Strange Geographies: 2009 Roundup

Ransom Riggs

I've put a lot of miles on my car and my frequent flier card this year, tramping through villages in the South Pacific, abandoned buildings around California, the shorelines of toxic seas and junkyards littered with the carcasses of jetliners, among other places -- all with my camera in tow. This is a rundown of all my favorite Strange Geographies blogs from this year, with one photo and snippet of writing from each. Click on the blog titles below to read the whole post.

The Salton Sea

In the 1960s, there were a half-dozen booming beach towns along the Sea's 80-mile coastline. That was before the days when dead fish littered the beaches — the "sand" along the water's edge nothing more than the crushed-and-rounded bones from millions of fish skeletons — and before the death-and-decay stench of the Salton in the 110-degree heat of summer became unbearable. Flooding in the 1970s buried beachfront structures in several feet of salted mud, hastening people's departure from the area. These days, the beachfront is a post-apocalyptic wasteland of houses, trailers and boarded-up beach clubs slowly sinking into the toxic mud.

Salvation Mountain

California's Mojave Desert is an enormous, undulating swath of brown, gray and alkali white; driving through it is such a monochromatic experience that you almost feel like you could go into color withdrawal. That's why Salvation Mountain, just south of California's own Dead Sea, the Salton, is such a shock to the system. It's a man-made mountain covered in 100,000 gallons of technicolor paint, one man's 25-year project.

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East LA's Abandoned Hospital

It had been closed for twenty years, and it showed: there was dirt caked in layers on walls and mysteriously wet floors; windows were broken and doors hung off their hinges; ceiling tiles had fallen victim to moisture and gravity, and rats had chewed through the walls. We didn't have the money to make Linda Vista look like anything more than a horror movie — a few of which had actually been shot there over the years.

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Iraq in San Diego

It's a strange and surreal place: barely-furnished rooms; facades with nothing but weeds behind them; plastic flowers and "Arab"-looking dummies made of foam; blank shell casings everywhere. It's not quite Iraq and it's definitely not San Diego; instead, it's nestled deep inside the uncanny valley.

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OIL! in LA

Most people aren't surprised to hear that Los Angeles is one of the top oil-consuming areas in the country. But fewer people realize that it's also among the nation's top oil-producing areas, as well. Back in the old days — when Edward Doheny struck oil near downtown LA in 1892 and Shell Oil discovered an enormous oil field beneath Signal Hill in the 20s — parts of the city were literally forested with hundreds upon hundreds of oil derricks. In 1923, California produced a whopping 1/4th of the world's oil supply, and little Signal Hill was the state's most productive area. While many of those wells were torn down long ago, there are still productive oil fields beneath Los Angeles today — and thousands of wells across LA County — though the industry by which it is extracted is much more invisible than it once was. But if you go looking for it — as I did — you'll find it's still here, standing in strange juxtaposition to the palm-lined avenues and sunny beaches typically associated with LA.

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The Watts Towers

Los Angeles doesn't have a Statue of Liberty. It can't boast an Eiffel Tower. But we do have one monument unlike anything else in the world: the Watts Towers. Built between 1921 and 1954 by an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia — in his backyard, with a window washer's tools and no special equipment — they're among the United States' best and most famous examples of vernacular art.

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The Mojave Desert's Airplane Graveyard

I thought it was a mirage the first time I saw it. I was driving through the wastes of the Mojave Desert, two hours from anywhere, when off in the shimmering distance appeared the silhouettes of a hundred parked jetliners. I pulled off and tried to get closer to them, but a mean-looking perimeter fence keeps onlookers far away. All I could do was stand and stare, wondering what the hell this massive armada of airplanes was doing here, silently baking in the 110 degree heat.

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A Utopian Ghost Town in the California Desert

Llano del Rio is one of the most distinctive ghost towns in the United States. Like many Utopian communities, it lasted only a short time — a few hopeful, productive years — before being abandoned. Unlike most, however, it was built to last — its granite foundations sourced from nearby mountain ranges — and, still in the middle of nowhere even 90 years after it was inhabited, it's been allowed to linger on, a monument to the disappeared past on the edge of a vast desert.

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The Little Town That Los Angeles Killed

There are lots of dry lake beds in California, and to the untrained eye, Owens Dry Lake is just like the rest. But there is one key difference: while most of the state's stark, white alkali flats have been dry for thousands of years, Owens was an enormous, gem-blue lake stretching more than a hundred miles square — and an important habitat for millions of migratory birds — as recently as 1917. That's when the City of Los Angeles stole it, diverting the streams that fed Owens Lake into an aqueduct that watered the booming metropolis 200 miles to the south. As the lake slowly dried up, so did the once-thriving town of Keeler, which had been both a mining town and something of a lakeside resort. Nowadays, the "lakeside" town of Keeler is more than a mile from the "shoreline" of Owens Lake — little more than a collection of marshy mudpits surrounded by an endless expanse of salt flat, the surface of which can reach 150 degrees on hot summer days.

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Ghost Towns of California

I live in Los Angeles. I moved here in 2002 from a smaller, saner part of the country to go to film school and work, a lifestyle which became so all-consuming that for my first two or three years here, this sprawled-out behemoth of a city was all I knew of California. When you spend all your time hemmed inside its concrete borders, it's easy to imagine LA's low-slung jungle extending forever in all directions — but it doesn't. Drive two hours to the north or the east and you'll find yourself in some of the most desolate country you can imagine; deserts and dry lake beds and mountain ranges stretching into the unfathomable distance. Turn down a neglected state road and you might not see another vehicle for fifty miles.

