Junkyard of Dreams
Understanding the West as a landscape of dreams through its ghost towns and tourist destinations
In Mike Davis's seminal book, City of Quartz, he concludes his tour of Los Angeles’s history by writing about the former steel town of Fontana, calling it a "junkyard of dreams". I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of last year, in the midst of the pandemic and right before months of heat waves and fires, and as there was little for me to do in the city itself, I read about its history and I explored the surrounding desert. Southern California is densely populated compared to Northern California, but even here, if you drive out into the Mojave or the Sonoran desert, you can find a haunting emptiness interrupted only by the occasional gas station and traces of the dreamers who came before you. This endless expanse is home to many ghost towns, or almost-ghost towns, that together paint a surprisingly holistic picture of the history of the American West, as told by all the dreams that were attempted and then abandoned in the desert. Here are just a few of those dreams.
At the start of my road trip last fall, I first drove to Las Vegas, and on the way there I noticed a strange town on my map: Zzyzx, CA. Amused, I shared this on Instagram, not expecting any answers.
But a friend immediately responded:
a nutjob preacher who was obsessed with mineral springs and their medical healing powers basically founded that mining "town" (barely a town it's so tiny) near some of his favorite springs and named it that because he wanted the notoriety of it being the supposed last word in the english language, somehow it was special to him
And then another friend informed me:
wait also v important that it's the setting of a movie called "zyzzyx road" starring katherine heigl that cost $1.2m to make and grossed thirty (30) dollars at the box office
To which I responded, "OMG".
I didn't stop in Zzyzx, since I was on a strict schedule and had to get through Las Vegas and all the way to Zion before sunset, but the story stuck with me. It seems Californians have always been obsessed with health and fame. I later stumbled across it again in Ken Layne’s Desert Oracle: Volume 1. Part “doctor”, part “reverend”, and all-around con-man Curtis Springer founded Zzyzx in the ‘40s, hiring men from Skid Row to build out the “hotel, cross-shaped soaking pool, and radio studio” he needed for his scheme/utopia. He would advertise his resort over the radio:
Come with or without money, and spend a day or a week or a lifetime, as you care to, and enjoy our beautiful twelve-thousand-acre estate that belongs to God. We have no promotion, no real estate for sale. Just come on out here and enjoy our wonderful hot mineral water baths, the finest of foods in abundance, our wonderful desert-pure fresh air—no smog, no fog. Come and learn to breath again! Lay out in the sunshine. Oh, you’ll love it here.
It should come as no surprise that “Doc Springer” actually did want people to come with money, ideally lots of it, and for those who couldn’t make the trip out to Zzyzx, he offered mail-order cures like his “Mo-Hair” baldness cure that “required the rubbing of Soda Lake salts upon one’s scalp while hanging upside down and holding one’s breath.” A real salesman of dreams.
Eventually his schemes caught up with him: he was convicted of fraud, the Bureau of Land Management demanded he dismantle the resort, and that was that. Now Zzyzx is the home of the Desert Studies Center, as well as many bighorn sheep who also enjoy the waters as much as Springer did.
Llano del Rio
While the dream of Zzyzx is goofy and megalomaniacal, the dream of Llano del Rio is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. I first learned about it in City of Quartz; truly, if you want to understand Southern California, you have to read Mike Davis. It was a socialist commune established in 1914 by politician and lawyer Job Harriman after he had once again lost the Los Angeles mayoral election (though he probably would have won if he wasn’t representing one of the men who had bombed the LA Times). Harriman explained, “It became apparent to me that people would never abandon their means of livelihood, good or bad, capitalistic or otherwise, until other methods were developed which would promise advantages at least as good as those by which they were living.” And so he founded his promise where the Mojave meets the San Gabriel Mountains. It only survived a few years until, as Davis explains, the colony’s credit failed, and the remaining dreamers moved the whole thing over to New Llano, Louisiana, which stuck around until the ‘30s. Little of the original colony remains.
I drove out there one day to see it for myself. It's easy to miss; there are no signs indicating it's there, and from the car all you see is a blur of stone walls. It's along one of those efficient desert roads that's only meant to get you from one gas station to the next, with few places to pullover and turn around, and I passed the ruins so fast that I had to keep driving for a while before I could loop back around to park. I almost missed it the second time, too.
The main building is now encloistered in a chain link fence that says "PRIVATE PROPERTY", an irony that wasn't lost on me. If there were any plaques explaining what these ruins were, I didn't see them. The ground is littered with rusted cans and empty bottles. Once your eyes adjust to the monochrome of the desert, you start to see more ruins: what may have been a well, what may have been a warehouse. There are a few Joshua trees out here, and the mountains were close and covered in snow. At its height, when hundreds of people lived here and many more stopped by to visit, when there was a hotel and an art studio and a bakery and a brass band, it must have been incredible. Llano del Rio was plagued with drama of course, and didn’t last long, but it must have taken a lot of tenacity and belief in the socialist dream to build an entire, functioning village so quickly and out of nothing. It saddens me that we're letting it be forgotten.
But not all towns have been forgotten. Just outside San Diego and nestled in the mountains above Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the charming former mining town of Julian. According to the town's tourist pamphlet, Julian was founded by Confederate veterans who "stayed and were there in 1869, when cattleman Fred Coleman, a black man, found the first flecks of gold in a creek. So began San Diego County’s first and only gold rush." Coleman went on to become the recorder of the Coleman Mining District, and several other former slaves prospered during this gold rush too, like America Newton who laundered miners' clothes and Albert and Margaret Robinson who opened the Robinson Hotel (now the Julian Gold Rush Hotel). We often think of pioneers as exclusively being young white men, like those Confederate veterans, but pioneers have always included Black people, women, and many others who don't fit the John Wayne stereotype, and this is their history, too.
Though when you visit Julian, you probably won't be thinking about any of this. You can read about the town's history on a display tucked away on a side street, but most people now come to Julian for the apple pie. After the inevitably short-lived gold rush, the pioneers moved on to agriculture, and, according to the pamphlet, "Julian apples took first prizes in competitions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and The San Francisco World’s Fair in 1915." They've been a staple ever since.
Julian is a truly adorable town where you can see traces of the gold rush history and fantasize about some romanticized past while eating pie and buying stickers that say "Adventure" or "Be Wild" from the gift shop. Whereas the dreams of Zzyzx and Llano del Rio have long been abandoned, the dream of Julian has evolved to survive to the present day. How ironic that it's now a dream for a mythologized past, a past where everyone was dreaming of something else entirely.
Mike Davis may have dubbed Fontana the junkyard of dreams, but I'd argue you can apply that description to all of Southern California, perhaps all of the American West in general. Dreams of fame, of gold, of better health, of a more just future, of a romantic past, of a new life full of potential. Even now, Silicon Valley and Hollywood still entice many dreamers, most of whom will one day add those dreams to the scrap heap. In studying the American West, I am always struck by how much hope and potential people saw in this landscape. The reality never lived up to the fantasy of course, but we cannot make sense of anything here unless we step into those dreams ourselves. Over time, they have become part of the landscape, too, and in this way have finally become real.
A few other dreams
Allensworth, CA: Established in 1908 as the first all-Black town in California, free of racist oppression.
Pioneertown, CA: A fake town built in the '40s as an 1880s themed movie set, and later used for many other Westerns. Now a tourist attraction.
Kelso, CA: A defunct railroad depot in the Mojave. A remnant of our mining history, and of the possibilities of the burgeoning railroad system.