Wearing A Felt Hat In The Desert

It’s difficult for me to fully appreciate the headspace I was in during the pandemic era of the year two-thousand-and-twenty. Full of conflict and misdirection. Over that summer I spent a bit of time in the state of Montana — described to me as a good spot tactically speaking, stuffed with all kinds of spare batteries, guns, cattle and whatnot by an odd fellow at an IHOP one time — deciding that donning a new identity would be the only acceptable coping mechanism.

Fresh off a Twin Peaks binge, I thought “Why not just get a Felt Hat, dapper Western outfit and spend time in an open space?” I embraced originality and become a cowboy. Nothing made sense at the time sparing this train of thought any scrutiny. In the fall, I ventured south from San Francisco toward Pioneertown then the Salton Sea.

Best described as a dystopian Lake Tahoe, the Salton Sea was formed between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through poorly built irrigation controls south of Yuma, Arizona. Naturally, a new inland lake appearing seemingly overnight attracted entrepreneurs turning beaches into resorts and destination spots. Yet, man’s arrogance in overcoming the forces of nature would prove folly as salinity increased in the sea killing fish and other wildlife. Lack of fresh water in the sea sped up the cycle of inhospitable conditions. Whipping desert winds continue to blow acrid dust through parts of the Coachella Valley. A precursor perhaps to our destructive era of climate change — communities in the Salton Sea decamped leaving only the most ardent behind. Short of a massive public works project, the Salton Sea’s last be at salvation is a source of lithium for car batteries. Maybe your next Tesla will be ethically mined from metals revealed in the sea’s receding shoreline.

Despite its toxic nature, the area surrounding the Salton Sea is best known for date farming. Check the bottom of your food’s box next time you visit Whole Foods, you may find it came from the Coachella Valley. Driving to the Salton Sea is a direct shot from Palm Springs — you can’t get lost driving the only major road that connects several hundred square miles of salt water to the only known patch of civilization.

Coming north from Indio I pulled over to the first dirt patch I could find near what I thought was a publicly accessible beach. Relying on Apple Maps — the original sin of traveling remote areas — I wandered around an expansive grove of Date palms toward what I thought was the shore. I hit gated dead ends turning around to more fencing. A pickup truck slowly rolled through the dirt road I was on stopping alongside me. I stared through the window wanting to ask the driver if they were looking for the same beach as me. What they saw was a guy fresh off a 14 hour binge of Twin Peaks clad in Felt Hat, all black western button up shirts, pants and boots draped with poncho ruffling in the breeze. What I saw was nothing in the heavily tinted windows. After what seemed like forever, we mutually parted ways as if we all knew exactly how long this very normal interaction should take. It dawned on me I may be trespassing on private property. I promptly drove away scouting out the Salton Sea’s eastern shores for any place to park and get close to the waterline.

A few more minutes of driving and I discovered a seemingly abandoned yacht club. Unfortunately, no yachts or water rafts existed. Perhaps toxic waters had dissolved them over the decades leaving a yacht club as their only tombstone. The stench permeating the air was nauseating. My lungs felt violated. I wrapped a bandanna around my face and wandered around the shore. I spotted the beach I had tried getting to earlier in the day — Date palms and all. Waves calmly lapped upon salt, sand and animal skeletons. An occasional seagull squawked, likely in disgust its source of food was petrified. Cars couldn’t be heard. All other sounds conveniently erased from existence. If you could get over your sense of smell, your sense of hearing was rewarded with the enviable escape from life’s perpetual hum. I stared at an empty sky avoiding the sun but always settling on the grove of Date Palms across the shore.

I heard a pop then splash in the water, followed by a louder pop and splash as if some invisible entity were frolicking toward me. Another, much louder splash made me concerned. I couldn’t see anything on the water and the sound had come from the Date palms In the distance — the same palms I had been wandering around earlier.

Fuck.

Another, splash and louder pop followed. Someone, or something — something? — was shooting at me. I was in disbelief. My heavily curated Pinterest board of Felt hats and cosplaying as a cowboy actually had real world ramifications for the crime of absentmindedly entering private property. Another pop and I realized I was actually being shot at. Shot towards? I believed these were warning shots and for a split second I debated how to describe avoiding bullet fire not meant to connect with its target.

Semantics be dammed, I ran to a nearby sand dune and took cover, as if a questionable pile of dirt would provide meaningful defense. To be fair, if I lived in a world where threats to my farm materialized as well dressed bandits pillaging my crops and intending harm, I’d shoot at them too. While I empathized with an extreme hypothetical, I was inconvenienced that I couldn’t remain on the shore I was at safely — the view was stunning.

All around was quiet again. Waves continued their march to the shore, indifferent to the Felt Hat Man’s plight. I thought of running back to my car vowing never to return this cursed spot. But the thought of existing in a moment that felt like a heavy dose of eternity was too much for me to move. As bad as things could have ended (for me) I felt thrilled at having overcome a Date farmer shooting at me. I’d hoped their marksmanship manifested in tactical strikes meant to scare. The thought of avoiding injury from lack of the gunman’s training to hit a target wasn’t an exciting prospect.

I’d eventually leave the dune I was behind making my way to Bombay Beach, Slab City and Salvation Mountain — sites catered to true nomads embracing art, love and the light of their creator. Dressing up the day in Biblical references was easy and lead my thinking to more serious revelations about life:

”What about stock trading, I bet I’d be really good at that with my luck.” “Should I just quit my job right now?” “This whole Jesus thing seems really nice. I wonder if I can fit that in with my yoga schedule”

Maybe there was a greater lesson to learn that conveniently never made its way to me. Maybe there was no lesson to learn other than the majority of things don’t make sense but somehow work out.