Expedition to the Geoglyphs of Nowhere

BLDGBLOG and Atlas Obscura have teamed up to lead an outing into the deserts of southern California on Saturday, March 20: an afternoon-long photographic expedition through the dusty grids of unpaved streets on the northeastern fringe of California City.

To quote from an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG:

In the desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles is a suburb abandoned in advance of itself—the unfinished extension of a place called California City. Visible from above now are a series of badly paved streets carved into the dust and gravel, like some peculiarly American response to the Nazca Lines (or even the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral). Bill & Ted meet Cerne Abbas Man.

The uninhabited street plan has become an abstract geoglyph—unintentional land art visible from airplanes—not a thriving community at all.

Take a look.

On Google Street View, distant structures like McMansions can be made out here and there amidst the ghost-grid, mirages of suburbia in the middle of nowhere. Meaningless STOP signs stand guard over dead intersections.

And it’s a weird geography: two of the most prominent nearby landmarks include a prison and an automobile test-driving facility run by Honda. There is also a visually spectacular boron mine to the southeast—it’s the largest open-pit mine in California, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation—and an Air Force base.

To make things more surreal, in an attempt to boost its economic fortunes, California City hired actor Erik Estrada, of CHiPs fame, to act as the town’s media spokesperson.

The history of the town itself is of a failed Californian utopia—in fact, incredibly, if completed, it was intended to rival Los Angeles. From the city’s Wikipedia entry:

California City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California’s next great city. He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26-acre (11 ha) artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, scarring vast stretches of the Mojave desert, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. A single look at satellite photos shows the extent of the scarred desert and how it stakes its claim to being California’s 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated in 1965.

California City is now the site of a proposed mega-farm for solar energy harvesting, as well as for a bizarre plan to build the so-called Cannabis City of the Future.

Sign up to join us over at the Obscura Day site.

Note, however, that this is not a guided tour; it is simply an organized simultaneity of people all going out to investigate these streets en masse. Armed with cameras, microphones, sketchbooks, GPS devices, quickly scrawled notes for future blog posts, and more, we’ll be exploring the site at our own pace, perhaps even miles apart at various times. This is not a guided tour with an expert on the area.

As such, all questions of transportation (including tires suitable for travel over unsealed dirt roads); adequate food, fuel, and water; personal safety (including protection from sprained ankles and snakes); and navigation are up to individual participants.

We will meet at 1pm on Saturday, March 20, 2010, in the parking lot of Rite Aid in California City: 9482 California City Boulevard, California City, CA 93505. There will be a very brief group introduction there—and you can run inside to buy Cokes or whatever—before we set off to document the uninhabited streets outside town. Let’s photograph, film, blog, Lomo, Twitter, and audio-record the crap out of this place! I’ve started a Flickr group, which will be opened up soon. If you arrive late, simply head out Randsburg Mojave Road, onto 20 Mule Team Parkway, and look for the cars; our eventual cluster of destinations is approximately 15 minutes’ drive northeast of town.

And, in the unlikely event of torrential rains, I will post travel updates here on BLDGBLOG.

Meanwhile, the incomparable Atlas Obscura has a whole slew of amazing trips planned for March 20, all over the world, all part of their first annual “Obscura Day.” Definitely check out that list for sites closer to you, if you’re not in southern California.

(California City was originally pointed out to me by David Donald, and it was written up by The Vigorous North last year. The “cannabis city” and solar farm links come courtesy of Alexis Madrigal. All images in this post via Google Maps and Google Street View).

10 thoughts on “Expedition to the Geoglyphs of Nowhere”

  1. Your post on CA's "ghost town" got me into this blog, and you've now piqued a (slight) interest in architecture for me. That said, the sort of thing like atlasobscura is the reason I keep reading; it's one of the coolest blogs I've stumbled across. My wife and I love travel and she even won the Urban Dare challenge in DC with a friend this last year…so she's loving it, too. Seriously, keep up the good work.

  2. My brother works at Edwards Air Force Base, so I emailed to ask if he'd been there. This was his response! So cool!!!

    Ha been there? We run simulated military missions out there! I practically have the place memorized because of all the time I've spent driving around. Because it's laid out like a city, it's desert, and there aren't people, it's perfect for training like Iraq etc. We can do airstrike talk ons and such and fake bomb runs without bothering folks. It's great! Anyway, ya I know a little about the platting out of the town. We've heard the Hienz brothers (like the Ketchup) bought the land and did it, hoping it would end up like Vegas. The town is actually quite horrible and ghetto.

    1. Huh. Yes, the Air Force does use some of the streets on the outskirts (many of which go beyond the city) as markers for test and training runs. Makes for great plane viewing.

      That aside, over 14,000 people live in California City, there are 15 restaurants, a very nice Best Western Hotel, four schools, and airport, a huge park with a 22 acre lake, two golf courses, a pro/indie baseball team, grocery stores, auto parts stores, auto repair, pharmacies and medical, two dentists and a city filled with military retirees, active duty military, and those employed in the space, science, mining, security, or education fields that require anything from a PhD to high school education.

      The Hienz brothers never had anything to do with this city. Instead, Nat Mendelsohn and his development company and then later Great West, which went bankrupt in the early 80s due to over investment in the silver market that went bust were responsible for the build up and support of the city infrastructure.

      I notice the reply above refers to “ghetto.” In 2010 pretty much all of Southern California have that flavor due to the housing bubble bursting. Thankfully California City’s crime at the time was not as bad as in communities to the south.

      What is missed entirely is the diverse and abundant nature in this desert or the fact that the city is the closest full service community to the amazing Red Rock Canyon State Park just 20 min to the north.
      For more information about the city and area: https://www.californiacitychamber.com

    1. It has actually drastically changed since then. Please see reply farther up. Keep in mind that the area of the city is 204 sq mi. If you go to the center of the city, where California City Blvd. takes you, you will find a full service city of over 14,000. This are includes all I mention above along with world class birding, amazing and accessible wildflower viewing in the spring, and the north American Hyundai/Kia Test track. Just to the north of the city is the North American Honda test track.
      See this link for more information: https://www.californiacitychamber.com

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