Mar 16, 2014
Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Other Side of L.A.
Posted on Oct 4, 2010
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.
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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