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Desert Dreamers

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California's Mojave Desert is one of the hottest, driest spots on the planet. In spite of a handful of growing desert cities, very few people subsist among the dry lake beds and secret military zones. This journey across the Mojave introduces us to an eclectic group of desert dwellers: artists, hermits, UFO seekers, and believers in religious miracles. Though at first glance urbanites and suburbanites might take them for drop outs, charlatans, or space cadets, these desert denizens all chose the Mojave for the same reason: for the freedom to chart their own paths, and the space to fulfill their desert dreams.

Though he's already used up more than 100,000 gallons of paint, Leonard Knight continues to paint the mountain where his hot air balloon deposited him 30 years ago. With each new bale of hay, painted flower, and pile of clay, Leonard hopes his adobe creation comes closer to proclaiming his heartfelt message to the world: 'God is Love.' "I keep it that simple," he says, "and try to let my mountain do my talking. And it seems to be talking better than I am."

Though she is no longer an exotic dancer, Dixie Evans remains incredibly flirtatious at 79. Once the "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," she now runs the world's only burlesque museum, and loves to tell the stories of her erstwhile rival: "We are both from Hollywood, the same age. But if you wanted to see Marilyn, you could have come to the Burlesque Theater so see me. -- Uhh, I might have shown you a lot more than Marilyn!"

Maurice Romero is a flamboyant artist who came to the Anza-Borrego desert from West-Hollywood to find peace in nature. After the death of his lover 10 years ago, he built a village of doll-houses to keep him company: St. Maurice Village. Now he paints flowers and talks about solitude, spirituality, and Martha Stewart.

In the Mojave, a Polaroid camera can possess mystical powers. Maria-Paula Acuna discovered the Virgin Mary's image one day in a Polaroid of the sun, donned a nun's habit, and started interpreting her visitors' pictures of the sky. When she discovered that people were flocking to her, and even paying for her interpretations, she moved the operation to the Mojave to avoid big city parking problems. Now, hundreds of believers and on-lookers make the pilgrimage every month to witness the spectacle. They bring the sick, the elderly, and the handicapped, and all take pictures of the sky, hoping to capture a miracle.


Elmer Long has plenty of free wisdom to dispense to those he meets. This bearded elder of the desert chose to retire early from his job at a quarry so that he could have more time for his life's work: constructing a forest of 'bottle-trees' in his yard. Each tree is adorned with dozens of bottles, and crowned with Americana collectibles he finds in the desert, like an old gold-digger pistol or a pump from a 1930's Route 66 gas station. Elmer is adamant that you don't need money to be happy as long as you have a dream to follow. "I had something to do before I die and I'm doing it," he says, filled with joy and laughter among his trees of glass.

Desert citizens inhabit UFO science centers, spiritual retreats, and art parks. However, despite the outward individualism and distinctiveness of the lives encountered on this trip through the Mojave, each has one thing in common: their love of the austere environment and the freedom and spiritual understanding that comes from the decision to live far from the centers of civilization. Each speaks not like a timid or eccentric recluse, but like a sage endowed with the wisdom of the wilderness.

The gorgeous landscapes, vast skies, and dramatic sunsets captured on film form a perfect backdrop for this examination of desert life. Contrasting images of the desert with suburban and consumerist lifestyles, Desert Dreamers forces us to examine the aspects of our lives which seem normal, but which would be considered completely alien in the desert. What do we city-dwellers lose by attempting to fit the norm? This portrait of the Mojave Desert's eccentric inhabitants suggests that happiness lies in following your dreams, however far they may take you.

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