view stage two: part three here.

04.18.09 Day Twenty-nine: Los Angeles, CA to Fullerton, CA

upper left: I’d be surprised if whatever deal is in the works here had anything to do with all that crap on the sidewalk.

lower left: How most Los Angeles residents experience their city.

lower right: This muffler shop avoids becoming a meal for its predators by displaying these dazzling stripes.

It’s difficult to say exactly what it is about Los Angeles that makes me so anxious. Perhaps it’s the frantic pace everyone seems to be keeping, or the crushing monotony: block after block of RiteAids and fried-chicken shacks. Maybe it’s the police helicopters that circle incessantly, or the necessity to drive everywhere. It could be the perpetually sunny weather, or the cell-phone towers painted blue to match a dingy cloudless sky. Or maybe it’s in the simple declarative statement I overheard spoken by a teenage girl as she passed on the sidewalk: “See that’s the thing about LA—you can’t just cross the street when you want to.”

I’d been staying with Alex at his place in Atwater Village. We’re good friends from our undergraduate days in Davis and as we did when we lived together, spent hours discussing our respective artistic pursuits. Before my time with Alex was up, we’d seen an Armenian comedy show, biked the LA River, visited an abandoned zoo, and strolled a private farmer’s market. Alex was an incredibly generous host and beginning to feel guilty about all the meals he insisted on paying for was what prompted me to move on.

The route from Los Angeles to Fullerton tours the Mexican neighborhoods east of the city before passing through the successive (but indistinguishable) towns of Montebello, Pico Rivera, Whittier, and La Habra. Early in the leg I’d happened upon The Brewery Art Colony: a vast industrial space converted into hundreds of studios. The collective of mediocre artists was in the middle of an open-studio’s weekend and I sauntered in and out of workspaces while casually keeping an eye out for a toilet. As my need grew increasingly desperate, it became clear that they’d hidden (or at least locked) any restrooms within the sprawling complex. Forced to inquire, I was informed of a small contingent of porta-potties marooned in a remote parking lot. Insulted by the lack of accessible indoor plumbing, I refused to use them.

The extraordinarily poor condition of LA’s streets finally knocked my rear wheel out of alignment. Nevertheless, endorphins from the day’s ride prevented the slight wobble from dampening my triumphant arrival. Awash with self-confidence, I sat myself down at a café table occupied by three college-age girls. I’d just completed my first solo tour and someone (attractive) was going to hear about it.

Postscript: Reaching Fullerton marked the beginning of my multi-month stay in Southern California. That night was the first of many I’d spend in the guestroom at the Fullerton House, which in the weeks ahead, would come to be referred to as “Brett’s room.” Jessie, Nathan, Nick and Leslie were incredibly patient as my plans changed weekly and I gradually became the household’s fifth member. I thank them for their generosity in sharing their space.

04.16.09 Day Twenty-six: Ventura, CA to Los Angeles, CA

left: "Construimus, Batuimus"

right: This billboard overlooked a BMW dealership. A stretched Hummer sporting a ‘for sale’ sign was parked on the street nearby. Perhaps it's the metaphorical center of LA.

Driven out by security, I reluctantly left the abandoned Ventura Refinery where I’d spent the previous night and most of the morning. After a stop at the market for breakfast complimented by a flattering remark on the quality of my “rig,” I started off on an improvised route across town. Several frustrating dead-ends later, I broke out into the agricultural lands of the Oxnard Plain. The lowland confined by several mountain ranges is known for having some of the world’s most fertile soil. This geological endowment, coupled with a coastal climate, makes it an extremely productive strawberry growing region. As I’d done several times before on the leg, I bought a basket of the fruit off the tailgate of a pickup parked on the side of the road.

A military firing range sits at the spot where The Pacific Coast Highway is forced back against the ocean by the Santa Monica Mountains. The red flags were flying (which means the bullets were too) and I felt a bit anxious snapping pictures from the perimeter fence. I deduced from some rather conspicuous signage that the “SeaBees” were the battalion with the guns. They’re the navy’s wartime engineering and building force deployed at nearby Point Mugu Naval Air Station. E-2 Hawkeyes, aircraft piggybacked by 24-foot rotating domes, had been flying touch-and-goes from the base all morning.

A considerable portion of the day was spent pedaling through Malibu’s “27 miles of scenic beauty” (a misleading thing for the town to proclaim since, unless you’ve got ocean frontage, there’s not much beauty to behold). A strip of mansions owned by the movie industry’s darlings hardly qualifies as a town anyway. Besides the smell of affluence wafting about Malibu, two things told me I’d arrived in Southern California. The first was that the safety buffer drivers afforded me suddenly shrank to a few inches. The second requires a more thorough explanation:

Since many of Malibu’s residences overlook the ocean, they have long driveways that connect the home to the main highway. Lavish front gates control access to the driveways and very little property lies between them and Route One: at most a shallow pullout and a bit of landscaping. Having found these pullouts to be safe places to pause, I pulled off the road to rest after climbing a substantial hill. While I straddled my frame, taking great gulps of water, the sprinklers started up on a thin strip of nearby lawn. The overspray was in danger of wetting the bike and I, thinking my timing impeccable, rolled a couple feet toward the highway and safely out of range. Seconds after I’d moved the sprinklers shut off. This couldn’t be a coincidence. I’d been shooed off the property by someone insane enough to be watching their front gate on closed circuit television with one trigger-happy finger on the watering cycle start button. I flashed the bird at the invisible eye and started off down the road feeling angry and confused. Welcome to Malibu.

