Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 22, 2010

Georgina of the Desert

Imagine for a moment that you are traveling to a new place that you have never seen, and that no one you know has ever seen: a place that no one of your acquaintance has any knowledge of. You can’t do it. Whether you climb Nanga Parbat or trek across the Silk Road or dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench, we’ve all seen photos and probably full-motion video of these places. Unless you are on the first manned mission to Mars … oh, wait, we have footage from the surface of Mars. Sorry.

With 150 years of photography, 100+ years of motion film and more than 50 years of video technology behind us, we’ve seen it all. Two thousand years ago, Pliny the Younger gave us his eyewitness account of the destruction of Vesuvius in which his father (The Elder) perished. We have only his word on which to rely, no photos. Further back, the almost certainly legendary Homer gave us a description of the mythical Troy so compelling that Heinrich Schliemann spent decades looking for ruins that fit Homer’s verbal descriptions. Those days are past. We’ve lost the need to write vivid, detailed descriptions of our travels. We send pictures. Often, we send pictures and don’t even write at all (some of you, oh Portland Scribe, are exceptions).

It is no surprise that with several generations’ worth of our multimedia orientation, from the early days of white letters on green screens, the computing environment has evolved into a medium that incorporates not just text (as it did back in the good ol’ days when there was little to distinguish a word processor from the typewriters on which I matriculated except the backspace key and certain formatting commands) but a wealth of words, pictures, sound, motion and, soon, coming to a living room near you, 3-D. (My typewriter memoir is HERE).

I don’t just write a blog, I post images to support it. Some portions of this site are almost entirely visual, including the piece about retro hotels off in the right column. We assume that we can associate images, audio and video with anything we create.

Now I will relate a true tale of the West, and I think you’ll see my point. These events occurred at Coyote Dry Lake, out beyond Barstow in the Mojave Desert of California in September of 1999. I have some stunning photographs and video from that day, but I will rely entirely upon verbal description of the scene. The reason I can be so complacent is that I know you’re familiar with the setting. First, look up. The sky is a vast expanse of deep, rich blue, the way it can only be above a certain altitude, when the air is clear and there’s no humidity. This desert sky vaults over a miles-wide flat of cracked, light-brown earth, a dry lake bed: Coyote Dry Lake. Off in the distance, in every direction, the level plain of the lake bed is ringed by mountains.

Of course you’ve seen it. Car manufacturers have their latest models race across this type of landscape, trailing plumes of dust. Movie directors put Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and a wild bronco in a place like this. It’s an archetypal setting that you know well.

So far, then, it is a setting, a stage. But now we come to the actual story of what happened in that place. Although it was one of the most memorable and incredible events of my life, although there was a professional video crew and a professional photographer with me at all times, no images of these events exist. I alone can tell you this tale of Georgina of the Desert.

I was directing a video and photo shoot for my company. About a dozen of us had been out on the dried crust of Coyote Dry Lake since dawn, shooting video and stills for a major new initiative the firm was launching. It was early September, the sun blazed out, and the temperature had reached 100 degrees while we got all the shots of our actor and numerous props, capturing images that would appear in a video, brochures and a variety of other media. It was a long, hot dry day, but a great day full of productive work. Now we were finished, packing up the gear in the beautiful soft light of sunset as the sky over us deepened to a darker blue and the extreme heat of the day began to cool.  Picture a small knot of people in that vast expanse of the dry lakebed, miles and miles not just from the nearest town, but even from any paved road. Across that level expanse we saw a cloud of dust, coming toward us. Eventually we could see that a car was driving across the lakebed, and then we could make out a big red Cadillac making a beeline for us. Who could it be? The Caddy pulled up and stopped 20 yards short of us the engine shut off, and the doors opened.

Out of the rear passenger side stepped a young woman, maybe sixteen, and she was wearing a red evening gown with a flounced skirt. A man and a woman stepped out of the front seats of the car. Everyone on my crew stepped aside and made way for this vision, indicating that, “This guy here, Nixon, he’s in charge, you’d better talk to him.” Well, I was the director, so I pretty much figured this was my gig. She introduced herself. Her name was Georgina. With her were her parents. She was a performer, and they had heard that there was a Hollywood film crew doing a shoot on the lake, and she was here to audition. She handed me her card.

