If it were possible for a man to arrive at 90° north latitude without being utterly exhausted, body and brain, he would doubtless enjoy a series of unique sensations and reflections. But the attainment of the Pole was the culmination of days and weeks of forced marches, physical discomfort, insufficient sleep, and racking anxiety. It is a wise provision of nature that the human consciousness can grasp only such degree of intense feeling as the brain can endure, and the grim guardians of earth’s remotest spot will accept no man as guest until he has been tried and tested by the severest ordeal.

–          Robert E. Peary, The North Pole

Merсator_north_pole_1595Long before any explorer attempted to reach the Pole, the world’s readers had paid regular visits in their imaginations. In  the 14th century, a book entitled Inventio Fortunata was presented to Kind Edward III. It was the account of a Franciscan friar who had travelled the North Atlantic in the early 1360s, and it contained what is believed to be the first account of the North Pole.  Regrettably, the book was lost, and all that remained was a paraphrase in a second book, the Itinerarium, written by Jacobus Cnoyen in the 1490s. This, too went astray, but a third iteration survived in the letters of the 16th century cartographer Gerardus Mercator, wherein he retold Cnoyen’s retelling of the Inventio Fortunata’s account as follows.

In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author Jacobus Cnoyen years ago.

–          A letter dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, presented in a paper by E. G. R Taylor

Jules Verne imagined just such a magnetic mountain in his 1875 novel The Field of Ice. “The new continent was only an island,” he wrote, “or rather a volcano, fixed like a lighthouse on the North Pole of the world. The mountain was in full activity, pouring out a mass of burning stones and glowing rock. At every fresh eruption there was a convulsive heaving within, as if some mighty giant were respiring.” Verne’s central character, a polar explorer, is so determined to set foot on the Pole that he strides into the heart of that lava. The Pole is often portrayed as such an other-worldly place, and that’s what gives rise to tales of its other-worldly denizens. The bulk of the narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is framed by the account of a Polar explorer who comes upon the monster in the blistering ice fields. In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the terrifying Gobblers conduct their experiments at Bolvangar research station, where their deeds can be concealed behind snowstorms. The Arctic in such stories is a land as much beyond the bounds of morality and the human psyche as it is beyond the limits of survivability. You do not stay in the Arctic, you escape, and doing so always requires more than just a snowmobile. There are prisons there, like Bolvangar, and like the Snow Queen’s palace in Hans Christian Andersen’s masterpiece, where “the walls were made of drifting snow and the windows and doors of razor-sharp winds.  There were over a hundred halls, all of them shaped by the drifting snow… so empty, so icy cold, and so glittering.”

There are, of course, those who long ago mastered the art of survival in such conditions, whose architectures are ingenious not because they cage and torture but because they turn the fabric of hostile nature into a protection against itself. In The Snow Tourist, Charlie English recounts his experience of igloo building in Iqaluit, Qikiqtarjuaq. “There were few better building materials than snow,” he writes. “There was something perfect about its transience. What structure could exist in better harmony with the earth than an igloo, which creates no waste and leaves no footprint?” The Inuit are believed to have learned much of their snowcraft from a prior indigenous culture, the Dorset People (I like this, being a Dorset person myself), but we don’t have much of a record of them. What we do have are the Inuit’s wondrous traditional stories, which tell us more about life around the Pole than any explorer’s temporary stay. Crow Brings Daylight, for example, gives an insight into what day-to-day life might feel like if a day lasts for six months. In that tale, the Inuit live for an eternity in darkness, until Crow flies south and steals for them an orb of daylight. After flying it home to the Arctic, he smashes it against the ice, whereupon light bursts forth and illuminates the world. After many months the light fades, but Crow instructs the Inuit not to despair.  The orb will slowly regain its powers, and in half a year the light will shine again.

Photo by ezioman
Photo by ezioman

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, in his book Escapism, records this of the Inuit, “Happy people have no reason to think; they live rather than question living. To Inuits, thinking signifies either craziness or the strength to have independent views. Both qualities are antisocial and to be deplored.” The type of thinking Tuan is referring to here is the kind that questions why the world is the way that it is, as if to question it might be somehow to change it. That kind of thinking is often valued in Western cultures, but perhaps the ice does not abide such self-indulgence. Ted Hughes wrote a short story, Snow, in which an amnesiac wanders five months in an Arctic blizzard, with only his dreams to inform him of the memories he might have had from his life before. Yet this wanderer tries diligently to drive from his mind all thoughts unrelated to survival. “They are the infiltrations of the snow,” he says of such things, “encroachments of this immensity of lifelessness. But they enter so slyly! We are true they say, or at least very probably true, and on that account you must entertain us.”