Malibu bleeds into Santa Monica, which bleeds into Los Angeles. By the time I reached the Beverly Center Mall I was thoroughly exhausted and Alex, the friend I’d be staying with, volunteered to intercept me. We chose the Mobil at La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard as the pickup point: a location with a certain irony I wouldn’t recognize until later. The leg began at a decommissioned oil refinery and ended seventy miles away at a Los Angeles gas station.

04.16.09 Ventura Refinery

The Ventura Refinery’s reason for existing vanished when the nearby wells that fed it went into rapid decline. Today it’s a rusting industrial city with processions of enormous aboveground reservoirs and oxidized distillation towers. Bundles of pipe in every diameter crisscross the property, sometimes running twenty feet overhead before plunging underground. The whole place smells faintly of the petroleum derivatives that permeate the bone-dry ground.

I’d arrived at the forgotten metropolis late in the afternoon and the remaining daylight proved insufficient to complete my documentation routine. Intending to photograph the facility bathed in warm early-morning light, I bedded down beneath two immense spheres designed for the storage of some highly volatile gas. Hundreds of swallows had built mud huts around the tanks’ equators and orbited incessantly in loose formation—gorging themselves on twilight insects.

Waking with the sun in the middle of such a severe landscape put me in a heedless state of mind. I behaved as if entirely alone on what might as well have been another planet. I clambered up and down rust-covered spires and across the wide flat tops of empty storage tanks: each step a noisy rap on an oversized steel drum. I poked into bombed-out control rooms where walls of gauges once reported the real time movements of refined product from one end of the plant to the other. I was a child—completely enraptured.

Awareness of a world outside the refinery’s walls returned abruptly when my body crossed the threshold of a window armed with a motion sensor. As an alarm blared monotonously, I scolded myself for having been so careless. Cursing the last booby-trapping members of whatever alien civilization abandoned this city centuries before, I continued my explorations with added caution.

I might have stayed at the refinery all day if a security officer piloting a pickup hadn’t interrupted. He appeared twenty minutes after I triggered the alarm and was frustratingly persistent in his search for whomever was lurking about. Our extended game of hide-and-seek had me performing duck-and-cover maneuvers amid scattered chunks of concrete and steel. Half an hour of simulated post-apocalyptic urban warfare came to an end when I slipped through the fence hole that was my exit portal.

34°19'56"N 119°17'41"W

04.16.09 Day Twenty-five: Santa Barbara, CA to Ventura, CA

The prevailing winds that made the final leg into Santa Barbara so effortless were back with a vengeance to make this short hop even shorter. I kept thinking how miserable it would be if I were heading the opposite direction, and only spotted one determined cyclist making an attempt.

The most curious thing encountered on the ride was a line of RVs parked single file along a bleak stretch of windswept coastline. Many of the wheeled homes sported flags, adding to the remote outpost feel of the transient community. As I passed by the blur of bad graphics and beach chairs, I realized not a soul was about. I wondered if this was how they envisioned their motorhome vacations on the day of the big purchase: the family huddled inside a fiberglass box watching television. I’ve never understood the logic of RV living, thinking it just another monstrous manifestation of the automobile age. It amounts to saying, “Hey, lets go hang out in a parking lot with our cars!”

My intention for planning an overnight in Ventura was to visit the well-into-decline Ventura oil field. The field apparently remains productive enough to require security, and its wells are hidden within the mountainous terrain west of the entrance gate. All was not lost, however, and my ride up into the canyon yielded a valuable discovery: an abandoned refinery.

04.12.09 Knapp's Castle

I don’t know much about this place other than it was probably a grand structure before being destroyed by fire. A few stone walls, arches, stairs, and the base of a chimney remain to give the site the feel of a Roman ruin. Views of the surrounding Los Padres National Forest wilderness are breathtaking and likely what attracted the builder to such a remote location.

Jessica was correct in assuming I’d dig the place and lovely enough to pack a few snacks and drive us up. It was chilly at altitude and without the warming effects of alcohol we didn’t stay long, leaving the incredibly romantic spot to a couple that had arrived for the sunset with a bottle of red wine.

04.12.09 Celite Corporation’s Lompoc Diatomaceous Earth Mine

I’ve already mentioned how difficult it is to photograph this place. Its location on a mountainous tract of private land effectively limits access and keeps the ruined landscape out of sight/out of mind. There is, however, a single road that leads into the heart of the operation where a towering industrial erection is superheating the white sedimentary rock; pulverizing it into a fine powder.

On the day of my visit, a friendly young man named Dennis was standing guard over the facility’s entrance. Assigned to the mine a year earlier by the private security company whose uniform he adorned, it was Dennis’s last day on the job. Obviously looking forward to the transfer, he was in a decidedly chatty mood. After a supervisor (who emerged briefly to confirm that I was indeed a “tourist”) had scurried back to the hole he came from, Dennis and I were free to talk. He described the hidden topography as a nearly unbroken expanse of pure white: blinding to look at. Rubbing his palms together, he insisted that getting the powder on your skin induces extreme dryness and the immediate desire to, “wash it off.”

Apparently a mysterious Frenchman owns the mine. His employees will confirm his existence although none seem to have ever actually seen the guy. Perhaps the most interesting of Dennis’s tidbits dealt with an environmental upgrade the mine had been forced to make. Because of their operating costs, recently constructed cleaner-burning furnace units have made the facility unprofitable. Like many industrial installations suffering in the current economic climate, Celite’s Lompoc mine appears to be facing an uncertain future.

34°36'22"N 120°26'38"W

04.12.09 Day Twenty: Lompoc, CA to Santa Barbara, CA

left: "Yeah! We on the moon muthafucka!" (Actually, we're at McDonald's in Lompoc.)

right: I just want that big white sphere to go rolling down that hill.

