“The reason we’ve decided to move here is, simply, addiction,” writes author, journalist and musician Rubén Martínez in his new book “Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old Desert.”The 50-year-old professor at Loyola Marymount University, who holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in literature and writing in the English department, is musing about the move he and his wife-to-be, Angela Garcia, were making to the hardly-on-the-map village of Velarde in the Espa√±ola Valley. Garcia, a medical anthropologist, was researching her doctoral dissertation on the social and historical dimensions of heroin addiction. And the valley in northern New Mexico had a rate of heroin addiction and overdose deaths higher than Los Angeles, New York or any other U.S. city. The graduate student’s interest was piqued partly by the fact that her relatives in New Mexico had their own history of alcoholism and drug abuse. But, amazingly, she didn’t know about Martínez’ off-and-on use of drugs — especially cocaine — since high school. In the book, he frankly observes, “Perhaps Angela has turned away from an obvious truth too terrible to admit, or turned toward me because at some level she knows that I, too, was the subject of her research.”The professor, who started his career writing about the civil wars in El Salvador and other Central American nations for the L.A. Weekly, had “come running” from hitting rock bottom as an addict in Mexico City. He figured like a lot of his friends that the Mojave Desert was a good place for people in trouble to hide out and “lick their wounds.” And he wound up in Twentynine Palms, paying $275 a month for a little house. It was close enough to the popular village and national park of Joshua Tree — the place where he began his recovery that would last throughout an entire decade in his inner and outer desert sojourn. ‘The border’So what was it about the desert that helped Martínez radically turn his life around to become a tenured professor at LMU and the proud father of five-year-old twin girls named Ruby and Lucia?When asked about this recently, sitting at an outdoor table at a coffee house in Cypress Park, the gregarious, well-spoken Martínez, who earned an Emmy as a host of the award-winning local public television community’s news magazine “Life & Times,” is quick to reply.“It’s in my family’s roots on my father’s side,” he says. “You know, my fraternal grandparents are both from northern Mexican states with a desert land. So it was like my father’s cradle, and he would take us on the cheapest vacations to Indio in August, when it’s 115 in a motel. Plus, my dad raised me on westerns. And as a kid, I was just fascinated with the cowboys-and-Indians type stuff. Also, I grew up in the city and the otherworldliness of it fascinated me.“And then later as an adult, the desert became ‘the border,’” he adds. “I wrote dozens and dozens of stories from the mid-‘80’s all the way through the ’90s about immigration for The Weekly and Op-Ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times or commentaries for NPR [National Public Radio] and then KCET TV. So then the desert is no longer cowboys and Indians. It’s migrants dying. It’s the border patrol. It’s the militarization of it. It’s drug smuggling. It’s death in the desert.”When the desert became a moral issue for the young adult, his mentors became priests who gave sanctuary to migrants escaping the death squads like Father Luis Olivares at La Placita and Jesuit Fathers Greg Boyle and Mike Kennedy at Dolores Mission. He had faith that was liberation oriented, but not a lot of time for a spiritual life. “I was a journalist for heaven’s sake,” he quips, “and there were wars going on.”While living in Mexico City, drugs, which had been following him as a shadow, finally took their toll. That’s when, burnt out and almost broke, he headed for Joshua Tree and later northern New Mexico. And the desert, in fact, did help him clean up and heal — but it was in fits and starts. Still, he wrote the book “Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail” in 1999 and 2000. What really stopped the drug abuse cold, however, was the birth of his and Angela’s twin girls, Ruby and Lucia, who just started kindergarten in early September. “Any parent will tell you that it’s a huge life change,” he points out. “It’s one of the most beautiful moments of anyone’s life — just to see their child born and those first few years, you know, the magic of it. And sleeplessness of it. And it was certainly incentive not just to, you know, stay clean, but stop smoking, quit drinking coffee, and I hardly eat red meat.” He also got serious about his spiritual life, using a basic Buddhist meditation technique but married to Christian mythology. His more recent mentor has been LMU theologian and colleague Douglas Burton-Christie, whose specialization as a scholar is the early Christian monastics, the Desert Fathers. Together, they even teach an interdisciplinary seminar called “Into the Desert.”“So that opened the door to the mystical world that I really hadn’t accepted,” he reports. “That door had been closed to me. I turned away from it. Because, you know, when you’re doing drugs it’s hard to image the spiritual life and also because I was material oriented to begin with. But there was something about the kids being born, arriving at middle age, facing mortality and meeting a theologian who had spent his entire career exploring the desert as spiritual metaphor.“In our class, it’s not cut and dry — it’s not just he does the mystical and I deal with the material. I mean, we kind of cross back and forth over that divide. I mean, there’s a moment where the two meet, where the landscape, the stillness of it, the immensity of it, can be married to the thirst, as it were, of the spirit. “And I’ve had those moments without drugs,” the academic, writer and musician confides. “They don’t happen very often, but I’ve had moments where the inner and outer deserts coincide. And it’s a moment where my space and time is connected to every other point in space and time.” No quick fixes“Desert America” also explores both sides of migrants crossing the deadly Sonora desert to Arizona after the Clinton administration’s “Operation Gatekeeper” shut down the busiest illegal crossing at San Diego-Tijuana. In exacting detail, Martínez chronicles the epidemic of drug addiction that hit poor locales forgotten by the residents of tony Santa Fe as well as the gentrification of lesser-on-the-social-status-scale places like Joshua Tree. A chapter on Marfa, Texas, also shows how an exclusive enclave can coexist with the bloody banks of the Rio Grande. And woven through the 329 pages of both reportage and memoir are the personal stories of men and women, many of whom — like the author — are struggling with drug abuse. In his conclusion, the former addict and current professor writes there are no quick fixes for addiction, only ideas like surrendering to a higher power or affirmations or taking responsibility. And what is missing from most addiction literature is how unevenly power and wealth are distributed in American society today, which determines who lives in a desert trailer and an adobe chalet. In short, the value of human beings.“Call it the ethics of boom and bust, the dialectic of the American dream in which there truly is no failure like success — in which boom is predicated on bust,” observes Martinez. “The desert knows this process intimately, having been conquered and colonized over and over again. The gap in income inequality has grown steadily over several generations — during times of growth and recession — and did so that much more dramatically during the boom of the aughts.“What is left but to rebel against all of it by dropping out of a process that has already dropped you, even if the rebellion takes its toll on the powerless rebel and not on the powerful. You are low, so you get high.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0914/oladesert/{/gallery}