February 28, 2015

Photo Essay: A Sanctuary Among Sewage

[Last updated 2/25/23 11:15 PM PT—Video embed added to bottom of post]

I am one of those weird people who find tours of municipal facilities and other public works fascinating. (It turns out, I am not alone.)

But what really fascinated me about the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant was where its recycled water went after it was cleaned up.

February 27, 2015

Photo Essay: The Final Frontier for LA's Wastewater

[Last updated 2/25/23 11:18 PM PT—Video embed added to bottom of post]

There are a lot of opportunities to get interstellar in and around LA – whether at a star party at Mount Wilson or at the planetarium at Griffith Observatory, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or places like Vasquez Rocks which have doubled as other planets for movies and TV shows like Star Trek.

Or you can go to Van Nuys to jump forward in time to the year 2161 to visit Star Trek's official training ground for future recruits: Starfleet Academy.

February 25, 2015

Photo Essay: The Persistent Passage of Time at Trona

When I went to Trona for its centennial celebration last year, I didn't swing by the Trona Pinnacles, even though I was right up there, and had driven all of that way. I figured I'd already seen them. What else was there to see?

But I forgot: with enough time, and the right state of mind, there is always something new to see.

The light is ever-changing.

The pinnacles are dying, getting smaller every year with no bubbling mineral springs to build them up.

And the plants are growing! Even the desert holly is green instead of that chalky white.

It was exactly this time of the year, three years ago when I first visited, but there were no little green sprouts back then...

...and no wildflowers. Or maybe I just didn't notice them.

Maybe I was so busy looking up at the other-worldly geologic formations that I didn't bother to look down much.

Then again, when you do look down... are reminded of the desolation that surrounds you... the arid Mojave that could swallow you hole, without making a sound.

And, as you survive, your periodic visits form a time-lapse of the prehistoric formations' imminent demise, frighteningly noticeable after only three years.

And the more they are visited, the more quickly they fade away.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Trona Pinnacles
Photo Essay: 100 Years of Trona
Photo Essay: Searles Valley Minerals Plant Tour, Trona
Mono Lake: From Shore to Surface
Photo Essay: Landing on Another Planet, An Hour Outside of LA

February 16, 2015

Something's Got to Give

Throughout history, people have come to California to make something of themselves, to survive a harsh environment and develop impossible land, successfully plant crops where seemingly nothing would grow.

Both literally and figuratively.

Places that are now open spaces contain such tremendous traces of industry and development...

... the stamp mills in Joshua Tree, the camps in Angeles National Forest...

...but you have to look for them. And frequently you have to hike to them.

California is famous of course for the Gold Rush, but plenty of people have found their fortune in mining other materials, from sand, gravel and stone to boron to gems and minerals like salt and  sulfur, and other metals like silver and tin.

Places like Tin Mine Canyon – which only has one mine shaft, closed off to keep wildlife in and keep humans out – are a bittersweet reminder that you have to do a lot of digging before you find what you're looking for.

And be prepared for plenty of failures: there are several prospector holes there in the canyon, but no tin.

However, the prospectors weren't far off, and when they arrived in the hills of what's now considered Cleveland National Forest, they were less than 10 miles west of where tin would eventually be successfully mined.

You have to hand it to those prospectors that just kept digging for something. Some of them never found anything.

But who ever struck gold on the first try?

Related Posts:
Land of Opportunity
Try, Try Again

February 12, 2015

Confessions of a Seatfiller

I've always been good at getting into things for free or finding unique ways to make money. Every time I've lost a job, until I get the next one, everybody tells me "You are the busiest unemployed person I know." That's because I never really unemployed: I'm always working on something.

While I was working at record labels, I got spoiled by how many free concert tickets I could get – from the symphony and opera at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to Kid Rock at Irving Plaza, Matchbox20 at Hammerstein Ballroom, Tori Amos at Madison Square Garden, and AC/DC at our sales convention. My boss tried to sign Norah Jones before she made her Grammy-winning album for Blue Note. I saw the Killers before they were famous in some dark club on the Lower East Side.

But as I've eased out of the music industry, the perks have subsided, so I've got to find my own way in.

Luckily, living in a big media center city like New York or LA, you have access to things like TV show tapings, whether it's Jimmy Kimmel Live or CONAN or some other talk show or special event. Sometimes you can get free tickets through these companies that are hired to fill audiences, and sometimes you can even get hired by one of those companies to be in the audience.

And then there are the seatfillers.

You ever notice how on awards show telecasts, you never see an empty seat, even though winners and presenters and performers are always getting up to go on stage? That's because a herd of seatfillers are at the ready to jump into somebody else's vacated seat and keep it warm until they come back.

