The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

More CLUI Bus Tours Into the Desert

This Time it was North, out to Barstow and Beyond

1061Tour bus at the CLUI's remote Desert Research Station. CLUI photoTHE CLUI CONDUCTED TWO PUBLIC bus tours of the Southern California Desert as part of the Flight Patterns: Picturing the Pacific Rim exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The tours, performed in January and February, 2001, were the usual all-day tours, with a full video complement, local briefers, and occasional stops. The buses left from the museum's Geffen Contemporary building near Downtown Los Angeles, where a CLUI Mobile Exhibit Unit, featuring an exhibit about the desert and the CLUI's new Desert Research Station, could be viewed before boarding the bus. Handouts were given to each of the tourists on board (both tours sold-out, so we had full buses each time), which contained information about the region we'd be travelling through and some of the sites we'd be looking at. Once on route, the interpretive spiel began, with CLUI tour coordinator Matthew Coolidge.

The tours were titled Lines of Flight: A Voyage along High Desert Vectors, relating the theme to the Flight Patterns exhibit. Though the subject was the true desert, an hour and a half away, there was much to say about the landscape on the way, as it whizzed by the windows of the bus.

We were travelling on Interstate 10, a route once called "the Ramona Highway," now, less romantically, called the San Bernardino Freeway. If we kept going east we’d pass Palm Springs, Blythe, Phoenix, El Paso, Houston, New Orleans, and hit the Atlantic at Jacksonville, Florida. But instead we just drove through Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, Rosemead, El Monte, Baldwin Park, West Covina,  Azusa,  Covina, San Dimas, and finally Fontana after 40 minutes or so, after which we went north on Interstate 15 and through the Cajon Pass into the desert proper.

Passing through the eastern cities of the LA megalopolis, we pointed out elements of the flood control infrastructure, which makes the settlement of the area possible. To the north, the great San Gabriel Mountains loomed, while Sarah Simons of the CLUI read aloud from John McPhee's Los Angeles Against the Mountains, about the futility of controlling the debris flows from these same mountains. Then some text from LA doomsayer Mike Davis' classic City of Quartz, where he describes this very journey we are making, east on I-10, to the heart of the darkness of the deflated California Dream, FONTANA!

After an English documentary about the area's flood control efforts played on the overhead monitors for a while, and we'd passed the Puddingstone flood control basin (next to which is the Raging Waters water park) we transitioned into the Inland Empire, at Kellogg Hill (just after the Forest Lawn cemetery with the "worlds largest religious mosaic"). Thoughts about what the Inland Empire is, and how it came to be, were offered by the tour guide (Coolidge), from the founding of Cal Poly through Corn Flake money and Arabian horses, to the military plants first established in WW II, built here to be out of range of the guns of enemy battleships, then over the county line into San Bernardino County, the largest county in the continental US, bigger than Denmark, which contains much of the desert as well as the urban zones we were still passing through (like Ontario, so named as it was founded by the Chaffey Brothers who came from the Canadian province of Ontario . . .)

Finally the on ramp on to the Interstate 15, north towards Barstow (another grand highway that connects San Diego with the Canadian Border at Sweetgrass, Montana). Past the fabled Kaiser Steel plant site, the basis of the economy in Fontana for decades, employing nearly 10,000 people during the war, and said to be the largest steel plant west of the Rockies, until it was sold to the Chinese who took it apart piece by piece in 1982 and reassembled it in China (though portions of the plant remained and are still used to shape steel, and serve Hollywood as a location for Schwarzenegger movies . . .)

As we passed the debris flows of Lyttle Creek (and recalled to mind Joan Didion's "rubble of some unmentioned catastrophe"), we began our ascension into Cajon Pass, which divides the San Gabriels from the San Bernardinos and is a major service corridor connecting the Megalopolis with the outside world, through buried trunk lines for natural gas and oil, as well as transportation: this was Route 66, and is still one of the busiest commercial rail corridors into the City (we showed a videotape about Cajon Pass produced by a railfan magazine, which describes the railway through this area in incredible detail). This cut between two mountain ranges is also the San Andreas Fault rift zone, and we seamlessly transition from the northbound Pacific Plate to the southbound North American Plate, without feeling a thing.

The top of the Pass and into the desert, we pass by Hesperia, Apple Valley, Adelanto, the Dale Evans/Roy Rogers Museum, and the California Aqueduct desert spur, which recharges the aquifer of remote high desert communities with water from the northern Sierras, 400 miles away, as a video about the Mojave River pipeline explains, on the overhead monitors.

We exit the Interstate at Victorville and pass by the Southdown Cement Company, one of the larger suppliers of cement to the LA area, and one of four big cement plants around here that produce material for the skyscrapers and freeways of the City. We pass under the high voltage DC lines that connect Los Angeles directly to the Intermountain Power Plant in the middle of Utah (a $5.5 billion project completed in 1987), then pass the 1,000 inmates housed in the brand new Victorville Federal Prison, before turning into the Southern California Logistics Airport.

