Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Spending the Holidays In My Car

 So this is Christmas. 2020 style. 

There are far worse ways of spending it than from behind the wheel of my car. 
I was delighted to return to the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura, California to drive through its "Holidays In Your Car" light display. 

It was surprisingly unique...

...affording me the opportunity to motor my way through a laser light show for the first time ever. 

And then I wondered why there aren't more lasers that can be driven through? All year long?

But I guess it's the same reason we don't keep our Christmas lights up all year long. 

We need some darkness to appreciate the light. 

As dark as the world is right now, though... 2020 holidays won't be dark. 

Not if I can keep driving through the lights. 

Not if I can slow down—or even stop a little—to admire the colors, the seasonal twinkles, the whimsical figures. 

Some might appear to be clear...

...and some might be just a blur. 

I might not be able to see it all...

...and sometimes I might lose the path. 

But if I keep following the lights...

...I'll find my way. 

I hadn't managed to muster up any holiday spirit before this Sunday's trek to Ventura...

...but there was something about the small-town spirit of driving through a light display at the county fairgrounds that did the trick. 

Now I'm ready to embrace the season—whatever it has to offer—after a year of so much darkness. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Six Flags Magic Mountain Lights Up the Holidays With a Rare Drive-Thru Attraction

Drive-thru holiday light displays aren't new in 2020. Lights on the Lake outside my hometown of Syracuse, New York has been running for over 30 years (though I didn't actually ride through it until 2008). 

But with the coronavirus pandemic, we've never needed this type of Christmastime entertainment more. 
I'd never experienced the "Holiday in the Park" attraction at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, just about 25 miles north of where I live in LA, though I'd visited both Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm during the holiday season before. 

In fact, I'd only been to this Six Flags once, in July 2011—though I've tried to go other times and even had a ticket once that I'd had to bail on. 

I figured a holiday lights drive-thru would be the next best thing to actually going to Six Flags, since it's been closed for COVID-19 during this whole pandemic. 
But actually, it just whet my appetite to go back. 

In between the light displays—as I was driving through the shadowy paths of the park, literally under rollercoaster loop-de-loops—I started spotting remnants of the old version of the "Magic Mountain" amusement park, predating the Six Flags takeover in 1979.

I'd always wondered if there were any traces of mountain magic—gnomes or fairies or trolls or wizards what-have-you—leftover from those days before the characters were phased out in 1985. Maybe they were squirreled away somewhere between the overlay of Marvel Universe characters that tries to compete with the movie-centric environments of Disneyland or Universal Studios

In fact, a couple of years ago I posed that very question to a local journalist/historian who I thought would surely know—and the response I got was something like, "I'm pretty sure they got rid of all that."

But in the dark of night last night, from behind the wheel of my car, I could see the truth—that there were some magical elements that had survived the Six Flags transformation! 

I tried my best to remember where they were as I drive by at 3 mph, so I could go back and explore them during daylight (whenever that'll be possible to do safely). 

I wanted to ask Santa and Mrs. Claus, the Nutcrackers, the wooden toy soldiers, anyone there if they knew what else there was to see of Magic Mountain's "former" life...

...but they were too busy greeting the visitors, banging their drums, and dancing for the guests. 

And the whole time, there was a car right behind me, surely wondering why I was going so slowly and veering to one side of the paved road or the other, sometimes stopping altogether to get a photo or commit the scene to memory. 

A little bit of research, though, has revealed plenty of original stuff to see—from the Gold Rusher rollercoaster to the Golden Bear Theatre (which opened in 1971 as the Showcase Theater), both dating back to Magic Mountain's days as a "western"-themed park. 

And in fact it turns out I missed riding the original ride the Log Jammer, a log flume that was still in operation during my 2011 visit (but was taken out of commission shortly thereafter). I wish I'd known.

But it's not too late for me to document these leftovers, these traces that are merely a memory for some—and for others, entirely forgotten. 

I know what I need to do now. 

I just need to wait for the park—and its rides—to reopen during the day. 