How many of one’s days begin by climbing to the top of a rusty industrial edifice?
(I imagine it’s a pretty rare occurrence for anyone that doesn’t have some obscure and dangerous job fabricating offshore oilrigs).

Greeting the rising sun from Betteravia’s furnace stack, high above a misty Santa Maria Valley, was one of those rare moments when you can honestly say there’s no place you’d rather be. My twenty-nine yeas of life seemed destined for that exact place in space and time. From what was easily the highest point for miles, I gazed down at the little outdoor room I’d created by abutting my tent to a decrepit piece of farming equipment. Flashes of reflected sunlight glinted from the nearby silos’ untarnished strips of stainless steel and a flock of tiny birds orbited nearby.

After descending and polishing off a modest breakfast I raced the clock into town to catch The Breese, a commuter bus that runs back and forth between Santa Maria and Lompoc. I had ridden it in the opposite direction from Vandenberg the day before and had had a particularly bad experience with the driver. I was displeased to see him again, especially after he scolded me for not loading my stuff fast enough.

The Breese dropped me back in Lompoc and I headed straight for the town’s only node of cool—a coffeehouse facing its main intersection. I pulled up to a couple of older gentlemen sitting at an outside table and asked if they knew where I might find a large open-pit mine. They exchanged knowing smiles as if my question made perfect sense in the context of their conversation. One asked, “Are you looking for work or do you just wanna check it out?” I briefly entertained the thought of driving a bulldozer through a barren white wasteland then answered, “Yeah… No, I just thought I’d have a look at it.”

One would think it difficult to hide the world’s largest open-pit diatomaceous earth mine, but hidden is exactly what it is. Small peaks with no public roads cradle the mine and obscure most of its exposed terrain. My search for a good shot of the site took me seven miles up into the mountains and, despite lots of altitude gain, was relatively fruitless. I don’t know if it’s intentional but public outcry must remain at a minimum if no one ever sees the place.

After checking in with security at the mine’s main gate (no tours), I headed south. As the road hit the coast and veered east, an exceptionally strong tailwind blew me the last thirty miles into Santa Barbara. A bustling State Street welcomed me to town.

04.12.09 Betteravia Sugar Plant

The 15th of January 1919 was an exceptionally warm day for mid-winter in Boston. At the Purity Distilling Company, an enormous molasses tank reacted to the heat by rupturing and spilling over two million gallons of its sticky sweet contents into the city’s streets. The ensuing wave of molten sugar (between eight and fifteen feet high and traveling at thirty-five miles per hour) swept buildings off their foundations and carried rail cars, people, horses, and dogs for several blocks. The Great Molasses Flood, my favorite historicized term for the event, is a catastrophe that could only have occurred at a time and place when and where sugar was being produced and stored in large enough quantities to actually flood—and flood severely enough for twenty-one souls to have lost their lives. It’s a disaster that belongs uniquely to the Industrial Age. At the time, incidentally, alcohol distilled from molasses was a key ingredient in the production of munitions. The dark brown liquid awaiting transfer to the Purity plant on that tragic day was likely to end up killing people even if it hadn’t drowned them on Boston’s North End.

So why begin an entry on an abandoned beet processing plant in California’s Santa Maria Valley with an account of the Boston Molasses Disaster? The short answer is that both Boston and Betteravia are sites at which sugar was once produced on an industrial scale.

The now defunct company town of Betteravia, a name that refers to the French word for beet root, at one time supported a community of 350 residents. Many were employees at the Union Sugar factory, which persisted in various forms from around the turn of the 20th century until closing permanently in 1993. The facility extracted sucrose from sugar beets: a highly engineered tuber from which thirty percent of the world’s sugar is derived. While most of the town’s cottages and other structures were either moved or razed in the 1960s, the site still boasts two enormous hermetically sealed silos, a more or less intact refinery building, and a towering furnace stack.

While the visual aspects of an abandonment normally demand most of my attention, I was pleased (and a bit unnerved) by Betteravia’s odd symphony of noise. A gusty breeze played long thin strips of shredded aluminum siding by picking up the dangling ribbons and throwing them against the silos’ outer walls. A flock of tiny birds added sonic texture by chirping incessantly.

I spent the most time with the silos; exploring their flooded subterranean passages and pitch-black interiors. I witnessed sunset from one of their shallowly sloped roofs then crossed the bridge between them to watch a full moon ascend from the opposite horizon. The refinery building was a bit tougher to access; requiring a tight squeeze under a wall panel that had been pried at the corner by a previous visitor. It’s interior was a dramatic assemblage of boilers, piping and shattered gauges—the floor a thick mat of droppings and feathers.

Betteravia, like Boston, was the site of its own (less catastrophic) industrial disaster. A dust explosion and ensuing fire occurred at the plant in 1988 and critically burned seven workers. The event marked the beginning of the end for the factory, then owned by Imperial Holly. The years ahead will see more of such endings, associated with the decline of industrial food production, as the model proves too unwieldy and complex to adapt to an energy scarce world. They’ll be fewer floods and fires, and more dilapidated factories to wander through as they begin the second half of their lives as industrial ruins.

wikipedia page
34°55'1"N 120°30'59"W

04.12.09 Vandenberg Air Force Base

My visit to Vandenberg Air Force Base was a let down. To be allowed on the base as a civilian I had to sign up for one of their bimonthly tours. It was the only part of the ride that required advanced scheduling and I was unprepared for the anxiety of having to be at a particular place at a particular time. Also, I had hoped to photograph an abandoned spaceport but all that remains of Space Launch Complex Ten is a slab of concrete the tour guide failed to point out. Fortunately the experience wasn’t a total loss. A few highlights worth mentioning are covered below.

