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Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Other Side of L.A.

Posted on Oct 4, 2010
Mark Lamonica

(Page 3)

But their rest was not permanent and they were deranged by eons of volcanism and tectonic collisions, resulting in erosion and the reshuffling of sediments, followed by periods of calm interspersed with repeated cycles of upthrusting and tectonic fender benders, during which vast inland seas rushed in and consumed all and then disappeared, leaving sprawling alkaline floodplains in their wake—rendering the region a kind of geologic mosh pit whose fate is still determined by an ancient honeycomb of fault lines that could blow modern civilization from the thin membrane of sand that separates us from the abyss at any given moment. It’s hard to imagine how this would actually happen (sometimes I find myself thinking, how far into the air will I be hurled? But that concept seems so absurd, and besides, it’s a nice day yet again, so what am I, nuts?) but consider this—during the Paleocene, Eocene and Oligocene eras (65 to 24 million years ago), massive fault systems that predated the mighty San Andreas were responsible for the very mountain ranges on the central coast, heaving tremendous blocks of crystalline basement rocks and all the sediment that lay on top of them to that area and beyond.

It was around this time that the Antelope Valley began to emerge, in the western Mojave Desert, the most extreme part of the country’s most extreme desert, the one with the hot white heart and the gravelly tributaries and washes that seem to grow crunchier and craggier as you follow them toward the setting sun. Some of the oldest rocks in California are in the western Mojave, clocking in at 1.6 billion to 1.8 billion years, metamorphic boulders that are similar in age and character to those found at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. A portion of these have come to reside in the Antelope Valley, and others that are equally old form the bedrock geology of the San Gabriel Mountain Range, which lines the valley’s southern edge, separating it from the adobe jungle of the Los Angeles basin “down below.” The San Gabriels include some of the highest peaks in California, including Mount Baldy to the east of the Antelope Valley at 10,000 feet. The “pre-Cambrian basement” (as scientists call the range’s underlying foundation) is a treasure trove of fossils and decomposed life forms and throttled secrets that speak to a past so old that it’s almost beyond time, older even than the exhibits of the Hollywood Wax Museum, with the exception perhaps of Hugh Hefner’s smoking jacket, an antediluvian relic that according to rumor actually defies carbon-dating!

Additional trips into deep time are offered at the Antelope Valley’s northern edge, which is rimmed by the Tehachapi Mountains, a range that is much younger than the San Gabriels, checking in at a mere 1.2 billion years. The Tehachapis mark the beginning (or end, depending on which way you’re traveling) of Southern California, and at one point, when there was talk of having two states instead of one, would have served as the demarcation. Not quite as tall (the highest peak is 8,000 feet) as the San Gabriels, the Tehachapis are an equally rich repository of the ancient record, living evidence of the violent seismic activity that has sculpted and heaved forth the Golden State. Regarded by some geologists as the southern terminus of the Sierra Nevadas, the Tehachapis were home to Mary Austin, the great writer who documented the region and its residents—plant, animal and human—in her famous prose poem, “The Land of Little Rain.”

“Never believe what you are told,” she wrote, “that midsummer is the best time to go up the streets of the mountain ... for seeing and understanding, the best time is when you have the longest leave to stay. And here is a hint if you would attempt the stateliest approaches; travel light, and as much as possible live off the land. Mulligatawny soup and tinned lobster will not bring you the favor of the woodlanders.”


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The Tehachapi range meets the San Gabriels at the western edge of the Antelope Valley, thus isolating the region from the coast. With the buttes at the opposite end, the high-desert valley with a floor elevation of 4,000 feet is a kind of vapor lock which produces its own climate having nothing to do with coastal variations. The summers and winters can be extreme (110 degrees plus on days in July through September and down toward zero in January and February).  Zero in the Mojave is not like zero on the East Coast or in the Middle Atlantic states. There’s no moisture to mitigate the cold, generally no snow to speak of (except in the mountains); during the cold season, the first words that come to mind are “this feels like a tomb.” The dry freeze cuts through the bone like a buzz saw, yet in the summer the lack of moisture is a comfort, especially when carried on a hint of a breeze, stirring things ever so slightly, riffling the sand here and there.

