Mermaids in the desert give love to Coney Island

Bearded and Shucked”, the 1st Annual Mermaid Parade in Joshua Tree, CA on June 18, 2016.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Bearded and Shucked Mermaid Parade

Coney Island is a good 2,600 miles from Joshua Tree, California, geographically and viscerally. But it’s such an enduring symbol of Americana that for some, it’s home no matter where they live.

Mention Brooklyn’s seaside amusement parks and the immediacy of the visual reference is like a bust in the chops with a cotton candy fist from a laughing, bare-bosomed, lipsticked lady covered in glitter and from the sea. Its Mermaid Parade invites the outlandishly dressed to celebrate themselves along the boardwalk with thousands of cheering onlookers and the joy of tradition.

So when a fairy tale seemed to spill off its pages and through the plains of Joshua Tree on the very day of that Coney Island tradition—led by a bunny rabbit drinking a Bud Light and an 8-foot-tall, bewitching mermaid caricature in heels—it couldn’t be a coincidence. Not with all those other mermaids surrounding them. Sparkling in the golden desert sunset and moving along a narrow gravel road that stretches across the valley of Joshua trees and to a bar, they marched.

This is the "magic hour". Every photo of the landscape is a cliché that has made it onto a postcard, phone book or calendar. “Happy Mermaid Parade!” someone shouted kindly to a family sealed from the heat inside their passing black Ford Focus, windows rolled up.

Aaron Sheppard stops in a liquor store to buy supplies during "Bearded and Shucked", the 1st Annual Mermaid Parade in Joshua Tree, CA on June 18, 2016.

The reality of this surreality is that the force of shelled crowns, ribbon and netting emerged from the house belonging to artist Aaron Sheppard. The former Las Vegas resident—who’s been to Coney Island’s parade 12 times—collaborated with artist Erin Stellmon, who is equally acquainted with the parade and park; she even placed first in a Coney Island arm wrestling competition once. Unable to meet up this year at Coney Island, the longtime compadres living on opposite sides of the country contacted friends, planned an informal reunion, Bearded and Shucked, and paid homage.

There are things in life you never anticipate, and one of them is Las Vegas artist JW Caldwell wearing a bunny suit. History, kinship and tradition led to this walk through the desert. Conversations picked up where they left off hours, days, weeks, months and years before. Approaching town and tar, the undulating rhythms from the cars passing on Twentynine Palms Highway breathed like an ocean, a sea from whence these Mermaids came—by car from Las Vegas and elsewhere.

It’s not about wanting to or being able to re-create the Coney Island parade, Sheppard says. It’s about having like-minded friends; hanging out before, after and during the actual event; the creating, the preparing, the logistics; and the communal aspect.

Photo of Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson

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