Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Life’s like that: A couple of posts back I was writing about the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and now, by serendipity, I discover there’s such a thing as the Snow Chi Minh Trail.

It’s not much of a place to go walking, as far as I can see.  It’s a mountainous section of Interstate 80, in Wyoming, between Walcott Junction and Laramie, 72 miles of bad road, site of some appalling winter driving conditions and subsequent highway crashes.

It was opened in the fall of 1970, and although it was lined with the best kind of snow fences then available, they weren’t good enough to deal with the severity of the snow that affected the area. And so the Wyoming Highway Department had to become experts on snow fence technology, which led to the development of the Wyoming Snow Fence.

CLUI photo

“These porous rows of tall wooden fence, rolling across the hills, are not made to block the snow, but to cut the wind, causing wind-borne snow to drop rather than to accumulate in places where it may pile on roads or cause white-out conditions or stream across the road surface forming a persistent layer of ice.”

I’m quoting there from The Lay of the Land (that’s where I discovered the Snow Chi Minh Trail), it’s the newsletter of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, one of LA’s more wonderfully eccentric yet utterly serious enterprises, that (I think it would be fair to say) is concerned with nature and culture, with the ways in which people live on the earth and what they do to it.  I picked up the newsletter because I went to an exhibition at the center, titled “Middles of Nowhere: Dry Lakes of the Mojave.”

 It’s a fabulously austere exhibition, in a not very well illuminated, windowless space.  There are small black and white maps on the walls showing dry lakes, with brief informative notes on each lake; no bells or whistles, nothing for the kids.  I thought it was just wonderful.

The founder of the CLUI is Matthew Coolidge, and I’ve read interviews in which he’s talked about the meanings of “somewhere” and “nowhere,” and how there’s really no such thing as nowhere.  When you’re in the middle of nowhere you’re always somewhere, possibly in the middle of a dry lake.

Even so, a dry lake is a special category of somewhere, a contradiction in terms maybe, and a place defined by an absence.  A lake is a place with water, a dry lake is a place without.  Of course some dry lakes do have water at certain times of the year, but then they shrink and disappear.  Their boundaries aren’t fixed and eventually they have no boundaries at all.  Go pick the symbolism out of that one.

And I realized I’ve done a fair amount of walking on or around Californian dry lakes, not as part of any great project, just because I like to wander through the desert in a more or less haphazard way.  Here are a few of them. 

This is Searles Lake, seen from the town of Trona:

This is Owens Lake, about ten miles south of Lone Pine, generally regarded as the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States.  You definitely don’t want to be there on a windy day:

And this is Racetrack Playa in Death Valley: I’m not really sure that I understand the difference between a dry lake and a playa, or even if there is one:

As you can see (I hope), plenty of other people enjoy walking on the Racetrack – which is certainly one of the problems of visiting Death Valley.  It has been reduced to a number of sights and attractions, to a series of “somewheres” where people congregate.  If you’re looking for peace and isolation in Death Valley you have to find a spot between named places.  Oh yeah, and do bear in mind that Death Valley is not a valley, it’s a graben, or perhaps a half-graben.  (How long have you got?)

These thoughts of dry lakes reminded me that the first dry lake I ever encountered was Lake Ballard, in Australia.  I only went there because of the name – because I was a fan of JG Ballard, but it was truly startling, the emptiest, loneliest place I’d ever been.  I’ve just had a dig in the archive and I’m pretty sure this photograph was taken at Lake Ballard, though it was a long time ago, and my archive is a mess, so I could be wrong.

Anyway, I hear that the bed of Lake Ballard is now decked out with 51 sculptures by Antony Gormley which seem attractive enough, but I suppose they also makes it more of a somewhere, possibly even a tourist destination.


  1. Is that one of the Gormley structures in the last photo? I like the ones on Crosby beach. Never having heard the word Graben, I looked it up. According to Wikipedia it is a kind of valley (my proper academic chums tell me never to trust Wikipedia, as anyone can write it, but generally it's reliable): 'A graben is a valley with a distinct escarpment on each side caused by the displacement of a block of land downward.'

  2. Yes that is indeed a Gormley sculpture at Lake Ballard. As for the graben business - it was always my understanding that Death Valley was not a valley - a valley requires a river and there's no river in Death Valley - though there is sometimes water which runs down from the mountains. So I had always thought it was a graben - but doing a little fact checking for the post I see that some authorities say it's a half graben - then I kind of gave up.