The Ghost Grid of California City
Time was getting hazy by this point.
Part of this was deliberate. “If we take the new experience, we stop time — and that’s all I really care about,” Brad had been saying.
And by Day 5 of this road trip I was in pretty unfamiliar terrain. We’d shot guns at 2am in the desert, explored an abandoned gold mine, driven through a forest fire. It had been a lot to take in, a non-stop drive the length of California and back in search of more. We were only halfway through.
Part of it was that we hadn’t actually slept the night before — Death Valley, the Badwater 135 ultramarathon passing through; staying up with whisky, beers, modafinil; 84 °F heat “a cool night”. Dawn on the salt flats, then back on the road.
Either way, by the time we got to California City around noon, I was losing track of what the hell was going on.
The drive out of Death Valley had been along unpaved roads, no GPS or maps, fuel gauge ticking lower. Two bars off empty, one bar off empty, and we were still deep in nowhere. I was a little tense.
We were driving south, I could work out that much. Emigrant Canyon Road, the map calls it now. Trona Wildrose Road. One or two other cars passed us, going the other way. They promised, I hoped, that this road led somewhere, that there’d be no turning back that would drain the fuel tank all the way. If it were still too far to the nearest town and gas station, wherever that might be, I was hoping that people out here would know to check on a stopped car.
I didn’t say anything. If there was real cause to worry, I trusted Brad and Wayne to make that call themselves. Trusted their judgement as I had been doing all trip; as I’d chosen to do by coming on this whole trip, in fact. Don’t tell my mother but it’s not as if I knew them well. Wayne I’d met once, one evening just a month previously in London. He’d passed through after a week-long West Country tour, shortly after having possibly raised a dragon on the summit of Dinas Emrys. Brad I’d last seen at a party on top of an abandoned grain silo in Oxford the summer before. Which is to say they might be crazy but the kind that I trusted. I trusted in the social network of the Institute for Atemporal Studies, the mailing list-cum-gonzo think tank that brought us together and implicitly vouched for both, and I guess I trusted in my ability to talk, tax my credit card or exit should the situation require it.
Yet at this moment driving out of Death Valley I was relying on their experience, the hundreds of times they’d driven through deserts before. Letting someone who knew better set the boundaries of what I tried was the only way I was going to get out of this rut. Not six weeks before I’d been complaining on social backchannels that I didn’t know how to travel — and now here I was. These last few days had been thrilling and overwhelming; I’d laughed more and harder than I had in years. You start by showing up and saying, “Yes”.
Saying yes to California City was hard, though. I was unsure what we were doing heading to this place, some miles in the wrong direction — weren’t we aiming for Barstow, a museum, a meteorite, and some pizza restaurant with supermodel sibling waitresses? But there was a BLDGBLOG post. Wayne read it aloud from the back seat, a practice we’d started to listen to stories about the places we were going. I couldn’t really follow — I sat up front, stayed quiet, eyes wired open and exhausted, in an increasingly bad mood. What was actually going to be there and why was it worth bothering with?
California City is an exurb, a town without a centre, a place without place: only an aggregation of affluent-ish detached lots. A city, population 13,223. Nearby there’s a prison, an air force base, a Hyundai testing facility and a boron mine. Other sources of employment include Mojave Air and Space Port, which started to hint at why my travelling companions wanted to come here: we were on the trail of failed utopian dreams.
Saturday morning Brad had introduced me to California by saying, look at the space there is here. It makes people do things, act big — it makes them think things can be done. (I saw this in him, all through this trip, and was glad for the chance to understand my friend in his native habitat.)
So we came to California City on the trail of a 1950s visionary, sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn, who had planned to build a new Los Angeles in 80,000 acres of desert.
“To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed areas of the city. Satellite photos show how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US.” [Wikipedia]
Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG called it “like some peculiarly American response to the Nazca lines […] an abstract geoglyph […] a ghost-grid, mirages of suburbia in the middle of nowhere.”
Runway landing markings for Brady Bunch aliens? This road trip was a Space Age psychogeographic excursion, so by that logic we had to go there. It didn’t matter that we were all exhausted: no sleep until you crash.
On the ground we had no benefit of satellite photos — no-one’s mobile data much worked. Wayne just drove to one end of town down empty palm-lined boulevards, then took a turn left down a dirt road, past the last few houses. The properties were newish builds, probably part of the city’s growth in the early mid 2000s. Empty lot, empty lot, house. Empty lot, another house. Then just empty lots, for miles. We drove out into it.
