I could not sleep last night in Los Angeles. The hotel room had turned humid, and when I stepped outside, the weather was worse. Heavy clouds and fog covered the sky as dawn broke. Bouts of insomnia used to torture me, but I’m getting better at sleepless nights. I read. I write. I walk. I’ve learned to relax because I’ve discovered I can still function without sleep, even though the day burns brighter at the edges.

Los Angeles looked like a prestige dystopia as we inched towards Interstate 15 early on a Sunday morning. In the wake of record-breaking rain, electric green vines and weeds spilled down walls of damp concrete, and a heavy fog draped itself across eight lanes of traffic and swallowed the vehicles a few yards ahead. After we crossed the San Gabriel Mountains, patches of sunlight broke through the dark grey swirl, and soon we were speeding northeast to Vegas under a brilliant blue sky.

Twelve miles east of Barstow, where the desert appears especially endless, I glimpsed the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. Dammit, I thought, maybe I can’t function without sleep after all.

Tank Man by Chen Weiming | Yermo, California

We hit the brakes and followed a dusty road past the gigantic fiberglass ice cream sundae that marks Eddie World, the largest gas station in California. A mile later, there was a handmade sign for Liberty Sculpture Park, a 36-acre patch of desert purchased by the artist Chen Weiming as “a memorial ground for victims of communism.”

Gigantic sculptures dotted the horizon: Xi Jinping’s bloodied head, thirty feet high with COVID-19 spike protein for hair—and theories that the Chinese government had torched its first iteration. A recreation of the Goddess of Democracy stared down Interstate 15, a hundred yards away from the number 64 sculpted in steel, 6.4 meters tall, to commemorate the date of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which is 6400 miles away. And there was the Tank Man, staring down a Soviet-style T-54 tank in the blankness of the Mojave desert.

Perhaps the American desert is a canvas large enough to contain scenes from all corners. But I’m beginning to think something else is at work in this landscape that functions like memory, how it distills history and fantasy into visions that refer back to the ancients who believed this hallucinatory space spoke the language of faith and horror.