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.
Showing posts with label Death Valley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death Valley. Show all posts

Friday, February 3, 2017


 So I went walking in Death Valley last month.  It’s something I do every two or three years, and of course I see the ironies of complaining that it gets ever more crowded and less wild each time, but it’s what I do.  And I’ve been going there for 30 years, long enough to be able to justify some grumpiness about change and decay.

There was snow on the high ground in Death Valley when I was there this time, and some of the main roads were closed, and some were still washed out from last year, which made the various trails and attractions that were accessible more crowded than ever.
Echoing Edward Abbey, I have been known to rail against “industrial tourism,” not least because it reduces vast, diverse landscapes to a series of sites and trails, scenic overlooks, points of interest, and so on.  You’re told what to look for; you’re told what to see.  Giving these things names – the Devil’s Cornfield, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point - only adds to the problem. The “attractions” become a kind of checklist that you can tick off and have done with.
    So yes, visitors flock to these designated sites but more than that, it means that a lot of visitors see nothing except those sites; the 3 million acres of Death Valley are perceived simply as territory you cross on the way to the next attraction.
    Now, I’m not a complete misanthrope, and when I’m walking in the crowds of New York or London I’m very happy to consider myself part of teeming humanity.  But when I’m in the middle of 3 million acres of desert then I think it’s reasonable to want a little space to myself.

But the beauty part of this form of industrial tourism is that if you choose to go somewhere that hasn’t been designated as a tourist site then chances are you’ll not see another soul.  And so I found myself stopping the car in various unmarked bits of land, pulling off the road and parking, then just walking off into the desert, walking for as long as seemed natural, and then turning around and walking back.  I was to say “walking off into some unremarkable bit of desert,” but the fact is, all of Death Valley is remarkable.  You’d have to be as insensate as a rock (or a moody adolescent) to set foot in Death Valley and not experience a profound sense of the gorgeously threatening grandeur of the earth.

 I ended up here:

      And here:

And here:

    I think I could probably just about find my way back to these places, but maybe I couldn’t, and in any case it doesn’t seem to matter so very much.  It is, as they say, all good.  The fact that these places don’t have names – Nicholson’s Loop, for instance – is all to the good, if you ask me.

Still, I think there are some questions to be asked about whether a walk needs a destination; and I don’t have an absolute answer.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good journey’s end, a peak or a ruin or a scenic overview, I do: but they never seem either necessary or sufficient for a good walk.  And in my miscellaneous walking this time in Death Valley I did find myself thinking about two lines from the Dylan song Isis “She said where you been?/I said no place special.”  But maybe that line doesn’t apply to walking since there’s no such thing as “no place special,” because all places are special one way or another, although that’s not to say that they’re all equal, or equally interesting. 

A walk around the rim of a volcanic crater whether alone or in the company of others probably has more going for it than a walk round the parking lot at K-Mart, but that’s no reason only to walk around craters. 
You can see how a man might tie himself in knots with these matters.

Anyhow, on the way back from Death Valley, coming through Yucca Valley, I did a walk I’d been promising to do for a while, in the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, which consists of a “modest” 25,500 acres, and the walk was modest too, about two miles in each direction up through Pipes Canyon to something known as the Olson Ruins. The map you pick up at the Ranger station has them as “Olsen Ruins” but most sources have the name as Olson.

I think you know I like walking in ruins, though I hadn’t done any research about these particular ruins.  And so I walked up a clearly marked and perhaps slightly too well kept trail  (a ranger told me they had high school “volunteers” to keep it in good condition), past petroglyphs, Joshua Trees that had been burned in the Pioneertown fire some ten years back, past willow beds, through small scattered patches of snow. 

Compared with Death Valley the landscape was tame, and there were one or two other walkers but fewer than you’d have found on any recognized trail in Death Valley.

And in due course there were the ruins, picturesque to a degree, and a reasonable journey’s end, but nothing on the grand scale – just somebody’s house, the roof and windows gone, and most of the walls gone too, though there was one room you could actually walk into, that was completely intact, and the corners of the cabin were more or less solid - you could see the chicken wire construction.

