MD's Archives: Broke Down in Needles
My journey west took an unexpected detour to the desert
When I launched this Substack, I hoped it would open up new avenues to share my writing and have it hosted in perpetuity. Today, instead of a traditional newsletter, I’m sharing an essay called “Broke Down in Needles.” I’ve long noodled over it and pitched it at least a dozen times to no avail. It’s about my first time setting foot in the California desert, a place that eventually became my home.
As always, thanks for reading.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I pulled off the highway. The gas pedal lagged, a burning scent wafted through the window, and when I steered into the otherwise-empty gas station and crouched next to my front tire, I saw a thick, dark liquid dripping from the rusty underbelly of my world-weary Saturn. Then I looked up, and stared at the desert around me.
The air was hot, the sky was wide, and the landscape stretched out before me was unlike anything my eyes had ever seen. I had just barely crossed the border into California for the first time. My two cats and I made it more than 2,100 miles from the home we left behind — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — with about 260 miles to go to our new apartment in downtown Los Angeles. After two and a half decades of life on the east coast, I was heading to the Golden State, sight unseen. A new job, a new relationship and a new start awaited me.
But instead of city lights and busy freeways, the desert dirt of a truck stop was my welcoming committee.
Fortunately, there was a mechanic across the street. He did not appear busy.
I got back behind the wheel. The Saturn and I coasted to the front of the shop. The skinny, elderly, slow-talking gentleman behind the counter told me it would be 10 minutes to take a look. I retrieved the cats, mewing loudly now, so we could sit in the air-conditioned waiting room while our fate was determined by a mechanic I’d never met in a town I’d never heard of — Needles, California.
I’d spent the past five days and four nights on the road. Most of the trip was on Route 40, or the modern traveler’s highway parallel to Route 66. I’d packed the car to the brim with the cats, a suitcase of vinyl records, a bigger suitcase of books, an acoustic Fender and a coffee maker. From the Rust Belt, I’d made it to Indianapolis and watched the roadside crosses grow in size. The next day took us to the junction of Joplin, Missouri, where red-dirt country streamed on the FM airwaves. I cherished the cool, fresh air of the Oklahoma prairie on my way to a gritty and steamy Amarillo, and landed in the southwest with a friendly welcome in Flagstaff and a mind-blowing detour to the Grand Canyon. This was supposed to be the last day of my journey, and now I was stalled at the final leg.
I tried not to think the worst — that my car was a goner, that a fix would cost a fortune, that there wasn’t a nearby motel for the cats and I. But the mechanic came back with the sort of good news-and-bad news combination car trouble often delivers: the fix was a relatively inexpensive oil pan. But one couldn’t be delivered from Henderson, Nevada, until tomorrow morning.
It looked like I had to spend the night in Needles.
A San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy who had come in to get her tires rotated had overheard my plight and offered to give me a ride to the Motel 6 up the road. She was tall and broad-shouldered, with a wide smile and cropped red hair that shone bright against the drab neutrals of her uniform. I packed up the cats, stuffed a notebook, phone charger, and change of clothes into a backpack, and climbed into the cab of her pickup.
“This is the armpit of California,” she said, before giving me a run-down of the place. That way was the dollar store, this way was the Denny’s, that way led to the Colorado River recreation area. We got to Broadway, the main drag, where the deputy pointed out an old, abandoned theater with the roof torn off that the town chose to leave standing, like some kind of Roman ruin. A “Happy Birthday” greeting filled the marquee, still in one piece.
After securing the cats in the confines of a $39 rented room, I headed out to explore. I began to wander next to the mounds of sandy dirt by the Interstate 40 overpass full of cars whose drivers never thought to stop. This stretch was part of historic Route 66 and little signs declaring this were everywhere, a reminder that in the days before commercial air travel, Needles was an important stop along the way to somewhere else. The mountains that towered in the distance seemed to eclipse the rest of the other scenery — I’d never seen earth that felt more looming than those desert mountains, all immense and brown, threatening and inviting.
The deputy told me Needles was popular with outdoorsy tourists, but I had neither the skills nor transportation to brave the Colorado River. So an afternoon stroll down Broadway was it. I wandered into a general store that sold glass figurines covered in collected dust, while the woman behind the counter appeared to haggle with a customer over his prescription prices. I picked up a bottle of cheap red table wine from a skinny liquor store with ceiling-high cabinets and bars on the windows. Everywhere else was closed, or appeared to be — including an eye-catching, Mediterranean-inspired hotel with rows of columns nested next to the railroad tracks.
