There is a hidden swimming pool in the Mojave Desert, an eleven-by-five-foot wide minimalist structure designed by an artist and titled the "Social Pool" -- and it is open to anyone who has a day to spare, Google Maps and the ability to follow directions. News about the pool started to buzz in June and caught my attention as something that might bring about adventure, happiness, or both. The sheer ridiculousness of it all -- the fact that you pick up a key that unlocks the cover to the pool from a museum in LA, are only then given the secret coordinates, drive three hours into the desert and then need to be back 24 hours later -- excited anyone I knew who had heard about it.
The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Smithsonian and countless others had all covered the art installation -- and its limited run until September -- ignited my desire to go with an even greater sense of urgency.
I recruited two male friends who were both giddy about the adventure; one a newer friend and one whom I've known for years. It was all we could talk about for days leading up to our departure.
When we decided to up the ante and planned to camp overnight by the pool (which some people have done, but not many), my greatest fears were the possibility of snakes, the punishing sun and heat and possibly an interaction with a scorpion.
Mike, Jonathan and I collected the key to the pool at 11:03 a.m. in West Hollywood. We were given the GPS coordinates and little else.
About an hour before we arrived at our destination, we started noticing the small towns that appeared and then vanished around us: abandoned homes off the side of the road, cracking signs and large deserted plots of land. Signs for Ron's Ranch, various feed stores or the Lone Wolf Health Colony gave us pause. It was as if we were driving through a Disneyland attraction or an actual ghost town. We were delighted already.
After leaving a gas station with gallons of cold water, Gatorade and bags of ice, we resumed our route on the one-lane highway, only to strangely see a long procession of cars heading towards us with their hazard lights flashing. Most businesses were closed or hadn't been open in months and as we left the various towns behind, driving 80 mph on open roads, we looked around and said that we had just officially entered the mind of Stephen King.
The GPS told us to turn left onto what had been described as a dirt road, but was really more of a severely rocky road that we had to drive down very slowly to avoid damaging our cars. We pulled over 2.5 miles down the road when the voice of the GPS politely said to prepare to park and to continue to our destination on foot.
We knew ahead of time that finding the pool would take some searching -- some said anywhere between five and 30 minutes on foot -- and we were also told that the pool was in the "middle of nowhere." Instead, once we had turned on the rocky road, we passed a fairly big house on our right and closer to where we parked, we saw a set of three abandoned RVs with the windows smashed open, the doors blown out but lawn chairs sitting in the yard. This did not seem like the middle of nowhere.
Between looking for a GPS location in the desert and the questionable meth RVs haphazardly planted around us, the trip suddenly had all the makings of the complete Breaking Bad experience.
Off to the right, in the wide-open desert, we squinted and saw a group of people standing around something. Because the Social Pool is supposed to have only one key that is given out for 24 hours at a time, and because that key was tucked carefully away in my camouflage fanny pack, our curiosity about the group of men and their truck blossomed. Unsure of what to say when we approached them, we left all of our gear in the car and headed their way.
The sky, deeply overcast, broke open with warm rain and we soon saw bolts of lightning far off in the distance. As we grew closer, it was clear that the group was in fact waiting at the pool -- it looked like we wouldn't have to do any searching -- but when we approached, they headed back to their truck and drove off without saying a word.
The rest of the afternoon passed blissfully. We hiked back to our cars, transferred gear to Mike's car and drove it down a sandier road that put us closer to the pool. The boys crouched down to unlock the cover to the pool and slowly slid it open, like they were exposing a tiny silver of heaven. Our own personal desert mirage. Was this art? It didn't matter. They dropped a heavy block of ice into the already cool water and we jumped in, shrieking and laughing.
Everything that was supposed to be surreal and wonderful about a tiny oasis tucked into the ground of the desert -- was. We laughed at the absurdity of where we were, took Polaroid pictures and drank beers. I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and we ate them sitting on the edge of the pool, our feet soaking, bewildered by the beautiful emptiness of it all, smiling when the rain blew away and was replaced by a perfect desert breeze. We listened to Fleetwood Mac, The Traveling Wilburys and Paul Simon. The sun started to fade and pinks and oranges burst into the sky and we quickly forgot about the ghost town, the RVs and the mysterious people who were there when we arrived.
