“But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?” – Jack Kerouac, On The Road
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It was the first time I had heard of Darwin, that one uneventful morning at work when I picked up a copy of the Los Angeles Times. There on its front page sat a very sympathetic article about the small, desert town’s residents’ technology-related plight. Apparently, the reclusive folks of this virtually unknown town to the west of California’s Death Valley have been fighting for their right, despite their geographical seclusion, to high-speed Internet. A necessity to the rest of the world, broadband connection remained an extravagant luxury to them, at least as far as the Internet providers were concerned.
My heart went out to Darwin’s residents, possibly cursed to forever endure their sloth-paced Internet made worse by the 90s robotic squeals coming out of their modems; really, it did. I still remember those days when I sat in front of my computer, my fingers tapping to sounds of dial-up, my brain trying to decide against that compulsive thought of grabbing that flimsy metal box and shoving it through the thick glass of my colossal monitor just to end the torture. I remember how that felt. Is there anything technologically worse than trying to watch Mad Men on Netflix using dial-up? These days, surely not!
Before I even finished reading the article, however, I’d already moved on to something else, something that had crossed my mind the moment I learned that the Darwinians did not get their mail delivered to their doorsteps. (Oh no, I’m not exaggerating; to get their mail, they had to actually walk to their post office, which by the way could have passed for an authentic Wild West structure save for the fact that Bart Simpson’s stuffed yellow face was peeking out from one its boarded windows.) To be entirely honest, I was already consumed by one thought: I needed to go to Darwin and soon, before any other analogue portrait photographers discovered the place, before technology caught up with the town, before its iconic Wild West post office was replaced with the sad grays of concrete. My brain was already thinking of the possibilities, the photo shoot potentials, the exciting road trip through the unforgiving desert that could very well take me to a point of no return, the many wonders there that sat waiting to be used and abused.
Should I have felt guilt over my evil scheming ways while Darwin’s artists and loners suffered? Should I have felt remorse, pushed my self-serving thoughts aside, and shifted my focus on their grievances? Nah. They didn’t need my sympathy. They needed a drastic change that only the good people at Verizon had the power to make, if their hearts just bled a little. So I moved on to my personal endeavors.
It took some hesitation before I found myself on the desert road to this little eccentric town, for fear that I would end up tied upside-down and gutted in an old sinister barn nicely decorated with sharp bloody weapons and freshened with the smell of rotting flesh. They were morbid thoughts and unreasonable, I know, but Hollywood’s endless stream of ridiculous slasher movies had made a huge impact on my perception of middle-of-nowhere America. And Darwin, well, it was as middle-of-nowhere as it could possibly get.
It took me three weeks to push my paranoia aside, figure out the way, arm myself with two grown men who I knew would protect me, and finally leave the urban comforts of Los Angeles for Darwin, California.
And so, along with my little dude, all four of us drove north on the Hollywood Freeway, very shortly on the five, and for miles and miles through Southern California’s golden land on the 14. It was a long journey through the Mojave Desert, dotted only with lonely suburbs, pit stops, and a McDonalds every 15 miles or so. For more than two hours, we occupied ourselves with games, inside jokes, and a Subway lunch on the side of the road, every once in a while gazing out the window to make sure that we haven’t wandered off into the Twilight Zone yet.
At the northern end of the 14, where it merged with an interstate highway and just when our patience was wearing thin, we found ourselves on State Route 395. We still had a few good miles ahead of us at that point but to be off the 14 was a huge relief. There, the roadside scenes changed drastically. Suddenly, there were wooden structures, some unoccupied and rundown. Suddenly, there were small-town locals going about their Sunday routines, oblivious to the four sets of city eyes that looked at their humble town with wonder.
Then we were on the 190, which veered west off of the 395. Again, we surrounded again by desert land, barely alive except for its brown shrubbery, cacti, venomous rattlesnakes, and powerful clouds of dust that enveloped some parts of the road. At one point, I almost demanded that we pull over to take portraits in a particularly thick cloud. Almost. I didn’t. Clouds of dust were almost as foreign to me as the Martian terrain and I just wasn’t prepared to face it without a “desert-trained expert” by my side. I wish now that I did, the portraits would have been stunning!
We continued on, uninterrupted, anticipating. We drove on with renewed eagerness, more determined than ever to gaze upon the town we had traveled hours and hours to see. There were barely any cars that passed us on the other side and when a couple did, we smiled and waved like wary travelers happy to see signs of the familiar civilized world. Nobody reciprocated but we didn’t care. We were on the road about to venture an unknown place. We were adventurers, thrill-seekers, trailblazers. We were the Spanish conquistadors and it was the Age of Exploration. We were so close to our destination we could smell the desert decay and neither the unfriendly faces nor the lack of cellular reception could make us turn back…
(Epic song playing in the background… Camera zooming out, presenting a bird’s-eye view of the car and the barren land…)
Too much? Okay, I’ll tone it down.
Further east on this dust cloud-ridden highway we went. The desert hills loomed over us at a distance, heavy with old abandoned mining structures. The sun’s rays burned harshly on the roof of the car as the winds pushed against it with force, seemingly adamant to prevent us from reaching our destination. Further east we went, doubt slowly creeping in, pounding in our heads louder by the minute. “Did we miss our turn?” “Are we lost?” “How’s our gas?” “God, I hope we don’t get stranded here!” Nervous thoughts were shared but left unspoken.
But then a light finally appeared at the end of our seemingly never ending tunnel. Finally, we saw the sign. “Darwin. Estab 1874,” it proudly said. “Population 50 or so.” We made it! We weren’t lost! We might just live another day.
A sleepy Darwin lay lazily behind it, with the sun beating down hard, punishing it for selecting such a hard land to set its roots on. We drove silently down its main boulevard. Not a single soul was about. Pick-up trucks and trailers were everywhere, in no proper order, bordered only by flimsy fences, debris, and desert fauna. Little well-tended green gardens here and there made the shack houses and underground dwellings look a little more welcoming, breaking the desert-gold monotony. And mile or so away, on the side a hill, lay white stones that spelled out the letter D.
The town wasn’t as visually impressive as we anticipated. Perhaps we just created so much hype about it in our minds that we expected mind-blowing stuff. It was just like any other small town in America. You know, humble, unassuming. It was just like any other small town in America, only it was different. It was proud and had character. While its unpaved streets were at that time devoid of any human activity, they still echoed with individualism and spirit, with passion and creativity, and with the kind of courage necessary for voluntary seclusion from the modern comforts of the world.
Darwin did not disappoint. It stirred something in us that LA never had. We traveled more than 200 miles through the Mojave Desert, through heavy dust storms and an endless stream of McDonald’s restaurants, through doubt and Hollywood-induced paranoias, and it was all worth it. You know when people say that it’s not the destination so much as the journey that counts. Well, as amazing as our journey was that day, it sure as hell didn’t compare to the destination.