SoCal Road Trip

Jaguar Magazine, Dec 2005

Go West: Think of California and you think of sun, sea, wealth, and the beautiful people. Get beneath the surface, however, and there’s an underside to the state that few ever witness. Alien abductees, acid casualties, spiritual gurus… Jump in and free your mind.

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Photographs by Andrew Shaylor

Just down the road from Jack Nicholson’s house, a missile silo hums, caged in barbed wire and warning notices. It’s a vestige from the cold war. A quiet spot. Few people come here any more but the occasional hiker who stops to savour the view of Los Angeles. And what a view it is – the kind that only the likes of Nicholson can afford. After all, this is the high point of Mulholland Drive, the very crest of the city, which runs a coiled and treacherous path along the spine of the Hollywood Hills, separating Los Angeles on one side from the San Fernando Valley on the other.

It’s a perfect place to begin a road trip. All too often southern California is described only in terms of endless sun and palm trees, all the spangle and glitz of Hollywood. But the silo’s hum is a reminder that behind its gleaming Golden State front, this is a place where danger and beauty are firmly twined – a brutal desertscape where models sashay down earthquake fault lines, where billionaire mansions gaze upon raging forest fires.

Mulholland, more than any other street, encapsulates this dichotomy – the most stunning vistas follow unprotected hairpin bends. It’s no surprise that the film, Mulholland Drive was made by David Lynch. The road dates back to Los Angeles’s infancy as a city, to the infamous Water Bureau Chief, William Mulholland who in 1924 decided to build Angelenos a picturesque route to the surrounding mountains and beaches. It was a noble aim, but he never finished the job – beyond the silo, the road turns to dust, the realm of the dirt bike.

So we spin around and head for the sea via the pleasantly ramshackle neighbourhood of Topanga Canyon, the somewhat eccentric cousin of the more manicured Pacific Palisades nearby.

It’s an unwritten rule of the west coast that the nearer the water you go, the more human flotsam you find. So many took Horace Greeley’s famous advice to “go west, young man” that they found themselves on the beaches of California, with the Pacific whooshing over their sandals. Those who stayed either found what they were seeking, or they were left, like the backwash of the American dream, to keep searching along its shores. It’s the latter that give a place like Venice its character – on a heaving Sunday, when families flock in to rollerblade and eat candy cane, the last of the Muscle beach iron-pumpers wanders up and down showing off photos of his prime; a team of breakdancers, a man dressed as Lucifer, a man dressed as a tree all of them hoping for a return to the beach’s heyday back when Jim Morrison lived here. Or at the very least, hoping for a dollar.

In Topanga, however, the flotsam doesn’t ask for donations. Stop for a bite at Pat’s Topanga Grill, for example, and you’ll likely meet the neighbour who lives next door in a house made entirely out of pallets. Palletstein, he calls it. Not so troubled as the Middle East, but with probably more rats.

And further towards the Pacific Coast Highway, near Malibu, we find the poignant figure of Bill Nordhoff collecting rocks along the shore.  Though he lives barely a mile down the road from some of the most privileged real estate in California – ask Danny De Vito, Barbara Streisand, Pierce Brosnan or David Geffen – Bill’s own beachfront property is a beaten-up old Chevy he shares with his dog Sticks. His problems began years ago, he says, when his cousin swindled him out of his inheritance in a family feud so bitter, it drove his mother to suicide. So Bill’s years of searching for the answer have ended for now – these days he searches only for rocks and for his old Grateful Dead cassettes that make him so happy. Those days in the late 60s, he remembers like yesterday – the acid, the love, his pal Dr Spaghetti…

“Feel that wind,” he smiles, turning his chin to the salty breeze. He rummages around in his trunk for a moment. “There you go,“ he says, handing me a smooth flat rock. “Don’t that feel good in your hand? Fred Flinstone’s computer mouse.”

Heading inland, we set the navigator for Landers, a flyspeck town of squat bungalows and trailers strung out in the deep desert. Here in the vast shimmering wasteland sits what was once believed to be the biggest freestanding boulder in the world – a site known cryptically as Giant Rock. Now splattered with graffiti, the rock cuts a bizarre sight planted randomly in the middle of nowhere. But not as bizarre as the stories locals have created around it.

