Back Page: Gimme Shelter

By Michael DiGregorio
Photo by Kelley Richardson

Beyond our Motor Lodge room–S79 double, midweek rate—a 3,000-square-mile grindhouse churns away. Outside, Death Valley's two-mile-high monster rock, sulfurous sinkholes and life-snuffing salt flats are being scoured and sanded by a violent and haunting wind.

Twelve hours earlier, Stephen Wilde and I had dropped into this fabled realm of mirages and wrung-out riches: a living apothecary of carbonates, silver and mercury, watched over by a plasmic sun. Where Manson's hippie death cult hid out, we hammered 40 miles of sandy, rocky hell.

Not only had we cheated death, empty Camelbaks dragged through 122-degree heat, we'd fended off the potato salad. Conspicuously slack now, thoroughly content with four walls, three TV channels, mini-fridge and
non-potable water, Stephen and I tried to contextualize.

In white Mighty Mouse boxers, Stephen lay sideways on a narrow bed. A Vancouverite, what little patches of skin he chose not to ink screamed exposure as loudly as JFK needed a limo with a roof. Hemmed by upside-down bikes and 80 pounds of camera gear, Stephen whispered, in a voice well suited to phone sex, "potato salad." We'd certainly suffered for our art.

But the day's agony and ecstasy just up 'n shriveled once we encountered Big Gay Chris. We'd just put critical distance between our shamelessly queer, ridiculously misplaced if not completely harmless waiter and us. The former stood maybe six-three. Probably weighed far north of 280. Likewise, the T-bones Big Gay Chris served no more than an hour earlier were almost as enormous.

After dinner in Stovepipe Wells' red vinyl and dark wood-trimmed dining room, Big Gay Chris found Stephen and I in the adjoining artlessly artfully artless bar. His persona, clearly too large for any closet, came on like an unholy alliance of Rip Taylor and the late Chris Farley. Leaning in, Big Gay Chris put his hands on our respective shoulders.

His gaze, magnified by Harry Carrey-sized horn-rims, meandered to and fro. From the Lisbeth Salander-complected, pierced and tatted mod-primitive Canadian; then back to me, olive-skinned if not brain-dead. Time stood still, as it had on the trail; in high, sun-blasted canyons where, hours earlier, we desperately sought the slightest sheath of shade. After graciously declining an invitation to see his trailer, what with a collective if awkward, "Jeez, we're thoroughly wrecked from riding,"

Big Gay Chris paused, then harrumphed with dramatic flourish. Nanoseconds later he gushed, "But you just can't leave Death Valley without trying my potato salad."

Deliverance, thy name is room One-two-two.