Mojave and California City

On my way from San Francisco to Albuqurque, I found myself in the small town of Mojave, California with a morning to waste. Well, this was not entirely an accident, as Mojave is central to several oddities that I've long wanted to see myself. Unfortunately, my DSLR is packed with the rest of my household goods, presumably in some moving warehouse somewhere, so photos will not be the main purpose of this trip. I do have my phone, and while phone cameras have improved quite a bit over the years, they still leave quite a bit to be desired.

So, here's the story of two towns in California: one involved in building the future, and one that, well, has seen far less building than it once hoped.

As for Mojave - this part of California, that is, rural Kern County, is dominated by two forces: Borax and a whole lot of air. Borax was discovered in the area in 1913, prompting a rush of mining claims and the following settlers. The air was never discovered, exactly, but its two major applications in this area came about during WWII, when the region became a hotbed of pilot training and aircraft testing, and in the 1960s, when the first wind turbines went up.

These diverse industries have created a rather odd town. Mojave has a population of a bit over 4,000, but its history has graced it with an outsized impact on the modern world. And, like many small towns, that history began with the railroad.

In the 1870s, the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed its mainline through the Tehachapi Pass, with the town of Mojave founded initially as a railroad construction camp. This project was no small feat, the terrain of the Tehachapi Pass is so difficult for railroad construction that keeping to an acceptable 2% grade required the creation of the now famous Tehachapi Loop, now a “National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark” and among the nation's top spots for railfans. I didn't see a train traveling the loop myself, but I was unlucky in that regard, it's extremely busy in railroad terms.

My poor fortune certainly became clear just a half hour farther down the tracks at the town of Mojave itself, where the constant trains quickly became irritating. The railroad travels just next to the main road in Mojave, across the street from my economy hotel. Throughout my visit there were at least four locomotives stopped in town, sometimes more, and at least one train passing through each hour.

Mojave's location right on the mainline made it a de facto logistical center for the borax mining industry that exploded in the area. The original 20 Mule Team Borax was brought from the mine to Mojave in a custom carriage pulled by – and this fact will amaze you – 20 mules. There might be a small artifact of Mojave, California history controlling odors in your fridge at this very moment. This impressive fact about the town's history is duly commemorated by a dirty plaque in front of an abandoned fast food restaurant.

This is the old Mojave though, and while there are still multiple mines operating in the area, the hotel lobbies are not decorated with borax. They are decorated with spaceships.

Air and Space Port

During World War II, Mojave's modest airport, like many in the area, was converted to a military training airbase, specifically for use by the Marine Corps. The Marines significantly expanded the small airport, turning it into a proper airbase, and used it as a major training facility. The military continued to use the airport on and off through the Korean war, and then handed it over to the county in 1961. Fortunately, a man by the name of Dan Sabovich took a liking to the airport, and under his leadership the county managed to just keep the ace pilots coming – only now, they're civilian pilots.

The old Mojave airport, now called the Mojave Air and Space Port, now serves as the home of both the National Test Pilot School, training a huge portion of the pilots involved in the private spaceflight industry and other private aerospace development, and the home of Scaled Composites, a cutting-edge aerospace engineering firm that was the first private company to reach space.

Mojave was home to SpaceShipOne, the Ansari X-Prize winning spacecraft that was once the biggest news in aerospace. To be quite honest, SpaceShipOne's fame is now largely forgotten, replaced by the achievements of SpaceX, but it is certainly not forgotten in Mojave. “Welcome to Mojave, Home of SpaceShipOne” is the best thing the local government could come up with to put on their town limits signs. And the airport includes a small park with a full-scale model of SpaceShipOne.

Ironically, the SpaceShipOne model sits immediately next to the Rotary Rocket “Roton”, a rocket designed by the same person, Burt Rutan, and built by a private company in the late '90s. The Roton did not win any X-prizes. It hardly even left the ground. Rotary Rocket ran out of money early in testing, and now their legacy, a giant white cone, sits just outside the Mojave Air and Space Port administrative offices.

Near these artifacts of aerospace innovation, there is another product of the work done at Mojave: A small memorial to four Scaled Composites test pilots, and two students and two instructors of the Test Pilot School, all killed in aircraft accidents.

Far behind the “Legacy Park” as they call this display is another kind of legacy park, or perhaps more a legacy parking lot. Mojave's dry air and the large size of the airport have made it a popular final resting ground for aircraft themselves, and at the back end of the airport there are rows of commercial jetliners sitting empty, waiting until the most valuable components have been stripped for reuse and they are finally disassembled for material recycling.

The total effect of the Mojave Air and Space Port is a bit surreal. Here there are aircraft and spacecraft at both the beginning and ends of their lives, and enough commercial airliners for a regional commercial airport, but the whole thing is built up around the kind of municipal airport restaurant and office building you'd expect to find on the outskirts of a town of 4,000.

