Deja Vu in Death Valley

Recently I was in Death Valley, looking for the nearest liquor store and feeling most peculiar. My skin felt like it was about to burst into flames, but it was the nagging sense of deja vu that was really bothering me. There was something about this town and its few buildings that was oddly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I was certain I’d never been to the Mojave Desert before, never experienced this feeling of being roasted alive, outside my one trip to the Russian & Turkish Baths on Tenth Street. I’d definitely never felt this close to being roasted alive while aboveground in the bright sunshine without a young Turk flogging me with an olive branch.

It was a very particular and specific experience, walking along the dusty sidewalks of this desert town with these two very particular gentlemen, one in a black suit and a grey fedora and the other in a black and white baseball shirt, in the dead heat of the day. A heat of about one hundred and fifteen degrees, if the giant thermometer in the center of town was correct. That giant thermometer itself was strangely familiar, as was the ubiquitous brand name “Bun Boy.” It must be the heat, I thought. I must be delirious. I kept trying to form a sentence about the Russian Turkish Baths and hoping that my sunblock would survive the short walk. The black, gray and white clad men were saying things I could only vaguely hear through the obliterating heat, things about high-contrast photographs of their former bands taken in this very desert. I prayed that one of those buildings that said “Bun Boy” would soon also say “liquor.” Why did everything in this town say “Bun Boy”? What sort of a person was this Bun Boy and just how did he remain so impervious to the heat? And why did I feel that I’d seen Bun Boy at his desert outpost before?

We arrived at some kind of liquor store and were rewarded for our efforts with cheap wine in individual tiny bottles. I may or may not have purchased a popsicle; my memories are fuzzy and my notes on the incident do not include food. I eventually drank enough of the cheap wine in the tiny bottles not to really register the existence of Las Vegas at all, which was probably for the best. But before the desert and the tiny wine combined to produce an even greater delerium, one final shudder of deja vu awaited me back on the Interstate. We passed a road sign for Zzyzx Road and I thought, “I have been down this road before.”

But really, I had never been down that road before. I most certainly had never been down that road in a van with an entire rock and roll band, their adorably dreadlocked manager and their equally adorable sixteen-year-old runaway, drinking wine out of a miniature bottle in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I think I would remember something like that.

The wine, the heat and the music took care of these questions by simply untethering them from my mind and sending them drifting into the night sky. It wasn’t until a week later when I returned home and began sorting through the pile of papers on my desk that I learned why the giant thermometer, the Bun Boy and the sign for Zzyzx Road were all so familiar.

A few years back, my friend Sara took a cross-country trip that ended in New York, where she stayed with me for a couple of days. I remember feeling terrible that I couldn’t show her around better, as I was employed on Wall Street at the time. The sole benefit of my employment on Wall Street was getting to see Springsteen from the seventeenth row at the Meadowlands while drunk on free champagne, but that’s neither here nor there. Sara accidentally left some pictures of her cross-country trip at my house and for the intervening six or seven years, I’ve kept them carefully in an envelope marked, “Sara.” I’ve seen her a few times since then but always forgotten to give them to her. Every so often I take them out and look at them, always puzzling over what the significance of that road sign or street or place might be. The picture of Sara in the sequined cowboy hat I always recognized as the kind of silly road trip high-jinks picture, but the rest of them never quite added up.

Until now, that is.

All the touchstones of our desert rest stop were there. The Bun Boy, the giant thermometer, the sign for Zzyzx Road. I didn’t know where we were and didn’t think to ask, but apparently we were in the town of Baker, and the Bun Boy, the giant thermometer and the sign for Zzyzx road are considered the photogenic local curiosities of the town that bills itself the “Gateway to Death Valley.” I had been to Baker many times before, not in my dreams, but in an envelope of someone else’s memories. If Sara had disappeared, but I’d always had the sense that she’d been kidnapped by aliens and the mysterious envelope of pictures was my only clue to this mystery, then our walk down the street in Baker, California might have been come to something. But instead, like many experiences I have, it was only a nagging sense of deja vu soon obliterated by drunkenness.

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