April 30, 2019

Where the Dead Neon of Vegas Gets Resurrected

Some might call the Neon Museum's "Boneyard" a place where neon goes to die.

And maybe that was true in its early days, when it really was just a dusty ol' graveyard and none of the signs had been restored or relit.

But now, The Neon Museum has added yet another way to bring these salvaged signs to life even more—"Brilliant," a 360-degree show of video projected onto the darkened signs, set to music.

The projections are so precisely mapped that you might think the bulbs and neon tubing have magically come back to life—or that the Terrible's mascot is actually signing Elton John and Johnny Cash.

And it takes place in the museum's Neon Boneyard North Gallery—yet another exhibition space for rescued signage, containing pieces I don't think I'd ever seen before in the main boneyard or on Fremont Street.

"Brilliant" is a kind of celebration of Vegas's spectacular history—featuring music and video clips from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. to Elvis and even more contemporary performers.

It's a nice break from the facts and figures of the docent-led tour through the main boneyard. It feels like a less academic way to get people to care about preserving the legacy of these places—at least, through their signs.

The North Gallery even features a dark little side area with even more signs piled up...

...reminiscent of those early days of The Neon Museum...

...before all the special lighting and proper walkways were installed.

It's nice to know that none of these signs will really go to waste—that someone will find some way to bring them back to life at some point.

Watch the promotional video for "Brilliant "in the player above.

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James Turrell's Akhob: The Hottest Ticket In Vegas Since 2013

The most elusive attraction for me in Vegas... least since 2013...

...hasn't been the hottest show, festival, or residency.

The ticket I haven't been able to get—until now—has been to see James Turrell's "Akhob" installation in the Louis Vuitton store at the Aria Resort and Casino's Crystal Shops.

It's always booked months in advance, and I rarely plan that far ahead—except this time, when I was able to reserve two free spots for it back in February, for my April visit.

It was in 2013 that the Aria had commissioned Turrell's "Shards of Color" installation to complement the shopping center's unique design by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects...

...and the Louis Vuitton brand continued the artistic partnership it first formed with Turrell in 2007 with the latest addition, "Akhob."

You can see "Shards of Color" at Crystals at City Center anytime, without an appointment, and for free—as long as you know to look for it there.

Akhob is a different matter—tucked away inside the Louis Vuitton store, where you have to check in on the ground level and wait for a hostess to come check you in precisely at your start time.

She then escorts the group to the elevator which ascends to an anonymous level where you are ushered through an anonymous door and told to sit on either side of the room, wherever you're comfortable. There are two more women behind a desk, in front of a dark wall branded "LOUIS VUITTON," dimly lit and standing at attention, perhaps overly formal.

Photo: Florian Holzherr (via

They distribute clipboards, as there's a release and waiver for each attendee to sign. If I'd bothered to read it, I'm sure it would've warned me about epileptic fits or trip hazards and the lack of railings on the staircase leading up to the two rooms bathed in colored light.

Photo: Florian Holzherr (via

The white-painted rooms easily scuff and stain, so changing into booties is a prerequisite for entering the space and taking in the light show.

One staffer was positioned at what we were told was a "drop-off," though it looked like a flat wall. We spent a lot of time considering whether it really did drop off, or if this was just another way that Turrell was messing with our perception.

The three other people in our group faced forward pretty much the whole time, watching that wall—or vacuous space—for something to happen, ignoring the two levels of changing colors behind them.

In typical fashion, I wandered around and tried to take it all in.

I wanted to lie down, but that was against the rules.

Leaning against the curved, egg-shaped walls was a no-no, too.

With no photos allowed, I had only my mind and the insides of my eyeballs to keep me focused.

But I didn't find the experience too startling, as I might have if it were my first foray into James Turrell's work. After all, "Akhob" is one of Turrell's "Ganzfeld" installations (which refer to the German word used to describe "the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception, as in the experience of a white-out).

And I'd already explored another Ganzfeld of Turrell's, "Breathing Light," when it was part of the huge Turrell takeover of LACMA in 2013 (also the year I first discovered James Turrell, having toured the Sheats-Goldstein House at night and been given a glimpse into its Skyspace).

It's hard to know how long you're in there—cell phones are forbidden, too, and it's been a decade or more since I've worn a watch.

But the entire experience took about a half hour, when another group was waiting right behind us to follow suit.

What do you do after an experience like that? I certainly didn't want to shop.

As my Vegas trip was almost over—and it was almost time to drive back—all we could do was shake it off and grab a quick lunch, as though nothing had happened.

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April 29, 2019

Photo Essay: Riding the Rails On a Model Scale in Orange County

In Costa Mesa, California, visitors to Fairview Park on the third weekend of the month can be treated to free rides on a tiny train, courtesy of a local group of model railroaders.

Originally formed in 1977 as Orange County Live Steamers, they've been known as the Orange County Model Engineers since 1985.

They operate the Mackerel Flats and Goat Hill Junction Railroad...

...where a 1/8th scale model railroad has been running since 1989 (though additions and modifications continued through 2003).