Wind Farm

On the opposite outskirts of Mojave, the area's excellent supply of air is harnessed in a different way. Mojave is home to both the largest wind farm in the United States, the Alta Wind Energy Center, and the US's first real wind farm, the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm. The turbines are scattered up the hillside and over the ridge to the west of Mojave as far as you can see, seeing them all turning in the wind it's hard not to be mesmerized.

The area's long history as a wind energy center creates an unusual effect. as you drive the lonely roads deeper and deeper into the field of turbines, and up the hill to the more desirable land, you get to older and older turbine designs. At the lower flats, the turbines are enormous, white, modern designs, lazily swinging city-bus-sized blades around far above your head. On the ridge, rusty truss towers hold up turbines the size of a small car that seem to be trying to make up for size with speed – but in the attempt they just make an unpleasant grinding sound. Some suffer from chronic leaks in the hubs and have dark oil stains running down the blades at odd angles due to combined gravity wind and centrifugal force, others have been removed entirely, leaving decapitated towers.

Many, even most, of these older turbines are no longer functional, and even those spinning are delivering no load, just moving to keep the lubricants well distributed. Eventually they will probably be torn down, but for now there is clearly no shortage of extra room out in the desert. There's an upside to keeping them, anyway: it only makes the new turbines all the more impressive.

California City is the third largest city in the state of California… by area. About 30 minutes away from Mojave, towards the mine on the 20 Mule Team trail, California City was formed not by the railroad, or borax, or even man's dreams of flight, but by Nat Mendelsohn.

In the 1960s, Nat, having big dreams and presumably also a big ego, set out to create a city the Right Way. Instead of allowing one to grow organically, he would design a major city from scratch, all at once. To do this, he bought 80,000 acres of prime desert real estate that no one else wanted.

Cal City, as the locals call it, would be a beautifully planned city with a spacious central park, a thriving downtown, and pleasant residential districts stretching across the valley. As you may suspect, from the fact that you have probably never heard of a California City, this story ends more like Rotary Rocket than SpaceShipOne.

Like many failed planned developments, Cal City got as far as grading and sometimes paving suburban roads, and even installing underground utilities. Unlike most failed planned developments, Cal City is 80,000 acres. Today, about 15,000 people live in a small town with a golf course and park. Beyond them, there are roads. And more roads. Miles and miles of suburban roads, slowly being reclaimed by the desert.

Even in the populated part of California City, the city's once grandiose plans are clear. The main avenues are four lanes wide with two-lane frontage roads on each side to provide low-traffic access to a very few houses. A four lane road would have been excessive. Eight lanes, some half of them crumbling back into sand, makes the few houses look like the few survivors of an apocalypse.

In the suburbs, the vast, completely undeveloped suburbs, apparently infinite dirt roads have been re-used by the city as the largest OHV area I have ever seen. My greatest advice for a visit to California City: bring a dirtbike. Only upon arrival did I discover that the majority of the city's land area is reserved for OHV use, with automobiles prohibited except in the very early morning. Motorcyclists, though, can purchase a “riding permit” from the city for $15.

Unfortunately, the city does not seem to have endorsed any kind of auto rally use, which I was thinking the area was excellently suited for as I drove at a rather incautious speed into the desert.

One of the most curious things about California City is the area's unerring optimism. Far into the empty southeastern part of the city there are periodic small enclaves of development, a few houses clustered together on a better-than-average dirt road. Around a small hill in the city there is the Silver Saddle Ranch, a small resort that intends to be the center of the “Galileo Project.”

The “Galileo Project” reminds me of some of the land-sales scams I've researched. It reminds me entirely too much of them, in fact, as it seems that Silver Saddle is still actively trying to sell the land at inflated prices to buyers who don't realize just what California City really is.

For some reason, the Galileo Project perimeters have been marked with large white domes of broken concrete. Perhaps once intended as memorable gathering places for sales tours, they look now like the burial mounds of developer's dreams.

At one point, I spend 30 minutes tearing down a dirt road, so sandy that I am steering more of a boat than a car, in search of what my map calls “E Park”, one of the many small neighborhood parks included in the California City master plan and now referred to as campgrounds for the OHV area. I never find any evidence of the park, and not wanting to win a citation for my daring act of driving offroad after 6am (the cutoff after which the area is OHV only), I turned back.

Back in downtown, I am surprised at Google's complete ignorance of the condition of the city. Maps regularly attempts to navigate me down roads that were apparently once planned but now barely exist. Indeed, the whole area is this way. Looking at a map you would expect a bustling metropolis along all those pleasantly named streets. In reality, there is almost nothing.

While I admire the development of the OHV area, a clever innovation for a town that finds itself with almost nothing but an enormous excess of desert, I don't have bright hopes for California City's future. Across the street from a half-built gated community, I find the most profoundly abandoned building I have ever seen.

I had hoped to visit the two automotive proving grounds in California City, one in use by Hyundai and the other closed and currently for sale, but I ran out of time and had to move on towards Albuquerque. I would highly recommend a drive through both Mojave and California City if you are ever in the area, and if you own a dirtbike, spend a long weekend. The local economy could use it.