July 30, 2008

Moon Over Mojave


by Ken Layne
LA City Beat

White Trash Stonehenge.
Ken Layne.

Go north up the old Route 66 out of Victorville, past the biker saloon (FOR LEASE) and abandoned Old West antiques shops and the monstrous limestone-cement factory on the dry Mojave River, the chalky beige bluffs to your left, lush green cottonwood and alien tamarisk trees on the river bed, and you’re finally out of the Southland sprawl.

The river is underground, at this point, flowing under the alluvial sands, feeding the trees and reeds and just barely supporting the handful of houses and farms along its banks. Next to the junkyards and crumbling mobile homes, some unlucky speculators have built Custom Homes on highway-frontage lots. Brand new houses with the standard granite counters and stainless steel appliances and Pergo flooring, never lived in, just sitting here 50 feet off a forgotten highway that used to define America.

Seven months ago, when snow still covered the San Gabriels and Barstow still froze at night, I looked up and down this secret river for a decent place to call home. Nobody seemed to know the housing market had collapsed after a few wild years. Nothing was for rent, everything was priced for a boom that had long passed and was never real anyway. I chased weird leads: a century-old adobe on an alfalfa farm, mystery houses inside Mojave National Preserve that only existed on computer maps.

Kids and dog in the car, I finally investigate “Silver Lakes.” Here, alongside a thirsty little river that rarely appears above the desert sands, some jackass genius carved a pair of evaporation ponds, built a collection of comical boat slips around the fake shore, and lined it all with “lake view” residential lots. About a third of the houses are vacant, For Sale signs everywhere. The cracked-stucco strip mall restaurant lunch is inedible. A dreary windowless liquor store is doing good midday business. At the otherwise empty real-estate office, a woman with a bleach-blonde Mojave beehive hands over a single-spaced full-page list of houses for rent.

It’s an asphalt maze of terrible architecture – everything from faded 1970s ranch boxes to orange 1990s two-story “Moroccan” monstrosities hanging over the lot edges. I get lost in dead-end loops of vacant lots and desolate playgrounds of sun-blasted plastic. It’s a gloomy Philip K. Dick colony on Mars, a shoddily constructed replica of an American suburb back on Earth.

I drive out of Silver Lakes and shudder. That night, two local kids are murdered, “execution style,” at an abandoned World War II bunker up a dirt road from the weird suburb. The story will play out in the Victor Valley newspaper over many, many months:

Bodhisattva “Bodhi” Sherzer-Potter, a 16-year-old honor student who lived in Silver Lakes, and her 18-year-old boyfriend Cody Thompson, of nearby Apple Valley, were hanging out with other kids at the trash-strewn bunker, celebrating somebody’s birthday. Bodhi and Cody were the last kids left when two psychopaths from “down the hill” showed up, dragged the doomed lovers into the bunker, and shot them dead.

As usual, the killers had MySpace pages with the requisite self-portraits brandishing their guns, and within a few weeks they were both behind bars. A third kid was arrested as an “accessory.” A San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy had stopped by the party spot before the murders, and left the teenagers drinking in a desolate Air Force bunker because “none appeared intoxicated and no trespassing complaints had been filed against them.”

The bunker was built for Hawes Auxiliary Field, a World War II air station and an environmental catastrophe thanks to its deteriorated fuel tanks poisoning the groundwater. A mile south of Highway 58 on a gently rising sage bush slope, the bunker loomed like a white-trash Stonehenge.

After the murders, the parents in Silver Lakes protested until the Pentagon agreed to tear down the bunker. But it’s endangered desert tortoise habitat, so fencing would have to go up, to prevent any tortoises from wandering into the demolition zone – a demolition that would be performed without explosives so as not to bother the tortoises. A wildlife biologist would be on the scene until the job was complete.

Late July on a 105-degree afternoon, I drive up the dirt road from Silver Lakes, discovering a Lockheed stealth test site along the way, its distant runway and giant hangars and weird pylons protected by chain-link and dozens of menacing NO TRESPASSING signs. Just before the 58, a pile of old tires points the way to the party bunker. I follow the jeep trail to another pile of tires marking the entrance. But the bunker is gone, wiped off the desert floor. There’s a wide circle of bulldozed and smoothed-over sand, patches of beer bottle shards glimmering in the white sun, pink shotgun shells pressed into the dirt here and there. No fence, no memorial, nothing to mark the scene beyond the pitted concrete rectangles set in the desert at 60-degree angles, in a loose circle around the half-mile site. I walk across the scraped desert site, wondering where, exactly, the two kids were murdered, for no reason at all, in a cold concrete pit somewhere beneath this ground.

The Air Force wants to renovate this old Army Air Field, for the new generation of robot war planes, those high-altitude drones often mistaken for alien spacecraft over the Mojave and, these days, over Iran.