Monday, January 14, 2019

Photo Essay: An Outdoor Museum of Citrus Trees and the Birds Who Live Among Them

Citrus first arrived in California in the late 18th century (thanks to Spanish missionaries), but it took another 100 years for us to truly strike citrus gold — with a type of seedless orange tree from Brazil (by way of Washington DC).

And so was born the “Washington navel,” and legend has it that nearly all of the orange trees of this type that you’ll find in California are descendants of two “parent” trees.

Right up until the late 1930s, citrus was the second largest industry in California—just behind oil.

But by World War II, what was once the “citrus belt” of Southern California was plowed and paved, leaving only a few scattered exceptions.

circa 2017

When the rest of the country (and even higher elevations in SoCal) are under frost and frigid conditions, our last remaining citrus groves—like the one at California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, California—are peaking.

I'd been to the park in the middle of summer and in the fall, but I returned this winter to actually see some fruit on the trees and spot some migrating birds. With the help of a ranger and a naturalist, we saw a few Northern flickers (though they could've been gilded flickers), a type of woodpecker—but nothing spectacular.

Birding, however, is like fishing. You have to be patient and wait, and you have to be quiet. It turns out that I needed to ditch my group if I was going to make any interesting bird observations (more on that in a second).

The park is a historic orange grove, though the trees are irrigated and fertilized to nudge them along.

circa 2017

And no public picking is allowed.

circa 2017

But in many ways, it is a working citrus grove...

circa 2017

...with smudge pots that protect the crops from frost...

...and a bounty of fruits (at least, in the winter).

Among the types of oranges that are picked by park staff and sold and served in the visitors center are fisher navels (an early-season crop)...

circa 2017 well as other citrus, like star ruby grapefruit, chandler pummelos...

circa 2017

...and an oddity known as Buddha's finger...

circa 2017

...which they'll even let you taste...

circa 2017

...along with pink lemons, fingerlimes, and more.

During this last visit to the citrus park, I'd heard lots of birds but saw very few of them, even with a guide to help point them out. So, instead of going straight back to my car when we were done, I stood in the parking lot and looked up to see acorn woodpeckers foraging in several of the ornamental palms at the park entrance.

In what I think was a silk floss (or "floss-silk") tree, amidst the giant hanging seed pods and wilted pink flowers, was a flycatcher, fluffy in gray and yellow, alluding to its taxonomy as a Dusky flycatcher but too shy to give me a closer look.

That same tree helped me bear witness to a number of hummingbirds perched on its bare branches, including one startlingly loud one who, by its call and plumage, I identified as a Black-chinned hummingbird.

Maybe my bird IDs are wrong. They're be more accurate with the expertise of fellow (and better) birders.

But there'd be far fewer birds to identify if I hadn't struck out on my own.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Harvesting Oranges in Heritage Park
Photo Essay: The Ranch That Built An Empire of Oranges
Photo Essay: A California Country Home In a Long-Lost Orange Grove
Where to Find the Bygone Citrus Groves of Southern California (via KCET)

Monday, January 7, 2019

Photo Essay: The Wreckage of Paramount Ranch's Western Town, Burnt to a Crisp

I knew Paramount Ranch's Western Town was gone after the Woolsey Fire of late 2018. I'd already seen photos of the wreckage.

But I wasn't prepared for what I would see when I made a site visit myself just after the New Year.

The bridge that leads to the old raceway track, beyond the model airplane field, was burned out, the trail coned off.

The entire line of trees along the creek that separates the parking lot from the Western Town was ravaged.

The paints and inks on the park signage had bubbled up from the heat, just like I'd seen along Angeles Crest Highway after the Station Fire.

Charred remains of wood posts glistened bright and shiny and almost blue.

The information board had partially melted from the heat, if not from direct contact with the flames.

Amidst the blackened landscape, it didn't smell smoky. It was nothing other than... crispy.

It felt raw and wounded, charcoaled and scarred.

And then the Western Town. I gasped.

It's fenced off for safety reasons but also, I assume, to prevent looting of any relics that might be found.

Another park visitor pointed out where his daughter had lived in some park housing, which explained the washer and dryer that seemed anachronistic among the bits and pieces of a saloon and general store.

I'd been to Paramount Ranch before, when it was in one piece, but I couldn't ascertain what used to be where.

All that survived was metal.

Sheets and sheets of corrugated steel covers the site like layers of emergency blankets at a crime scene.

Peeking out from below them are metal folding chairs, frames of folding tables, maybe metal shelves...

...barrels, cans, and jugs that look centuries old...

...and lighting fixture shades and other electrical equipment and vestiges from utilities.

It doesn't matter that the buildings weren't original to the Old West or the Gold Rush. It doesn't matter that they were just film and TV sets and not real ghost town relics. It is a horror show.

It was hard to discern what the path of the fire had been, because it hopped the creek—and even ran alongside of it—but it didn't crawl up the hillside. It spared the train depot, just steps away from the rest of the Western Town.