Until it closed in 1992, this was George Air Force Base, home of a fighter squadron protecting the area’s cities and military assets and employing 5,000 people. Now it's in a state of decay, with crumbling housing tracts that are blown up for State Farm Insurance commercials. The taxiways around the 13,000 foot runway are being used by some airfreight companies, and for rows of airliner storage (mostly Delta airlines) and for aircraft scrapping.

After a drive-through it’s back to National Trails Highway, with its closed motels and gas stations, which thrived when this was the main road to the West: Route 66. We turn in at the community of Silver Lakes, a master planned residential oasis surrounding two large manmade lakes, which is itself surrounded by the dry, open desert, then continue on to a dirt road to a surprise stop at the Exotic World Museum of Burlesque Dancing.

Here Dixie Evans, herself a famous dancer of the burlesque era who was the nation's leading Marilyn Monroe double, guides the group through her museum in her professional, show-biz manner, enlightening us about the historical importance of burlesque as a sort of editorial medium on popular culture, which existed before "exotic dancing" became the strip clubs we see today.

Back on the bus to the nearby gate of the secretive Lockheed Radar Cross-Section Range (access to us was denied), a stealth technology R&D test range, associated with UFO activity, according to the monitors overhead, which showed aerial views of the facility being analyzed by an articulate and knowledgeable secret saucer base researcher named Captain Eric.

The next stop was the CLUI's Desert Research Station, north of Hinkley, where the attendant Craig Simpson was on hand to show people around the displays and facilities, and where we unpacked box lunches and wandered the grounds.

The first stop after lunch was down the road at the Hinkley Compressor Station, the PG&E plant made famous by the Erin Brockovich film, which told the true story about the plant's contamination of the groundwater and the $330 million settlement reached between PG&E and the sick and dying residents of Hinkley.

On to Main Street in Barstow, we passed the Barstow Rail Yards, a major train repair and classification yard, and a continuing part of the legacy of rail traffic that founded the town of Barstow over 100 years ago. The bus pulled in to the Desert Discovery Center, full of wonderful displays about the natural history of the Desert, where Tim Reed, director of the Barstow Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management was waiting for us in the conference room. Mr. Reed described the land development patterns in the desert, and discussed the BLM's role in the management of the 12 million acres of California Desert that they own (about half the entire desert region).

After this informative stop, we headed out past Calico (a former ghost town where the first pieces of the Knotts Berry Farm amusement park came from), and past the Marine Corps Logistics Base (the main logistics center for Marine operations west of the Mississippi and into the Pacific). Meanwhile videotapes of Huell Howser roaming this area played overhead, and Barstow music by Harry Partch played on audiotape.

We stopped to look at the impressive Solar Two solar power tower, with its circle of thousands of heliostatic mirrors locked in down position, as the facility has been shut down, then poked in at the Villa Augusti, a surprising desert estate built in 1916 by the architect Charles Kysor, for Buel Funk and his wife Helen, who was the daughter of the famous naturalist John Muir. The 21-room desert villa is now owned by a heraldry and chivalry organization called the Augustan Society.

Down the road we stopped near the old general store in Daggett, and read a brief passage from a book (published by the Center for American Places) about the old days in this otherwise obscure little desert town. The book, called Daggett: Life in a Mojave Frontier Town, tells the tale of Theodore Van Dyke and his son Dix, who settled together in Daggett in the late 1800's. Theodore was an educated man from Back East, and he soon became the local judge. Guests at his ranch (the ruins of which are still visible) included his friend John Muir, and his brother, a professor of art at Rutgers University, and an art consultant for Andrew Carnegie, named John Van Dyke, who in 1901 wrote the classic, phantasmagoric, romantic, naturalist epic about the American desert, called, simply, The Desert.

The passage we read from, inside the tourbus idling outside the old general store, was from the epilogue, written by the Western writer and poet Peter Wild, where he imagines a hypothetical, improbable tour bus of lost people, stopping in the precise spot we are in, and the befuddled tourists walking around town, not seeing the rich history or interesting qualities of the unremarkable-looking old town of Daggett . . . "Back on the bus, they'd decide, quite rightly, that, like some of the other desert towns widely scattered hereabouts, Daggett had its heyday, as the old, peeling, false-front stores, now boarded up, attest. But those days are gone forever."

Leaving Daggett, we joined the full-speed stream of Interstate traffic coming from Las Vegas, heading to Los Angeles. Arriving back at the museum our parting thoughts for the group were taken from Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Things One Sees, where Irwin contemplates how to represent the wonders of the desert in his work: ". . . Still I had the problem of how any of this could be brought to bear on what we call art. How was I going to deal with these situations? Was I going to take photos? Well, that didn’t really make any sense. Make plans, draw maps? That wasn’t critical. How about loading people onto buses and dragging them out there to show it to them?"

These tours were made possible by the CLUI Public Tour Program; the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Public+Artist Program at MoCA, sponsored by The Winnick Family Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; and the California Arts Council. CLUI On Board Staff: Matthew Coolidge, Erik Knutzen, Lize Mogel, Sarah Simons.