All the railroad's rolling stock—six engines and over 45 bench cars—have been built (from kits) and are owned by volunteer OCME members.

Railroad enthusiasts of all ages are welcome to join the non-profit club to ride the rails on their coal-powered live steamers, diesel, and electric models.

Impressively, there are over 5 miles of 7 1/2" gauge track across 40 acres of the park...

...with the first go-round passing under the 93-foot Hank Hornsveld Trestle (dedicated 1991)...

...through the pines...

...and past native and invasive grasses and mustard blooms.

The train then takes you back past the station, without stopping...

...and then over the trestle you'd already passed under.

All in all, you end up circling the Higgins and Matassa loops and Russ' Horseshoe, swinging past a maintenance yard (with turntable!), and crossing bike paths populated by curious onlookers.

Between the North and South Loops and the Mountain Division, it's a surprisingly long (about 12 to 15 minutes!) ride—mostly remote and relaxing, with wide open spaces and nothing but the chugga-chugga-chugga at 7 mph.

Apparently "Goat Hill" was the nickname Newport kids gave to Costa Mesa in the 1930s when the land was used for goat dairy farms. Insulted, the Costa Mesan kids fired back with their own nickname for Newport Beach and its neighboring fishing village at Balboa Island: "Mackerel Flats."

The OCME have leased the property that houses the Mackerel Flats and Goat Hill Junction Railroad from the City of Costa Mesa through 2033, with the opportunity to renew for two additional five-year periods.

Long may those trains run...

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April 24, 2019

A Shot Into Another Dimension

I'll never forget the day I got my second measles vaccine.

The details leading up to it, though, are a little fuzzy.

As I recall, my older sister, a senior in high school, had gotten accepted to Colgate University—a higher educational institution that required certain inoculations for incoming students.

Hep B was one of them—and we all laughed, because my sister was nowhere near becoming sexually active.

Just 15 months younger, nor was I.

But we still got all three doses.

Another one was MMR—measles, mumps, and rubella.

And my parents figured if they had to take my sister into the doctor's office for shots, they might as well get me vaccinated, too. (A good plan, as it turns out, since I followed my sister to Colgate the following academic year.)

I'd never even heard of rubella at that point—but I was pretty sure I didn't want to get it.

Besides, at (probably) 16 years old, I didn't really have any choice in the matter.

I was always a sick kid, so I didn't really welcome going to see the doctor when everything was fine. I didn't want to get caught in the fallout of the other germ-bomb kids in the waiting room.

Besides, I was a teenager who, by then, had already seen a gynecologist for some female plumbing issues. It felt really strange to still be seeing a "kiddie doctor."

But I obeyed. Because that's what I did as a kid. I had to pick my battles.

My sister—usually the sensitive one—seemed fine after her shot, though she complained of some arm pain. I'd already experienced that with a tetanus shot, so I wasn't too worried.

I never did great with needles, but I was used to that.

When I got the MMR vaccine injected into my arm, it didn't feel like any of the other shots I'd ever had. I didn't really know what was happening, but my arm didn't feel like my own anymore.

And yet, I could still feel it. In fact, I felt it more than I ever had before.

My sister and I ended up in the waiting room together, alone. I don't remember whether our mother was talking to the doctor or providing insurance at the check-in counter or what.

My sister was standing next to me, I on a couch.

I didn't feel so good.

I'd had a history of fainting and convulsions. And I knew something bad was about to happen.

I remember uncontrollably slumping forward and to the side, into my sister's middle.

And then I remember the shaking.

In my unconscious state, I likened it to being on a bus. And I figured I was going somewhere. To be honest, I thought I was dead and must be taking the bus to heaven.

I didn't see a "white light," but I was happy. At peace.

And then I got sucked back into reality, just like you see in the movies. Like someone vacuumed me out of my path to Paradise.

I was on the floor. And I began to sob.

I was muttering something about being on a bus and going somewhere, but nobody heard me amidst the hubbub of a fainting patient.

Apparently, after I'd slumped into my sister, she jumped back and I landed on the floor.

Typical behavior for my sister.

I felt devastated. Here I was, back to where I was—going nowhere.

Certainly not heaven.

And in reality, at that point in my life, I was living in hell.

My arm felt weird for a while after that, but there were no long-term adverse effects from the shot.

It wasn't the first time I'd had an out-of-body experience, either.

I'd seen myself from the vantage point of the ceiling two other times when I'd passed out—once in the bathroom while my mother was changing the dressing on a deep cut on my arm (what a neurologist later diagnosed as vasovagal syncope), and once in church when I'd collapsed in an episode of blood pooling or boredom or religious rapture.

Who knows?

It wasn't new to me. But I couldn't figure out why God kept teasing me—taking me away a little bit and then sending me back.

Of course, now as an adult, I don't believe in heaven. I don't think there's any bus I could catch to get me there.

But I do hope that I never have to get another one.

The CDC says that two doses of the MMR vaccine are 97% effective. My immunization record shows I received the live measles vaccine when I was just over a year old, followed by the MMR in 1992.