And the church still stands, without even a smudge of soot—certainly not saved by God, as it too was just a set piece and not a real consecrated house of worship.

Besides the buildings, lots of habitat was destroyed. But the birds were squawking, and the trails are open to pedestrians and equestrians alike.

The grass is growing back greener than ever.

And the stewards of the park vow to rebuild.

I think they should—just as Melody Ranch has been rebuilt after fire, more than once. It breaks my heart to see Corriganville reduced to a number of foundations and interpretive signs to explain what used to be there.

Inject some movie magic into Paramount Ranch. Let us pretend that our dreams and memories weren't destroyed, just this once.

Because Pioneertown may burn. Calico may become engulfed. Even Knott's Berry Farm could succumb.

A big enough earthquake could wipe it all out.

Accepting your own mortality is one thing. But living without the things you love feels like an even greater tragedy.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Paramount Ranch & Raceway (Updated for 2018)
Photo Essay: Things We Lost In the Woolsey Fire (Before & After Photos, Updated)
Corral Canyon, Malibu: Where the Fire Reached the Sea
Photo Essay: Melody Ranch Movie Ranch, Closed to Public (Except this Once)
Photo Essay: Corriganville Movie Ranch, Burned to the Ground

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Photo Essay: Amboy, A Quintessential Ghost Town Along Route 66

If your dream is to buy a ghost town, let Amboy give you hope that dreams really do come true.

Originally established because of its proximity to the chloride mine on Bristol Dry Lake in 1858, the entire town has been owned by Albert Okura—founder of the Juan Pollo fast food chain and the unofficial McDonald's museum in San Bernardino—since 2005.

And while the town has had its ups and downs under his stewardship—including being closed for pretty much anything but filming and fashion shoots—its landmark Roy's (named after its founder, Roy Crowl, circa 1938) is once again pumping gas and selling souvenirs and snacks.

Maybe one day, we'll be able to actually enter the Mid-Century Modern motel lobby (circa late 1940s), instead of just peering into its picture windows under the deeply pitched roof.

Maybe one day, we'll be able to stay in one of the cabins, instead of just passing through Amboy along the old alignment of Route 66 (still designated as National Trails Highway).

The first time I stopped in Amboy was in 2009, and I was there to climb the nearby volcanic crater in 100-degree weather.

But of course I was drawn to the Googie-style neon sign (circa 1959).

Ten years later, I knew there was more I hadn't seen in Amboy—so, I welcomed the opportunity to return and take a gander at what I might've missed.

Everything in Amboy is kept so incredibly stark white out there in the Mojave desert, it's sure to stand out against the blue-hued sky above and earthen-brown landscape underfoot.

Amboy has got everything you'd look for in a good desert ghost town...

...from a vintage survey marker (circa 1934)... rusted and peeling signs...

...including one most notably marking the entrance to the ghostly shell of a school.

The school finally closed for good in 1999 (though it's still part of Needles Unified School District)—but the town of Amboy found itself on death row decades before that, when the 40 Freeway bypassed Amboy in 1972, and so many other Route 66 towns like it throughout the middle of the 20th century.

Traveling east from Barstow, no one wanted to take the slow road where Route 66 splits off the 40 at Ludlow. Amboy would be a 28-mile detour from there. And it's another 45 miles east of Amboy until National Trails Highway meets back up with the 40 (a.k.a. Needles Freeway) in Fenner, south of Goffs.

So, Amboy's still got a tiny airfield that dates back to at least 1925 and is reportedly still functional...

...and the abandoned St. Raymond Church, dedicated 1951 after a one-year iteration as St. Bridget's (both Catholic).

The church—which seats 100, about 1/7 of Amboy's one-time peak population—closed for good in 1970. But as it's included part and parcel with the ownership of Amboy itself, Okura performs regular maintenance on it.


If you head south out of Amboy along Old Amboy Road, the crater will bid you adieu—but if you head east, you'll be under the watchful eyes of a pair of Chinese garden lions.


Also known as "foo dogs" (or "fu dogs"), there's one female and one male guardian lion made of marble—though it's not clear whether they're protecting the desert or visitors to the desert.

Either way, they'll scare away any evil spirits lingering around the ghost town.

They'd normally be found guarding the entrance to a temple or, say, an imperial palace—but in the Mojave, they seem to be guarding both nothing and everything.

Traveling east, the male appears first (as is the correct order in feng shui) and then the female about 1/4 mile down the way, off the road in the middle of a deserted, open space.

It's undetermined whether they come with the town of Amboy or not. But for now, Amboy isn't for sale.

Others, however, are.

Related Posts:
Alone in A Crowd, Naturally.
Photo Essay: The Ghost Town That Won't Die, And the Animals That Keep It Alive
In Search of the Mother Lode Along the Mother Road
Photo Essay: A Decaying Rest Stop For Thirsty Adventurers