As I said, I hadn’t researched the Olson Ruins, but once I got home, I did. The story goes that the cabin belonged to an onyx miner named John Olson who’d been mining since the 1920s.  He was still there in 1945 and one day he encountered a young man living rough in the desert, a man in his early 20s (sources seem uncertain about his exact age) named Edward E. Emmery, a soldier recently returned from Burma who had just (oh the irony) deserted from Fort MacArthur.

Olson, in his mid 70s, invited Emmery to stay in the cabin, and conditions must have been crowded, and the two guys must have been in each other’s way.  But that doesn’t seem much of an explanation for why, a few days later, Emmery shot Olson and fled the scene, returning to the open desert, taking food from the cabin with him..  

Four days later Olson was still alive and was discovered by friends and taken to hospital, but he died there. Emmery was caught a few days after that.  Emmery claimed the shooting was accidental, but nobody believed him, and he was charged with murder.  I haven’t been able to find out what happened to Emmery.

A cabin makes a good destination for a walk (there are quite a few in Death Valley – and indeed a book about them), a ruined cabin is even better, but a ruined murder cabin – ah, that’s the stuff.  I’m sure they’d get more visitors if they named it The Olson Murder Ruins, but I’m very glad they don’t.

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.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Pico Iyer says you should always take a book with you when you travel, but it should not be about the place you’re traveling to.  And so, I spent a week and a half walking (not hiking, I insist) around Death Valley and other parts of the Mojave desert, spending at least some of the evenings reading Iain Sinclair’s American Smoke.  It’s a book in which, in his oblique and free associative way, Sinclair investigates his own American literary influences and enthusiasms.  The fact that I share some of these – Burroughs, Kerouac, Ed Dorn - makes it a damn good read.

Consequently, by day I would be walking round, say, the Ubehebe Crater then at night I’d be reading about Sinclair walking around Gloucester, Massachusetts in the footsteps of Charles Olson.  Or I’d be walking on the Racetrack Playa then reading Sinclair’s account of walking the waterfront in Vancouver looking for the site of Malcolm Lowry’s shack, bulldozed in 1957.

One of the disappointing things, or at least one of the defining features, of Death Valley these days, is that you’re seldom entirely alone when walking there, certainly not when visiting one of the “main attractions.”

At the Ubehebe Crater, for example, a handful of people were visible walking down to the very bottom of the crater. The National Park Services website says “Walking to the bottom of the main crater is easy; however, the trip back up can be exhausting.”  That’s a bit of spectacular understatement.  It’s a steep 600 foot drop, and some of the people I watched making the return ascent were crawling on their hands and knees by the end. There are actually a couple of people in this photograph –  two minute dots on the diagonal light gray path rising on the left.  You can see them slightly better here.

 Being of sound mind I walked around the rim instead. The National Park Services website again: “Walking around the rim is moderately difficult due to the initial climb and loose footing.”  And the winds – don’t forget the lacerating winds.

And you might think that visiting the Racecourse Playa – 20 odd miles down a bone-shaking dirt road – would buy you a bit of solitude.  But the day I was there a camera club was in situ - much fancy equipment, many tripods, many people shooting the same landscapes from the same angle.  Those are their Jeeps on the right of the rock formation, but at least they're forming a Herzog-esque fata morgana.

 Of course you don’t have to engage with these other people, and only an idiot or  a snob would say that a little human presence ruins a walk, but if you actually want to be alone in Death Valley, the best plan is to visit some location that nobody else wants to go.   

I was much taken by these cyanide tanks at Journigan’s Mill – yes really, Death Valley was once a great source of cyanide – and although there was evidence that plenty of other people had been there before (beer bottles, the remains of fires, some wrecked cars) when I was there I had it to myself, and could walk in ruins in solitude.

I don’t know that Jack Kerouac ever went to Death Valley but when I got back I dug out some of my Kerouac books.  He was one of the first authors I ever discovered for myself.  I was pretty young at the time and there’s always a tendency to think you’ve “outgrown” early enthusiasms – but some you never quite do. 