The first stop on Vandenberg’s tour is a full-scale replica of an LGM-30 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Pointed threateningly at the sky, it stands at the center of a large concrete circle surrounded by well-tended sod. Having cleared the base’s main security gate and arrived at the missile site, my tour group and I reluctantly piled off the 60s era school bus we’d only just been packed on to. There was further hesitation when the retired military men and their families remembered they were caring cameras but only started snapping after the first brave soul had stepped forward to have his picture taken with a nuclear weapon.

After quick stops at a Korean War memorial and a tank sitting on a pile of rocks, the bus lumbered out to the tour’s main attraction: The Space and Missile Heritage Center. Vandenberg’s website sums up the center with this awkward run-on:

The Space and Missile Heritage Center preserves and displays artifacts and memorabilia to interpret the evolution of missile and spacelift activity at Vandenberg from the beginning of the Cold War through current non-classified developments in military, commercial, and scientific space endeavors.

It was kinda fun looking at the museum’s collection of bulky outdated guidance computers and thinking about how much technological envelope pushing the military is responsible for. (Does anyone know what percentage of MIT graduates will go into military funded research projects?) ICBM technology seems to have peaked with the diplomatically dubbed Peacekeeper. The weapon was equipped with up to ten independently targetable re-entry vehicles, each with its own 300-kiloton warhead. The program was scrapped, along with the Soviet version, as part of the START II disarmament treaty. The weapon’s hypothetical ability to wipe out much of the enemy’s nuclear arsenal in one fell swoop meant striking first became really important. This preemptive first strike strategy was rightly identified as just a bit too risky to remain on the table.

These days, preparing for nuclear war is lower on the list of priorities at Vandenberg. The last stop on the tour was SLC-6, an active site where Google’s satellites are launched into polar orbit. We had to promise not to take any pictures here. The ones I took illicitly through the window of the bus all came out blurry.

wikipedia page
34°44'14"N 120°34'57"W

04.10.09 Simplot Soilbuilders

300 million years ago there was a vast inland sea covering much of the North American continent. Prevailing winds picked up dust particles of a certain composition; carried them out over this sea and then dropped them. The particles sank to the bottom where they joined other compounds and accumulated in sedimentary strata. This process of sorting and sedimentation continued for some 15 million years until a 350,000 square kilometer area, encompassing present day Idaho and Wyoming, had accumulated a layer of relatively homogeneous phosphate minerals.

Fast forward to present. The sea is gone, replaced by high desert, and the layer has become phosphate rock: 420 meters thick in some places. An advanced species of terrestrial mammal has discovered that if this rock is dug up, crushed, and combined with phosphoric acid, the resulting substance can be applied to topsoil where it replaces a missing nutrient necessary for healthy plant growth. Since the members of this species are so numerous, and their demand for plant derived sustenance so great, they have come to rely heavily on this and other “inputs” to support their bloated population.

Why the geology/human ecology lesson? Consider it background information to help make sense of what it is that Simplot does. Their Smokey Canyon mine in Southeastern Idaho is the largest of four in the region and supplies high quality phosphorite ore to their Pocatello fertilizer plant via a 140-km-long slurry line. Joe and I stumbled upon the sprawling plant on our way out of town one frosty morning in October. We took these images of it.

Already somewhat acquainted with Simplot after looking into their Idaho operations, coming across one of their retail locations in Guadalupe was like bumping into someone you’d connected with at a party, but since forgotten about. I had now seen two points in the phosphate fertilizer production and distribution system and could pretty well infer the steps in between.

But getting to know an industry means uncovering its hypocrisies and half-truths. The most glaringly obvious is Simplot’s deceptive subtitle: Soilbuilders. Their fertilizer products don’t build anything, least of all soil. Any farmer or gardener worth his salt will tell you that the only way soil gets ‘built’ is through a complex combination of physical, chemical, and biological processes acting upon a variety of organic and inorganic compounds. Paradoxically, the use of synthetic fertilizers actually depletes soil over time. Sure, maybe it’s just clever marketing, but it's going to sound particularly perverse when the last of the topsoil blows away.

A propaganda document outlining Simplot’s Pocatello plant reads: “…by improving the efficiency of food production, the fertilizers and feed inputs produced at the Don Plant help to feed our nation and the world in an affordable fashion.” The word efficiency is here used in an ambiguous and misleading way. It’s important to keep in mind that improvements in efficiency related to fertilizer use, one aspect of the so-called “green revolution,” are strictly economic in nature. From any other standpoint, including energy, efficiency is not the correct word. What’s really been realized through technological progress over the last century are new ways of harnessing prehistoric sources of energy and nutrients to increase the productivity of the planet’s acreage. Because the time and energy it took to create these ancient resources is absent from the equations we use to calculate efficiency, we’re looking at some seriously skewed results. Remember, the Permian Phosphoria Formation took 15 million years to form. We’ve dug up a significant portion of it in a fraction of that time. In other words, modern man has allowed himself to mistake prodigality for efficiency. Simplot is a perpetuator of this dangerous illusion.

This article goes into it a bit further: Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply.

04.10.09 Day Eighteen: San Luis Obispo, CA to Lompoc, CA

top right: I love maps painted on walls. According to this one in Guadalupe, Los Angeles is only twenty-two bricks away.

I ate a giant undercooked pancake at the hostel before saying a few goodbyes and setting off under foreboding skies. It was raining steadily by the time I reached the coast and I stopped at a café in Pismo Beach to dry and wait out the weather. The coffeehouse I’d chosen was cozy and staffed by three attractive girls which meant a longer than anticipated stay.

Consistent with the established routine, I stopped in at a Conocophillips refinery in Arroyo Grande and requested a tour. Actually, I had already snapped a dozen images by the time security showed up for the meet and greet. It seems the September eleventh event has fixed it so that the only people who see the inside of such places are employees. I mean I kinda understand: the yellow threat level placard on the front gate did read ELEVATED.