Perhaps this is the real magnetism of the Pole, the thing that draws the restless spirit of the explorer: that to strive to reach it is to purge all other thoughts and achieve simplicity, a kind of barren purity that only the stilling of the Earth can provide. Robert E. Peary said, “The determination to reach the Pole had become so much a part of my being that, strange as it may seem, I long ago ceased to think of myself save as an instrument for the attainment of that end. To the layman this may seem strange, but an inventor can understand it, or an artist, or anyone who has devoted himself for years upon years to the service of an idea.” It seems to hold true that the deathliness of the landscape is the same thing as its beauty. That the chafing cold might rip away all human superficiality and face us with the naked cores of our selves.

Amy Sackville, in The Still Point, describes the ice of the polar regions in the most elegant prose I have found on the topic. She writes this:

It is beautiful, he thought, as they stood in despair looking out at the sculpted surface. Like an ocean in arrest. Crests and flats, the light trapped in hollows, elsewhere deep blue shadows pooling, or a roseate rainbow in a translucent arc of ice; in places the snow curved over itself, a wave in the moment before breaking, creating a cave that he longed to curl into. Such a landscape is beautiful indeed, and treacherous and almost impossible to cross.

–          Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Then there is this, from Jack London, albeit written about land further south, but of the same inhospitable cold.

The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

–          Jack London, White Fang

For those of us who venture there, the Pole is an absolute. A kind of surgery. Only day, then only night. It is the closest thing we have, living as we do on a globe, to the end of the Earth, and therefore perhaps the closest thing we have to any kind of certainty. For those of us who are never likely to brave that journey, save in our reading, the Pole is fiction and reality blurred. There, on the frontier of the inhabitable world, we can perhaps still believe in armoured bears and snow queens, and be all the better for it.


My thanks to everyone who sent me pieces to include here: I’m sorry I couldn’t use everything. Thanks, too, to those of you who sent me ideas for Antarctica.  I’m going to use those in a future entry.
Next time, we’re going to crank up the temperature and head after the mirages of the desert. I’m not sure which desert we’ll travel through just yet, since it depends on what literature I can find. Perhaps it will be the Sahara, perhaps it will be all the deserts of the equator. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read anything on the subject, any fiction or poetry or travel writing (or anything else) that stood out for you. You can drop me an email, get in touch on twitter, or simply leave a comment in the section below.

Amboy: A Walk in the Ruins

Amboy is a place in the Mojave desert, about 200 miles east of Los Angeles. I hesitate to call it a town: undoubtedly that’s what it used to be, and maybe once a town is always a town, but right now, and for the twenty years or so that I’ve been visiting, its population wouldn’t qualify it as a village, not even as a hamlet. There are SUVs driving down the freeway with larger populations than Amboy, and the freeway is precisely the reason for Amboy’s demise.

Amboy sits along a stretch of Route 66, the Mother Road, the place allegedly, formerly, to get your kicks, and when, in the 1950s, the Interstate 40 was built, some ten miles to the north, the serious cross-country traffic went there, leaving Amboy behind, to fade and desiccate, and remain a kind of rough time capsule. But if I hesitate to call Amboy a town, I hesitate even more to call it a ghost town. The place has certainly been abandoned and neglected. Parts of it have certainly decayed and crumbled, and parts of it do indeed lie in ruin, but not all of it, and not all of it conspicuously. The most important parts, the most eye-catching, don’t look like ruins at all, at least not at first glance.

What’s there looks, from a distance, remarkably well-preserved. There’s a school, a gas station, a church, a motel, a graveyard, a post office: the last of these is even fully functional, but a close look reveals considerable ruin elsewhere. That church, for instance, which is actually a bare meeting hall, has a wooden tower with a cross on top, and although the walls are bright white and appear recently painted, the tower is leaning precariously, a little more every time I visit, and I don’t doubt that one day I’ll arrive there and find that gravity has completed its work.  Part of the motel consists a long row of neat, minimalist white cabins that look intact, and even habitable.  But they’re not.  A closer look reveals that these cabins, which you can walk right into, are empty, with no furniture, no plumbing, no power, with the tatters of old linoleum on the floor, many windows smashed, broken Route 66 Cola bottles strewn around the floor.

