Saturday, November 03, 2007

Ghosts, Wind & Fire

Remember: It's not really an adventure until something goes horribly wrong.

It all started so innocently. On Saturday we took off for the Mojave and other points North in search of ghost towns. We planned to drive in a broad arch, first up to the abandoned silver mining towns of Keyesville and Havilah and then back to the still living ghost towns of Randsburg and Jo'Burg and lastly across to Barstow and Calico, the former mining town that's now a county park. From there we planned to head back south down the 15 and up into the mountains to Wrightwood, where I know an intimate little steak house where we could cap our long day with a nice dinner.

Always wanting to take the roads less traveled, we headed up Vineland Avenue through Sunland and up into Big Tujunga Canyon, the steep, stony, dramatic valley that brings the wilderness so close to the city. Passing over the Tujunga Wash we turned left onto the Angeles National Forest Highway, which winds through Singing Springs and at last to Highway 14.

The wind that would lash Southern California all weekend and into the next started (for us at least) with a great gust just as we crested the pass into the Antelope Valley. Up in the Angeles Forest, the Autumnal air had been crystalline. Now we could see dust in great clouds stretching over the vast, tawny-colored desert. Not the weather I hoping for -- indeed, weather that in the coming days would shatter the hopes of thousands. But of course we were innocent of this and motored cheerfully on. Above the town of Mojave a great wet cloud squatted, glowering, over the aircraft graveyard.

Here we tried to turn off for Keyesville but found the road barred to us. The wind, apparently, was already too strong and the road had been closed. It was a just as well because, as we realized later, we had read the map wrong and that road would have taken us to Bakersfield, and no one wants to end up there.

Lost? Quite.
So we headed out toward Randsburg through California City, an ill-conceived development of shabby houses on dusty lots in the middle of nowhere, a real blight on the desert. Somehow, we must have misread the map again and found ourselves headed out into the desert on a long, straight dirt road that seemed to go on forever. But it's hard to really get lost in that part of the desert, surrounded as it is by landmark mountains. I recognized the mountain that Randsburg lies at the foot of (Red Mountain) and we headed that way. The Mojave is far from uninhabited, especially on the weekends, when it's overrun of off-roaders and hunters. We stopped a couple times and talked to some boys on dirt bikes to confirm we were headed the right way, and after a few wrong turns and backtracks, found ourselves winding up into Randsburg's main drag, Butte Avenue.

Looking Good in Sepia

We stopped in the old-time General Store and enjoyed a chocolate ice cream phosphate from the ancient soda fountain, then headed over to the White House Saloon, a real old-time saloon, for a quick shot. Out back of the saloon, Nora discovered on her way to the loo, the names of some of Randsburg's famed courtesans are inscribed. These include Cal City Kitty and Gold Nugget Nell. We wandered around the main street a while, looking in at the little curio shops and then up to The Joint bar for a chat with 96-year-old Olga, the owner/bartendress. She carded me. I'm 42.

Ghost-free Town
Next we headed south along the pylon-lined 395 to Four Corners and then East on Highway 58 to Barstow. Here the winds were whipping something fierce. At Barstow we turned north again for a few miles, bound for Calico. We were not at all prepared for what we found when we got there. I'd only read a little about it beforehand. I knew, for example, that the remains of the town were now a county park and there might be a few shops open as well as the occasional staged shoot-out or re-enactment. Fine: I like that sort of thing.

In fact, Calico Ghost Town is a full-on tourist trap. After paying the hefty gate fee, we proceeded past lines of Winnebagos and up the hill to Main Street, where about a thousand kids in Halloween costumes were running around shrieking about whatever it is that kids in Halloween costumes shriek about. Apparently, this was Calico's annual Haunted Weekend, when children from all of the worst places in Southern California gather to show off their fangs and howl.

Main Street itself has a kind of an Old-Westy desert feel, plus places to play video games, buy fake Indian Jewelry and get pizza, just in case you get hungry. Halfway up the street, just within earshot of a street performer in Renaissance Faire garb playing a mandolin and singing sea chanties (huh?) to no one, we came across a large fake stone marker emblazoned with a plaque announcing that we owed all this good clean historical fun to Mr. Knott of Knott's Berry Farm infamy, who had rebuilt the old "ghost town," making it safe for the American Family back in the 1950s. Silently giving thanks to Mr. Knott in heaven, we moved on.

Well, when in a tourist trap, do tourist trappy things, right? So we hoofed it up to the mine train ride, which consisted of a few small open cars pulled by a little diesel locomotive tarted-up to look like a narrow-gauge steam engine. This 3-buck, 10-minute ride was actually worth the price. Over a scratchy PA system, an automated voice recording helped point out the various points of interest as we chugged past the 1/2 -scale miners' cabins, perfectly piled tools and other Disneyesque doodads. And there actually are points of interest. The geological area surrounding the town is quite striking, with its mix of barren high desert badlands, steep hills and colorful mine tailings and leach pads. The entrance to the Silver Queen Mine, from which was dug tens of millions of dollars (that's tens of billions in 2007 dollars), worth of silver and borax from 1880 until it petered out in 1906 is visible near the top of one of the nearby hills.