But a nice desert breeze can quickly become a gale-force swirl of air. During any time of the year, high winds sweep across the valley’s alluvial fans, kicking up dust devils and tumbleweeds and sometimes knocking tractor trailers over in mountain passes. The winds in fact are a valley signature, not just raising the hack on all living creatures and creating the well-known So Cal situation that is ripe for fires, but disturbing the peace in ways that are perhaps less celebrated though nonetheless disconcerting. “They’re strong enough to blow the nuts off a ground squirrel,” Joseph Wambaugh once wrote, speaking of the gusts in the Colorado Desert to the southeast of Los Angeles, in a time before the ground squirrel became endangered (not because of the winds affecting its reproductive power). I’ve seen ravens stymied by the gusts, going nowhere and flapping their chevron wings just to stay airborne, waiting for a thermal to come along and carry them to a new flight path. I’ve felt the white sands of the Mojave being blasted through my airways and hammered through my marrow, felt the desert tell me—make me—do nothing but wait till the whole thing blows over. To paraphrase the late Palmdale native Frank Zappa, the winds of the Antelope Valley can remove the paint from your car and destroy your windshield to boot. How do people put up with it? he crooned, and then observed that obviously they somehow did, because they’re all still there. Personally, I gave up on my car’s paint job long ago, when the atmosphere began to strip the stuff from my car during my countless trips to Joshua Tree National Park and its windswept environs. Generally speaking, I like the winds, and have come to regard them as a part of the desert side show. As Antelope Valley journalist Bonnie Stone has written, “The Antelope Valley Wind Festival runs from January 1st to December 31st. The mythical event acknowledges the benefits of 365 smog-free days.”

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By insectsurfer, October 7, 2010 at 2:53 am Link to this comment

Great article, been to the Devils Punchbowl several times, Sadleback Butte has always tantalized me from seeing it from atop Angeles Crest Highway…
Stillman is one of Los Angeles’ best writers !!

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By rollzone, October 5, 2010 at 3:45 pm Link to this comment

hello. having lived in the high desert area for a few
years, the borax odor, combined with local large
scale cement mining, makes most sunrises a gag fest.
a desert is a desert. you do not want to live there
for four months of the year. the rest of the year is
bearable, and a couple of winter months can be
pleasant. you will be desperate to notice any
enjoyable wildlife, as the most attractive aspect of
the landscape are whitening bones. rock formations
are so fun. LA is a cesspool, and the high desert is
an escape: into purgatory. oh joy, there goes another
big blowing weed. pass the pipe.

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By Peter, October 5, 2010 at 1:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s a start versus the abject complacency we’ve seen in the years past. It also shows
that plenty of Americans are not in the Palin/Beck Klan of haters, that was a point that
needed to be clearly stated.

In America, we drink coffee not tea!!!

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, October 5, 2010 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment

Yeah I was going to say that whomever reads this may be apt to invest in California, or at least come out and ‘discover’ the California outside HollyWeird and LALA Land.

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By ghostofwatergate, October 5, 2010 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment

Not sure what to make of this article; as a lifetime resident of Los Angeles, I’ve been aware of the existence of the Mojave since a child - we used to go camping on the high desert, under crystal clear midnight skies. Very impressive. Also dangerous.

Right now I am watching the local news, which is rehashing the story of the gentleman who went for a stroll and got lost in the Mojave for 6 days. Another man was found dead the other day after being missing for a little under a week.

Still, if you pay attention to your GPS, you might find the place interesting, bearing in mind that it’s as hot as hell, and has no water. NO WATER.

But thanks for the travel article; it’s nice to see Truthdig becoming more of a full-service journal. One little nit-pick, though: the title is misleading; the last thing we need in SoCal is more Bozos moving here thinking that they can commute from their desert paradise to work in the LA basin. Long commutes are dead and the suburbs in the high desert are becoming ghost towns. High gas prices, no water, no industry, no jobs. So much for “reconstruction.”

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By Hammond Eggs, October 5, 2010 at 10:28 am Link to this comment

” . . . 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.”

I stopped reading at this point because the article sounded like nothing more than boilerplate advertising.  The late, great Robert Mitchum once described Los Angeles as “a losers’ town”.  It still holds true.  Read Raymond Chandler or Carey McWilliams “Southern California: An Island on the Land”.

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By Napolean DoneHisPart, October 5, 2010 at 8:43 am Link to this comment

More money is made by fewer folks in an economic downturn ( the short ).... same for real estate investors ( I know plenty that are MORE busy now and making MORE than when the market was skyrocketing )... its what you know and what side of the capital you live on.

Currently it is buy and hold or flip for small cash…

Great long story showcasing more than what LA or SoCal is notoriously know for… yes, real people live in SoCal, they are not all dream weavers or dream catchers… they are life livers after the nostalgia and makeup runs out.

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By G.Anderson, October 5, 2010 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

You missed a few places, like south central, boil heights, East LA, Norwalk….

In a city where life is inexorably tied to the cost of real estate, and that real estate is
tied to income. It should be no surprise that as income fell, real estate contracted.

Still land lords hope for the return of those heady days, when they could squeeze every
penny out of people who paid most of their income for a place to live. Cheap gas
allowed some to make long commutes to Antelope Valley, or Santa Clarita for the
privilege of working on a mortgage. But those days are gone forever.

Much as south central turned to making money on foster care, when industry left.
Those satellite towns will decay, and become ghost towns full of crime and an
occasional meth lab.

Real estate is gone forever. Gone with the jobs to China, Indonesia, and any where but

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By tedmurphy41, October 5, 2010 at 5:40 am Link to this comment

You could, I suppose, give it back to the original owners.

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