Originally published at Route 96. You can comment here or there.
When you’re in the dark and you want to see,
You need uh… electricity, eee-lectricity!
Have I mentioned yet that it was a trifle warm the day we crossed the desert? It seems that one too many fans and air conditioners and soothing ocean sound generators were plugged in that day–a little fuse blew out somewhere and cut off power to six entire states! [2006 Edit: The West Coast blackout of August 11, 1996 actually affected four million customers in nine western states, plus Mexico–the largest power outage in North America until the Northeast birthday blackout (my birthday, that is) of 2003. Apparently it was triggered by a transmission line sagging into a tree branch and shorting out. I’d like to blame it on utility deregulation and corporate malfeasance (hello, Enron), but apparently deregulation took effect in California after the summer of 1996.]
We were driving across the desert between Joshua Tree and Yucca Flats looking for Desert Christ, the Mojave’s mellow SoCal answer to Christ of the Ozarks. “I wanna see concrete biblical people!” Pete lamented, but Desert Jesus was nowhere to be found… and pretty soon we needed to get gas. Heh heh heh. Gas pumps are powered by electricity. Which meant that, unless Brown Jenkin had enough juice to get us back to Texas or up to Seattle, we weren’t going nowhere for a while.
Jenkin did have just enough juice to get us across the Mojave–we puttered along on fumes as far as Palm Springs, and there it went kaput, leaving us marooned until Enus and cletus at Central Services could find a new 10,000,000 amp fuse to turn the western half of the continent back on again. If you don’t dig Lawrence Welk and Seniors Bingo, an afternoon in Palm Springs could probably be a dicey prospect any day, but with the power out, it was like being in a shopping mall with every store front locked: there was less than nothing to do.
Well, there was one place open, a little restaurant called the Hamburger Hamlet, where they wheeled a tub of beer onto the patio and started selling it for exorbitant sums. I’m not sure whether the prices included a special blackout markup or were just everyday gouging. Palm Springs has the look of a city where even the Hamburger Hamlet might charge $2.50 for a lemonade. The people of Palm Springs were quite impressed by the restauranteur’s Yankee ingenuity. Everyone who walked by said something like, “Oh, look at that! They put ice on the beer! To keep it cold! How clever!” Hardy frontiersmen all.
Derek and I sat on the Hammy Hamlet patio and tried to drink our $5 beers very slowly, since no power meant no bank machines and no credit cards and nowhere else for us to go. Pete was beat by the heat and wandered off to find somewhere he could sleep, vagrant style. But when the power finally did come on, late that night, Pete was nowhere to be found. Derek and I wandered around for ages, looking for him in dumpsters and back alleys, but never found him. Eventually we had to drive on without him, and he’s never been seen again to this day.*
*No, no, that’s not right. We found Pete. It was his mix tape of Arrested Development and King Crimson and Schoolhouse Rock that we never found.