Empty Chairs And Old Glory: Election Season In The Desert

Get of my lawn ... if I had a lawn, that is!
It’s all but forgotten now, but six weeks ago the biggest news on Earth was that geriatric movie actor Clint Eastwood brought an empty chair to accompany his improv at the Republican National Convention. Millions of people laughed and said, “What even was that?” And then they went back to their lives: thinking about tomorrow’s lunch, ordering the new iPhone, forgetting to give the dog its heartworm medicine, etc.

But there are parts of the country where bizarre right-wing political-media stunts outlive the churn of the news cycle by weeks, sometimes even months. These parts of the country are called “rural and exurban areas.” And they are everywhere, basically surrounding the edge of each metropolis and reaching out to fill almost every part of America’s landscape that hasn’t been protected as wilderness, forest or parkland.

The photograph of the chair was taken in the Mojave Desert sprawl some two hours east of Los Angeles. It is a red chunk of a blue state, a sparsely populated region with no industry or commerce beyond that which comes from government largesse: military bases, national park tourism, and direct deposits from Social Security and disability. Naturally, the overwhelmingly white voters are strongly anti-government.

When bears are armed, only retired military guys can compete with the Tea Party.
It’s a beautiful part of the world, loved by the musicians and writers and painters and hikers and other gays who fill the vacation rentals and the one terrible Indian restaurant during “the season,” which started yesterday when it finally became Fall, and will end around the first 100-degree days in April. Those who live here year-round generally do not have any Edward Abbey-esque love for the stark wilderness. They are here because housing is relatively cheap and there’s lots of desert for the dumping of old blood-stained mattresses, target practice with their required dozen guns per household, and riding around in circles upon their off-road motorcycles and “quads.” The Food4Less is always busy on the first weekday of the month, when the SSI payments arrive, and both methamphetamine and tattoo parlors are in cheap and abundant supply.

The “Bear Arms” guns shop, however, has fallen upon hard times. It used to be in a bigger, standalone barn-style building on the old side of town. Then, four years into the recession, it relocated to a former candy shop next to a tile store. The “under new ownership” sign just went up this month. (There is very little agriculture here, because there is no water and most of the land belongs to the Departments of Defense and Interior, but the barn style is popular here as in all self-aware rural areas.)

For one glorious week, the Tea Party congressional candidate’s huge sign on the highway was defaced with a Christian message. The candidate, some slob, put up giant yellow signs, each showing a Minuteman with a tricorn hat and a musket. The friendly slogan “Live Free or DIE!” basically told everyone here to die. A mysterious hippie painted “Who Would Jesus Shoot?” in colorful Comic Sans lettering over the sign, which was finally replaced with a new design that left no room for graffiti.

The vandalism was blamed on “liberal thugs” working for the campaign of fellow Republican and retired Marine Corps Col. Paul Cook, but it was really too charming for that.

Population: Tire
The most mysterious roadside tableau in the region is this, uhh, tire in a chair. What could it mean?

In Texas and Virginia and probably a lot of other backwaters, charming white Americans have “lynched chairs” in their front yards, because how about that Clint Eastwood? Was this black tire in a chair something along these creative thought lines?

I watched it carefully, for weeks, and finally a crudely scribbled cardboard sign was attached (or reattached?) to the tire. It seems the tire/wheel combination is, in fact, for sale. Simple capitalism at work.

Ken Layne has been living in the Mojave Desert since 2008. If you’d like to buy a very nice house that is literally next to Joshua Tree National Park, send him an email! It’s best as a “seasonal home.”