Just south of the refinery, the road enters Santa Maria Valley. The valley is a highly productive agricultural region producing strawberries, broccoli and wine grapes. Also, if you’ve eaten one of those bagged supermarket salads, there’s a good chance the lettuce was grown here. In the middle of the valley I passed a large refrigeration and packaging facility where food is put in deep freeze before being shipped to distant corners of the globe.

Tattered remains of the storm system that dampened my morning continued to make their way through the area; adding cumulous drama to my photographs. The sky was especially dynamic during my visit to the abandoned Betteravia sugar plant. I’d been looking forward to Betteravia more than any other site on the itinerary and it’s difficult to convey my excitement as I watched its giant silos grow larger in the distance. The low afternoon sun gleaming off their rust patinated surfaces was enough to make me giggle with joy.

Having spent a bit too much time climbing around Betteravia, I’d committed myself to crossing the vast emptiness of Vandenberg Air Force Base in darkness. I had tried to cram too much into one day and it was inevitably catching up with me. With the light fading from the most brilliant sunset I’d seen in a while, I began to feel loneliness. The sensation was one I’d been able to avoid on the trip thus far, but something about being alone on what was basically a freeway crossing miles of coastal scrub was too much to handle. I turned to the moon and the wind for companionship, thanking them for lighting my way and blowing me ever closer to my destination. As I’d been doing a lot in recent days, I spoke to myself. I spoke with force as if addressing a room full of people. It just felt natural to make noise—something to interrupt the monotonous sound of cold night air rushing past my ears.

I expected my arrival in Lompoc to break the spell of loneliness but it actually worsened my condition. The businesses in this dreadful place all shut down at ten so my prospects for finding a hot meal were poor. I remember asking a dude outside a Subway in the middle of a sea of strip malls and gas stations where the town center could be found. “You’re looking at it,” he said. I rolled up to several Mexican restaurants that were just locking up before I found a Chinese joint that would sell me some takeout. I ate my spicy eggplant sitting on a concrete curb overlooking a vast empty parking lot. My fortune: disappointingly unmemorable.

04.10.09 Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

top left: No, the plant is not still under construction. That’s 1972.

bottom right: If this siren is going off, expect an earthquake, a tsunami, or to be bombarded with radiation.

They build Nuclear power plants in the most inconvenient locations. This one went up in the early 70s on one of the last chunks of undeveloped coastline in California. Before making the arduous trek out to the only point where one can get a glimpse of the Diablo Canyon facility, I went to visit Ellie at the plant’s community outreach center.

It was good to finally meet face to face with the woman who’d been taking my phone calls for the past month. I’d been trying in vain to secure official access to the plant and she’d been my only ally in the endeavor. That morning I’d called for what turned out to be the last time and had, predictably, gotten her familiar voice on the other end. I told her I was in San Luis Obispo (less than ten miles away) and she insisted I come by the visitor’s center and she’d try and get me in.

When I arrived Ellie gave me the news I’d been dreading. Feeling genuinely sorry about not being able to grant the single wish of someone who’d ridden their bike 4000 miles, she tried to be obliging in other ways. We talked for a long time about the plant and when the subject inevitably made its way to security, she laid a tactical gem on me. It was obvious she’d been doing some thinking on the issue and almost seemed eager to share. She had concluded that to attack the plant itself would be wasted effort. It’s heavily guarded and built like a fortress. She suggested targeting the transmission lines that carry energy away from the plant. They’re relatively unprotected and with a little monkeywrenching one could keep maintenance crews busy for days while the plant was effectively disabled.

After perusing the interpretive displays and collecting a bundle of brochures and pamphlets on waste storage, Ellie and I said our bittersweet goodbyes. I hopped back on the bike and began the long ride north to the Point Buchon Trailhead. Allegedly, there was an overlook somewhere on the newly opened coastal trail that provided a distant and only partially obstructed view of the plant. I had set aside the entire day for the purpose of acquiring Diablo Canyon imagery and was not about to give up, even after such a disappointing setback.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant it surrounded by 12,000 acres that has largely been maintained in its “natural” state. This land functions as a “buffer zone,” keeping the plant out of sight and out of mind. Several years ago, when PG&E wanted to construct an on site above-ground storage facility for the plant’s highly radioactive used reactor fuel, The California Coastal Commission required that they open a portion of the land for public access. The 3.5 mile long Point Buchon Trail opened in the summer of 2008 and marked the first time in hundreds of years the public has been allowed on the property.

At the trailhead stands a small shed manned by two security personnel. Their job is to require prospective trail users to sign a waver, limit the daily visitor total to 275, and make sure everyone is off the property by 5:00. They are not employed by PG&E, but by a private security company responsible for maintaining the Point Buchon Trail. If you’re not back at the shed by 4:45 they come chasing after you in a little four-wheeled ATV. If you’re hiding, they call the guys with guns at Diablo Canyon Security.

After battling a headwind over miles of hilly terrain then signing my life away to a private security force, I was beginning to doubt whether this view was to be worth the effort. Fortunately, the lovely weather and nearly deserted trail were enough to ease my misgivings. I bounded along the edges of bluffs and across wildflower meadows on the way to Windy Point: the often-blustery overlook from which the plant becomes visible on a distant horizon. While the windy spot is the trail’s highpoint, its not its endpoint and I decided to press on and see if the plant would re-emerge. After another half mile the official trail ended with a rope barrier and a slightly unnerving sign that warns of the use of deadly force in the interest of protecting the plant (see image). With part of me expecting to be picked off by a sniper’s bullet, I stepped over the rope and started up a gentile incline in the direction of the plant. Sure enough, after a few hundred yards a fence appeared along with a second (much closer) view that was obviously meant to stay hidden by ending the trail in that particular location. Feeling proud of myself for in some way having foiled the plant’s defenses, I took a second round of shots from this forbidden territory.