“Right here was where a cosmonaut from Venus came to land,” says Daniel Boone, quite matter-of-factly. Boone lives a couple of miles from the rock. We found him outside his trailer drinking a Bud with his father Matthew in the 105F heat. “He took George Van Tassell, who was my neighbour, you could say, onto his ship and told him how to add 50 years to human life. But he didn’t use his mouth. Venutians use telepathy.”

Of course. Van Tassell was a former Lockheed engineer who was drawn to Giant Rock for its magnetic vortex. After a period of meditation near the Rock in the 1950s, it appears these aliens – who looked, according to Daniel, like Greeks or Italians – taught him the science that goes into the peculiar cylindrical building next door known as the Integratron, a high voltage generator of some sort. Apparently a brief spin in the Integratron is quite the tonic.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Daniel suffers from anxiety disorder and can’t work any more. Nor that his dad was a personal disciple of the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, one of the first emissaries of Indian religion to the USA. California has a tradition of seekers, some of them crackpot, all of them earnest. Spend a few years in the desert, dwarfed by the blazing skies, cowered by the heat, and perhaps telepathic Venutians won’t sound so odd.

For a day or so, we take a respite from the sun and drive up Bear Mountain, one of the true wonders of southern California. A haven of lakes and thick snow in the winter – heaven for snowboarders – it’s only three hours from Los Angeles, and barely an hour from the sun-scorched Integratron. Coiling up the mountain to Bear lake in the XJR is a treat. If you’re lucky, you’ll see local resident Oscar de la Hoya, shadow boxing his way around the perimeter. At 8000 ft, many a champion fighter keeps a training camp in Big Bear.

But Big Bear is a glorious aberration. It is bounded on all sides by baking southern Californian desert and it isn’t long before we’re back among the cacti and the rattlers. An hour north of Palm Springs, where the affluent elderly like to shopt and spa, is the bohemian town of 29 Palms, an oasis in the wilderness, blooming with murals. The most popular spot from which to visit the Joshua Tree national park, there is no shortage of hotels here, but only one place shines – the 29 Palms Inn may be the only hotel that Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin actually wrote a song about.

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A complex of unique adobe bungalows, the 29 Palms Inn is at once a spa, the finest restaurant in town, a vegetable garden, a library and an arts centre where artists can work and exhibit. Jack rabbits hop across your path, road runners scamper from your crunching tires. And yet for all the buzzing life, human and animal, time slows down here, thoughts have a chance to percolate. It’s no surprise that U2 wrote the album Joshua Tree while staying here. The atmosphere is like no other hotel – it’s as though the brutality of the desert has bred a camaraderie between staff and guest. As one barmaid remarked, noting the huge moon, a couple taking a late night dip and cactus wrens squawking overhead: “there’s an energy about this place…”

At dinner, the talk is of a brush fire in the nearby Morongo basin, which is hindering the arrival of guests. Thousands of acres have been scorched. Helicopters are evacuating residents. The fire, it seems, has ‘jumped’ across the freeway. Fortunately the Joshua Tree national park escaped the embers so by dawn we were weaving through the park, in awe at the views. Only at the park’s end, as the XJR sails into a dead straight three mile stretch toward the LA freeways, we finally pass the evidence of last night’s devastation. It feels very car commercial, coursing through the blackened, smoking hillsides in a gleaming silver XJR. Time for the sunroof to slide back, turn the dial to American rock, give that throttle a bit of a squeeze…

Only three hours later, the scene could not be more different. From the charred hills of Morongo to the gorgeous Hotel Viceroy in Santa Monica is the story of our trip – the journey from danger to beauty, the cruel to the balmy.  It’s hard to fault the Viceroy – a hotel of stealth luxury. Drab on the outside and yet stunning on the inside – a world of marble and mirrors and poolside cabanas and beautiful people.

Ah beautiful people!  No trip through Los Angeles would be complete without them. These batons change hands in Los Angeles, but for now, they are here and flocking the bar and restaurant. Somehow the hum of that silo seems a long long way off…