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“It’s almost 9:18; the man in the can should be here,” Jeremy Corbell, a man with the youthful face of an early 20-something but the white streaked beard of a guy who’s seen a thing or two in his day says to me with a concerned tone as we sit together in near silence and total darkness.
“Is that it?” his wife Katrina, equally alluring, like the kind of woman you only see in magazines, asks as she points into the moonless night sky.
“Yes!” Corbell exclaims. “There he is. The man, the man in the can.” And sure enough, there it was, a bright flash of light traveling faster than a plane but slower than a comet, moving in a perfect arch above us. Holy crap, I think to myself. This is it. I’m actually getting to see a UFO in the desert.
But let’s back it up a few steps.
On a staggeringly warm day in May, I drove out to the Mojave Desert to visit Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell, a famed Jiu-Jitsu sensei, turned contemporary artist, turned revered documentarian of unexplained phenomena.
I stop in at the Frontier Cafe, situated at the corner of Highway 62 and Pioneertown Road. It not only serves the best coffee and sandwiches around, but it also serves as the last place you’ll find cell service before turning left into Pioneertown. I load up on caffeine and cookies, knowing I’ll need the sugar rush to keep me up as I’m expecting a long night of alien hunting ahead.
See, the Corbells have graciously allowed me to stay at their one-of-a-kind Airbnb known as Cultus Camp for the night. And yes, I mean it when I say “allowed.” Merely having an Airbnb account does not make you a shoo-in at this very exclusive destination. In fact, as the Corbells say, they turn down more people than they allow in.
I get in my car and crank the AC to help mitigate the sweat already pouring down my face. Driving off the highway and onto the gravel street of Pioneertown is like an instant switch to another time. On your left are rock formations that took thousands of years to develop, on the right are dusty paddocks filled with trail horses standing perfectly still so as to not overheat. Even the famed restaurant and bar Pappy and Harriet’s, where the likes of Paul McCartney and Vampire Weekend have been known to show up and play a surprise set, sits motionless is the blazing sun.
I continue driving, through the curving street and onto a dirt road where I make what feels like too many right turns. The street continues to narrow and the houses get further and further apart. Finally, I spot it: the wooden entrance to the Corbell homestead.
I pull into the driveway, past an empty barn with a few animal skins hanging from the rafters and take a left into their circular driveway. Immediately I’m greeted by what can only be described as a bear-dog hybrid named Lucky. Lucky only has three legs, so it takes him a bit longer to ramble over to me than your typical hound.
“Welcome to the house,” Corbell says as he walks out the front door, barefoot in old jeans, a t-shirt, and a totally unironic wide-brimmed hat. I step inside their home, a mix of Southern California perfection and modern design, with a slight smattering of the occult thanks to UFO books and a few skulls thoughtfully placed throughout. There’s also their 3-month-old puppy named Jasper, vibrantly running circles around us, showing no signs of the nasty Parvo virus he was suffering from when they rescued him just a few weeks earlier.
We sit for a minute to catch up about the drive and so Corbell can show me a bit of his latest project, a soon to be released documentary called “Patient Seventeen.” The premise of the documentary revolves around a surgeon who claims to remove highly advanced implants, nanotechnology microchips imbedded by aliens who seek to monitor our planet. We debate a bit over a color scheme for the film’s poster before they take me via four-wheeler to the reason I am here: Cultus Camp.
The camp sits on one of two 40-acre properties the Corbells own in the Mojave Desert. It is also one of the only living Joshua Tree forest outside of the national park.
Pulling into the camp is surreal. The patio area is filled with bits and pieces of Katrina’s artwork, as she too is an exceptional artist, including living and dead plant life, a few mannequins that are sure to scare anyone in the dark, and sculptures made out of treasures they’ve found on their walks through what is known as the “wash,” an area of land restricted for use behind the Corbell property.
Next to the patio sits the camp’s main building with two stylishly appointed bathrooms, again each with stunning pieces of Katrina’s work and a few books on impressionism for a bit of light reading.
The only shower at camp is outside and contains just three walls. “Nothing better than air-drying in the desert,” Corbell says nonchalantly while giving me the tour. There’s no need for modesty, as there are no neighbors around to see you in your birthday suit anyway.
Inside the building is also a fully-equipped kitchen, run totally on solar power, ready for any and all visitors vetted and approved to stay at the camp. The Corbells know what they have is unique, special, and completely sacred, not only because the property is so utterly cool, but because of the secrets the Mojave holds. Corbell is just waiting for sundown to reveal them to me.
To end the tour, Corbell takes me to the “tent,” which is so much more than its name describes. The structure, which Corbell himself built, sits on a large wooden deck. The stretched canvas provides the only shade around. Corbell opens the tent’s flaps to reveal a tiny oasis for would-be desert travelers. Inside, a leather sleeper sofa sits with a stack of books just dying to be read. On the floor rests a white cowhide rug with gold flecks sewn in for good measure. On the right is a gray, plush bed and a glass desk with a vintage typewriter, a skull, an outstretched porcelain palm with instructions for palm reading, and a book of tarot cards. Next to the bed is a small book titled “A Young Person’s Guide to UFO’s” by Brian Ball. “I’m not sure why, but every single person who comes here reads this book. I don’t know why they choose this one,” Corbell says.