What started as a stroll back in the direction I’d come soon became a run when I realized I had a long way to go before check-out time at the security shed. Arriving at 5:00 on the dot, I cheerfully reclaimed my bicycle then got the hell out.

What links Diablo Canyon with the other power plants I’d visited in past few days is that they all were built at the continent’s edge to access seawater for cooling. This particular plant lacks the highly visible cooling towers normally required to vent the immense heat generated when atoms are split. At Diablo Canyon, that heat is simply diffused into the ocean. Ellie put it quite gently when she credited the process with creating a miniature Southern California marine environment off the Central California Coast. How nice. This system works very well from an energy generation standpoint but is an ecological catastrophe for local marine life.

wikipedia page
35°12'41"N 120°51'19"W

04.07.09 Morro Bay Power Plant

The Morro Bay Power Plant has much in common with Moss Landing. Both facilities burn natural gas, both were shuffled through the hands of several energy companies during California’s experiment with energy deregulation, and both have uncertain futures. During my visit the plant was completely silent and appeared virtually deserted. Dynergy Inc., the plant’s current owner, has plans to modernize with a combined-cycle replacement but the proposal is stuck in legal purgatory while the courts and the EPA figure out how the Clean Water Act applies to power plants. There’s fascinating debate among locals regarding whether or not the three 450-foot stacks should be preserved. For some they’re landmarks that, since the 1950s, have been a familiar feature of the Morrow Bay landscape. For others they’re simply eyesores; best removed and forgotten.

35°22'19"N 120°51'24"W

04.07.09 Day Sixteen: Lucia, CA to San Luis Obispo, CA

I hadn’t planned to visit Hearst Castle. I had, however, been looking forward to passing it since it sits at the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But when it appeared up on that perfect green hill I thought: maybe it would be fun to have a peak at the palatial estate of a richer than God newspaper mogul. So after getting all excited about photographing the trappings of phenomenal wealth, I was disappointed to learn that the tour costs twenty bucks. I poked around the visitor’s center for a bit, helped myself to a yoghurt, then moved on.

Morrow bay has two iconic objects that stand out against its sweeping coastline: Morrow Rock and the Morrow Bay Power Plant. Of similar height and in relatively close proximity, they face each other in a kind of silent standoff. While the ex-volcano clearly wins, the plant’s stacks hold their own.

The freeway between Morro Bay and San Louis Obispo took me passed a high security prison and a National Guard armory. Arriving in the college town after dark, I booked a bottom bunk at Hostel Obispo.

04.07.09 Day Fifteen: Moss Landing, CA to Lucia, CA

It was not to be the luxurious night sleep I had hoped for. The cacophony catalogued the night before induced some exceptionally odd dreams and there were several early morning events impossible to sleep through. I remember being woken first by the blinding lights of a fishing trawler leaving the harbor, then again some time later by a pair of loud steam bursts released from the plant. A shower of fine mist followed each blast, adding to the terror and confusion of being ripped from sleep by thirty seconds of deafening white noise. Listening to a sea otter choke on his breakfast finally compelled me to give up and greet the day.

With my breakfast of leafy greens looking much less appetizing in light of the power plant’s midnight sneezes, I packed up and left my hidden grove. First stop was the plant’s security gate where I inquired about the availability of a tour. The pudgy woman in the booth (apparently not accustom to visitors rolling up on bicycles and asking to be “shown around”) was a bit taken aback and responded to my request with a line I’ve come to despise: “Not since 9/11.”

The first magical moment of the day was spotting this pair of cell phone towers. Beyond what appeared to be a redundancy in placing them so close together, one screamed its identity while the other was poorly disguised as an evergreen.

I’m delighted to report that the economic downturn does not seem to have affected life on the Monterey Peninsula. People were out in droves, golfing, painting the seacoast, walking their dogs, and riding around in large vehicles. The wildflowers were blooming and the weather was perfect.

Beyond Pebble Beach Golf Mecca and the old money village of Carmel-By-the-Sea is the rugged
Big Sir Coastline. This dramatic landscape is normally experienced through the windows of an automobile flying along at whatever maximum speed the hairpin turns and steep grades will allow. Abundant pullouts and vista points provide opportunity for crappy digital photography. What ends up occurring is a kind of spasmodic movement of autos along the route as everyone stops for the same view then tries to make up time by gunning it to the next one.

I realized while biking this section of coastline that the people in autos passing me all day must form one of two very different impressions of the kind of time I’m having, and that which impression they got was likely based on whether I was climbing or descending when they passed. For example, descending: “Shit, he’s really moving—what a rush!” And climbing: “Yeah that looks really hard—why would anyone do that?”

While we shared a pullout, a gentleman driving an RV told me I was crazy. My response: “No sir, for it is you who is crazy. To see this land by any other means is to deny its glory.” Actually… that’s a lie, I laughed and agreed with him.

I arrived at a rather full Kirk Creek Campground in time to watch the sun sink into the Pacific. Everyone was anxiously awaiting the green flash that never seems to occur. I was delighted to discover that, having arrived under my own steam, I had priority in claiming one of four “hike in/bike in” campsites.

I had planned to eat the absurdly expensive zucchini bread I’d purchased from the only store within thirty miles then turn in, but a group of incredibly great people changed the course of my night. What started as an invitation to share their campfire quickly became hot food, wine, and a chance for me to talk about the project. The three couples were down from Berkeley where they maintain couchsurfing.org. Among them was Casey Fenton, the service’s founder.

