December 1, 2015
For one week last October this Wagon Station was my home and base camp for a series of exhibition expeditions in and around California’s high desert. Inspired by the remoteness of the The Encampment and its odd proximity to the third largest city in North America, I decided to plan a bike tour starting in downtown Los Angeles that would take me to various sites in Angeles National Forest and the Mojave Desert to explore the relationships between urban and rural spaces.
The Wagon Station Encampment at AZ West is part of Andrea Zittel’s Institute of Investigative Living and is located just outside Joshua Tree National Park. It is a place of research and respite for artists, writers, thinkers, and hikers interested in the landscape and cultural environs of the high desert. AZ West is also part of a larger network of art installations and projects peppered throughout the Mojave called High Desert Test Sites, a nod to the government's use of desert landscapes for testing purposes.
Despite growing up in southern California I haven’t spent much time there as an adult and came to the conclusion that visiting AZ West was the perfect excuse to plan a bicycle tour that would connect with other points of interest in the area. After binge reading several books by Lucy Lippard and consulting an old friend who specialized in post-war art in LA, I compiled a list of sites in and around the high desert that included everything from research facilities and observatories to abandoned bridges and artworks hidden among the scrub.
Now that I had my waypoints I needed a route. Luckily, a few months back I’d caught a post on The Radivist about a Swift Campout up on Mt. Lowe, hosted by Frontage Roads and Golden Saddle Cyclery, so I decided to drop them a line. Kyle and I bounced around a few ideas and I finally decided on a route that would link The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Culver City to their Desert Research Station in the Mojave Desert, using as many trails and frontage roads as possible before heading South to Joshua Tree. The route took me straight up into the mountains, down to the San Gabriel river, and back up over Baldy Notch and into the high desert along Bicycle Route 66 with stopovers at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, Bridge to Nowhere, the Integratron, and the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum — among others.
I spent the first weekend tooling around LA before heading out to the mountains, but not before grabbing a cup of coffee with Richard Wheeler — the artist in residence at Angeles National Forest. I’d heard about Richard through a program hosted by the Machine Project on Algorithmic Hiking and Landscape Photography and his work really resonated with me. We talked about visual taxonomies in nature and the aesthetics of expectation until sure enough, it was time to go. I looked up from my coffee cup to find Christy standing patiently decked out in a cat-face cycling kit. We had met the night before through a mutual friend and she decided to ride with me up the Mt. Lowe Railway trail to the Mt. Wilson Observatory — on a road bike. Fortunately, my new friend was familiar with the area and got us through the thick of the city to Chaney Trail in no time at all. From there it would be a slow grind up the Mt. Lowe Railway trail to the observatory.
Established in the early 1900s The Mt. Wilson Observatory was home to some of the most advanced astronomical equipment of the time and the site of many early discoveries by astronomers Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble. The facility incited a public sense of cosmic curiosity around our place in the universe. I remember going to the Griffith Park Observatory as a kid and didn't hear about Mt. Wilson till grad school on a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT). The exhibit at the MJT, and it’s corresponding publication, No One May Ever Have This Knowledge Again' -- 'Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory, 1915-1935' consists of letters to early astronomers at Mt. Wilson, written by a curious public wanting to participate in these early discoveries by sharing their own eccentric philosophies and pseudo-scientific theories of the cosmos.
After riding up into the clouds, Christy and I high fived atop Mt. Wilson before going our separate ways. I spent the next few hours dorking out around the Observatory before heading out to Angeles Crest Highway to find somewhere to throw down and sleep. I woke up the next morning at 6am to the sounds of traffic helicopters and coyotes howling, packed up my gear, and continued east on Highway 2. I was hoping to make it to Sheepshead Wilderness in enough time to hike out to the Bridge to Nowhere before it got too dark. Had I bypassed the detour to Crystal Lake, I'd have probably made it to the trailhead before 4pm — but I needed water. After bombing down 39, I arrived at the trailhead, locked up my gear, and began the hike in.
Three river crossings in I came across a curious group of prospectors from the nearby city of Temecula. An hour later, I was thoroughly versed in the history of the California gold rush and current prospecting concerns, but no closer to the bridge. Sometimes you have to give up the ghost and go with it. I offered to help them carry their gear back to the trailhead and went to bed as soon as the sun set in preparation for the next morning's rise and grind up to Mt Baldy.
