April 27, 2016

Photo Essay: A Fake Cemetery (with Real Headstones)

Update: As of 2/16/19, the fake cemetery was still there...

Most really old cemeteries in Southern California are off the beaten path—because the roads have been re-routed or the towns have been vacated or they generally just creep people out.

So imagine the surprise of stumbling upon a cemetery with historic headstones right off the Sierra Highway in Canyon Country, just north of LA.

Especially if you're from the area and you don't quite remember those headstones being there before.

If you're not an Acton local, the cemetery at Sierra Highway and Red Rover Mine Road is still a bit odd...

...its grave markers nestled into the brush...

...arranged somewhat haphazardly...

...and spaced out with a lot of room between them, compared to the local pioneer cemeteries of the same era.

It was so strange that it attracted the attention of local media, who asked the property owner, Dale Bybee, if it was real.

"Yeah, they're all real stones," he said. And he wasn't lying.

But he fibbed about where they came from.

He said they'd been in this spot for "a while" (still not exactly a lie) and that he'd uncovered them when he'd recently been clearing some brush.

That would be some story if it were true, but it's not.

The headstones may be real, but the cemetery is a fake.

There are no bodies buried here (that anyone knows of).

This plot of land hasn't been consecrated.

It isn't holy, but it is valuable—not only to its owner, but also as it's adjacent to the "high speed rail" line that's being routed from LA to San Francisco, right through the Antelope Valley.

Whether you call this pop-up cemetery a stunt or a protest, either way it drew attention to the matter.

And, it gave a home to a bunch of tombstones that had been displaced from an abandoned cemetery in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1950s...

...and had been sitting in the backyard of the Whittier Historical Society.

Screenshot: Google Satellite View 

In the days before modern technology, Bybee might have gotten away with his fake cemetery. His land is zoned for agriculture, which would've allowed burials on site.

Screenshot: Google Street View (May 2015)

But thanks to Google Satellite View and Street View, there's a public visual record of the property dating back to 2007 that shows no brush overgrowth and no headstones.

To me, it's art. It has the feeling of Stonehenge or yarn-bombing or street murals—something that just appears one day, without anyone taking credit.

When it comes down to it, though, it's just a bunch of headstones clustered on an empty lot. If Bybee had buried some bodies there, now that would've really been something.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Fake Iraq in the Middle of the Mojave Desert
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April 23, 2016

Photo Essay: A House of Wax and Fragrance

As a kid, most mornings I'd wake up to the smell of a cigarette being lit, and most nights I'd fall asleep to a scented votive burning down to the bottom of its wick.

Our father had converted the bedroom next to ours into a den, forcing me and my sister to sleep side-by-side, inhaling the fumes of whatever was going on in there as they wafted through the grate in our shared wall and the door we weren't allowed to close as we slept.

Back then, my dad's candles always seemed a bit liturgical as they flickered in their red glass cups, illuminating the faces of saints that my father had collected on his shelves. But the scent was less frankincense and more frangipani...or vanilla...or some citrus fruit or another.

Still, for a long time, candles comforted me. I only stopped lighting them in my own apartments after having had enough of the carbon smudges on my walls and the whole idea of formaldehyde being released into the air as they burned.

But they still hold some fascination for me, which is why, I suppose, I jumped at the chance to take a tour of an artisanal candle factory.

Either that, or it's because I just really like factory tours.

Just east of the LA River and south of the interchange between the 5 and 10 freeways, around the corner from the landmark Sears building...

...the streets of Boyle Heights grow industrial, lined with factories and warehouses built on top of and next to train tracks both active and decommissioned.

This isn't exactly where you'd expect a hipster, handmade candle company...

...but since most of the artists and artisans are now getting priced out of the Downtown LA Arts District, I suppose this is exactly where you'd expect them to be.

Kristen Pumphrey founded her P.F. Candle Company in 2008, with her husband Tom Neuberger officially coming on board in 2013. And even though they've hit a certain stride with impressive retail distribution in West Elm, CB2, Urban Outfitters, YogaWorks, and Target, they're still a shockingly small operation.

These candles aren't just handmade—they're hand-crafted.

