The place where I grew up was like an alien planet. Or what I came to think of as the equivalent of an alien planet.
APPLE VALLEY | LANDINGS
The place was Apple Valley, California. It was a small town of, at the time, 5000 or 6000 people, scattered across 75 square miles of high desert scrub surrounded by bare rocky hills to the west, east, and north. To the south and southwest were views of the bluish San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains. In every direction, there were far-away mountains or nearby hills, ringing the horizon. That was the world.
I came to understand that the name was perhaps misleading; Apple Valley sounds like it should be a bucolic Midwestern valley filled with apple trees. It wasn’t (though, ironically, we had a crab apple tree in the front yard). The town is about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, across the ridge of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the “high desert,” sitting at an elevation of 3000 feet, so that in winter it occasionally gets snow.
It’s along the southwest edge of the Mojave Desert, a vast expanse that extends from Bishop and Mammoth Lakes in the north, to Joshua Tree National Park in the south (just above Palm Springs and the Salton Sea), to Las Vegas and southern Nevada and parts of Utah and Arizona, to the east. In this map (from http://mojavedesert.net/description.html), I’ve put a red star at the location of Apple Valley. You can see how it’s close enough to the mountains separating it from the Los Angeles basin, that at night there was an ever-present glow over that southwest horizon.
As a child, of course, I knew nothing different and thought nothing strange; it was the default place to be, and only way of existence. I had glimmers of strange other worlds: as a young child, I had a coloring book with outlined drawings of lakes with sailing boats, landscapes with huge clouds in the sky, pastures with animals like sheep and horses. All utterly foreign to the place I lived.
In later years as my family moved to big city suburbs I gradually realized how unusual my childhood had been, living in an arid environment, isolated from neighbors and other children (I had no childhood friends). We lived in Apple Valley from my earliest memories until early 1962, when I was 6 ½ years old, when we moved to the big city. But of course, Apple Valley was my Ur-existence, against which everything later would be compared.
The desert landscape was bare, dotted with low plants and shrubs that, when dead and dry, became tumbleweeds. The mornings were cool, the afternoons hot. Every afternoon the wind came up, blowing from the southwest, a hot dry wind that bent trees into permanent positions leaning toward the northeast. (This was because the area sat northeast of the Cajon Pass, a low point in the ridge of mountains to the south, with the Los Angeles basin below. As the desert heated up every day, air would rise and the air from below the pass would be sucked in underneath…bringing smog, or haze, that would then obscure the view of the San Gabriel Mountains, every afternoon.)
The winds died at sunset.
The nights were dark, and quiet. It was quiet enough to hear the occasional barking dog from several streets away, or the highway hum of trucks on Highway 18 a mile south of the house.
The desert surface was crunchy. Sand, but with a crusted surface hardened by the relentless sun and very occasional rain. You could not walk outside without shoes, ever. Everywhere were ‘stickers’, thorns broken off from the tumbleweeds that regularly blew across the desert. They would stick into the bottoms of your shoes. If you walked outside anywhere but the well-worn dirt driveway, you would pause at the front door, turn up your shoe bottoms, and pull out all the tumbleweed thorns that had gotten stuck into your shoes, so as not to bring them into the house and crunch them into bits all over the floor.
There were occasional lizards, lots of ants (red, black) in big anthills in the sand, the very occasional snake, the very occasional scorpion.
There were wildflowers in the desert, every Spring, little ground-hugging plants that bore tiny white or yellow flowers. There was one year when, perchance due to the rain pattern that year, there was an abundance of wildflowers that I’d never seen before and have never seen since. Indian Paintbrushes, lupine. I collected samples of those wildflowers into a sampling book. Years later I learned the phenomenon occurs every few years, in one area of the California deserts or another, and is called a “desert bloom.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_bloom) The one I remember was in 1962, and while I found a newspaper reference to that year’s event sometime ago, the link has disappeared.
It got hot in the summer, in the 90s and maybe low 100s Fahrenheit, but not as hot as areas in the “low desert” (near sea level) like Palm Springs, where it gets into the 110s.
There were a few Joshua trees, like the one on the cover the famous 1986 U2 album of that name, otherwise no trees except for those trees planted by homeowners. The Apple Valley house that I remember (the second one we lived in) had a big square patch of grass with four or five elm trees around its perimeter, in a landscaping arrangement typical of the US mid-west. There was even a lilac bush in a smaller patch of grass on the north, sheltered side the house. And there were two dwarf fruit trees, one crab apple, the other pear, in the patch of desert within the semicircular driveway. All of these had to be watered, regularly. A sprinkler on the end of a hose for the grass; the hose drug to the wells around the fruit trees to be run, slowly, for an hour, once a week. Along the front edge of that grassy yard, between it and the driveway, was a ridge of cacti and boulders. Around the edges of the yard, along the side and back, grew ice plant, those succulents with fat finger-like leaf pods, and big magenta flowers in the spring and summer.