This week, for the first time ever, I was a seatfiller.

I've done the paid audience thing and even the free audience thing, to make a little money, or just have something to do, or because I was a fan of the host or the guests on the show. I never did it to be on camera, but I was surrounded by a weird cult of attention-grabbers, vying for seats in the front, networking with the wranglers for some privilege or another. It's soul-sucking work.

Turns out, seatfilling is kind of worse.

But, being a seatfiller got me into the Grammy-produced tribute to Stevie Wonder concert for free, a ticket I might normally have bought myself when I had money, but just can't swing right now.

The show was opened by Beyonce, who I could barely see from my initial position behind the cameras and the teleprompters. And then I got called out of my seat a few times, each a false start that resulted in getting sent back to the holding area. One of the wranglers looked at the other who had picked me, and snarled, "They need to be fancy."

Oh well, I guess I'm not so fancy.

But I didn't need to be seated up front next to Tony Bennett or behind Tyler Perry or in Lady Gaga's seat. I was there for the show, which was a star-studded affair that could've only been put together when all these artists were already in town for the Grammy's two days before.

Besides, even if I had looked fancy enough to be seated up there, as a seatfiller, you're not allowed to talk to anyone or ask for an autograph or God forbid take a photo. You might as well be a cardboard cutout or a mannequin. You're just filling space. You're not anyone. You don't speak. You're just a body.

And any seat you fill is not yours. Someone – probably not a famous person, but some sponsor or label exec – just got up to pee, and they're coming right back to kick you out of their seat. You get up as quickly as you can, you feel inclined to thank them, and then you scuttle away, momentarily with no seat at all, feeling lost in the aisle, until someone in a headset scoops you up and points at some other seat. You hope this will be the one you can stay in for the rest of the night, but someone inevitably comes back.

You feel like you're missing half of the show in this game of musical chairs, because even when you're sitting, you've got one eye on the end of the row, waiting to be replaced. Or, more aptly, for the person you replaced to come back.

I thought I would have a great time at a free show full of the top musical acts of yesterday and today, where I'd get the chance to see Stevie Wonder perform himself for the first time ever (despite some near-misses at the Redeye Grill and the Four Seasons), but I found myself just waiting for it to be over. Even when I got my own seat with an unobstructed view not too far back in the orchestra section, where clearly no one had been sitting all night, I still worried about being evicted.

I became so anxious, I even left as all the night's performers were assembling onstage for the finale performance.

And as I walked by myself back to my car, which I'd had to park in the designated seatfiller lot a half mile away and on the other side of the 110 freeway, I realize that I've always felt like a seatfiller in my life. Any time I spent with my parents, I felt like I was just some poor substitute for my sister. Many friendships have been formed out of convenience – because I sat next to the person in class, or behind them at work – and once that physical proximity went away, so did the friendship. I've often felt like people spent time with me (even lovers) just because they wanted someone, not because they wanted me. They wanted someone to dine with, someone to drive with, someone to have sex with – and when I was that someone, I felt like I could be anyone.

I was just a body.

Just a placeholder.

For position only.

Over the years, I've been recycled through jobs, made commitments to people who changed their mind about me, and kept the bed warm when men who were otherwise spoken for were feeling lonely. My whole life feels like a revolving door. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I keep waiting for someone to tell me it's over, thank you, but get out.

I'm not sure going to the concert was worth that feeling. I'm not sure doing anything I've done – taking a job I shouldn't have taken, loving the wrong person – has been worth that feeling.

And I don't know if that feeling will ever go away.

Related Posts:
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Putting Pop Music on Pause

February 11, 2015

Photo Essay: Deadly Fruit, Meat-Eating Plants, and Other Oddities In Bloom

I've been so overwhelmed by the expanse of The Huntington Library and Gardens (on the site of the former San Marino Ranch) in the two times I've visited previously, so I welcomed the invitation to go with someone who knew the place well. I knew there would be plenty of new territory for me to explore, and I would get to see one of her favorite places through her eyes.

Besides, I wanted to see the fruit that the corpse flower had borne.

Turns out, despite my friend's familiarity with the place, she'd never seen the corpse flower, nor had she even been in the Conservatory building which houses it.

So together we could explore exotic orchids that look like insects...

...carnivorous plants (like the pitcher plant)...

...that swallow up bugs that are trying to get a drink of water... variety of climates – from clouds to bog – that foster growth of plants that thrive in a humid environment not usually found in LA.

Lucky for us, it is magnolia season... least for the early bloomers...

