You forget how much of Southern California is a desert till you get there.
Off the 10 freeway there is a town (or, rather, an unincorporated area of Riverside County) called Cabazon, about 15 minutes (or 17 miles) west of Palm Springs. From Orange County, there are two ways you can get there. You can take the 91 east to the 10 east, or, as a shortcut, you can take the 91 east to the 60 to the 10. I always prefer the latter route, the 60 taking you through what my grandparents called Jackrabbit Trail, a winding, hilly jaunt with sharp turns and the impending threat of loose rocks. The signs are everywhere: yellow, scarred squares with a painted image of a large boulder hurdling toward an unsuspecting black shadow of a boxed-shaped car.
Cabazon, particularly in 1989, was not a town worth noting. There was one exit off the freeway stating, simply, "Cabazon." Today, the town is home to a large outlet mall, Desert Hills, and numerous fast-food chains, including Burger King and Denny's. But, surely, you've seen it. Or, at least, the bit of it worth noting. Commercials, music videos, and films such as "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "The Wizard" have captured on celluloid the most iconic displays Cabazon has to offer: giant, not-to-scale dinosaurs. Just north of the freeway, a large Apatosaurus runs parallel, as a fierce-looking Tyrannosaurus Rex looms behind. These creatures can be seen from a mile away.
When you are a child and at the mercy of whomever is behind the wheel, you cannot understand why stopping at "The Dinosaurs" is even a question, but it is, and you know this. You know that before you can even muster the courage to ask, you have to evaluate your hand and play wisely, like a skilled player at the Texas table in Vegas. You have to take into account your behavior over the past two hours in the car. Were you quietly reading in the backseat, or were you beating the shit out of your younger brother? How many times did you ask to stop before? Once? Twice? Your bladder is small and so are you, but a stop is a stop, and you know full-well that the pilot of this small, speedy craft is on a mission, destination locked all week long. Sometimes you are successful in your plea, and sometimes you are not, your neck pulled from various angles as you lean over your kid brother and strain to catch a fleeting glimpse of these creatures: in the distance, approaching, then disappearing as your car quickly drives away, going 70 in a 55 zone.
In 1964, Claude Bell purchased 76 acres of barren desert land next to the Wheel Inn Diner, a favorite stop for cross-country and long-distance truck drivers making their way along Interstate 10, that long stretch of road that is considered by some to be the loneliest stretch of road out there. Coast to coast, it starts in Jacksonville, Florida at I-95, pushing through the Panhandle and the Deep South to New Orleans, progressing further through isolated parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, bringing the weary traveler to the California border, where another 200 miles of desert awaits until the Pacific. He began building. 11 years later, there was Dinny (pronounced Dine-y), a 150-ton, 150-foot-long apatosaurus. In 1981, he got to work on Mr. Rex, and died in 1988, before the carnivore could be completed.
They stood there, two large beasts in the sand, an old diner to the west. You parked in an old asphalt lot, its oil stains relics from the big rigs of the past. You got out of your car, careful to wear shoes and to avoid the golf ball-sized holes of rattlesnake lairs. You ran as fast as one could in flip-flops to the small stairway leading up Dinny's large intestine to his belly. You climbed what seemed like a mountain of stairs, your legs tired and weary from exertion after hours in the cramped backseat of a Datsun, your denim skirt constricting your stride. You passed the pressed penny machine, making a mental note to ask your mom for 26 cents on the way out. And finally, you reached the top of the landing, somewhere within Dinny's stomach, bloated with souvenirs of the Jurassic period, magnets with Bible quotes, and newspaper clippings of the county's local concrete celebrities.
It wasn't the souvenirs that brought you there, though at this point in your life you understand that grand theory of commerce and exchange, knowing that a bag of cherry bombs did not cost a dollar, but, rather, four nights of dishes. It was not the glow-in-the-dark stars, not the tee shirts proclaiming "Grab a Bite at the Wheel Inn Diner", not even the sight of other kids from all parts of the Southwest on holiday, their hairstyles a smidge different, their twangs foreign and pronounced. Here you were, like you were the last time, like you will be the next, inside the belly of a giant beast. You imagine this being your house, making plans to place your bedroom in the head (Closed To The Public) so that you could have a view of the desert and the winding highway. You imagine trying to squeeze a sofa up the flights of narrow, steep stairs. You imagine the postman delivering your mail, the address labelled, simply, "You, Apatosaurus, Cabazon, California". You imagine your dino on wheels, driving around this country you've seen so little of as of yet, the RV campgrounds shadowed by a big, green Dinny pulling into the lot. This is 1989. Claude Bell has only died a year ago, the construction plans for his giant woolly mammoth never put into effect, the inside of the T.Rex never completed. You never stop to think that in 10 years time, your encroaching view of the dinosaurs will be blocked by a Denny's that lures customers from the old Wheel Inn, that an outlet center will now be the marker of how close to your destination you really are, and that paved concrete pathways will allow you to skip along barefoot, burning your toes as you make your way to Dinny's swollen belly.