Desert Southwest

Trona Pinnacles and Searles Lake, near Death Valley, California

The Trona Pinnacles

Travels in the high desert of Southern California, including the enigmatic and strange Trona Pinnacle formations.

Above: Trona Pinnacles, near Death Valley National Park in Southern California.


ompton was somewhat of a let-down. Some people like to portray this area filled with hordes of gangs and sub-machine gun holes in the side of each wall. Really, it is as ugly as anywhere else in L.A.

As Mr. Kirk and I found out as we took a wrong turn from the tradeshow, Jack-In-the-Box tastes just the same in the ghetto, even the Jalapeno Poppers. I took in all the wonder of each dark alley, and thought about what game some small kid was playing behind all those shrouds of gated windows, entrances and doors.

We were in Compton for a short while. But if you're going to do Compton - its best to do it with Mr. Kirk. He's a former comedian and actor, and he can spin a good yarn and poke fun at anywhere, and Compton is filled with good humor. Compton was a good starting point; a contrast if you will, for the next thirty-five hours of my weekend.

I left in the morning, Saturday, and in three hours I was walking through Red Rock, poking about among the cactus and sand. Next was gas, a powerbar and a coke in the town of Mojave, which was filled with commotion. Just an hour before at Edwards Airforce Base down the road, NASA had its first successful high-altitude crash test of an escape pod prototype to be used in the international space station. It goes like this: Let's say the Russians get their hands on a monkey-wrench, and the station busts up.all the astronauts crowd into this little pod, and it detaches, hurling itself through the atmosphere, and ejecting a gigantic parachute before it rams into the Earth.

Travellers talk of Bruce Chatwin's "Songlines", the idea that travellers don't measure distance in kilometers, but in songs. And so, from that perspective, I was at the foothills of Trona in just 27 songs; with the last leg being filled by 'Spanish Caravan'."Take me to Portugal, take me to Spain, take me, take me, take me away..."

En Route to Trona, California

When the dry sea bed of Searles Lake appears, and I pull onto the five mile dirt road, I am looking into what at first I thought was déjà vu. Actually, it was my imagined Gomorrah, with Lot running up the slope which I was descending. The sand is black and brown, and the valley and the lakebed are engulfed in dirt and dust and dust devils - a dozen of them - and when one crosses a hundred feet in front of the jeep, she shakes in its wake. The wind here blows at over 60 miles per hour, and with that and the wash-scarred road, I lose control at the wheel 4 times, each time plowing into the embankment with an innocent thud.

I am halfway to the Pinnacles when I engage a truck blocking my way. I stop and the driver is startled by my sudden appearance. Its funny how people are unusually friendly in the happy wilderness, but here, in the dark side of nature, people are suspect and wary. I ease him when I notice his photo pack, and exchange some technicals on our systems. He was a former AP photographer, and now a writer and make-up artist from Burbank. I explain to him that the massive 140 foot pinnacles rising like raw fingers from utter flatness were created some 100,000 years ago, when this entire region was 650 feet underwater, and algae mixed with thermal pockets had created these spires. Later, when saltwater brine infested the great sea, they carbonized the spires into hard rock.

We parted ways and I drove on. I walked the great pinnacles, and found refuge from the wind in a cave at one's top. I stared down at my photographer friend, who clicked away at the base for a half hour. He looked lonely and wondered where I had gone off to, and left for Burbank.

Sunset came after hours, and I watched the valley below, and the shadows of the great pinnacles drawing longer and longer, until the night sky was pitch black.

I found my way the two miles to the Jeep by flashing my head-lamp in the distance, until my hubcaps returned the flash. It is in places like this that people claim to see UFO's, gods, angels and revelations. For me, it has always been the opposite; a walk through this desolation makes me realize how consistent the world is in its understandability, simplicity and uniformity.

Dirt smells like dirt anywhere. The Earth, and all of its life, are nature's last stand against chaos in a relatively barren, dark and cold universe. For all the meaning we ascribe ourselves and our gods, we are the bacteria on the dung-fly: in measure of time, and the scope of what may be infinite 'universes', our place in history will probably be as relevant as that desert vulture who has long found refuge in the mountains above me.

Mill in California Desert

On the road out, I played a sampling of East Coast-Techno-Industrial. It purrs and pulsates and blinks with a whonk.whonk.whonk. Its composer probably imagines a post-blade runner world; with buildings and smoke and nighttime all day long; and blue-haired women in black-clad leather; but here it was my anthem to the dark desert, and I have a feeling that the composer would have been alright with my taking his music out of his world and into my own.

An hour later, I was in Ridgecrest, the motel was clean, so I took a shower and headed for the El Charro bar. Whenever you happen on a small bar in a small town, its best to appear a completely incurious person, and so I did. The Mexican gentleman behind the bar asked me if I wanted "domestic" or "import." I always like to make the bartender happy, so I said "Pacifico" and greeted the only other soul in the bar. Brian was a 26 year old former dump truck driver for the army.