The gas station probably can’t be considered a ruin at the moment, since it currently has gas for sale, though there were many years when it didn’t.  There was a period when dangerous-looking yet surprisingly friendly bikers would hang out there on Sunday afternoons, selling only slightly over-priced beer from an ice-filled cooler.  They did a reasonable trade, I think.  Plenty of people stop in Amboy, it’s hard not to.  Right between the gas station and the motel is one of the greatest, stop-you-in-your-tracks, roadside advertising signs I, or anybody else, has ever seen.

The sign says Roy’s Motel Café, and it’s a classic all right, tall, formidable, red, black and blue, two rectangles and a downward-pointing arrowhead, a smack you in the eye typeface, and more to the point, right in the middle it says ‘vacancy.’   Many a photographer (not least William Egglestone, who photographed it back in the day when there was often a classic black and white police cruiser parked outside), has embraced that visual and verbal pun: gas, food and lodging here, nothing but vacancy down the road.  Is that a bit too obvious, a bit too much of a cliché?  You bet.  And so the sign has appeared in a endless movies, music videos, TV commercials, and photoshoots.

This is the secret of Amboy’s success.  Although it has defining elements of ruin, it has other elements that define it as a stage or movie set, as a moody, evocative backdrop, as a location.  This inevitably creates certain problems for people (such as me) who yearn a certain (and admittedly contested) authenticity when they’re walking in the desert and/or walking in ruins.

In fact there’s at least one place nearby where people do some more or less conventional, and fairly strenuous, desert hiking.  The Amboy Crater is just a few miles to the west, an extinct cinder cone volcano, two hundred and fifty feet high, surrounded by a black lava field.   It’s a popular enough walking location that I’ve even seen tour buses unloading some extraordinarily well-dressed sightseers there, though I didn’t stick around to see how far they walked.

But let’s face it, an extinct volcano in the middle of the desert barely fits within even the broadest notion of ruin.  If you’re looking for ruin, and I usually am when I’m in the desert, you have to look elsewhere, and as it happens Route 66 is not the only transport artery to run through Amboy.  There’s a railway line too, a cluster of tracks that run parallel to the road, a couple of hundred yards to the south, and the railroad is still very much in business. If you hang out in Amboy for half an hour or so, chances are you’ll see a couple of immensely long freight trains roll through, the initials BNSF on the locomotives, standing for Burlington Northern Sante Fe.

Railways always strike me as the most appealing and picturesque of forms.  Who doesn’t like to watch the trains go by?  Who doesn’t like to stare down the tracks towards the vanishing point?  And yet cities, buildings, landscapes, even small desert towns, so often turn their back on the railway.  Trains thread through the bad parts of town, behind high walls and fences, in cuttings and tunnels, present but not seen and not regarded.  Meanwhile the land beside the tracks becomes a no man’s land where debris collects, where things get dumped, where graffiti are largely tolerated because at least they’re not somewhere more conspicuous.  In the desert however, the railways have nowhere to hide.

And whereas in England every yard of track is fenced off in an attempt to make it inaccessible and supposedly safe, here in the wide open spaces of the desert, nobody has the time, energy or money to fence off all those thousands of miles.  A man can walk right up to the tracks, walk across them, along them if he wants to.  Oh sure there’ll be the occasional no trespassing sign, but who’s going to take any notice?  Who’s going to police it?  And of course dumping goes on there with a casual lack of inhibition.  Down by the tracks in Amboy there used to be a sign that said no dumping, standing guard over a great heap of garbage.

And let’s face, it the railway people themselves are a messy bunch.  In Amboy there’s a sprawling three-sided corral where they’ve stored, or at least stashed, various bits of miscellaneous railroad hardware; posts, coils, wiring, chunks of lumber, those glass and porcelain electrical connectors, though those tend to be smashed if they’re not stolen.  You can walk into the corral, pick around, and although there isn’t a sign saying ‘help yourself,’ equally there’s no sign saying ‘keep out,’ and you can’t help thinking that if you had a use for some scrap fence posts or wiring, the guys from the BNSF would understand, and definitely wouldn’t put much effort into stopping you.

