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Touring Ry Cooders American West

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WHEN Ry Cooder and I got to El Mirage Dry Lake, it was 110 degrees and heading to 117, hot enough to cook your head inside your hat. The Mojave Desert in daylight will cut the gizzard right out of you, Tom Joad once said, which is why the Okies crossed it at night.

I put away the map and Ry pulled the S.U.V. through the gate and stopped. The gravel road fell away below us and vanished into the bone-white lakebed. The mirage was working: a shoreline shimmered wetly in the distance, made of bent sunlight and sand.

El Mirage Dry Lake sounds like a place one step away from nonexistence, but its about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, out among the Joshua trees. Its not far from Edwards Air Force Base, in the Mojaves military-paranormal sector, where secretive government installations lie low among the jackrabbits a land of spy planes, space aliens, off-road vehicles, sturdy reptiles and people with freaky desert habits, like racing vintage hot rods on dry lakebeds.

It is, in other words, a critical stop on Rys California trail.

Ry Cooder the rock and blues guitarist, roots musician, record producer, songwriter and composer is a son of Santa Monica who has spent nearly 40 years exploring all corners of the musical planet, like a sharp-eared extraterrestrial on a lifelong voyage of discovery. (His two-CD career anthology, released last month, has a perfect title: The U.F.O. Has Landed.) But even that barely covers it its strictly from his solo albums and the haunting scores he wrote for films like Alamo Bay and Paris, Texas. If you add all the records he has made with other musicians, like Gabby Pahinui, Flaco Jimnez, Ali Farka Tour, Mavis Staples, the Chieftains and, most famously, the Cuban all-stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, you can only wonder where on earth he could go next.

The answer: his own backyard.

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