Tag Archives: mojave desert

Black and White and Red All Over

Southern California is blessed with spots where the storied events of the Old West actually took place, and where those same events were later portrayed to the outside world in old black-and-white Western films. We recently visited one of these places in the Mojave Desert called Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Canyon is a 27,000 acre state park situated at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Range. It lies halfway between the towns of Mojave and Ridgecrest, 120 miles north of Los Angeles on California 14.

Watch out for the camels. They spit!

Destructive, yet beautiful, forces of nature created Red Rock Canyon. Tectonic tears caused by the nearby Garlock Fault raised what was once a lake hundreds of feet into the sky, revealing the sedimentary layers beneath. Some of these layers contain high contents of iron which rusted in the open air, giving the rocks its dark red color. Wind and rain have gouged the layers into stone curtains cascading down in accordion-like folds.

The canyons of Red Rock have seen their share of folks pass by, starting with the Kawaiisu Indians, who had a trade route through the area. During the nineteenth century, prospectors, twenty-mule teams, and even a party of lost Death Valley survivors creeped through the canyons.

"Tombstone Canyon" (1932)

With the majestic otherworldly vistas of the area, it was inevitable that Hollywood filmmakers would eventually find the place. According to Richard J. Schmidt of redrockcanyonmovies.com, the first film made here was Wild Horse Canyon in 1925. Since then, over 130 movies, television episodes, commercials, and music videos have been shot here. Many of Hollywood’s biggest Western stars have worked in the canyons, including John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes, and Gary Cooper. The area has appeared in classic horror and science fiction films as well, like Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Despite all of these attempts to capture the beauty of Red Rock Canyon on film, pictures just don’t do the place justice. You have to see if for yourself.

The same site today.

The Capital of the 22nd Century?

Mojave. California's next supercity?

If I was in possession of that gizmo that got the cellphone talker back to 1928 to be at Charlie Chaplin’s premier of The Circus, I would be tempted to dial the knob back a bit farther to take a look at Hollywood and the rest of Los Angeles when it was still a backwater village. Urban sprawl has transformed what was once a sparsely populated region into a burgeoning megalopolis of over 15 million people. And it all happened in only about a century and a half.

I have a suspicion that if we stop back in and check on things in California in 2160, L.A. will have a new super-sister city 100 miles to the north, centered around what is now the tiny town of Mojave.

Mojave? The next California supercity? That bump in the road? Really?!

Once the western terminus for the twenty-mule team borax wagons coming from Death Valley, Mojave today serves as a graveyard for derelict airliners, and as a fueling stop for drivers motoring to and from Vegas. Its 4000 inhabitants live 25 lonely miles to the north of the “boomburbs” of Lancaster and Palmdale, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of emptiness; a place so sparse that space shuttles have been landing nearby for nearly thirty years.

But I suspect this will be changing soon. Hidden under its desert-brown, shabby exterior, Mojave harbors forces like aerospace and renewable energy that stand ready to change the world over the next century.

Mojave has been involved in aerospace since the earliest days of flight. It was here over the skies of Edwards Air Force Base that Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier and it’s still the place where the Space Shuttle touches down when the weather is bad in Florida. The Mojave airport was home to the Rutan Voyager, the first unrefueled aircraft to fly nonstop around the world, and is today the site of the first inland spaceport in America, where in 2004 SpaceShipOne made the first private spaceflight in history.  

Mojave is also a center for renewable energy. On a recent drive through the town, we saw an entire trainload of new propellers pass by on their way to the wind generators that dot the nearby Tehachapi Mountains. And in the surrounding Mojave Desert, limitless sunshine powers some of the world’s largest solar energy plants.

Let’s not forget, Los Angeles only tumored into what it is today in just a few generations. Mojave today has the open space, and the emerging technologies that may soon make the area attractive to millions.

As a fan of the desert, and of open space, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

A future mini-mall site?

High Culture in the High Desert

David Hockney's "Pearblossom Highway #2."

I make collages. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I hang the larger ones in our garage – our collage garage. I collage because I can’t paint.

David Hockney creates collages, but unlike me, he can paint. Boy, can he paint! And instead of hanging his works in his garage, they are housed in the leading art museums of the world.

The official name of my favorite Hockney collage is Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18 April 1986, #2. It’s a large work assembled from nearly 800 individual photographs taken from a lonely road that crosses Pearblossom Highway (California 138) in the Antelope Valley.

The collage’s setting is a familiar one to anyone who has ever driven through the Mojave Desert, with lots of brown sand, blue sky, and otherworldly Joshua Trees. The only colors to break the landscape’s monotony are the reflective yellows on a “Stop Ahead” sign and double-center line, a green “California 138” sign, the white “Stop Ahead” lettering on the highway, a red “Stop” sign, and multi-colored beer bottles and flattened soft drink cans that litter the sides of the road.

Recently when I was driving along Pearblossom Highway I got to wondering where the photographs were actually shot. Was the intersection still recognizable, or was it covered with tract housing? I did some web searches when I got home, but sometimes Google isn’t as omniscient as advertised, and the location eluded all of my searches. I printed out a copy of the photo-mosaic and jumped into the car. It was time for a road trip.

My wife Kim and I motored up the Antelope Freeway to the Pearblossom Highway exit and turned east. As we neared the town of Pearblossom, the landscape started to look more and more like the collage. The proprietor of a local art gallery thought the intersection was just a couple of miles away at 165th Street. We thanked him and proceeded east.  

As we neared the intersection, we both sensed that the completion of our quest was at hand. I turned left, pulled a U-turn, and parked about a hundred feet from the intersection. We took a long look, turned to each other, high-fived, and then kissed. This was the place.

The road looked to be in better condition and a bit less lonely than it appeared in 1986. There was still litter along its sides, but on this particular day I spotted more Red Bull cans than beer bottles.

But the most obvious change was the absence of the landmark “Stop” and “Stop Ahead” signs. They had both been replaced a few years ago with a traffic light when the 138 was widened to four-lanes.

 I wonder if the highway workers who removed the signs had any idea they were dismantling cultural icons?

The site today.