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All the Sad Young Literary Men

All the Sad Young Literary Men

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

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Posted on Oct 4, 2010
Mark Lamonica

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 4)

In addition, to borrow a phrase from a great country song, when they’re blowing, I get to see a tumbling tumbleweed. The sight is an American birthright, one of those things we all should witness as often as possible, and a thrillfest every time. To this day, I remember the sight of my first tumbleweed. It was as big as a Volkswagen and it was bouncing across an old two-lane in New Mexico, on my very first day in the desert long ago, shortly after I had debarked from a plane and was heading to my dormitory on the UNM campus. “Welcome to the West, baby!” it called, and from that moment on, I was a goner. I often think of that moment, retreating inwardly to that particular landscape whenever I need to flee a situation, or just get to a point of calm. But of course, sometimes the winds in the Antelope Valley are simply too much, regardless of how many giant thistles are heading my way, at which point I stop in at the nearest bar to exchange tall tales of weather, announcing that I had just ducked a flying hubcap to cross the street for a drink. When the coast is clear, I head off for other adventures, such as scavenging at one of the Antelope Valley’s many wonderful thrift shops and discovering a treasure—a regional secret that valley cognoscento Lamonica revealed to me many moons ago. On a good day, you can find a new pair of Sketchers for $20 or an old piece of landscape art for even less, signed by an unsung master, and framed with wood from a cactus.

Unlike everyone else, our desert virgin cannot hide from the fierce desert blow. Nor is there any relief from the seasonal monsoons. In July and August, thunderstorms driven by slight shifts in temperature can dump several inches of water on parched desert sand in only a few hours. In fact, much of the valley’s four inches of rain per year comes during these storms. The runoff naturally follows the path of least resistance, which of course means running downhill. But because the Antelope Valley is relatively flat and cut off from the coast by mountains, the water has no place to go, except for ancient gullies and washes—those alluring pathways that take us right into the crust of the Earth, the Miocene Pliocene Holocene roads that animals have been traveling for eons, past the bones of their ancestors to and fro to and fro and into the 21st century. When the water courses through the time-worn avenues and carves out new ones, the animals vanish, and then the often dry creeks with classic names—the Amargosa, the Little Rock, Big Rock, Bob’s Gap, Deadman, Boulder, La Montaine and Bone Yard—fill instantly, sometimes carrying vehicles, people and animals that could not run fast enough or were flushed from their burrows to their doom. 

Such was the case on Aug. 20, 2003, when a posse of thunderstorms swept across the Antelope Valley, unleashing torrents of rain and hail, finally stopping at Saddleback Butte, a spectacular, little-known county park. Once, it was frequented by prehistoric Native Americans who considered its prolific Joshua trees messengers of the gods. Now, it is the domain of the occasional hiker, coyote, snake, hawk or owl; meth freak, lost soul and/or other seeker of truth or beauty. On that August day, perhaps there was an arrangement between the storm clouds and the Joshuas, or perhaps the fact that the rains hovered over the thirsty trees that are a Mojave totem was an act of chance. In any case, Doppler radar near Edwards Air Force Base picked up the gathering doom and within half an hour a massive wall of water carrying all manner of desert debris—couches, shopping carts, giant boulders—was rolling across the eastern Antelope Valley, hurtling a two-ton truck through an arroyo.

But consider the benefits! The news crews were there and landed that day’s big story and, more important, Saddleback Butte, the ancient power vortex, was rejuvenated and, for days and weeks to follow, the perfume of the engorged Mojave creosote floated across the valley, carrying the message that all was good and pure. And in the immediate aftermath of the storms came the formation of desert lakes; as the rains subsided, Mark and I joined other pilgrims who gathered at the edges of the area’s enchanting and normally dry lakebeds, at Rosamond and El Mirage and Rogers (the lowest elevation in the valley). We were there for a desert baptism—some via kayak, others via a touch of the fingertips—and we gazed at the shimmering waters and there were herons and other birds which stopped for unexpected refreshment on their cross-country flights before the whole rain-borne spectacle dried up and vanished until next year. And when it did, it was as if there was no such thing as rain, no such thing as trouble.

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On Jan. 9, 1857, our desert bride issued an eviction notice, in the form of the Fort Tejon earthquake, an 8.0 shaker along a portion of the San Andreas fault running through the Antelope Valley. The shaking along the fault lasted for two minutes. When it was over, the Kern River was flowing backwards. In the following days, aftershocks in the 6.0 range were felt up and down the fault and across the valley, and then, although slightly diminished in magnitude, for at least a year. Although the epicenter of the earthquake was in Parkfield, a small town north of the Antelope Valley, it became known as the Tejon quake because Fort Tejon—an Army fort where Indians lived—was the only place along the rupture with a sizable population and a building large enough to sustain major damage. 

The Tejon quake went down in history as “the big one.” It was equal to or bigger than the San Francisco quake of 1906 and was the largest quake to hit Southern California in modern times. Many seismologists see it as a precursor of things to come. In the L.A. Basin, we are used to being warned of impending ruptures and of course we do not leave, just as residents of New Orleans did not leave their chosen land just because it happened to have been next to a crumbling levee, until one day the levee broke and it was too late. “L.A. is due,” we hear day after day; in fact it’s “overdue,” goes the refrain; any moment now, any one of the countless faults that crisscross So Cal could rupture and end the dream right now, and how about those new faults that the Cal Tech crowd keeps discovering? It’s hard to believe the warnings because, for city dwellers at least, the cracks and fissures are invisible, paved over, slathered with lawns, underneath parking structures, massage tables and skateboard paths, not unlike the faces of actors who have wiped out evidence of a past with botox and chemical peels.


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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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ghostofwatergate's avatar

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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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

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
here.

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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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