I made my way to the Needles Regional Museum and Thrift Store, a simple storefront where a few volunteers in T-shirts and cargo shorts milled about. The thrift store was closed, but the museum volunteers invited me in to look around at the little time capsule they had within. Photographs and advertisements lined the walls, along with industrial railroad tools hanging on thick nails. It took roughly four minutes to lap the exhibits, then one volunteer approached me and began to tell me the history of Needles as a railroad industry town. The volunteer told me the large columned building I saw was El Garces, a once-luxurious hotel that operated as a Harvey House in the early 20th century. They showed me photographs of the Harvey Girls who staffed the place in prim, starched, all-white uniforms.
The town was proud of its place in pop culture trivia as the home of Spike, who is Snoopy’s brother in the Peanuts comic strip. Charles Schultz lived in Needles for a few years as a boy and used it as an homage. I also learned San Bernardino County is, geographically, the largest in the country, my very first piece of California municipal trivia.
Needles, per the stories, appeared to once have many connections beyond its borders, born of its railroad construction industry. But these days, there seemed few souls in sight, let alone any roaring economic activity.
The whole scene seemed frozen in time, a place where most days could go on without being touched by the rest of the modern world, without being spoiled by the hurried machinations of the work-til-you-drop culture I’d grown up with on the East Coast.
I felt a sense of solitude; if you needed to disappear, if you needed to start anew, Needles could provide the cloak of anonymity. I’d spent time in rural areas before, in the heart of New York farmland and the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania. But this wasn’t lush and green like those lands. This was isolated, and unforgiving to life if you weren’t prepared for the dryness, the heat, and the vastness of it all.
And I liked it.
One of the museum volunteers told me I wasn’t the first stranded traveler she’d met. “There’s a guy who moved here after his car broke down. That was 30 years ago.” I wondered for a moment if she said this to everyone from out of town as if she knew everyone who passed through Needles thought once or twice about staying. I signed the guestbook, left a dollar in the tip jar, and headed to Denny’s for a coffee, where I stared out at the mountains til I stopped thinking about much of anything at all.
I had no one to make plans with. I had nowhere to go. I had hours of idle time in an unforeseen place, where one could make themselves invisible. As frustrated as I was at the delay of my trip, underneath that, I was grateful. I sat suspended between my old life and the one that awaited me in Los Angeles, held firm by the Mojave Desert in all its remote and resilient glory.
I headed back to the Motel 6 to watch HBO, and slept in. The next morning, I went back to Denny’s for pancakes and coffee. I called the mechanic, who confirmed the job was done and sent a crew member to pick me up.
With the cats back in their carriers and a fresh oil pan underneath us, I headed to my new apartment off of Wilshire Boulevard, nestled in the shadow of half-built skyscrapers built to support real estate investments and rooftop bars.
The following spring, I traveled to Joshua Tree National Park where the Mojave meets the Colorado Desert. Several miles of hiking in this one-of-a-kind ecosystem once again showed me lands that I never dreamed I’d see. The rising red rocks. The smooth pale dirt. The spikey plants and twisted namesake trees against an endless blue sky. All I saw was wilderness. All I heard was the quiet, interrupted by the whisper of my breath and the crunch of my sneakers on ancient dirt.
Once again, the desert left me feeling small, but not powerless. Vulnerable, but not inferior.
This was the feeling that ultimately put an end to my days of city living. I left Los Angeles almost exactly three years after I moved there, a time during which the dreams I rode in with were either realized, abandoned, shifted, or shattered. I spent long stretches of time traveling and on assignment in Arizona trying to figure out what it was about Los Angeles that, as magnificent and heartbreaking as it was, wasn’t quite right. I headed back to the California desert for good in 2019, where I stuck it out through the pandemic and have started to form the edges of a sweet and steady community of other desert dwellers.
Today, I’m writing these words from Yucca Valley, on the other side of San Bernardino County. My fiancé and I spent the weekend here going to open houses, going through loan requirements, and watching real estate tips on YouTube.
I couldn’t have known it the day that I waited 24 hours for an oil pan, when I headed west on the same kind of journey taken by countless other dreamers with nothing to lose.
But I’ve often wondered, when I look back on how I got from there to here, if getting broke down in Needles was really just the universe trying to tell me to stay, that I’d somehow stumbled upon a place where I belonged.