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Creek Running North

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December 04, 2004

Cafe Rocks

Two concrete pads, a metal pole, a peeling sign, and the high-speed traffic on Route 58 heading between Boron and Mojave. The sign tells only part of the story. It was a café at one point, and a rock shop at another, but which first? Intuition places the café first in line, as rock shops tend to inhabit the low rungs of the commercial real estate ladder: the failed strip malls, the abandoned gas stations, front porches and wizened mobile homes. It's all about storage of durable, heavy inventory with low revenue per pound of sale. Unless they're the tinkly crystally new age kind that sells a buck fifty worth of quartz for a hundred fifty bucks with a free white sage smudge thrown in to cleanse the previous custodian's negative aura cooties, small rock shops have to find locations where they can clear maybe a thousand a month and still pay the rent and make payroll. It would seem likely that a café opened, failed, and then the owner gladly rented the land some years later to a business that might have paid forty dollars a month for it.

But the broken neon tubing in the sign obviously corresponds to the letters in the word "ROCKS." The word "CAFE" is amateurishly lettered. Could it be that the natural order of succession in the desert roadside business ecosystem was reversed in this instance, that someone walked up to a property so desolate and remote that even a rock shop had failed there, and said "This would be an excellent location for a restaurant"?

It's possible. Edwards Air Force Base is right across the road. The pathetic little hamlet North Edwards is maybe a ten minute walk away. The café owner might have dreamed of literal legions of service personnel dropping dollars into his pockets. Maybe he imagined the likes of Yeager walking in, X-15 test pilots unwinding with coffee after a hard day breaking the sound barrier or spying on Kruschchev.

Driving past North Edwards on a dark night about six years ago, my attention was drawn by a small red illuminated sign, visible though not readable from about five miles away. A bar, I thought, or a gas station, maybe a convenience store. It seemed odd, looming behind the sparse shrubs as I sped along 58. I got closer: a remarkably dim sodium-vapor light showed a squat, institutional green shack of a building, no cars parked anywhere nearby. A depressing scene. The red sign eventually resolved into legibility. It said "SHOPPING."

I didn't go in.

I don't know when the ROCKS CAFE went out of business, whether it burned down or was dismantled or perhaps, as it might have been housed in a portable building, towed away. I do know that Route 58 was once a two-lane, until 1964 called Route 466, a tributary of the Mother Road, which from here headed toward 66 in Barstow but veered away at the last minute, like the Tigris from the Euphrates in Baghdad, to head through Vegas and across Hoover Dam to finally rejoin 66 in Kingman, Arizona's answer to the Shatt Al Arab. A two-lane likely meant more business, as speeds were slower and driving more tiring. A few miles west, a pair of trailer courts survive as a vestige of the era. And then freeway went in, businesses went south. The process continues. Route 58 once went through the heart of Mojave, with stoplights and truckers making left turns into Reno's Coffee Shop, with its elk and boar heads on dark paneled walls. Now the freeway loops lazily a few miles northeast of town, and Mojave businessmen chew their fingernails.

Still, there is the instructive example of California City, about equidistant from Mojave and North Edwards and ten or so miles off 58. California City is a motley bricollage of incongruous tract homes, shuttered businesses and wind-driven plastic bags, and you can't blame freeway relocation for that: California City never had anything resembling a major thoroughfare going through it, unless you count desert tortoise migration tracks. The town was built on hopes of long-distance commuters and lucrative prison contracts, and neither, so far, have arrived. Boron, still with a functioning hardware store and high school and something approaching a nightlife, will likely weather the inevitable freewaying of its section of 58, as its economy relies more on the nearby Rio Tinto borax mine than on travelers. I have driven past Boron, hungry and tired, dozens of times, and never felt anything stronger than diffident encouragement to stop in town and spend money. "Eat here if you need to," the town seems to say, "but you should know there's a really nice place up the road at Kramer Junction."

The whole of the Western Mojave is poised between its past failures and those to come. Los Angeles County extends across the southern half of the desert here, and mile-wide blocks of streets are already laid out: a grid of dusty scars through the blackbrush and Joshua trees. You can drive for miles on 190th Street West in Lancaster and never see a house, but real estate signs are everywhere. Some of the last remaining Pleistocene remnant Xeric Conifer Woodland lies in the path of those bulldozer blades, and one can only hope the economy collapses for good before the junipers and Joshua trees are scraped away.

I've woken up a few times in the back of the Boron Route 58 Safety Roadside Rest Area, just a mile or so from the site of the erstwhile CAFE ROCKS café. In the mornings, the place almost seems promising: clear skies sidelit by rising sun, snow glinting on the southernmost peaks of the Sierra Nevada fifty miles away. North of here a desert tortoise once decided Becky was a shade tree, strode up between her hiking boots, got comfortable, took a nap. Entranced, Becky stood still for as long as she could possibly stand it, then - very carefully - moved a few feet away. The tortoise slowly woke, realized its shade had gone, saw Becky across the little clearing and headed toward her again.

This is the fourth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 4, 2004 08:29 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Fortunately, those real estate signs around Lancaster have been there for a while, and will be there for a while still. The area was platted in the same speculative rush that gave us Lake Los Angeles, built around a lake that was never filled. Many people still own small unwatered bits of desert, and the streetsigns are there to help everyone find his bit. Mike Davis tells the Lake Los Angeles story in City of Quartz if you're interested.

Posted by: Jarrett at December 5, 2004 12:27 AM
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I wasn't trolling for you, Jarrett. Honest, I wasn't.

I like City of Quartz, but I take many of Davis' pronouncements re: the Antelope Valley with a grain of salt, for instance his (undocumented) claim that there were never any "antelope" (aka pronghorn) in the valley. It may well be true, but to leave a statement like that hanging out there with no citation, in the presence of an overwhelming if possibly folkloric body of evidence that there WERE pronghorn there, well... extraordinary claims etc.

That said, his history is invaluable. And I've seen new houses going up in the platted area in the last ten years. The land rush has been way slowed down, but it's still in progress, and only a collapse in the oil economy will prevent it.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 5, 2004 10:44 AM
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Us deep time users know that there were (much more than likely) at least three species of "Pronghorn" in that valley during the last couple million years. Oh the short-sighted silliness.

Posted by: OGeorge at December 5, 2004 12:08 PM
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Nice concluding story. Reminds me of the slow-thinking but indominable tortoise with which Abbey began and ended Hayduke Lives.

Posted by: Dave at December 5, 2004 04:16 PM
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Those old roadside signs must be all over. South of us on US 7 there is a sign for a drive-in grill, but when you look all you see is a warehouse and an auto garage. The only grill there is on an abandoned car.

Posted by: Robert at December 5, 2004 06:11 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I grew up in the Antelope Valley, and my dad (who moved there in the 60s) claims that Antelope used to be pretty common early in the century...once the N-S railroad went in, they refused to cross the tracks...instant island biogeography, with the attendant extinctions.

I've been working at Edwards AFB a lot over the last year....AV is a very different place from the one I left in 88. Expensive oil will not be kind to that area.

Posted by: rich at December 6, 2004 01:16 PM
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...nice...I could feel the heat and silence...

Posted by: Crystal Dave at December 6, 2004 08:18 PM
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