As I turned my back on the preserved charm of Roy’s Motel Café and Route 66, I was aware that maybe I wasn’t so much walking in ruins as strolling around in mess, performing the pedestrian equivalent of making mud pies, as I admired stacks of old sleepers and heaps of ballast.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it’s good to aim a little higher, so when I noticed a fine, low slung industrial building maybe a third of a mile away along the tracks, I decided to walk over and explore. I accepted that this wasn’t ruin exploration on the grandest scale, but we all have to do what we can.

From the road, when I set off walking, I couldn’t have said what the building was intended for, something to do with the railway obviously, perhaps loading and unloading, possibly concerned with storage, though there was no indication that anything was going on there at the moment.  At first I thought it  was made of white painted metal, and the paint had rusted or flaked off, but as I got a little closer I realized the walls were broad slabs of wood, and the paint had peeled away in long vertical strips giving the effect of corrugations.  Up against the side of the building I could see storage tanks, some palates, a mobile scaffolding tower, and there was a chain link fence around the whole thing, serious but hardly impenetrable.  There didn’t seem to be much in there that anyone would want to steal.  I guessed they were trying to keep out vandals and graffiti sprayers, but since I was neither of the above I eyed the fence and wondered if I should do a little creative trespass, shimmy over and go inside.

I walked a circuit of the perimeter.  A railway siding ran alongside the back of the building within the fence, and there was no sign of life or activity anywhere.  The big roller doors on the building were raised and you could see there was nothing at all inside.  I got the impression that if this place was still being used for anything, it wasn’t much and it wasn’t recent.  I decided I’d go in.

And then suddenly I realized the place wasn’t deserted after all.  Around the side next to some half-demolished walls that looked like they might have belonged to a coal bunker, there was a single, pristine, dinky little golf cart with a canopy, a thing wildly out of place in this battered, industrial desert scene, and sitting in the cart was a huge man, dressed all in white.  As I remember it he was wearing a solar topi, though I think I may have made that up in retrospect: it may just have been a floppy sunhat, but nevertheless the overall effect was undoubtedly grand, spooky and strangely ethereal.  He looked both ghostly and angelic, unworldly, very, very still, not remotely right for this location. He was also wearing wraparound shades, and he was smoking a long thin cigar, and he reminded me, improbably, of Marlon Brando, certainly not as he was in The Wild One, and only partly as he was in Apocalypse Now, but rather as he appeared in The Island of Dr Moreau, where he dresses in white gauze, presumably to hide his bulk, with his face coated in white pancake for reasons known only to himself.  I’m prepared to believe that time and my imagination may have glorified the stature and strangeness of my man in Amboy, but not by much.  His presence seemed genuinely uncanny and alarming.  A man who can invoke Marlon Brando, a ghost and an angel, while sitting in a golf cart obviously has an undeniable aura.

I think he must have seen me before I saw him, because I only spotted him as I was reaching for a handhold on the chain link.  The sunglasses ensured there was nothing so unsubtle as eye-contact, but he turned his head just a fraction in my direction, then back again, the subtlest admonitory shake of the head, as if to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  I wouldn’t do that if you know what’s good for you.’

I like to think I know what’s good for me.  I stepped away from the fence, calmly, unhurriedly, walked on, went about my business, and eventually I headed back to the car, parked up by Ray’s sign.  My wife was waiting for me there: she’d been off in the other direction looking at the graveyard (it’s good to have related but separate interests), and she asked me what I’d been doing.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I think I saw the god of the ruins of Amboy.’

‘Was he on a train?’


‘Was he walking?’

‘He was on a golf cart.’

‘Makes sense.  What’s that in your hand?’

What I had in my hand was one of my great desert finds.  Yes, yes I pick stuff up in the desert and take it home with me.  Not so long ago it was thought of as perfectly OK to collect rocks or fossils or antlers or even plant specimens from the desert: now this is regarded as environmentally unsound, as messing with nature, as pure evil.  So now I only pick up stuff that doesn’t belong there, that’s been left of dumped by humans: hub caps, unfathomable innards from bits of machinery, the occasional abandoned children’s toy.  The best stuff is up on the wall of my garage.  And what I’d picked up that day, after my encounter by the chain link fence was half of one of those diamond-shaped metal signs that they put on the back of vehicles, in this case railway cars, warning of dangerous cargoes.  This one, in full, would have read ‘Spontaneous Combustion,’ but since I only had the left hand half, it reads Sponta Combu – a great name for something, a band, a spy, a guru, an Indian fusion dish – or maybe one of the 99 names of the god of the ruins of Amboy.