It’s true I don’t have quite the passion for Kerouac’s writing that I once did, but any time I go back and read his work, I’m always reminded why it moved me so much.  Here’s a passage from The Dharma Bums, about walking, more or less. “Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by. Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak… just like life.”

Monday, December 19, 2011


I don’t want to come across as some kind of Charles Manson obsessive, but if you’re of a certain age, if you live in Los Angeles, and if you also have a taste for walking in the desert, it’s a name that tends to come up once in a while.

The Loved One and I just came back from what is turning into a tradition; a short pre-Christmas road trip into the Mojave desert, to get away from all that holiday cheer.  We drove up to Death Valley, via Ridgecrest and Trona, and we took a side trip to Ballarat, which is called a ghost town, a term that I find increasingly problematic, though that's a matter for a different post.

Ballarat is a great place to do the kind of walking I do in the desert.  You drive there, park the car in the dirt, go for a walk, and poke around in whatever you happen to find.  In this case that includes some ruined houses, a graveyard, the former jail.  There are also a few abandoned trucks, including this one, a Dodge Power Wagon.

There is also, perhaps surprisingly, a little museum-cum-store, run by Rocky Novack, one of the town’s few full-time inhabitants.  He told me that Ballarat currently has a population of eight, mostly miners who live in trailers and work at the Briggs Mine a few miles down the road.  It’s a dirt road, of course.

Rocky also assured me that the truck pictured above had once belonged to the Manson family, and frankly I was skeptical, but it turns out there’s at least decent circumstantial evidence that it might have.  Manson and his crew largely used dune buggies and the occasional school bus for transport, but the Manson story as told in Desert Shadows by Bob Murphy, an eccentric but well-informed book about Manson in the desert, certainly features a few Dodge Power Wagons. The inside of the cab roof of the one in Ballarat is painted with stars, which certainly seems very period, and just the kind of thing one of those arty Manson girls might do.

Whatever the truck’s provenance, the fact is, once you’re walking in Ballarat you’re most definitely walking in Charles Manson’s footsteps.  The family used Ballarat as a gathering point before going deeper into the desert via the Goler Wash to the Barker Ranch where they lived for a time.

Recently, despite not being a Manson obsessive, I’d been wondering if I could make it to the Barker Ranch.  I knew the place wasn’t in great shape: a couple of years back a fire had destroyed all the wooden parts.  I wondered if somebody had done this as an act of ritual cleansing but apparently not.  The general wisdom is that somebody stayed there overnight and their propane stove got out of hand.

Before that, the Barker Ranch had become just another cabin available to passing hikers, campers and desert rats - there are quite a few cabins like that in and around Death Valley. They’re available on a first come first served basis, and you can see how that could create problems if some Manson-type was already in situ when you arrived.

I also knew that to get to the Barker Ranch we’d have to drive up the Goler Wash. Online sources, as is the way, told me both that a moderately experienced driver of a 4 x 4 could zip up the Goler Wash without difficulty, while others said the route was a serious challenge. Conditions are no doubt changeable. 

Rayner Banham said the greatest asset a man can have in the desert is “creative  cowardice,” and believing this, I drove the miles to the mouth of Goler Canyon, parked, then walked up the wash to see if it looked passable in a vehicle, given my admittedly limited skill set as an off-roader.  

Now, I’m not saying I couldn’t have done it.  The canyon walls were narrow, the track was steep, there was water flowing down the wash (it had rained the previous night) and the real problems were some rocky outcrops, described in the literature as steps or falls, places where a vehicle might get grounded or stuck, where you might pop a wheel or a tire. I thought it was perfectly possible that the Jeep would pass over the obstacles, but it seemed perfectly possible that it wouldn't.  Being stuck in Goler Wash, quite apart from the risks to self, spouse and vehicle, would have made me look like a complete idiot, something I generally try to avoid. 

So we settled for a walk instead.  It was a great walk.  The canyon’s walls were high but not oppressive. The rock was full of amazing colors.  Cactuses grew up the sides, apparently sprouting straight out of the rock.  There was also dung at the sides of the track, evidence that there were burros in the area, but we didn’t see any of them.