The stars made their grand appearance, pulling us away from even our conversations as we looked up and tried to remember the last time we could see so much beauty above us. Lanterns were switched on, my sweatpants replaced my bathing suit and individually wrapped slices of pizza were consumed. We were happy.
But a few hours later, off in the distance, a tiny light appeared. Two, in fact -- the headlights of a vehicle. We watched it travel down the road, still a great distance from us, and wondered if it could be going to that first house we saw, or possibly, the less desirable option, if it could be headed toward the Breaking Bad RVs. But then the two lights veered off of the road and picked up speed, barreling directly toward us suddenly at a great pace. We all tensed, I turned off the music and lights and Mike and Jonathan whispered frantically about what to do. The car was approaching fast and they quickly got out of the pool and reached for empty beer bottles.
The Jeep stopped about 20 feet away, first passing us, and then reversing to our exact location. Two men got out of the car and started whispering. One put on a headlamp. As they approached we said, "Hello? Can we help you?" and they stopped, still covered by darkness, none of their features discernible. "A friend leaked the key," is all one said. We asked them to come closer so that we could see their faces, and the man continued, "We were going to check it out but we can stay out of your way."
We suddenly felt deeply protective of the pool, a subtle primal instinct setting in as we looked up at their faces, realizing that we were in fact not in the middle of nowhere. Realizing with a shudder of stupidity that actually, the entire Internet probably knew our exact location and anyone could have a copy of that key. Enter every horror movie plot you've ever seen.
Showing my true city girl colors, I confidently told them that we had a reservation and that we would be there 'til morning. They said it was so hot earlier that they didn't think anyone would be out there. But it wasn't that hot earlier, I thought to myself. It rained. There was something about the squint in their eyes, the weirdly high-tech watch that the man with the headlamp wore, the inflection of the voice that said "we can stay out of your way" that clung to me after the Jeep pulled away. We kept our lanterns off until the echo of the red of their taillights was long lost in the distance.
The visit changed everything and even though they were gone, we sat feeling edgy in the darkness, talking about how the very things we were most worried about -- the heat, actually finding the pool and maybe the snakes -- were really not a problem at all. Instead, what we feared the most was actually other human beings.
Around midnight we headed to our tents, feeling calmer after fixating on the beautiful blinking lights above us, talking about what the stars looked like during childhood and all the other things that humans talk about when we look up at the night sky. Mike went into his tent and Jonathan and I went into ours. The night was so warm that we kept the tent window, covered in thin mesh, open so that we could feel the breeze and even see the stars behind us if we tipped our heads back.
Three hours later, my eyes snapped opened to the sound of footsteps and breathing. My body went stiff and I felt Jonathan's hand squeeze my forearm tight telling me that he was awake and heard it too. We didn't move or speak, wanting whatever or whoever was out there to think that we were sleeping. We listened intently to the sound outside the tent. This went on for minutes. I was sure something was looking through the tent window at us. I could feel its eyes and hear it breathing.
Fear like this transfixes your body in an instant. The only thing moving was my heart; maniacally pulsating at a pace I have never felt before and hope to never feel again. We gripped each other's arms, squeezing quick pulses in an attempt to communicate when we heard something new. Next came the sound of something touching the tent, like it was trying to find the zipper -- but quietly. I reached for my glasses and Jonathan's hand quickly touched mine to feel what I was reaching for.
The brain doesn't run through multiple grand scenarios at a time like this. It doesn't consider all the possibilities. It zeroes in on a feeling. Someone was there to hurt us. I was sure in the deepest pockets of my gut that either the men from the Jeep had come back or someone from that house or the RVs was there to kill us. Or had they come to steal our car keys? Do we try to protect ourselves? Do we pretend we're sleeping? I waited with terror for the moment that they found the zipper. The moment didn't come.