I wish I could say that I intentionally let the desert silence prevail for a moment, but the silence was not something I directed: I was utterly flummoxed. What I should have done, of course, was subtly signal to Dan, the videographer, or to the still photographer or to someone to get a gosh-darned camera out and capture this incredible, otherworldly moment. How did they know we were here? What desert grapevine had passed the word that a camera crew was shooting at Coyote Lake?

Georgina told me that she was an experienced performer, and that she had sung at this event and that one, and that she had sung in Washington at the Inauguration, and I believed her. How could I not? She was beautiful and charismatic, and the desert light struck her in exactly the way that some better director than I would have spent a million dollars to create.

So she sang. A single, soprano voice in the silence of a summer evening, not lost in that vastness, but part of it. It was magic.

I, of course, had no role to give her. I was shooting a minor corporate video that would live and die unseen by all but a few on a handful of miserable VCRs in conference rooms. And, not only that, although a dozen of us had invested countless hours of toil and care in planning and recording the twenty or thirty little scenes that comprised our piece, when the truly magical moment arrived, and beauty and art sang out through the still desert evening, we forgot our cameras and stood, dumbfounded, able only to listen and amaze.

It is little consolation that others have failed, as I did. They saw the UFO hovering above them, or the Sasquatch lumbering away through the trees toward the river, and failed to press the record button or remove the lens cap. I stood next to a girl in a red evening gown in the desert twilight while she sang as sweetly as life permits. I did not direct any of my crew of experienced professionals to pick up at least one of the five or more cameras that were within an arm’s length to take this one evanescent opportunity to capture genuine magic. I can only remember, and try to tell you how it was.

© 2012 Brad Nixon



  1. I remember when you came back to work with this story, but never realized just how trippy it must of been. Good one.


  2. The trip would be worthwhile even if the only thing you brought back was a single sentence like: “I stood next to a girl in a red evening gown in the twilight while she sang as sweetly as life permits.” Looks like a great place to revisit.


  3. _ Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind _

    Sometimes, you don’t need a record. No, you don’t need a photo or a videotape. This event — and its special impact on your psyche — will last forever in your memory. No photo would do it justice. No videotape would mean as much to anyone else. We all have such memories, and treasure them all our lives.

    Paris. Late Spring. Early afternoon. Sunny, but with a few scattered clouds –little balls of cotton floating gently above. 1999. Like yesterday.

    My wife and I are at the west end of the jardins des Tuileries. We’re sitting in two of those green metal chairs unique to Paris parks. You don’t see that green color anywhere else. To our right: Place de la Concorde. Green and gold fountains; giant obelisk from Egypt; giant marble statues of horses; 19th Century Crillon Hotel. To our left and below us: the Tuileries. Fountains shooting geysers in the air; dark green plane trees framing white marble statues of this or that god or goddess; large shallow pools with little model sail boats being maneuvered by children; an ice cream cart in the distance. Our chairs are on a little “bluff” area, so we have a good view of the park below us.

    We lean back in our chairs and take out desserts we bought from Dominic Geffroy, our favorite patissier in the 16th arrondissement. Chocolate ganache bars. Can’t be described. Can’t be photographed. Just have to be eaten. I slowly sink my teeth in, through the semi-hard ganache coating, to the soft mousse in the middle. I close my eyes. Heaven.

    We took a couple of those bars home with us, in an attempt to “extend our vacation.” Didn’t work. You just have to be there.


    • A wonderful memory, Bill. Classic. Amazing how something that you share with thousands of people can still be a personal, intimate acquaintance with a place or a time.


  4. Hey, Brad,

    What a read! Thank you–You should find Georgina and do a sequel! Wondering what became of her….that in itself could be a novel– even a movie, I bet!

    Anyway, truly loved the “pix” you paint in words! Quite poetic, really… keep up the fab work–

    Also “Brumfield at the Bird”– how alliterative 🙂
    Made me smile big!



  5. Brad,
    As part of the crew that day, I can say that you created the perfect visual in the story of ‘Georgina of the Dessert’. The part I loved most however could only been seen from the outside looking in — your face as this all transpired!

    A priceless memory…


    • Kristi, not only did you pitch in on the crew, you were the CLIENT! Thanks for the great gig.


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