04.07.09 Moss Landing Power Plant

Those twin 500-foot stacks with the lovely blue tips belong to supercritical steam units 6 and 7. Approaching half a century of service, the units employ outdated technology and are only run during periods of high demand. Even with the addition of selective catalytic reduction and digital control systems in 1998, the units and their iconic towers are nearing the end of their working lives. The plant added two shiny new combined-cycle units in 2002 that have since done most of the work.

wikipedia page
36°48'17"N 121°46'57"W

04.07.09 Day Fourteen: Santa Cruz, CA to Moss Landing, CA

An unintentional sleep-in translated to a late start out of Santa Cruz. I had been up till all hours sitting in the backyard darkness reading National Geographic’s cover article: Our Vanishing Night. Collin and her housemates (and their boyfriends) were incredibly good hosts and I rolled out of SC with nothing but fondness for the place. I’d selected a favorite coffeehouse, strolled a farmer’s market with my fingers covered in sticky sweet dates, and gotten way too stoned.

The breeze that carried me out of town smelled of strawberries and heather. I passed the KOA where I had long ago camped with a girlfriend and another couple. It triggered the memory I have of us waking up in the middle of the night on hard ground after our air mattress sprung a leak and deflated.

The town of Moss Landing is Monterey Bay’s midpoint and an easy thirty miles from Santa Cruz. It has a small harbor and a sleepy downtown with a couple of restaurants and a few struggling antique dealers. There was still plenty of daylight left upon arrival and I went to work documenting the power plant I’d come to behold.

As extended twilight gave way to darkness I scrambled down a steep bank to the harbor-side campsite I’d selected earlier. Although the site felt secluded, it was directly across the highway from the plant and steam could be seen drifting seaward above a canopy of Eucalyptus. A cushy matt of edible wild lettuce (I planned to munch on in the morning) added extra comfort to my normal bedding.

Tucked in and preparing to drift off, I took stock of all the ambient sounds I could positively identify. Among them: a fog horn, the barks and grunts of sea lions, the squawks of gulls, small harbor waves lapping against nearby rocks, Highway One road traffic, the high-pitched whine of plant turbines, and the wind rustling leaves overhead. Earplugs were never such a godsend.

03.31.09 Day Ten: San Francisco, CA to Santa Cruz, CA

It was finally time to move on today after bumming around the bay area for over a week. Ryan, Sameer, and Carey were each incredibly generous and I will miss them and their homes immensely. Their kindness made it that much more difficult to leave a part of the world which I already adore.

The separation anxiety was tempered by a day of riding that couldn’t have been more different from the miserable experience that was day one. The sun was brilliant, the winds were favorable, and my body felt healthy and strong. I put eighty miles of hilly coastline behind me with effort to spare. In one exceptional moment of pure elation, I found myself being blown down a long steep hill, the windswept Pacific to my right, with BOC’s Dayvan Cowboy piped in from the shuffle.

After leaving the city, the first conspicuously tall structure to appear on the horizon was CEMEX's Davenport cement plant. During its 100+ years in operation, the facility has provided the primary building material for a long list of megaprojects. My favorite among them is the California Aqueduct (or as I prefer to call it: the river that flows uphill). Davenport residents are breathing a little less mercury this spring due to a scheduled six-month closure of the plant: undoubtedly the result of an economy that is not producing a lot demand for their product.

I’ll be hangin’ loose in Santa Cruz for the next few days, sporting a stash and trying to figure out which of the town’s abundant coffeehouses is best for working/meeting females.

03.29.09 Marin Headlands

The rugged terrain immediately north of the Golden Gate has, since the 1890s, been the chosen strategic position from which to defend the bay and bridge from enemy attack. The hillsides are littered with a variety of military fortifications built over seventy years to guard against a periodically updated list of potential threats. Having never been called into action, the abandoned bunkers and batteries are currently suffering the ravages of urine and spray-paint that befall such sites whose locations are widely known. Although it’s a bit disheartening to witness the accelerated decomposition of these structures at the hands of tourists and teenagers from the city, there’s consolation to be found in the fact that they were designed to withstand far more destructive forces.

wikipedia page
37°49'27"N 122°31'42"W

03.29.09 Hyde Street Reservoir

Getting in and out of this dark place was relatively difficult. At one point I found myself, having just negotiated a narrow gap between a pair of two-by-fours, hanging some distance off a concrete floor hidden beneath liquid of unknown depth. (The inevitable drop was unkind to my right ankle, which later swelled dramatically.) Fortunately, the visit was well worth the painful price of admission. The wooden planks that cover this basin have swelled and contracted enough that sunlight streams in through abundant gaps. Swirling dust is illuminated in diagonal shafts of light mirrored by the watery floor. Scraggily creepers, sent on a fruitless search for nutrients by healthy plants above, dangle from the ceiling. The white noise of city traffic is intermittently punctuated by the unusually distinct splash of drips percolating through from the surface. This dazzlingly beautiful place appears to wait patiently for the day when it will again be called upon to collect drinking water for the citizens of San Francisco.

37°48'14"N 122°25'15"W

03.29.09 San Francisco Naval Shipyard: Revisited

I couldn’t resist the temptation to return to Hunter’s Point. It had been calling me back since the first visit and could no longer be ignored. I chose a quiet Sunday morning and emerged on the roof of the shipyard’s tallest structure in time to witness the sun clear the horizon across the bay. With not a soul around, I was free to explore at leisure. I poked into workshops where fragments of half disintegrated equipment littered the ground like leaves on a forest floor. I descended an escalator (allegedly once the world’s tallest) that led to a cavernous space drenched in enough light to support its own grassy meadow. “Blue Room” was more orange and green in the a.m. light, with long golden shafts projected across its red-tiled floor.

