March 21, 2010

The Road to Nowhere

I'm thinking about moving to California, enough to go there on a scouting mission and take some meetings, but I had a hard time figuring out when to schedule a trip. It was all too overwhelming. I needed a reason, and if that reason wasn't being flown in by a record label (like last year), or a job interview, then what could it be?

Then Edith found out about an Atlas Obscura-hosted tour of California City, a ghost town of sorts, north of LA and less than an hour west of Barstow, that I didn't hear about until after I'd returned from my month in Joshua Tree. Go exploring on the first annual "Obscura Day," and build meetings in LA before and in San Diego afterwards? Done.

So the real purpose of my trip was the meetings, but the anchor was California City.

California City seemed to us like another Salton Sea - designed with high hopes, never inhabited as expected, its remaining residents struggling for a sense of identity. In some ways that's true, but without a (admittedly freakish) sea, California City is...a whole lot of nothin'.

Our excursion wasn't really a tour, but rather, as we found out upon our arrival, conceived as somewhat of a looky-loo flashmob. Entirely self-guided, we were pointed to a state park trailer where we could buy a map, and off we went.

As we found out, the city's roads were built in intricate patterns. Some were paved but have been taken over by drifting dirt and sand (thanks to a lot of dust kicked up by the motocross and dirtbikers that use the OHV trails that run throughout). Some were never paved, despite being named after cars like Chrysler, Lincoln, and Oldsmobile. You can still see the sign posts where life was supposed to be, plots where water lines and sewer pipes were never laid.

We kept looking for something, anything, but every road led us nowhere. We finally followed signs to a park which led us up a hill to a scenic lookout, where we got an aerial view of the layout. The roads looked like geometric scars in the earth, crop circles with no alien purpose, clearings for no cars, horses, or people.

Apparently California City is most fascinating when seen from directly above it - either by, I suppose, plane or Google Maps. Driving through it, we thought, "There has to be something more than this."

True, the empty part is kind of California City's "Old Town," abandoned before it was ever even inhabited. The "Ville Nouvelle" has a Rite Aid, a prison, a golf course, more parks, some apartment complexes, and even a lake.

The lake is where we found our most fascinating treasure: the old Lake Shore Inn, a relatively stable living ruin that allowed us to slip through its chainlink fence, stand behind its bar and climb its stairs without injury or punishment.

We parked our car in a proper spot in its lot, whose blacktop has been scarred by outcroppings of grass growth, nature's revenge on what man did to it out there in the middle of nowhere in California City.

There was a bit of ephemera scattered around, unstolen, unvandalized. No one cares enough about California City to pillage it.

The pool was full of dirt and stunk of rotting, but it was noticeably lacking in graffiti and skateboard tracks.

Inside, we were surprised that there was none of the stink of the outside pool. Although windows and mirrors were shattered, holes torn through walls, unrecognizable debris everywhere, the motel had not become a bird refuge or a haven for drug-addled teenagers. Is it possible that even the birds didn't care?

Skulking around the top floor of the Lake Shore Inn's remaining empty shell, a filmmaker adjusting his tripod looked at us and said, "I hope you didn't come all the way out here just for this."

This was some of the most significant exploring that we'd done of an abandoned building. We cared. We dreamed about taking the elevator to the top floor, and looking out over the lake first thing in the morning and before we went to sleep.

Will California City ever become the thriving suburbia it was originally planned to be? Or will it forever stand in the shadow of neighboring Mojave, whose recent unveiling of Virgin Galactic's spaceship put it on the interplanetary map?

It's hard to know for sure. But I still have high hopes for the Salton Sea.

View Larger Map

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Bookmark and Share


  1. I'm glad you managed to find the hotel. For the heck of it, I looked up my long-gone essay about a 2001 visit to California City, and found at least some of it on the Wayback Machine:

    Alas, they didn't archive the photos, and apparently neither did I after moving web hosts a few times.

  2. Well howdy doody, I found the pictures to go with the essay, and now they're online again!

    This is from April 2001.

  3. All Cal City has going for it is the nearby Tortoise Preserve. Also, for some reason I always confuse Cal City with Cal Valley, one of Central Cal's meth manuf areas.