The sound of footsteps and movement stalled. But there was an indentation of something leaning against the tent, right next to me. Very slowly we moved from lying on our backs to kneeling up on our knees and I whispered, the sound barely leaving my throat, "Who the fuck is that?" to which he quickly responded, "What the fuck is that?" As sure as I was that there was a human trying to get into the tent, he was sure that it was an animal pushing up against it. A coyote perhaps.
"We have to make a ton of noise to scare it away," he whispered.
"What if it's a person? What if they attack us?" I looked at him with wide glistening eyes.
"I think it's an animal. They are scavengers and we have to scare it away. We won't have any peace of mind until we do. We have to make really loud sounds at the top of our lungs."
"We are going to scare Mike so bad he's going to have a heart attack."
"We have to do it."
"I don't know what to yell."
"We have to yell loudly like we are mad. Not like we are scared."
"But I am so scared."
"Then you can shout something and I'll make sounds. Just scream 'Get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out of here!'"
"Mike is going to think people are here."
"Okay then scream 'Get the fuck out of here, animals!'"
"But that's so long."
"Scream 'Get out of here! Get out of here!' But do it really, really loud. Okay?"
I took many deep breaths. "Okay."
He counted down from five and started making these insane short guttural calls from the belly of his body, and forgetting my line, I just started wailing, "Go away! Go away!"
Then the sound of Mike's voice wafted from his tent. As if in slow motion he asked, "So. What's going on?"
Jonathan took the flashlight and left the tent. As we told Mike everything that had just happened, I brought my knees to my chest and tried to stop my entire body from shaking. Jonathan spotted fresh urine around the tent and paw prints.
Falling back asleep was like trying to stop popcorn from popping out of a pan. We didn't say much else until the sun came up. Exiting the tent in the daylight felt like breathing for the first time. We packed up camp quickly, slid the cover back on the Social Pool and locked it.
We got all our stuff back to Mike's car in two trips. As we slammed the trunk and Jonathan and I put our backpacks on to walk up the road to my car, I sarcastically said, "After all this, you guys, you know there's going to be a third act."
Mike started the car and put his foot on the accelerator but the tires quickly sunk into the sand. He reversed and tried again. We tried pushing the car. Then I steered and they pushed. Sand and smoke wailed up around the tires and we looked at each other in disbelief. After 30 minutes of trying, and the pressure of being told that we had to return the key to Los Angeles by 11 a.m., we left everything and drove my car back up to the highway.
Mike Googled auto towing in the area and called at least three numbers that were disconnected. A fourth place was closed on the weekends. We finally got a live voice, Mark, who said he was too far away but to try Debbie. We called Debbie but got an Al, who told us to call Ed, who told us to call Tony.
I pulled into the town where we had seen the cars flashing their hazard lights and found a place called Cafe 247 that had a sign for breakfast all day. I've never ordered a milkshake at 8:40 a.m. but I earned it. We also were delighted to ingest the best breakfast burrito that's ever been made by human hands. If anyone ever asks you the vague question "all the meat?" when ordering anything, just say yes.
We sat in the roadside cafe while Tony worked out how to get to Mike's car. We met him on the highway an hour later and waited while Mike disappeared with him down the rocky road. We dozed on and off and whenever I re-opened my eyes, I squinted down the rocky road to see if I could spot Mike's white car or Tony's grey truck headed our way. Over ninety minutes and $375 later, after clearing out bushes and even some small trees, Tony was able to drag Mike's car back to the road.
We drove home, for a while following one another on the highway, and then eventually separating when I pulled over to take a picture of a faded, broken down sign with an abandoned couch in front of it. It read "Apple Valley Welcomes You...to a better way of life!" And after that, we couldn't stop ourselves from recounting in great detail, with insane spouts of laughter, all that had happened. All that had been said. All that we had felt in the span of 21 hours.
We noticed new signs on the highway for other abandoned ranches and bizarre motels, like the Portal Motel or Paradise Inn (which had vacancy), but the drive went more quickly this time. Perhaps I drove faster than I realized.
Now that we are home, friends have asked us if it was fun -- to which, we each have decided to answer: That's beside the point.