I was organizing some old photo archives on my computer the other day and came across a screenshot I must have taken while editing some film scans over five years ago. The photographs in question where taken in 2010 while I was working on a roaming backcountry trail crew throughout BLM designated wilderness areas throughout California. These photos were taken while off-hitch in the Inyo Mountains at a rock outcropping on the eastern flanks of the Sierras outside the town of Lone Pine – the Alabama Hills.
The Alabama Hills are a significant landscape feature for various reasons. For one, they are an iconic geologic feature boasting dozen of natural arches and large rounded biotite monzogranitic boulders, whose soft edges dramatically contrast the rigid peaks of the high Sierras in the background. These hills also helped shape the scenic high desert of California in the minds of many Americans through early television programs and Western movies, such as The Lone Ranger and Bonanza (note: one of my childhood favorites, Tremors, was also shot in these parts and you can touch a Graboid at film history museum in Lone Pine).
I am deeply interested in the impressions landscapes make on our perceptions and lives. These rocks taught me through misleading media about the nature of California in my youth rather unknowingly, and again helped codify some sort of understanding about this bioregion which I have grown to love after spending time working in its stark and enchanting wilderness.
Many years later I would end up moving to the desert south west for graduate school, study landscape architecture, make the move to California, and begin exploring a career in the profession. While walking to work last week I came upon a pleasant discovery. I have been taking advantage of the early rising sun by using my morning commute as a bit of a drifting exercise. It’s hard for me to fully understand even simple directions and streets without spending some time in these locations so the walk really helps build an experiential understanding of the distance between where I live and were I work. The route is somewhat standard, but there are a handful of variant detours I can attempt to explore if I get out the door with enough time to get a little lost. Last week I had managed to shave a couple minutes off the morning routine and had some time to kill. I decided to check out the water feature at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Building, which I had been made aware of from (I think) from the film Los Angeles Plays Itself (which I am due to re-watch, and cannot recommend enough). The film, more of a documentary, or glorified lecture, examines the public conceptions of Los Angeles that have been forged by its presence in film since the early days of Hollywood. Anyways, I knew the DWP building had a massive water feature, which seems ironic and oxymoronic and I wanted to see it first hand. I knew the building well but had always been on parallel streets and couldn’t get a good look at its grounds.
I made my way in its direction and finally found the beginning of the property when a small corner desert garden caught my eye. Vegetation I knew well from my time in Arizona and some large granitic boulders brought back a flood of memories and feelings I am not use to conjuring in the throngs of downtown Los Angeles. Upon further investigation I saw a plaque, unreadable from the sidewalk, so I stepped over the edging and approached the rock.
“THESE ANCIENT GRANIT BOULDERS WERE BROUGHT FROM PICTURESQUE ALABAMA HILLS IN OWENS VALLEY.
THE ROCKS ARE ESTIMATED TO BE 200 MILLION YEARS OLD. OWENS VALLEY IS THE SOURCE OF A LARGE PORTION OF THE WATER SERVICE FOR THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES.”
Huh. I knew these old things looked familiar. It is funny to think how we bring landscapes around with us everywhere we go, drawing upon past experience to help make sense of the new – learning along the way. We have ideas about places we have never been, postcards in our minds, made up, making up our minds. From old Lone Ranger re-runs on VHS at my grandparents’ house, to decompacting un-sanctioned off-road trails in the Inyos with pick mattocks and dusty boots, to the sleepy eyed morning commute to work at a landscape architecture firm in the Financial District. A true psychogeography, if not some sort of psychogeobiography. It all comes and goes, and will do and has done for the last 200 million years making endless impressions on who knows what.