By Joey Martinez
Heading north in Los Angeles, taking Route 14, shooting through Palmdale, through Lancaster, and finally through Rosamond, you’ll find yourself in the Mojave desert and its handful of unique cities.
I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and made the trip at 6:00, planning on making my first stop in California City. I found out about it a few months ago and after some research became very interested in visiting. The city was planned out by real estate developer Nat Mendelsohn in the 1960’s and was supposed to be a city large enough to rival LA. That never really came to be though. California City is still the third largest city in California, but if you go there you will see that only a small portion is developed with buildings. The rest of it is a large grid of winding suburban dirt roads, ones that you could drive through like a normal suburb.
I went to a diner there to get breakfast first and I’m not usually so hungry in the morning but I found myself ordering a pretty big meal. As I sat at my table I noticed glances from people around me. Not any harsh ones. They were to my big curly hair and flowery Hawaiian shirt. The population of California City is around 20,000 and this particular area was a bit detached from the rest, so it’s easy to determine they just knew I wasn’t from around there. The waitress confirmed it as she asked if I was new here, and also recommended that I visit a big cat sanctuary a little ways off. I found out it was closed though.
After that, it was off to the empty lots. There is a fine line that separates the paved town and the dirt suburbia that stretches as far on the ground as you can see. It was hard to distinguish what was more surreal though, driving through streets of nothing or the walk I took right in the middle of them. Throughout the trip I’d been listening to music constantly. Walking out though, I was immediately hit by the strangest silence I’d experienced. There was quite a bit of wind but that was it. The ambience was low and deep, leaving me with the thoughts of what it would be like to just live out here with nothing but roads surrounding you. I walked up in elevation enough to get a larger view of the roads surrounding me. Some say Mendehlson didn’t fail when planning and implementing California City because he made a lot of money from the buyers that purely put money in as an investment. There’s a story about him though. It says that while he lived in the area he would sometimes go up to the top of Galileo Hill, a park in California City, and envision the sprawling city he dreamed of. You can go up to that hill yourself now. Maybe you could see the same thing he did. I didn’t get the chance though. Just my luck that the entrance was gated off for the day.
I was very tired and I couldn’t even tell you now how much time I spent going through the streets, rummaging through broken dreams. So I decided to rest and read into an empty culdesac as my little farewell to the town.
It was during my time here that I tried figuring out my next stop and decided that it would be Boron, the smallest town I'd ever visited. Arriving to it from the west, I drove through a hill where I could make out the town in the distance. For some reason it gave me a sinking feeling. There was nothing around it and I found out it was only 14 square miles with around 2000 people.
There was one big grocery store, two gas stations, and just a handful of small restaurants. Everywhere I went in, I got that same look from back in the diner. If it was noticeable in California City that I wasn’t from here, I was a big, dumb alien in Boron. There was a moment in the grocery store when a group of men seemingly on break or getting off of work stopped to look at me as I went through the aisles. Again, like the diner, its just a look of seeing something not from around here. Surreal stuff to me, but I get it.
After Boron I drove around for a while, collecting thoughts, figuring what I should do next. Then, I decided to head to Red Rock. I’ve heard about it a few times and I found a dirt road leading to campsites to drive through. Joshua trees and rocks collared red to yellow were hugging the sides and the sky had gotten rid of the few small clouds. I was too caught up in it to notice that the road narrowed and the dirt became more akin to gravel and sand. Several dips and small rocks made it impossible to drive my low Malibu faster than five miles per hour without running the risk of scraping my bumper. My phone was dying as well so I had to give up the aux for my charger. There also wasn’t a single comprehensible radio wave. So I rolled down my window and decided that it would be time to get comfy again with my good friend's silence, prompting me to gather my thoughts on the trip so far.
Why am I here? The question had been stirring in my mind yet suppressing itself equally. California City was exciting for me but made me think about how tragic it is for such a successful man to have not been successful enough for the sake of his dream. He wanted a legacy, something the world could hold onto that was his when he was gone. Before this I hadn’t even thought of the idea that I could have a successful career yet never do what it is I truly wanted. I began to think of Boron too and how it adds to the idea. I saw a good number of people there that seemed so content working off of each other as a community. Am I doing something wrong by trying to make it in the city? How far should I take this writing stuff before I realize that I should just go somewhere smaller and live contently like that?
However, aside from the interesting prospect of being amongst a field of one man’s dead dream in California City or going to the smallest town I've ever been to, Boron, I have a special spot in my heart for the desert. It stems from a trip I took once with my dad when I was about six or seven. I don’t remember where we were going or why. I only remember the trip. Back then I was a much quieter kid. Quiet enough that I could go on a whole car ride without saying much. A lot of my family really got on me for being quiet, but not my dad. We mostly talked only to point out things we saw to each other. In between those moments, 70’s to 90’s rock played on the radio, getting me into my favorite genre of music, and inspiring my soundtrack for this ride. He isn’t around anymore, so maybe that’s what I’m afraid of. Losing the memory I mean.
I think it’s time to go back.
Deciding I’d make my way back down from the desert a different way, I made it down to Santa Clarita, back in the city, immediately hating it. We all know parts of Cali where the existence of you seems to matter a whole lot to strangers who won’t ever have to even talk to you. I’ve never been particularly discriminated against, at least I don’t think so, but every so often I get a look that was abundant in Santa Clarita. They aren’t looks of acknowledgement like back in the desert. No, these were looks that I’ve gotten quite often from people of higher privilege than I. They try to figure me out, my race, and whether or not they should be concerned about the guy who just got in line for chicken. Most people catch on in some way that I’m Mexican but it is the ones that spend a concerning amount of time amongst people just like themselves that get iffy about a guy like me. You could say they're actually looking at something else, my shoes, my hair, maybe there's a hole in my shirt, but I know when someone is looking at my face.
And with the gentle reminder of the city, I can’t tell whether I came back the same or worse. Definitely not better. As I talked with my friends about the trip I was making, they’d mention “finding enlightenment.” Even partly joking about it when I came back, asking me if I had. It was never about that though. It was originally California City and wanting to see a large concept dream fail in physical form. That’s what intrigued me. But that, combined with Boron, the drive, the silence, has only filled me with fear.