03.25.09 Blue Room
On a wall in the stairwell leading up to this place, someone scribbled: "heaven this way." The otherworldly character of the space does imbue it with an undeniably spiritual, perhaps even divine, essence. At the very least it’s one of the most breathtaking interiors I’ve found myself in. Its ethereal beauty owes much to the thin layer of water that covers its floor. Of course, this feature was never part of the room’s original design. A sequence of changes, that began only after it was abandoned by its human occupants, had to occur for the space to be elevated to its current condition. Windows shattered, floor drains clogged with debris, and a leaky roof failed to keep out the pounding rains of winter.
03.25.09 San Francisco Naval Shipyard

You can hire a private security force to guard a place; enclose it in a ten-foot razor wire fence, and folks are still going to find a way in to have a look around. Actually, it wasn’t that tough getting into Hunter’s Point. Their expensive fencing has some serious holes, and the property is so vast that it’s tough to keep an eye on. Nevertheless, I slinked around that place like 007 in a Soviet missile silo. At one point, while waiting impatiently for a group of construction workers to head to lunch (before daring to proceed deeper into enemy territory), I called an old friend in the middle of his workday. I told him where I was and asked for confirmation that this was indeed what I had chosen to do with my life. After all, I was in my twenty-ninth year and hiding beneath a dilapidated pier on an abandoned Navy base. On a Tuesday.

The Shipyard is an urban explorer’s paradise. I found conflicting dates for when the base was officially closed but it's obvious nothing has really gone on there for quite some time. It seems the main impediment to “rehabilitation” for Hunter’s Point is the prohibitively high cost of cleaning up all the toxic shit that’s been dumped there over the decades. It was the military’s chosen site for the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (torturing animals with radiation) and, according to hundreds of menacing yellow placards posted throughout the property, radioactive contamination is cause for concern.

There is evidence, however, that detoxification efforts are underway. I watched a parade of trucks pick up and carry off large steel containers, supposedly filled with contaminated debris. In other areas, someone has done an excellent job covering football field sized parcels with heavy black plastic. Wouldn’t want poisonous dust blowing into the low-income neighborhood just outside the fence.

The thing is, if and when the shipyard is “revitalized,” an extraordinary place will be replaced by more of the same. My visit to Hunter’s point included moments of exceptional beauty (see Blue Room). I watched squawking gulls circle over a warehouse roof carpeted with vibrant green grass. I listened to the wind slam doors inside a high-rise dormitory that had long ago been stripped of its floor-to-ceiling windows. Such experiences will not be offered by the cafés, greenways and retail establishments the designers of “21st century living” are dreaming up. One can only hope that the current economic climate, foiling the grandiose plans of many developers, may preserve this unique and historically significant place a bit longer.

current revitalization efforts
wikipedia page
37°43'24"N 122°22'4"W

03.23.09 Richmond Shipyards

William Catton points out in his book, Overshoot:

Preparations for World War II began to spur massive industrial activity—with even more than the usual disregard for long-range draw down costs.

The Richmond Shipyards, which began production in 1940, epitomize the indifference to resource limitations nurtured by the war economy. By 1944, assembly line techniques had reached such a level of efficiency that it took a ridiculously short two weeks to complete a liberty ship. A staggering 747 of such vessels were produced at the Richmond site. Additionally, the war provided “the correct psychological atmosphere” for civilians, especially women and minorities, to “accept painful re-adaptation,” enabling them to depart from custom and occupy untraditional roles (like welding together colossal boats for the war effort).

Although not advised, it is still possible to stroll the lengths of sub-surface quays where thousands of shipyard laborers spent most of their workday. Like many structures built at the convergence of land and sea, they are not faring well.

wikipedia page
37°54'19"N 122°21'54"W

03.23.09 Day One: Benicia, CA to Oakland, CA

I’m on the road after a one-day delay due to the catastrophic failure of my digestive system. I don’t know… maybe food poisoning, perhaps the stomach flu… certainly bad. Not to paint too horrifying a picture but my body has been liquefying everything I eat and passing it straight through. Anyway, it’s consistent with my established pattern of being in poor health at the beginning of long, physically demanding journeys.

I was planning to kick off stage two by documenting the iconic “mothball fleet,” a rusty assemblage of Navy and merchant ships anchored in Suisun Bay, but you can’t get anywhere near these vessels without a boat of your own. They’re part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet and can supposedly be readied for service within 120 days in the event of a national emergency (requiring a significant increase in shipping capacity). Probably most will end up being sold for scrap.

Just up the road from the floating rust buckets is Valero’s Benicia refinery. The sprawling facility is equipped with a subterranean network of bunkers built into a nearby hilltop. As far as I could tell, they’re meant to be the safest places for terrified refinery workers when things go to hell. Imagine being trapped underground while thousands of gallons of highly combustible liquid hydrocarbons burn hopelessly out of control on the surface. Although there were no towering infernos on this particular day, I did stop to watch the installation of a new pipeline: an improvement to the refinery’s asphalt producing annex.

Images of imported automobiles stockpiled at shipping ports have become alarmingly common lately. A company called AMPORTS, which “processes” imports at the Port of Benicia, has spots for 42,000 vehicles. They must be close to capacity because they had cars packed in just about everywhere they could park them.

Although most of the day consisted of headwinds, rain, and desperate searches for suitable shit spots, there was a clearly identifiable high point. Meeting Jeff and his adorable daughter at a picnic site overlooking the Carquinez Straight vastly improved an afternoon characterized by difficulty and discomfort.

view stage two: part one here.
stage two: part two

San Francisco, CA to L.A./San Diego, CA