May 22, 2013
Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Other Side of L.A.
Posted on Oct 4, 2010
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.”
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.”
New and Improved Comments