If you drive dead east on the 10 Freeway, past Claremont, San Bernardino and Redlands on your way to Palm Springs, you’ll see the massive outlets of Cabazon. What you’ll miss, as many do, is the enormous tyrannosaurus and apatosaurus that rise out of the sand, blurry in the fume-filled air so as to make their appearance delusory and fantastical. They stand frozen in time near the parking lot of the Wheel Inn Café, an eatery that may be the most authentically frightening restaurant in all of eastern California.
As you skillfully avoid the café and head directly for the tail of the apatosaurus, you are struck by the size of the creature and try to imagine, however faintly, a time when these beasts roamed the earth. Once you enter the dino, near its buttocks, you climb a flight of stairs and enter its belly. Where millions of years ago digestive juices broke down tons of foliage, a plentiful gift shop now flourishes.
Amidst the figurines of prehistoric favorites – T-Rex, raptors, pterodactyls – and pictures, videos and games, you are struck by a number of text-heavy signs that hang, like pages ripped from a gigantic textbook, from the white plaster walls. You quickly realize that despite how difficult it might be for you to imagine a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth, it is infinitely harder for some people to imagine any kind of connection between that past and our present.
How, each sign asks in its own, pseudo-scientific way, could two classes of beings like dinosaurs and humans exist on the same scale of biology? Please don’t tell us, the signs goad, that a pool of amino acids on the unlivable surface of a young new planet that would be called Earth created all of this. We live, the Cabazon dinosaurs tell us, By Design, Not By Chance.
The gift store bags proclaim the dictum proudly on their sides. Videos and books cite scientists who offer incontrovertible evidence that evolution can’t possibly explain humanity, let alone provide a meaningful continuum of developing life on the planet.
Footnotes, long the purview of the academic (read: blasphemously liberal) community are found here in abundance, their tiny type hoping to add weight to the arguments that run from the penguin figurines down the aisle to the postcards. Here, visitors walk through the middle of the burning desert to find the mirages of prehistoric creatures peddling creationism writ large in the belly of an apatosaurus.
This, of course, is America. We find salvation and disagreement in the most unlikely of places and never run out of space for an opinion. We build monuments with messianic abandon, we fuse destiny with a feckless optimism that our faith will be vindicated by the passage, if not the ultimate judgment of, time.
America is built to withstand the glance of people like me, who pass on its interstates, pause to sneer at divine dinosaurs in the desert and continue on their self-righteous way. This country, for all of its holes – and make no mistake, there are many, starting with those who build glorified papier-mâché monuments to dangerous ignorance – has consistently and rightly favored those who risked, endured and survived scorn.
What matters most is the investment, the sheer weight of energy applied to the cause that moves mountains and chips away reason in favor of bluster. How, then, must I, and those like me, respond? Must we too stand in the heat, feet burning, mouth dry, amino acids boiling, arms folded against the wind and shouting answers to a question that will never come?
I say it is by design, not chance, that we may define ourselves outside of who made us. We all stand in a sand that threatens to choke us, silence us, blind us.
No matter how large or all-mighty the monument, it will disappear in time, swallowed where it stands. It is only the moving, however small or seemingly insignificant, that survive, that push onward to learn if you dig just deep enough, your path goes on, long after the plaster has been wiped clean from the earth.