...and we could find plenty of fragrant blossoms that hadn't lost all their petals yet.

We also got to catch the camellias before all their blossoms had dropped or were shaken off during their peak.

This third visit to The Huntington was totally different than the prior two, finally making my way to the Chinese garden...

...and the Japanese garden...

...and then circling back to my favorite: the desert garden.

Even this repeat visit to the desert garden was different. I didn't have to find my own way. I had someone I could engage in mindless chatter, our admiration for the jade and the yucca and the aloe so totally mutual – both loving living things that other people recoil from.

And maybe she got to see a familiar place in a new way, through my eyes.

Related Posts:
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EVENT: A Sci-Fi Sewage Sanctuary - with Obscura Society LA

Photo by Rye'n (Flickr)

I love to crowdsource ideas for my adventures, and over the last four years in LA, people keep telling me to go to the sewage treatment plant with the Japanese Garden.

I know.

But I've already visited two other water recycling facilities, and it's in the same area as the Sepulveda Dam which I love, so let's go.

Besides, the gorgeous Administration Building is a fine architectural point of interest, its futuristic-looking concrete curves cantilevered over a man-made lake full of poop water. It's so cinematic that Star Trek location scouts chose it to represent Starfleet Academy (and then CGI'ed in the Golden Gate Bridge behind it to make it look like it's San Francisco).

This place is even weirder than I thought. I can't wait to check it out.

See the official event listing here:

Everybody poops, and in a sprawling metropolis as big as LA, all that poop water has to go somewhere – so why not a garden?

On Monday, February 23, join field agent Sandi Hemmerlein (me!) on an epic voyage to a wastewater treatment plant in Van Nuys, whose recycled water reaches its final frontier either at the Hyperion Treatment Plant in Playa Del Rey, or next door in its own Japanese Garden – which is aptly referred to as the "garden of water and fragrance," and which is irrigated with reclaimed water from the plant.

If you join the Los Angeles Obscura Society on this excursion, you'll come out smelling like a rose...or, at least, like bougainvillea.

One of the leading producers of reclaimed water in the San Fernando Valley, The Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant recycles as much as 26 million gallons of poop water per day, relieving the overburdened portions of the wastewater collection system between the San Fernando Valley and Hyperion. Although few get to tour its sprawling campus, many recognize its futuristic Administration Building as a shooting location for numerous films and television shows, including as Star Trek's Starfleet Academy.

On our private hard hat tour of the treatment facility, one of the plant's own engineers will show us how they separate solids from the wastewater, which is then filtered and disinfected in a process that takes nearly a half day. We'll then tour the 6.5 acre garden, which was designed by world-famous designer Dr. Koichi Kawana, also responsible for Japanese botanical gardens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and San Diego's Balboa Park. Kawana fashioned this garden after “stroll gardens” constructed during the 18th and 19th centuries for Japanese Feudal lords.

On our stroll, we'll witness the 2.75 acre lake that is filled with the plant's treated water, and a waterfall, which is the main entry of water from the reclamation plant into the lake, where about three million gallons of reclaimed water pass through daily.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, I regrettably misspelled Dr. Koichi Kawana as Dr. Koichi Kawara. I've corrected it above.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant
Photo Essay: West Basin Water Recycling Facility
Photo Essay: How the Dry Valley Gets Its Water

February 10, 2015

EVENT: Amazing Lasers - with Obscura Society LA

Photo courtesy of Laserium

I'm an intrepid solo explorer, but sometimes I find something so cool, I just have to show it to other people.

For my next event with Atlas Obscura's Los Angeles Obscura Society, I'm taking folks behind the scenes at Laserium, where I've enjoyed laser light shows set to the music of both Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Except this time, we're going to actually learn how lasers work.

Because honestly, I have no idea.

But given the fact that it's the perfect confluence of art and science, I'd really like to find out.

Having stumbled upon Laserium so recently makes me a little sad, because I missed decades of their shows at Griffith Observatory which I'll never get to experience. But maybe someday Laserium will project their visual light show on some other domed ceiling in some other epic historic building, and I'll get to see that.

In the meantime, I'm excited to experience some laser amazement with a small group of kindred spirits in a really intimate setting.

Here's the official listing:

Join us for an in-depth exploration of laser technology and a live demonstration of Laserium, the world's first continuously-running laser entertainment – in the actual "House of the Laser."

Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to be floating in space.

On Thursday, March 19, join field agent Sandi Hemmerlein (that's me!) on a cosmic adventure with the people behind the great laser light shows at Griffith Park Observatory (1973-2002) and all over the world, in the studio where many of those shows were designed and choreographed.