We knew we were never going to walk all the way to the Barker Ranch – it would have been a ten mile round trip – and in any case it was just a burned out cabin.  Only later did I read that the fire at the Barker Ranch had given the Parks Service an interesting problem.  They had contemplated restoring the place, not least to provide accommodation, but I think they feared they could be accused of restoring a Manson shrine, and maybe they also thought some bastard would burn it down again, and so in the end they decided to leave it as it was and it’s now officially designated as a “ruin.”  I rather like that.

As I have said elsewhere, I consider myself a pretty decent walker, but nothing more than that. I don’t really think of myself as a true hiker, but Death Valley, makes hikers of us all. And walking there often involves you in some scrambling up rocky slopes, and just occasionally in what the guide books call “canyoneering.”

There’s a great deal of information available about walking and hiking routes through Death Valley, some of it contradictory or course.  The Park Service publishes a sheet listing “day hikes” and they include the Telescope Peak Trail, a 14 mile round trip described as “strenuous.”  Just for good measure they add, “Climbing this peak in the winter requires ice axe and crampons.”  I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a day hike:  I’m absolutely certain it doesn’t constitute a walk.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


If I have a reservation about Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” (discussed elsewhere on this blog) it’s that he, or his cinematographer, makes the desert look a little too picturesque.  Of course, I’m not going to deny that the desert is visually beautiful, that’s what first attracted me to it, and of course I love a broad stretch of unspoiled, pristine desert as much as the next man, and I’m very glad indeed that Death Valley or Joshua Tree survive as preserved patches of territory that are as close to “virgin” as we’re ever likely to see, and of course they are meticulously “managed.”.  But the fact is, I also love a spoiled, less than pristine stretch of desert.

And when it comes to on-screen depictions of the desert I’m drawn to Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana,” his early “documentary” that traces an inscrutable journey down through the Sahara desert.  Certainly the film does have some gorgeous desert imagery, including this shot of a little boy walking his fennec fox on a leash across the sand dunes.

But “Fata Morgana” also shows the desolate edges, the areas scarred by human activity, not least military and industrial.  Herzog is smart enough not to simply revel in the beauty of ugliness, and I think he’s not indulging in the pleasure of ruins either, but he does show us that the wrecked and the damaged may be every bit as compelling as the pristine.

My own attitudes have changed over time.  When I first started visiting deserts I wanted them clean and empty and devoid of human presence (well, any human presence except mine, naturally).  And of course I still like those grand vistas of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and I regularly go and walk in them, but on the way there I know I’ll pass through some scrubby, frayed bits of desert, the outskirts of towns like Barstow, Boron or Baker, and I’ll be drawn to deserted motels, abandoned houses, evidence of human presence as well as absence.

This has been on my mind a lot recently.  I’ve been reading a book titled Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, a couple of British poets who go wandering around what the subtitle calls “England’s true wilderness,” the non-spaces that fail to appear either on topographical or mental maps: sewage works, parking lots, airports, scrap yards, and so on.

They write, “Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists … complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.”

This is great stuff and certainly it doesn’t apply only to England.  And I don’t the guys are just being perverse, like going to the Sistine chapel and admiring the floor.  One of the most basic functions of writing is to point out things that otherwise might have been missed, and these guys do it royally.  

The book also it made me realize that I have spent large chunks of my life walking in and admiring edgelands.  For instance I love great Victorian railway architecture, the stations, the bridges, the engine sheds, but I’m actually more at home wandering along disused railway lines admiring those strange little shacks and huts that grow up alongside them.

And one of the things I’ve realized is that not all edgelands are at the edge.  Sometimes there can be junk spaces right in the middle of things.  My favorite non-space in that sense is shown in the picture above, an alley right in the heart of Hollywood, that runs off Las Palmas Avenue, just below Hollywood Boulevard.  It may have a name but I can’t find it on any of the maps I’ve got.  It goes down the side of Miceli’s Italian restaurant, but as the sign indicates, it belongs to somebody else “Supply Sergeant” which is an army surplus store nearby.  And of course the absolute joy of it is the precision with which somebody has measured, recorded, and sign-painted the dimensions of this otherwise thoroughly nondescript space.