Unlike the photos Manaugh posted on BLDGBLOG, on this side of town (not that we knew which one it was) the roads were gridded into even, straight-line blocks — an economic rung down from the invisible McMansions on the cul de sacs we could see on the the print-out. There were signs that once something had been about to start here: poles with street names; standpipes, for water; the way the dirt tracks were edged with desert brush like so many overgrown suburban lavender bushes. Even a realtor’s sign, swinging.
Wayne and Brad were tempted. Would it take so much to bring this place out of suspended animation through an occupation, to activate this infrastructure potentiality, to set up camp and carve out real utility from this imaginary city, a temporary parasitic zone?
But we weren’t the first people there. This lost utopia was already occupied by a hundred sun-bleached old couches and other suburban detritus, living rooms somehow tossed out here before anyone had ever had the chance to move in. Brad — an archaeologist by training — kept stopping the car to leap out and sift through this wreckage with exclamations of delight, turning up a cuddly toy to be pinned to the car bumper, a pair of bright green miniature plastic soldiers to be stood on the dash. I wondered, frankly, what the fuck the interest was in this junk and stayed right put in the passenger seat, staring out to the horizon.
As I say, I really hadn’t slept — hadn’t even eaten for about 24 hours. The allure of ruin porn proves hard to sustain under such bright noon light. Viewing lost lives as ‘evocative’, a mystery, is a privilege, a tourist gaze able to aestheticise only because so far removed from hard economic cause and consequence. But this wasn’t a ruin, even, wasn’t even cheaply romantic — less ‘lost lives’ than just the cruft of late capitalism, sofas thrown out into the backcountry because you bought a newer model or moved back to LA. Why would you take any care with your old possessions? The desert’s big and empty and throwing things out there is what everybody does. Careless, loveless waste.
Wayne meanwhile was pulling a couple of old sofas and a mattress into the facsimile of a living room; Brad added the shell of an old cathode ray TV. Scene in place, Brad gave me his camera to get a shot of them play-acting the suburban American dream. It got me briefly out of the car. Edited later that night — “Turn down the contrast,” I recommended, “that faded, sun-bleached look is fashionable at the moment” — and put up on Instagram & Facebook, this won more ‘likes’ than any other photo of the trip. It felt hollow — a pretty spectacle, a cheap juxtaposition. The possibility that my friends were poking fun at their own ruin-fixation didn’t manage to cross my mind.
If this place was haunted by anything it was by the fantasy of what we wanted to see there, the stories we wanted to spin. In this dead-eyed mood I couldn’t swallow this suburban ghost-hunt, didn’t want BLDGBLOG as my guidebook and this trip to be chasing a series of white man’s imaginaries. Not that I was in any kind of state, mind you, to research any counter psychogeographies or put forward alter-narratives — only bile.
We drove around a bunch more and I wondered what was keeping the guys’ interest. The grid, as grids do, kept repeating. Another abandoned couch, another kilometre of dirt track. But a phrase Wayne likes to say came to mind: “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” I started to reflect on my discontent, and to sit with it a bit better.
What happens when you go to places and there’s nothing there, no surge of the response — awe, enjoyment, whatever — that you expect to have (or feel you are expected to have) in a certain locale? This had been the concern gnawing at me just a week before Brad suggested this trip, back home in London, looking at my air miles and holiday allowance yet feeling deeply unenthused at the prospect of a week trawling around Istanbul or Budapest on my own. What’d I do? Look at noted landmarks, feel uncomfortable sitting in cafes with no purpose, and watch the 15 hours to bedtime stretch tirelessly ahead. I’d tried travelling like this before. One time in Venice I blacked out on a bridge over the Grand Canal rather than deal with the day ahead, and got rushed to hospital on a speedboat. I didn’t much want to repeat that, and had been grateful when this California invitation came.
Wayne said that, well, when you go to a place there’s always something that happens. It might not be what you expect or want, you might not really like it, but one way or another you will respond. So you might as well work with that.
The story of California City I’d been sold was one of nostalgia for California optimism and the Space Age, for a 1950s modernism that believed cities could be planned and rationalised and perfected. We know that they can’t, now, but there’s supposed to be a kind of poignancy at the generations before us who believed in the future. I didn’t feel that twang. But for all that (and the hangover) I’m glad I was there. This road trip was driven by many things, but Brad and Wayne’s generosity and enthusiasm in showing me their California mythos was a big part of it. The hope that that mythos might be there, might be tangible for a moment — that’s a dream worth having dreamt.
California City was supposed to be the “the map that precedes the territory […] that engenders the territory” — Nat Mendelsohn’s dream of a hyperreal Los Angeles. For Baudrillard, simulation reveals the “desert of the real”, its absence — but what’s left when the simulation isn’t there and never got built? Just desert dust.