Dec 11, 2013
Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Other Side of L.A.
Posted on Oct 4, 2010
Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to each other and all that lives there.
When we speak of Los Angeles, there are signposts and signifiers: the beaches, the studios, Beverly Hills, Malibu. But rarely is there mention of the Antelope Valley, the Wild West half of Los Angeles County that lies just beyond the San Gabriel Mountains in the high Mojave Desert. Strangely, to hear and read of Los Angeles, it’s as if the Antelope Valley did not exist. People don’t even speculate that it might be out there somewhere, like Atlantis, for example; it’s lost to opinion makers, lost to those who have come to define the region (with the notable exceptions of Mary Austin, Mike Davis and Aldous Huxley), lost to the predominant publishers of news about the area such as The Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine, and, more important, lost to Los Angeles itself.
My explorations of L.A.’s least-talked-about valley began in 2002, when I met the photographer Mark Lamonica at the Southern California Booksellers Association award ceremony in the grand ballroom at the Pasadena Doubletree Hotel. We were there because we had both been nominated for best nonfiction book of the year, he and columnist Patt Morrison for “Rio L.A.” and me for “Twentynine Palms.” Mark was immediately struck by the cover of my book; it featured a Joshua tree, and he approached me to talk of the strange desert elder. “Do you like Joshua trees?” he asked. I explained that I had been wandering the Mojave east of L.A. for the past two decades, and in particular had a long-running affair with Joshua Tree National Park. “Well,” he continued, excitedly, “I’m painting a Joshua tree right now. I have one in my backyard.” A Joshua tree in his backyard? Of course, I had to know more.
“Where do you live?” I asked. “In the Antelope Valley,” he replied. “Lancaster. Ever hear of it?” Well, I knew a little, the usual desert lore—that it was an outlying suburb of Los Angeles near which or in which or around which some gangbangers and white supremacists lived and that occasionally upon its horizons one could see the hallmark of high-desert meth chefs—exploding trailers. I also knew that like many desert cities, it was base camp for stunning scenery—years earlier I had spent an afternoon wandering its magnificent poppy fields, which look like the place Judy Garland fell asleep in “The Wizard of Oz” (and in fact, as I would soon find out, she lived in Lancaster when she was a child, and so did John Wayne). “You should come up for a visit,” Mark continued. “There are Joshua trees everywhere. And if you love the desert—well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.”
Why has this history vanished? It’s a peculiar state of affairs for a region whose first and for many years most influential novel, “Ramona,” was about the forgotten. Published in 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson’s widely read work told the story of a doomed love affair between a tribal chief and a half-Indian girl who grew up in the California mission system. Written to publicize the plight of Native Americans, “Ramona” launched a revival of California Mission architecture, drew countless tourists to the state, and, as Carey McWilliams has noted, ultimately provided the region with a cultural identity. Thousands of postcards were minted, picturing the birthplace of Ramona, schools attended by Ramona, and the place where Ramona got married. Soon there were towns that changed their names to Ramona (including one in Oklahoma) and people across the state were staging Ramona pageants. Taking advantage of new railroad service to Los Angeles and San Diego, tourists flocked to Southern California to visit “Ramona Country” and thus was the region’s first narrative of itself inscribed forever. “Some day the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce should erect a great bronze statue of Helen Hunt Jackson at the entrance to the Cajon Pass,” McWilliams wrote. “For little, plump, fair-haired, blue-eyed H.H. as she was known to every resident of southern California, was almost solely responsible for the evocation of its Mission past, and it was she who catapulted the lowly Digger Indian of Southern California into the empyrean.”
At a time when the Indians and buffalo had been cleared from the frontier and the age of the great cattle drives was coming to a close, other writers followed Jackson’s path, chronicling an America that was quickly vanishing. In 1884, reporter Charles Lummis walked from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, filing dispatches for the L.A. Times along the way. In the Southwest, he fell in love with the land and the people, proclaimed his love affair, and recounted the plight of Native Americans in his columns. As he made his way toward the coast, trekking through the back country of Southern California, he again chronicled the fate of the indigenous population. Once in Los Angeles, he became a reporter at the Times and soon launched a magazine called Land of Sunshine. As editor, he continued his fight for Indian rights and published the work of Mary Austin and Maynard Dixon and other writers and artists who documented the region in all its glory and transformation. And thus was Southern California as a character spawned, and droves of people headed for Paradise Lost to drink from the golden chalice—officially flowing on Nov. 5, 1913, with William Mulholland’s famous benediction: “There it is. Take it!”
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