In this intimate setting – a private event just for the Los Angeles Obscura Society – we'll delve into the retro-futuristic technology pioneered by Ivan Dryer, the father of the commercial laser light show industry. Dryer, once an aspiring filmmaker, first explored the potential artistic application of lasers at CalTech in 1970 and soon founded Laserium, recontextualizing one of the era's newest developments in science and medicine as "music for your eyes."

Laserium's shows are a three-dimensional, abstract visual spectacular featuring spirals, clouds and aurorae set to a variety of styles of music. In addition to a demonstration, we'll also have the unique opportunity to find out how the patterns of light are created and executed, with an after-show Q&A with Laserium's principal creative staff and even one of the Laserium elders. We'll learn the science of laser physics – Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation – as well as the technology of all the special effects that go into the laserists' visual light shows, which have been experienced by over 20 million people internationally.

All Obscura Society attendees will receive a free ticket for a future scheduled Laserium show (pending availability), a $15 value. 
Light refreshments will be provided.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Laser Side of the Moon
Photo Essay: Led Zeppelin, In Lasers

February 08, 2015

Photo Essay: Aimee's Castle on the Lake

Early in the days of Lake Elsinore – somewhere north of Temecula and south of Corona, on the east side of the Cleveland National Forest – developers felt they needed to woo a celebrity with an offer of free land. Once one came to live out there, more would flock in kind, establishing an elite community.

And so who was the most famous person in Hollywood in 1929?

Not Charlie Chaplin. Not Mary Pickford or Douglas Fairbanks.

It was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist who took LA by storm when she founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel at Angelus Temple.

Aimee was so famous that she was mobbed all of the time, followed relentlessly by the paparazzi, and plastered all over the front pages of all the tabloids – akin to, say, Princess Diana.

Although she did live in the parsonage next to Angelus Temple, she needed a quiet place to pray, and accepted the developers' offer.

Having just come back from the Holy Land, she commissioned an estate to be built in Moorish Revival style, with fake minarets and other details reminiscent of the Islamic Arts.

At the time, there wasn't much else out there, but her solitude was short-lived: worshippers and the media soon followed her there, often bestowing her with gifts... the tile spout still in place at the front fountain, called "The Dolphin" (though it's not a dolphin) – one of only four known in existence.

Trying to keep a low profile, Aimee had a secret tunnel entrance constructed, so she could enter the house from the garage without being spotted.

And although she was quite fenced in...

...Aimee couldn't keep her low profile for long...

...before she'd come out on the roof and start preaching, for whomever was there already, or whomever arrived. She took every opportunity to spread the word.

Visiting her home – dubbed "Aimee's Castle," though she would've never called it that – provides an intimate glimpse into her private life, right down to the secret tiled sauna hiding behind a trap door.

And despite devoting herself to a life of service, she had a grand sense of style...

...the expression of which has been preserved and restored in many areas of the castle, which is now run by The Rock in Lake Elsinore, a FourSquare church.

Some of the items on display were part of her personal collection, like the crystal glassware that was gifted to her...

...and her carved mirror in the dining room (whose walls will soon be returned to their original black color).

There are painted murals everywhere, and ornate ceilings...

...some of which had once been painted over by any number of castle residents since Aimee moved out. Luckily they've been returned to their original splendor.

The Moorish theme continues inside, with a wide variety of colored tiles... atrium that looks like a tiny, Art Deco mosque courtyard (once open-air, now outfitted with a skylight)...

...and pointed archways.

The Art Deco touches can also be witnessed in elaborately decorated bathrooms, each with its own theme...

...expressed in colorful murals...

...and, of course, more tile.

The castle now serves as somewhat of a shrine to Sister Aimee, who seems to smile at visitors from every angle...

...but it's also a reminder of the resort-to-be that never was.

Lake Elsinore never became an exclusive retreat – yet another California dream deferred, deterred by the stock market crash and Great Depression.

The lake even dried up at one point.

After Aimee sold the castle in 1939 (and used the proceeds to feed hungry Angelenos), the castle was treated gingerly by subsequent residents, including a group of squatters who occupied it when it was technically supposed to be vacant.

Aimee Semple McPherson led such a crazy life, it seems appropriate that her home would be somewhat eccentric and splashy – influencing Hollywood set designers, setting trends, and making headlines.

Indeed, with the creation of her castle, Sister Aimee did it again. She left behind a fabulous piece of architecture, and a peaceful place for contemplation, which the rest of us can now enjoy.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Angelus Temple, A Theater for the Evangelized
Photo Essay: The Home of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, Evangelist and Kidnapee