But, as I discovered on a recent road trip into a few the blank spots on California's map, many of its wild places aren't untouched — they're deserted. California is a land of booms and busts, of big dreams and big failures, and its deserts and open spaces are littered with the leavings of dried-up towns that didn't make it. I went looking for them, and this is what I found.

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While many of the former prisoners live on, there is little left of the camps. One exception is Manzanar, in the arid Owens Valley 200 miles north of Los Angeles, where some 11,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned between 1942 and 1945. Efforts to protect it have resulted in it being declared a national historic site, and what remains there is maintained by the National Park Service. I'd heard about Manzanar for years but had never seen it; on a recent drive through remote parts of eastern California, I decided to stop and have a look for myself.

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The Last, Best Ghost Town: Bodie

There are a thousand ghost towns spread across the western United States — a whole constellation of loss and ruin — but most are little more than foundations, or at best a few tumbledown shacks, or if the people who lived and died there did anything of note, and if they're lucky, a sun-faded commemorative plaque mounted on a squat stone pillar. The ghost town of Bodie, however, is another story altogether. A mining boomtown, it was the third most populous city in the state of California in 1880. By the 1940s sickness, wars, bad weather and exhausted mines had led to the town's desertion, and its isolated, inhospitable location made certain that it stayed that way; no one eyed this high desert waste, 8,000 feet above sea level between Yosemite and the lonely Nevada border, and imagined a shopping mall in its place. Count us all lucky.

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California's Weirdest Rocks: Tufa

California can boast many superlatives: it contains the lowest point in the continental USA, the tallest, largest and oldest trees in the world, and it is the most populous state in the country. But to my mind, it also deserves the title of Home of the Weirdest Rocks, and it owes that honor to one rock in particular: the tufa. Essentially, it's a common rock — limestone — that forms in uncommon circumstances — underwater. When calcium-rich underwater springs mix with lakewater rich in carbonates, a chemical reaction occurs which forms these impressive and bizarre-looking towers of limestone. Because they can only grow underwater, of course, the only places you can find tufa formations are places where there used to be a lake.

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Desolation Vacation: Mina, Nevada

There are few landscapes in the United States lonelier than that of western Nevada. Towns — remote outposts connected by endless, thin ribbons of highway — are named for what miners used to pull out of the ground: Coaldale, Silverpeak, Goldfield. But the mining industry in places like Mineral County has largely disappeared, and with it, the towns it gave birth to. Those that aren't ghost towns already cling precariously to life, burned-out and abandoned structures at their margins creeping inexorably toward the center like some scabrous and fatal disease. For many, it's just a matter of time; even those hamlets that still have a few hundred people living in them are sometimes left off of state road maps. For someone who's attracted to desolate places and question marks on big, empty-looking maps — someone like myself — this was a part of the country I had to see for myself.

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The Forgotten High School of Goldfield, Nevada

At the turn of the last century, Goldfield was a mining boomtown — prospectors were pulling millions of dollars worth of ore out of the ground each year, and with a population that ballooned to more than 30,000 by 1904, it was the largest town in the state of Nevada. It was a classic Old West success story: gun-slinging heroes like Wyatt Earp trod its wooden sidewalks, and in a society where the real measure of a town's worth was its bar-and-whorehouse scene, Goldfield had the rest beat: Tex Rickard's Northern Saloon had a bar so long it required 80 bartenders to run it. Of course, I wouldn't be writing about Goldfield if everything had kept going like gangbusters. By 1920s, the gold mines had started to peter out, and in 1923 a moonshine still exploded and started a fire that took most of the town's wooden buildings with it. Today about 400 people remain in Goldfield, a semi-ghost town set among the barren wastes of Nevada's high desert, surrounded by ghost stories and empty buildings — many of which are impressive stone and brick structures that survived the 1923 fire.

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Portugal's Bone Chapel

I spent a few weeks in Portugal during the spring of 2006, and one of the most striking things about its many churches and chapels and religious monuments was, well, how dark they were. Not literally — there was plenty of light. But it seemed like every statue of Christ was weeping blood, and every church had a display case of gruesome relics in the foyer; a saint's pickled eyeballs here, a toe with dessicated skin still clinging to it there. But of all these monuments to pain and death, nothing could match the Capela dos Ossos — the Chapel of the Bones. Located next to the Church of St. Francis in the medieval town of Evora, it's a large room decorated with the bones of more than 5,000 monks, exhumed from local churchyards to be used as building materials way back in the 16th century.

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Village Life in Vanuatu

It's an archipelago comprised of 84 volcanic islands, each separated by many miles of shark-filled seas and unpredictable weather. Travel between islands is difficult and expensive, and as a result, to many of Vanuatu's 200,000 citizens "international travel" means going to a nearby island every few years to visit cousins. They've had some exposure to foreigners — missionaries starting in the 19th century (some of whom were eaten); American soldiers during World War II, who established a base on the largest island to fend off the Japanese, stationed in the nearby Solomons; some British and French, who co-governed Vanuatu in a bizarre arrangement for many years; and tourists that come to a few of the islands nowadays (mostly from Australia, which is where they all assumed I was from). But even on the largest islands, which are mountainous and covered with tough-to-penetrate jungle, there are remote villages where locals have rarely, if ever, encountered outsiders.

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