In the meantime, I'm grateful. It took a pandemic to be able to drive under the rollercoasters at Six Flags—and for me to visit its holiday attraction, which it's hosted since 2014. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Photo Essay: The Abandoned Project to Save Angelenos from Nuclear Fallout (a.k.a. "Tunnels to Nowhere")

A few years ago, a friend posted about a hike he called the "Tunnels to Nowhere"—and I knew immediately that I had to go. 

But there's a limited season for visiting this particular area—when it's not too hot and sun exposed, and not too wet and wintry. 

And of course most of my weekends have been filled with other activities, save for the last 8 months of the pandemic

That being said, I can't remember the last time I went on a proper hike.

I'd gotten it in my head, though, to spend a pandemic weekend with a friend off the beaten path in search of abandoned tunnels along what some people call the "Road to Nowhere." I'd calculated it at around 5 miles roundtrip and 750 elevation change. 

That would've been absolutely doable for the 2010 version of me. The 2020 version of me? Not so much. 

Spoiler alert: I survived the hike. I even completed the whole thing. But not without crying. 

Still, in the end, despite my tears and blisters and bloody socks and embarrassment, it was worth it. 

The drive to the trailhead follows the same route as to the Bridge to Nowhere trailhead—following State Route 39 a.k.a. San Gabriel Canyon Road north and turning onto East Fork Road, so named for the eastern fork of the San Gabriel River.

But instead of continuing down East Fork, past retaining walls and drainage channels...

...we turned off to tackle the hairpin curves along Shoemaker Canyon Road, named after miner Alonzo Shoemaker, who prospected the canyon during the mid-1800s. 

The sign at the juncture warns that Shoemaker Canyon Road is "Not a Through Street"—and true to its word, we hit a locked gate where the pavement ended and parked our cars in the dirt turnout. 

This area of the San Gabriel Mountains is part of what was designated in 1984 as wilderness area to preserve bighorn sheep—the Sheep Mountain Wilderness area. 

But before conservationists got ahold of it, the Los Angeles County road division set its sights on it for an entirely different purpose. 

They were going to blast through the middle of nowhere to create an evacuation route that connected LA with Largo Vista in the Antelope Valley

It was during the height of the U.S. Cold War effort to prepare in case of a nuclear bomb attack—which might explain why Shoemaker Canyon Road is sometimes called "Armageddon Highway." 

Work on the civil defense project, which was supposed to extend for 25 miles, started in 1956. But by the time construction officially stopped in 1969, only about 4 miles of it had been finished.

Creating all those road cuts through solid rock proved to be too expensive after county budget cuts—and because much of the work on this dangerous terrain was being done by unskilled inmates from the county sheriff's Detention Camp 14, progress was slow-going. 

Over the course of its 16 years of construction, the Department of Corrections' involvement in Shoemaker Canyon Road earned it the nickname "Convict Road." 

In the end, what probably doomed the project was how the interest in civil defense programs (like fallout shelters and such) waned during the Nixon administration—though it would be another 20 years before the "official" end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin wall. 

There were two tunnels completed between 1956 and 1969...

...the first as early as 1961. 

Both tunnels are similar in construction...

...including interlocking steel beams and raw, blasted-through rock...

...although the first one is longer than the second. 

Taggers have made their mark on both abandoned tunnels, as taggers do. 

The path to the second tunnel was never bridged... to get to it, we had to trudge along a horseshoe-shaped curve on foot. 

This later tunnel, circa 1964, marks the end of the hike...

...but of course we couldn't turn around before walking through to the very end. 

The second tunnel appears to be more unfinished than its predecessor, with rebar holding in some exposed piles of rocks and cinder blocks. 

It was cool and breezy in those tunnels—not dark enough for a flashlight or headlamp, but sheltered enough to make us feel like we were underground, though we could see daylight at both ends. 

The completionist in me was relieved to see everything there was to see, especially considering I hadn't been sure I could even make it to the first tunnel. 

But as soon as we hit the wilderness on the other side, where the road just kind of ends unceremoniously, I knew we still had to double-back and retrace our steps back to our cars. 

It was discouraging to have such a hard time on what would be widely considered a relatively easy hike. But if I never hike again, I'm glad that this will have been my last.