Sadly, there's not much to see of the old boomtown's once-infamous Chinese district, said to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy chock full of joss houses and opium dens, although you can get a picture of yourself in the giant, cauldron-shaped Chinese bath. The glory that was Main Street, too, has dimmed, despite its current preponderance of lively pretzel and churro carts. Not a single one of the town's many whorehouses, gambling casinos and saloons still stands. Calico is, sadly, a dry town in more ways than one. In fact the whole shebang burnt down in 2002 and was rebuilt -- Now New and Improved! About the only original structures left are an adobe wall and some rubble visible from the railway. Take me back to Randsburg, please.

It was time for dinner, so we pressed on southward.

Mormon Rocks, caused by the San Andreas Fault

The wind whistled through the Cajon Pass, wooshing over the summit and down along the San Andreas Fault like a runaway freight train. We took a right at Cajon Junction onto US 138 and proceeded up into the Mormon Hills, the streaked sandstone glowing in the evening light. At the Angeles Crest Highway we turned off and headed up country to Wrightwood, the lovely, rustic and blessedly unspoiled little mountain resort town that lies in a glen about 5000 feet up in the San Bernardinos. By this time we were mighty hungry and looking forward to a square meal. We stopped at the Blue Ridge Inn, the cozy little steak and chop house in the center of town.

During our long, chatty meal we decided that driving back down the hill would be… contrary to our continued pleasure and desire to enjoy what the Irish call "a right session." So we booked a room at the Pines Motel across the way and went out for a night on the town. In the local bar, hilarity ensued and the locals were a big part of it. They're a colorful lot and not given to, shall we say, putting on airs.

The fact that Wrightwood is so close to L.A. is not always a good thing.

A Mighty Wind a' Blowin' You and Me
Next morning we again decided to delay our return to Flatlanderville and instead motored up to Lake Arrowhead, high in the San Gabriels, the next range to the East. On the way we went down through the magnificent Lone Pine Valley that looks down into the lower Cajon Pass. Here we noted a pall of dust or smoke gathering, creeping up from the south. Then, up on Highway 18 near Running Springs -- the "Rim of the World Highway" -- we were struck by winds so fierce the car actually started to slide sideways, inching us toward the rim of the Rim of the World.

"The wind shows us how close to the edge we are," Joan Didion wrote of the Santa Anas. The winds are one of the banes of existence in Southern California, sometimes reaching hurricane strength, more than 100 miles per hour. They can make you feel dried out and headachy and irritable. They electrify the air so that every doorknob delivers a crackling shock. And they can stoke fires like the Devil's own bellows. The Santa Anas begin as cold northern air that flows southward over the desert from high pressure to low. As it streams over the desert it heats up and loses moisture and flows faster and faster. Then, when it hits the sharp rise of the San Bernadinos and San Gabriels, it's like the Bernoulli effect. Just as air flows faster over the sharply curved top of a wing, the Santa Anas pick up speed until they are positively screaming over the top of the mountains. Then, once on the other side, they fall, picking up even more speed from their own weight. The winds rush into the valley below and stream out to sea.

On Sunday morning, we were on top of the wing.

The Rim looks down over the broad sweep of the San Gabriel Valley. On a clear day, it is one of the most spectacular views, reaching from downtown L.A. eastward all the way to Mt. San Jacinto, towering above Palm Springs. But view or no, the San Gabriel Valley itself is my idea of (suburban) hell on any day. Today, it was doubly so. The wind had stirred up just about every spec of dust and sand so that enormous clouds and whirlwinds rose high above the relentless grid of streets and gigantic warehouses. Talk about looking down into Mordor.

This little gem has its own two-yacht garage
Once off the Rim, the winds slackened somewhat, though they were still brisk. Up in Lake Arrowhead we had lunch and took the Arrowhead Queen boat tour around the crystal blue lake. The tour is kind of a like the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, but instead of the captain wisecracking about animatronic rhinos, tigers and booga-booga natives, he cracks wise about the rich celebrities who live in their 11,000-square-foot lakeside mansions. Our skipper claimed to be new on the job and in fact ran over at least two buoys while turning to point out various points of interest. That's when I volunteered to man the helm.

It was like driving an 18-wheeler on skis through a vat of engine sludge. In other words, the Lake Arrowhead Queen steers like a drunken cow.
By now it was getting on in the day and time to think about heading down to Flatlandia. Miss Nora took over the driving and down we went. Although the winds had not picked up speed, they had not abated either. On the way down the hill, we saw motorcyclists stranded, hiding from the gale in gullies beside the road. The winds were fiercest at the foot of the mountains, where we saw a sight we would never have expected to see: Overturned tractor trailers, one after the other, lining the 210 freeway, blown over by the Santa Anas. It just occurred to us then to turn on the radio for the first time in almost three days. It was only then that we learned that Southern California was ablaze from Malibu to the Mexican border and beyond. (I guess fire doesn't respect national boundaries any more than illegal immigrants do).

We arrived home safe enough, if rather thunderstruck by what was going on; still delighting in the memory of our trip, yet anxious about the tragedy unfolding on our TV screen.

The next morning dawned red. The forest around Lake Arrowhead called Grass Valley plus Green Valley Lake, and Running Springs, had caught fire and the smoke was streaming over the San Fernando Valley and the L.A. basin. Over the next day or so, much of the alpine wilderness we had driven through Sunday would be incinerated. In Running Springs 272 houses were destroyed. In Grass Valley, 178.


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