I should be good.

I shouldn't have to worry about the current measles cases in LA (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Peace of mind is priceless.

But I can't stop wondering about those losses of consciousness I had as a child—those otherworldly transports that shook me to my core and made me rue the day I was ever born.

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April 23, 2019

Paying My Own Way

Photo: Fort MacArthur Battery Osgood-Farley, circa 2018

I don't actually consider myself so much a reporter or journalist—mostly because I rarely take assignments.

Most of the places I visit don't know ahead of time that I'll be writing about them. Sometimes I don't even know if any given place will make it to my blog.

It depends on whether I have something to say about it after I go.

I'm primarily a writer. So although many of my posts are photo essays, having pretty photos isn't enough to warrant an entire post. I've got to feel inspired.

And that means I rarely have to worry about fulfilling any promises or meeting any expectations.

I just go do what I want to do—and if it's thought-provoking or fits into the overall narrative of Avoiding Regret, I write about it.

Most often, I don't get comped. I buy my tickets like anybody else. I'm not special.

I like the anonymity of it. It feels like the only way to accurately portray an experience with integrity.

If you're a food critic like Jonathan Gold was, you don't tell the restaurant when you're coming. You hope they don't know what you look like. You try to eat the exact same meal that all the other patrons eat.

Sure, I end up spending a lot of my own money on trips and museum admissions and bus tours and house tours and train rides and such—ones that maybe I could get gratis. Instead, if I'm lucky, I can deduct a fraction of them on my taxes. And if I'm really lucky, I can write about them later and make a little freelance money off the article.

But I always do first and write later.

Sometimes I think I'll probably write about a place—and then I make a visit or take a tour and come up empty. That's why I haven't written about the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown LA. Or the Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles. Pasadena's Bungalow Heaven. Farm Sanctuary. Malibu Temple. The Robinson Helicopters factory. The Tuna Club on Catalina Island.

All these places I've been. All these photos I've filed away. But the words haven't come.

At least, not yet.

Sometimes they do later—and then I'm playing catch-up.

Sometimes it happens when a place is about to close or be demolished. Sometimes it's when somebody dies.

I can't predict it. I just obey the inspiration.

When I must write is when I write.

At least that way, I can keep it on my terms.

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April 22, 2019

Photo Essay: The Past Lives of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Located in the Colorado Desert portion of San Diego’s East County—between the Cleveland National Forest and the Salton Sea—lies California's largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Most people just go for the superbloom to look at wildflowers and flowering cacti...

...and miss out on all there is to learn about the history of human (and animal) use of the canyons, dry lakes, valleys, and badlands of the area.

Occasional public tours of the Begole Archaeological Research Center reveal the secret lives of Anza-Borrego's first inhabitants, the Kumeyaay... they gathered food...

...and prepared it using groundstones (a.k.a. metate, or mortar)...

...and other tools (e.g. mano, or pestle).

More recent human use of the land is now part of the archaeological record, too, from soldiers stationed nearby during World War II... miners looking for a form of calcium carbonate, calcite, which was used in the Norden bombsight technology to improve bomb-dropping accuracy in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Traces of the more common lifestyle of the 20th century everyman can be found in the Begole Archaeology Library, which is open to the public on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

In addition to occasional talks, this non-circulating library also displays rotating exhibits...

...the current one focusing on the Butterfield stagecoach line that ran through Warner Springs and the Carrizo Corridor (now Ocotillo) along the Southern Emigrant Trail.

In The Stout Research Center Laboratory and Paleontology Collection Hall, however, the focus is on non-human animals. 

From modern-day reassembled skeletons of a local mountain lion (Puma concolor) from the early 2000s...

...and a Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)... examples of the fauna of days gone by, like the fossil cast of a Harlan's giant ground sloth, Paramylodon harlani)...

...and plenty of skulls with jaws of varying sizes... can explore a fraction of what comprises the longest continuous fossil record in North America.

In addition to the ancient and extinct saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis, the California state fossil)...

...there's also the short-faced bear (Arctodus), camels, mammoths, horses and the biggest tortoise you’ve ever seen (Hesperotestudo, a giant relative of the desert tortoise from the Pleistocene).

Their traces have been discovered and catalogued, whether an actual bone (or, say, tooth)...

...or a preserved footprint in prehistoric mud (like that of the large-headed llama, Lamaichnum borregoensis).

In some ways, it feels as though their work has just begun.

A current excavation work in progress is of a mammoth, for which researchers perform precision fossil cleaning with the help of tabletop micro-sandblasters, a dry process also known as "pencil blasting."

Because Anza-Borrego remains undeveloped—and even many of the roads and trails are considered backcountry—new discoveries are coming to light all the time.

And selfishly, I'm glad that most people don't consider the park a major destination outside of the spring wildflower season. Despite its enormous size, Anza-Borrego still feels like a well-kept secret.

I'd kind of like to keep it that way. I'd kind of like to keep it all to myself.

But I'm not very good at keeping secrets.

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