The early morning climb from San Gabriel River up to Glendora Ridge Road was crisp and slow. This road, like many other paved sections of the route, was very popular among local cyclists for obvious reasons. However, company became increasingly sparse as I continued upward and soon enough my road companions were no longer cyclists, but hikers and Sierra Club enthusiasts. The access road up to Baldy Notch is beautiful, but relentless, and took longer than I had expected.
At the top I was rewarded with exceptional views and the sinking realization that I wasn’t going to make it as far as I had expected that day. Standing atop the notch you get a unique perspective of California’s strident geography and can look out over the forest and the desert at the same time. Heading down the jeep track toward Cajon Pass, I could feel the heat of the desert creep up into the the sub-alpine cold and felt refreshed. After riding downhill through a bouldery wash, I was five flats deep into my evening and decided to throw down in an old hunting camp near Coldwater Canyon.
The next morning would bring more of the same and soon I was ankle deep in sand and goat heads —fresh out of patches and tubes. I continued on to Victorville, stopping every 2 to 3 miles to add air to my tires. After being laughed out of several “bike shops," (read: ATV & Motorcycle shops listed as bike shops on google), I called in a favor from someone I’d met through a facebook group for touring cyclists. Anita met me in the parking lot of a suburban Walmart with desert proof tubes and saved the day.
I’d catch up with Anita the next day on my way through Apple Valley en route to the Integratron, but before that I had a quick detour to make up Route 66. After another long day, I arrived at CLUI’s Desert Research Station around 8 p.m., punched in the access code to the public exhibition space and promptly fell asleep on a bench while reading about Experimental Aircraft Crash Sites of the Mojave — not out of boredom but pure exhaustion.
The Desert Research Station (DRS) is a satellite location of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a research and educational organization based in Los Angeles "dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation's lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived." The DRS is also part of CLUI’s American Land Museum which consists of a series of satellite locations all across the United States that highlight the center’s focus on "the manmade landscape as a cultural inscription, that can be read to better understand who we are, and what we are doing." I spent the next morning exploring the exhibits and self-guided walking tour before heading back south on route 66. I would have liked to have spent more time visiting their auxiliary sites around the Mohave hinterland, but I suppose it just gives me an excuse to go back. Next stop, the Integratron.
The Integratron was designed by ufologist and contactee George Van Tassel who claimed the building and its site were capable of rejuvenation, anti-gravity, and time travel. He supposedly built the structure following instructions provided by visitors from the planet Venus in the late 1950's. As luck would have it, the timing worked out for me to participate in their Sonic Geometry Sleepover — an experience that was just as bizarre and intriguing as it sounds. Following a guided tour of Giant Rock, participants gathered for a potluck and lecture series on sonic geometry before experiencing a series of Sound Baths inside the space. Falling asleep in the upper dome of a supposed space/time machine to crystal tones was ... unique. I awoke the next morning at dawn and watched the sunrise over the desert before heading south to check out the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum.
When I arrived at the site I was startled to see the gaps in the sprawling acreage where they had removed large works of art to show as part of the Junk Dada exhibition at LACMA, which I had visited earlier in the week. I was excited to see Purifoy's work celebrated by contemporary institutions, like LACMA, but found the displacement a little anachronistic. Purifoy was a highly influential artist, educator, and advocate for social justice and it seemed odd to relocate work from a free public outdoor institution and put it in museum that charges visitors $15 to visit. I appreciate the value of organizing and contextualizing such a large body of work but it still felt odd.
The ride from Landers to Joshua Tree felt like a scene straight out of Mad Max. Just substitute post-apocalyptic cliff dwellings and chrome mouthed hooligans with a few art shanties and a couple thousand ladies on motorcycles and you get the idea. While out hunting for artworks on my way over to AZ West I began to see an increasing number of women on motorbikes. Some riding alone, some in packs — and some doing full standing splits while throttling down the road at a rough 60 per.
I arrived at my Wagon Station late Saturday afternoon and after 6 days of riding I couldn't wait to spend the next week sleeping in a pioneer sci-fi space pod and tracking down art in the wild. The whole experience riding from LA to Joshua Tree really set the tone for the coming week and made me acutely aware of the way that travel impacts my relationship to place and how you can create a narrative landscape just by cycling through it.
Every mile I rode physically connected one site to another and created conversations between seemingly unrelated ideas. Much like my missed connection at the Bridge to Nowhere, there would be places I set out to find that week that I never got to see though the exercise of trying to find them changed the way I encountered the landscape — gave it a story.