"So what's there to do in Ridgecrest?"
"You know, bars."
"And during the day?"
"Well you can go riding."
"Motorcycles? Do you ride"
"So what do you do?"
"Bars. Dancing."

Go to any small bar in any small town, and you will get the same answer. "Too many people there huh?" "Yeah." "Way too many fucking people there huh?" "Yeah." And he started laughing and drew the last sip from his pitcher and said, "That's it. Too many fucking people." He kept laughing when an older fat sow of a woman entered the bar, ordered a beer (Michelob Light) and soon Brian became her victim. She asked what he did and, "Why the hell are you still in Ridgecrest?"

"Well, because its free because I'm livin' with my gran-ma."

"Oh, yeah, and so that's your one opt-out with every reason to leave. What do you do here?"
"Well, I don't work here. I work outta town."
"Oh, yeah, where do you work?"
"In Olancha."

Here I budded in,

"Olancha, isn't that far?", I said.
"An hour and a half."
"Yeah, but isn't it near Lone Pine?"
"And isn't Lone Pine near the Alabama Hills?"
"You mean those funny rocks just a couple miles north?"

Then, the large woman budded back in, and heckled Brian some more.

"My son got himself an ed-ucation. Now he's blowing down in Riverside. You know what blowing is?"
"Yeah," he said, "It's riding dirt bikes."
"Yeah," she said, "And he's fucking got himself backed by advertisers."
"Oh yeah," said Brian, "Who's he ridin' for?"

"You know the funny shoes that curl up on the toes. Yeah them, but I think they're clown shoes. But who fuckin' cares because he's got a good job and you're stuck here in Ridgecrest because you never got an ed-uc-ation."

So again I butted in, "Where are you from Rhonda?"

"Why are you here?"
"Just passing through on our way to Mammoth."

She had no reason to heckle Brian. He was just a desert kid - will die happy - and she had to make up for all the misery in her Riverside life that I couldn't help but I said "Oh good god. Riverside. What a miserable place."

Whats the difference between Riverside and Ridgecrest? Both dirty desert towns with dirty people. The difference between Ridgecrest and Riverside is that there are too many people in Riverside. And I turned to Brian and said, "Too many fuckin' people in Riverside."

In his drunken stupor, he gave me the high-five.

"And what do you do in Riverside? Play mini-golf?" In that hour at El Charro, I met Brian, Rhonda, a fellow who was just released from jail, the Ridgecrest detective, who said that Brian was going to live a life of trouble and a lady that told Brian that he should get into the "Wall Street Journal", because there is a lot of money in the "Wall Street Journal", but that women were now accounting for 90% of investment in the "Wall Street Journal." Then I met Frank, who had lived in Korea, The Philippines and Guam as a cryptology specialist for the Navy, and had just called his motherless kids, who were home alone watching reruns of Friz Frelong's "The Flea Circus."

But I remembered Jerry's advice in an old song about a gambler crossing the country on his way to Las Vegas; "Don't you touch hard liquor, just a cup of cold coffee.gotta get up in the morning, and go." So I asked Brian in his drunken stupor, "Are you sure Olancha is an hour and a half away."

"At 70-75, yip."


The Mysterious Trona Pinnacles

In the morning, the phone rang and the recorded voice said, "The bad news is, its 4 AM, but the good news is, we got coffee in the lobby."

At 4:10 AM, the coffee was cold, and so was my car as I was racing north. 14 songs later, I was among the snow and Joshua Trees and the gnarled pines of the Sierra Nevadas, and soon I was at the base of the tallest mountain in the Contiguous 48, just as the sun was peeling over Utah, and it blessed the clouded storming slopes with a brilliant spectrum of purple and orange.

I drove further up the road, into the brown and black Alabama Hills. They are a range of millions of rocks, some rising 50 feet in the sky with no apparent relation to any other rock other than that they were all rounded and smooth; like a sketch for some science fiction set.

I drove up as far as the Mount Whitney road would take me. When the snow overtook the road, I got out of the car. No one was here. I was the only person in twenty miles, at the base of Mount Whitney, and not a soul in this entire country, was here to enjoy it with me. So on my way back, I bought gas, a Snapple, a Coke, two powerbars and I was headed for Los Angeles. I thought about Neal Casady (the driver at the wheel), who travelled through this back country and became the source of our modern road myths.

In the old days, travellers would talk about the old mountain man they met, or the crazy hermit along the river. The world has changed, and so have our stories. Neal Casady made a myth out of Route 66, the lonely highways of America, and made it okay for a modern tale to be told. Travelling across America today - is - different.

Our old hermit is replaced with potion-toting wicka practitioners, space-cadet accountants and sedentary desert dwellers. But that is the way it really is - on the road, and the only way you can avoid a story like this - is to edit or exaggerate, or just stay home. You can never find the richness of America in an Orange County country club, or a Los Angeles water bar. It is out here, amid the bleakness of the ghetto, the white trash and the cold mountains.

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