In that instant, Jasper, the recovering puppy, comes running. We sit and chat some more on the porch before the Corbells head back to their own home to fetch a few things for dinner. Sorry, folks, dinner doesn’t usually come with the overnight stay. But maybe, just maybe, if you’re lucky enough, Katrina and Jeremy will stick around for a sunset cocktail.
The sun is starting to creep toward the edge of the horizon as they head back. It’s in that moment I realize there is nothing. There is no sound. There is no cell service, no T.V., no computer, no people here to distract from the beating of my own heart and the slight ringing in my ear. It is truly the distraction-free place that could open me to experiencing an encounter or two with the unknown. But there’s still an hour or so of daylight to protect me from whatever happens in the dark.
When the Corbells return, Jeremy says there is something he wants to show me, a bird he met a few days ago. The four of us — Jeremy, Katrina, Jasper, and I — wander into our own personal Joshua Tree forest to find a cylindropuntia fulgida, otherwise known as a cholla cactus. The cholla is a mean little bugger that you don’t want to ever be on the receiving end of. Its leaves are actually tiny spines, each protected with a layer of microscopic barbs which make it incredibly painful to come in contact with. Removing the spine once it enters your skin means ripping the skin not only on the way in, but also on the way out, which made it even more remarkable to learn a beautiful, tiny, black and white bird with a bright red belly calls it home.
Corbell explains that the bird, a Cactus Wren, has been gathering twigs for weeks to build up a domed nest inside the vicious plant. There, no one will ever bother him. The trouble is, even he can’t get in or out unscathed, as evidenced by the pile of feathers surrounding his nest. The wren’s stunning and quite possibly lethal home is the perfect metaphor for living in the Mojave Desert.
“Joshua Tree is a block long,” Corbell says as we walk back. “The surrounding area is where the life happens.”
As we get back the sun has already set, so we quickly make a barbecue by flashlight and eat at the handmade 16-foot picnic table, where guests are also welcome to create their own magical dinner experiences, and make plans for the rest of the night. And that is when the “man in the can” appears.
Corbell points out the large, hovering light to me as I sit wide-eyed and let out a squeal. My excitement is met with a hardy laugh by Corbell, who stops me in my alien-loving tracks to explain that bright light is simply a few crazy humans traveling 17,150 miles per hour in the International Space Station.
After I get over the sadness of being fooled into thinking I’ve spotted my first extraterrestrial, we clean up and pack a few essentials before heading out for the night: Sweatshirts, a jar of homemade moonshine, and night vision goggles for good measure. Katrina bids us adieu and we are off on the four-wheeler heading into the unknown.
Corbell hands me a pair of glasses as he pulls down his oversized goggles that look a bit too “Mad Max” for my comfort. And sure enough, like the film, he seems to revel in kicking up dust and nearly taking us off the path with each twisting turn.
After a teeth-chattering ride into the wilderness, we arrive at our potential UFO viewing destination. “This is literally the fourth dimension; every day is like ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Corbell says.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust, but as they do the beauty of the Mojave at night comes into clear view. Though there is no moon tonight, the stars above are more than bright enough to light the way. In fact, the view of the clear night sky and the stars above is well worth the trip alone.
We stop in at a small building called “the jail.” It’s broken down and riddled with bullet holes in the door. It’s creepy, intriguing, and makes you think something is without question lurking around the corner, but it’s so dark you can’t see past the four walls of the structure so you’ll never know who’s watching you from the other side.
We sit quietly, patiently, in the soft desert sand, looking up at the stars and waiting. Corbell shares a few tales that I promised would remain off the record, but are so fantastic in nature that I can’t imagine he’s making them up.
“When you get out here in silence you can detect bullshit,” Corbell says as I peer through the night vision goggles hoping for a little green man to pop over the mountain ridge. Each time I think I see something, Corbell reminds me that the land here “wants to toy with you. It’s like an animal.”
After sitting out until 2 a.m., Corbell and I decide to call it a night. Without spotting a single unexplained phenomena, I put on my goggles and load my gear into the four-wheeler, still pleased at getting to experience something so special during my visit to one of California’s most unique places.
As I sit at camp, alone in the dark, I think to myself, I should take one more long exposure shot of this beautiful night sky. So I set up my camera and click the shutter open, ready to take in all the stars have to offer. I sit quietly in one of the deck chairs outside my glamorous home for the night, thinking about all that is hiding behind those stars.
Suddenly, a large rustling sound startles me. I sit up straight and still, waiting for it to end, but it doesn’t. It gets closer and closer. Finally, I dart up and back into the tent, close the flap, and jump under the covers of my very plush bed. The sound, for me, will have to remain an unexplained phenomena forever.
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