Addition to Chapter 35

A Trip Through the Desert

From print pg. 313:

WE HEADED DOWN THE HOLLYWOOD FREEWAY toward downtown LA where we picked up the I-10 freeway heading east. I almost choked, seeing that sign. I dreaded heading back in the direction of the Int base. Their cars could be all over the place. We would pick up Highway 15 just outside of Ontario, only about twenty minutes from the Int base, to take 15 north to Barstow. Chaz said we’d pull off there to take a break before continuing north to Vegas. I had driven those miles numerous times before alone, when Peter had played with Melissa Manchester’s band at the MGM Grand. We would be cutting through the southeastern part of the Mojave Desert and then the northwest part of Death Valley.

As we neared Redlands and San Bernardino, my heart throbbed wildly in my chest, being so close to the base where someone could spot my red car. As we left the I-10 and merged north onto Highway 15, an overwhelming urge to return “home” drew me like an irresistible magnetic pull from the base. As if my car was a celestial body held in its course by gravity, spinning around a central point, which force would win? To go back meant that I would die. Defying the emotional forces felt like what I imagined a space shuttle would go through while breaking free from Earth’s gravitational pull, to float freely. For nine years I had returned to the base like a homing pigeon—a creature with the means to fly anywhere, seemingly free to do so, and yet trained to follow commands, or die trying.

The sight of Chaz’s van in front of me kept me focused. Simply controlling my car felt therapeutic. I had never likened myself to a pioneer before, though I had likened myself to a slave. I thought about Chaz like a hero using the underground railroad leading an escaped slave to a safe point.

Signs posting the distance to Victorville, Barstow, and Baker reminded me just how long we would be on that highway cutting across the desert to Vegas. Peter and I usually stopped at the roadside coffee shop under the giant outdoor thermometer where tourists stop to buy postcards. After we passed through Victorville, there would be nothing but desolation until Barstow. Then we’d emerge into the otherworldliness of the Mojave Desert. A trip across a barren desert is usually boring, but today it is beautiful as a freedom drive. The same cobalt-blue canopy that covered me when I drove away from the Int base stretched across the desert sky, still cloudless, but over a seemingly different world. The afternoon sun created shimmering heat waves sizzling over that quiet desert realm. The highway passed under my tires and wound like a dark snake across the sea of sand, at least fifty miles beyond into the next mountain range on the horizon.

The stop at Barstow came up fast. After buying some snacks and a few bottles of water to go, we took a short walk around the shops to limber up before we headed out. I glanced at the date of the Los Angeles Times I had picked up in the hotel lobby that morning—August 1, 1998. I had crossed the biggest mental hurdle—overcoming my fears and making the break. I hoped that my desire for freedom and my will to make it on my own would defeat the forces that had held me to Scientology. The desert trip gave me plenty of time to face what I had done and what I had left behind. I was driving across the desert for the sole reason of avoiding confrontation with Scientology security, instead of having the freedom to just get on a plane in an airport as free people do every day in the U.S.

The sea of Mojave Desert stretched out before us. Desolation, barrenness, emptiness seemed to pervade all aspects of this valley. Temperatures in August averaged 113 to 115 degrees. We drove one of the hottest places on earth, the lowest, driest location in North America, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level near Badwater. Random cacti with piercing needles and distorted yucca trees stood starkly against otherwise barren patches of sand, defiant symbols of the tenacious insistence to survive.

I could have become transfixed by the illusion that the desert never ends, and stretches infinitely beyond the horizon—until Chaz’s red blinker flickered on, alerting me that McLaren Airport appeared in the distance, wavering in the heat like a mirage.