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Reconstructing Los Angeles: A Journey to the Other Side of L.A.
Posted on Oct 4, 2010
In the Antelope Valley, however, the truth presents itself, just as it always does in the desert, a region that in spite of mirage and sparkle and occasional trickery is essentially bereft of guile. To see L.A. County laid bare, all you have to do is head north to the valley on the 14, and then choose your pathway into the veins and arteries of our region, and even its very blood. When you reach Avenue S at Palmdale, look to your left and you will see what happens when the San Andreas meets another fault, the mighty Garlock, and civilization has made its way through. Here we have what geophysicist Susan Elizabeth Hough calls “the most famous roadcut in the world ... motion on [the San Andreas] fault has bent and folded rocks in improbable ways. ... The twisted rocks represent ... continued motion on and squeezing across the fault zone.” The result is a massive and sheer wall of swirling layers of granite, an escarpment that spells out the past and perhaps the future of Los Angeles. It’s difficult to appreciate this rocky message with just a quick look through your car window; I suggest pulling off the freeway at the Lamont Odett Vista Point just south of the Avenue S exit. Here you can gaze across the freeway and ponder the roadcut. You will also see a classic desert paradox—to the right is Lake Palmdale, a body of water inside a depression on the San Andreas fault, the life force of nearby Palmdale housed in the very thing that could kill it.
But to me, these aspects of geology, geography, climate and weather are mere foreplay. I like to get to the center of things, and after months of exploring the mechanics of the Antelope Valley, I wandered into a county park called the Devil’s Punchbowl. The Devil’s Punchbowl is actually not just one but three bowls, a 25-mile-long displacement of rock caused by the San Andreas fault. As devotees of the West know, there are a number of places named after the guy with cloven feet and horns, and you can count on them for enchantment, and automatic laughs—followed by a request for directions—whenever you tell someone you went there. I myself have visited the Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (the first national monument in the country, proclaimed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906). On my list of similarly named destinations to visit are the Devil’s Canyon, Devil’s Gate, Devil’s Chimney, Devil’s Playground, Devil’s Dance Floor, Devil’s Kitchen, Devil’s Jump, Devil’s Staircase and Devil’s Elbow. For now, the Devil’s Punchbowl satisfies my urge for satanic-themed hiking, and after several deep soundings I’ve come think of it as the womb of the virgin bride, the very center of Los Angeles.
Oh, you can muck around in the city’s guts at the Beverly Hot Springs, on the corner of Beverly and Oxford, a subterranean oasis that pipes in hot mineral water from suppurating channels 2,200 feet below the pavement. And sure, there are others who have made a case that the area’s center is elsewhere. Writer David Kipen, for instance, in his piece “How Many Angels,” has actually triangulated the center of L.A. County with a compass, locating it in the San Gabriel Mountains, up a winding path that leads to Trail Canyon Creek, which takes him to what he figures is our very navel, at “Tom Lucas Camp, perched near Condor Peak and something called Big Cienega ... features named after a little-known park ranger, an endangered species and a swamp: obscurity, extinction, and quicksand, all in one cleft of the map. ...”
It’s a compelling argument, but as I see it, our true center is the Devil’s Punchbowl—actually a sacred spot at the very bottom of the bowl. Why do I say this? Come with me on a moonlight hike, and perhaps you’ll agree with my own kind of triangulation.
Square, Site wide
The full-moon hikes happen every month, weather permitting—just check the listings on devils-punchbowl.com and call in advance. As per its billing, the bowl is a deep geologic fissure that is a strand of the San Andreas fault, south of Highway 138 near the town of Valyermo, where Benedictine monks who have vowed silence supplicate and walk the cactus-studded chaparral, and serve food and prayer to hungry pilgrims (once, at the end of a long drive, Mark and I were revived by chicken soup from a barrel in the monastery dining room; the vegetables and herbs were grown in the garden, in the shadows of a sculpture of Christ’s feet). From the edge of the Punchbowl, you follow a trail into a sandstone abyss, a prehistoric desert wilderness of rocky crags that pinyon and juniper and manzanita call home. This is where wild horses of the Miocene once roamed (imagine—in L.A. County!) and where millions of years later you can see their spirits and hear their hoofbeats, if you sit on a ledge under the bright light of the moon goddess and watch the movie that plays across the cliff walls and listen to the soundtrack, the chattering creek in the beds far below, the cicadas rubbing their legs together in collective praise, answering the grind of civilization’s machine in the distance. Yes, get still and hear the desert’s ancient message, masked by Mulholland’s call but not to be forgotten:
In the licking of a coyote’s chops, in the blink of a lizard’s eye, in the unfurling of an evening primrose, in a flash flood, in the flap of a skipper’s wings, in the call of a golden eagle, in the thundering silence, in the chatter of a ground squirrel, in the skitter of a crab spider, on the back of a thermal, in the scent of a monsoon, in the unfurling of a Joshua tree’s lily, in the song of the North Star, in the paddle of a tortoise, in a dust devil’s swirl, in the sinking of the sun’s last pulse, at the break of a new day, in the pop of a zillion poppies, in the shifting of tectonic plates and the upthrusting of mountains, in the swirl of sands and the turning and turning of the hourglass, in the swipe of a bobcat’s paw, in the sinking of fang to flesh, in a raven’s glide, in a snake’s rattle, in the burst of a cloud, in the whisper of a wash, in the march of ants, in the hymn of a rock, in the collapse of a burrow, in the perfume of wet sage, in the shapeshift of a coyote from there to here, in the leap of an antelope, I’m where the whole thing started, and one of these days, if you …
And then the moon sank over a ridge and the ranger said the hike was over. I lagged behind as the others left, hoping to hear the rest, but there came no request for parking validation and not even a chirpy farewell. The voice in the Punchbowl had faded away, I realized; I climbed out and called it a night. Finally the place makes sense, I thought, as I headed away from the belly of Los Angeles towards the city lights; there is indeed a center.
Deanne Stillman’s latest book is the widely acclaimed “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” a Los Angeles Times “Best Book ’08” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. Her book includes an account of the 1998 Christmas horse massacre outside Reno, as well as the story of Bugz, the lone survivor of the incident. Her work appears in the L.A. Times, Slate, Orion and other publications and is widely anthologized. Her plays, including “Star Maps,” have won prizes in theater festivals around the country. She is currently writing “Mojave Manhunt” for Nation Books, based on her Rolling Stone piece of the same name. Follow Deanne Stillman on Facebook.
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