From the wax made from domestically-grown soybeans and the cotton core wicks... the amber-colored apothecary jars...

...touring their "factory" feels more like touring a craft brewery.

And that's exactly how the company has intended it.

As the production crew pours melted wax into their glass holders... seems more like you're in a kitchen than a factory...

...each freshly-poured candle lined up on a baking sheet...

...left on a rack to cool.

While they "bottle" by hand, they have automated their labeling...

...with a machine that can apply the stickers within a millimeter or two of accuracy.

The brass lids are then screwed on by hand, and the completed candles are ready to be shipped out to their wholesale accounts and direct to the customers who purchase on their website.

Meanwhile, the painstaking process of readying the reed diffusers for retail is entirely manual...

...from the bottling to the labeling and even the assembling of their boxes.

Amazingly, one person can churn out about 200 complete reed diffuser packages a day.

With six production crew members, three shipping crew members, and three e-commerce and office staff each, it's pretty amazing that they're able to both make these products with such care...

...and distribute them en masse.

There are 10 varieties total (though they're numbered up to 25), from single scents like grapefruit and lavender... more elaborate blends like Amber & Moss, Golden Coast (their tribute to California), Mojave (to evoke the desert), and Frankincense & Oud (the latter ingredient coming from the wood of a Southeast Asian tree).

It smelled good in there—that's for sure—but I didn't buy any while I was there.

Even though burning soy candles is basically carbon-neutral (unlike the paraffin candles you find at Yankee Candle or Bath and Body Works), the fragrance oils they use are natural, and both are considered vegan (with none of it being tested on animals), I thought maybe I'd leave my candle-burning days in the past.

Maybe it's better to stop covering up rather than actually neutralizing whatever it is that doesn't smell good in the first place.

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Photo Essay: Hollywood in Wax
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April 20, 2016

Photo Essay: The Mysteries of Jack-o-Landia

I've never seen such an obvious landmark that nobody on the internet seems to know what it is, where it came from, or how long it's been there.

It looks like an abandoned amusement park on the side of the road in Lucerne Valley, CA...

...but it is very much in use by the Avila family—specifically, by Jack Avila, Jr., whose grandfather owns (owned?) the property (at least as of 2012).

In recent memory, it's been used as an event space for swap meets (2015), political fundraisers (2013), and, sadly, memorial services (2011).

But what it really seems to be... a delightfully organized storage yard for one man's eclectic collection of Western-themed amusements, ornaments, statues, and larger-than-life collectibles.

Some locals just call it "stuff."

I walked in because I could, and because I thought it was abandoned...

...but it turns out I was trespassing...

...and I was doing it on some kind of hallowed ground.

There was a solemnness there, amidst the horses made of painted logs and the bright yellow wagon wheels.

It felt like a ghost town, but that someone had been preserving it.

There wasn't any vandalism in sight...

...though some of the statuary have weathered the elements out there in the high desert.

Members of the Avila family are ever-present, both in name and in spirit...

...but Jack-o-Landia is also devoted to the memory of a friend of the family... singer Freddy Fender, who died in 2006.

As a member of the Texas Tornados, Fender is normally associated with his home, the Lone Star state; but it was the time he spent in the U.S. Marine Corps in his early years with Jack Jr.'s grandfather that earned him a place in the hearts of those in Lucerne Valley.

Even without knowing the specific history, Jack-o-Landia feels a bit...tragic.

It's lonely there, the teepees empty...

...the Indian chiefs staring vacantly out into the desert abyss.

Since Jack-o-Landia isn't, indeed, abandoned—and yet not exactly open, either—who is it for?

Maybe there are enough passers-by like myself who might be encouraged by the lack of "No Trespassing" signs enough to take a step in, pay their respects, snap a few pics, and leave it, untouched.

The only things you should ever take from a place like this is photographs—and memories.

There used to be two horses rearing, though now there's only one. I wonder what happened to the second one.

Everything at Jack-o-Landia seems to be waiting for something...or someone.

Time hasn't stopped, but the action has.

And while my path started with a cemetery (and a hearse) at the western end of this miniature ghost town... ended with the gallows.

Google Street View circa 2007

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Calico Ghost Town
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