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Exploring Jim Morrison’s epic Californian desert odyssey


In 1969, Jim Morrison made a film called HWY: An American Pastoral. The opening shot of the movie sees a stretch of asphalt unspool with the credits painted onto it before the camera eventually arcs towards the bruised sky of a moody desert dusk where the desolate moon hangs like a milk bottle top on a washing line awaiting the hissing company of the night. This notion of the long unfurling roads of America stretching out like lonely ventricles is not just a vignette to open a film, but a singular fascination that Morrison seemed to hold throughout his short life. 

His farewell to that short life was his masterpiece, ‘Riders on the Storm’ is undoubtedly one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written. When The Doors first formed in 1965, starting a song with a lightning crack and an apocalyptical atmosphere was out of the question. In the eternal summer of peace and love, the flowery sanguine sound that most of the mainstream music in the era propagated was in direct contrast to the iconoclasm that followed shortly after. As Jim Morrison said long before the band arrived at the opus of L.A. Woman: “I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road toward freedom”.

For Morrison, freedom was the ultimate paragon of American virtues and while other artists were bracing the hubbub of booming cities, he had his eye on the pastoral expanse of America that seemed to hark back through eternities. For many, the desert was a lifeless waste of space between happening scenes, but for Morrison, it was the slithering, blistering, beat-up epitome of America bygone and that yet to come, where the Land of the Free earned its name. The fads of the 1960s would come and go but Morrison was intent to ground the sound of the zeitgeist in something timeless.

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When it comes to ‘Riders on the Storm’, The Doors managed to capture enough atmosphere to sustain life in space. With the evocative image of a road-weary traveller, the band crafted an atmospheric masterpiece that housed more imagery than the Museum of Modern Art. And, as it happens, it was a song a lifetime in the making for Morrison, himself a careworn wayfarer of the highroads by now. As Fred Powledge, a political correspondent who was inadvertently roped into his oeuvre, once wrote: “Morrison is a very good actor and a very good poet, one who speaks in short, beautiful bursts, like the Roman Catullus… You sense that Morrison is writing about weird scenes he’s been privy to, about which he would rather not be too explicit.” The desert is full of such oddities. 

The song began as a jam of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, a country tune which was originally written by Stan Jones and depicts a coterie of cursed cowboys forced to ride horseback through the sky for tortured eternities. While The Doors may have taken the song in an entirely different direction thereafter, this brooding sense of epic Western theology remains. In fact, few songs in history conjure up a landscape with as much immediacy as ‘Riders on the Storm’ as it draws upon the stark and stripped West’s dusty haze. 

Therein lies the tale of a hitchhiker. Morrison himself was no stranger to wandering the serpentine roads of the west with an outstretched thumb. In college, his girlfriend lived three hundred miles away and Morrison would thumb rides towards her on his lonesome. As a boy his father had also been in the military and the family constantly hot-footed around America, weaving the fated image of Morrison as a wandering enigma forevermore. But there was a danger and darkness to his itinerant soul too, and this was also borne of American travels. 

On one journey, he witnessed a truck overturned on a battered desert road. As his father would later recite, “We went by several Indians. It did make an impression on him. He always thought about that crying Indian.” This image was scarred onto Morrison’s visceral young mind. It would form a tapestry alongside slithering snakes, spitting lizards, storms, flash floods, bubbling creeks and lost, disenfranchised souls, all of which were wrought out in his work, most notably in HWY: An American Pastoral.

However, despite the darkly poetic overtones that Morrison imbued upon his chosen landscape, this apocalyptic vision was one that proved alluring to him. He was so at home thumbing rides in the parched and windswept land that he is now almost synonymous with it. So synonymous, in fact, that you can follow in his well-furrowed footstep to catch a glimpse of the seductive freedom and poetic muse that rained in the desert for Morrison like a blizzard.

Roy’s Motel, Mohave Desert. (Credit: Ralph Graef)

From the skylight of Los Angeles that forever flickered in the far horizon of his desert psyche – where myriad Morrison landmarks can be visited including the iconic Morrison Hotel on S Hope Street – the hotspot of the Mojave Desert lingers some 200 miles to the east. Travelling through the flung out towns by San Bernardino, Los Angeles slowly rolls into the background like a tumbleweed and the hills of San Antonio slither into view.

Along the way scattered on the roadsides of the Barstow are quirky cobbled buildings like the blood red Plata’s Mexican offering up a bite eat or the Route 66 Mother Road Museum offering a cologne glimpse of wild west’s brutal past. This last stop of civility is a welcome halfway house in the best possible way it, like the easing in a Ray Manzarek keyboard intro before the real road trip begins.

By the time you break through them to the other side, the flat rolling plains of the Barstow Freeway give the first quenching gulp of freedom that Morrison sought on the open roads. And within three and a half hours of leaving L.A. behind, the warped wilderness of the Mojave Desert welcomes you in. Therein the equanimous unspooling of flat sandy miles elope into the primordial mountains and crooked mounds rising like abandoned structures left to ruin a million miles away, like the Granite Peak at old Boulders viewpoint where Morrison scrambled around in his inadvisable leather trousers.

Hardy cacti line the trails like the Rock Spring Loop where a rare spring can be found and old wrecks and relics dot the horizon of the lawless lands like some Mad Max civilisation has tried and failed to set up a Shangri-La amid the dystopian ruin. And if you’re looping L.A. excursion leads you back down south towards Joshua Tree and the return to society, you can stop off at Tahquitz Canyon to thrash in the falls that forms a moment of cleansing in Morrison’s explorative odyssey.

Like Morrison, not doing much but exploring and letting the mad sights and muses rush to you is the point here. Life takes on the pace of a rumbling bassline. Creeks and springs are plentiful when the open roads get too much or the Lava Tubes in the heart of the National Preserve leave you in need of refreshment. And then, in the various camp spot, the stars make themselves known as though they are showing off, like some concession from the universe for braving the brooding lands where few eyes wander. You’re only a matter of hours away from the Metropolis of L.A. but it seems a million years away in Morrison’s world of Ghost Riders, hitchhikers and the true heart of American freedom, fears and thrills. 

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