Due north from that second house stood Bell Mountain, almost perfectly bell-curve shaped from our viewpoint. It was iconic in its position, as if to orient the surrounding world around some ideal, inevitable focus, as I grew up. It would be years before I saw Bell Mountain from any other direction.
Other, irregularly shaped hills stood close to the west, and further off to the east and northeast. Despite the valley being enclosed by those hills and mountains in every direction, there were so few houses and trees that the landscape felt incredibly open, the sky enormous above it. In later years seeing TV shows like Lost and Space and any number of 1950s science fiction, so often filmed in various parts of the Mojave desert, reinforced this impression of the valley being on some alien world.
It was easy to imagine enormous scales of space and time. At night the sky was incredibly black, and you could imagine the northern horizon, where there were no lights at all, being the edge of the world.
APPLE VALLEY | LANDINGS
First Apple Valley: 1958 to 1962 (living there)
My family moved to Apple Valley around 1958, when I was three years old. We rented an apartment for a while, then rented a small cinder-block house in the far northeast part of the valley, and then settled into the house on Winnebago Road, shown here. (This is covered in family history, here and here and here.)
I have only a few specific memories from these years. In 1960 I started kindergarten, riding a big yellow school bus from a corner half a block from the house to Yucca Loma Elementary school (https://sites.google.com/avusd.org/yuccaloma-new/home) some 7 miles away. My memories of attending school there include 1) we brought towels from home to use during nap time, when we spread the towels out onto the floor; 2) the wind came up every afternoon, as I’ve explained, and during afternoon recess I and other boys would huddle in the corner of the low block wall surrounding the outdoor jungle gym, against the wind. (I didn’t climb up and down the jungle gym.)
Also in this period I was into plastic toy cars; see photos here. Outside were those big skies and hills that surrounded the valley protectively. In the daytime jet fighters flew low back and forth over the valley; to the west, northwest of Victorville, was George Air Force Base (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Air_Force_Base), decommissioned in 1993 but at the time we lived there a training base. The jets screamed across the sky.
This is when I had a coloring book with outlined drawings of things like horses and mountains, lakes with sailing boats, and big puffy clouds in the sky, mostly things beyond my personal experience.
And near the end of this phase was when that desert superbloom that I remember, in Spring of 1962, occurred.
Other photos from this era on the Second Apple Valley house page.
In 1962 (half-way through my 1st grade) the family moved to Santa Monica for 6 months, and then to Reseda for several years. (Family history here.) My grandmother, “Grammie,” had already moved from Illinois to California, and we moved her into the Apple Valley house, which my father had been unable to sell. (He kept ownership of the house until sometimes in the 1970s, when he sold it to my Uncle Bob.)
During these nearly 6 years the family tradition would be to drive to Apple Valley about once a month for weekend visits with my grandmother. Typically we would leave Friday evening after dinner. At almost exactly 100 miles, the trip, at that time entirely on two-lane mountain and desert highways, took a solid two hours. (California State Route 14, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_State_Route_14, now known as the Antelope Valley Freeway, was finished through the mountains in 1964, shortening the trip a bit. [I’m always amazed at the detail of Wikipedia’s entries on any kind of interstate or highway.])
We would be there all day Saturday and Sunday until afternoon, returning home in time for Sunday dinner. Thinking back, I wonder where we all slept each night. The house had only two bedrooms. I think the answer was that my parents slept in the master bedroom, otherwise my grandmother’s; she slept on the sofa; and all four of us kids slept in the second bedroom, with one large (full-sized?) bed for the girls, two slender singles for the boys, taking up nearly all the floor space in that room.
And what did we do on those weekends? I only recall a couple things. We went to church Sunday mornings; this period would have been when, attending the local Presbyterian church, we met Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (or possibly that was in phase one). And later in the period, my father and I did a hike, in the rocky hills east of Apple Valley’s “village,” for boy scout credit, climbing over huge boulders up a gully where the rain water would gush.
There was a trip to a fish hatchery (of all things), which I remember; there was a trip to a garbage dump (according to my journals), which I vaguely recall was out near Oro Grande.
It was half way through this phase, in the Fall of 1965, when I discovered the TV series Lost in Space, and on reflection all these years later I wonder if my attraction to the show was that it was set in a place that looked just like the desert where I grew up! Or close enough. (Years later I would discover that for the pilot and early episodes, filmmakers actually did do some location shooting out in the desert, though far north of Apple Valley at the Trona Pinnacles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trona_Pinnacles) and in Red Rock Canyon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Rock_Canyon_State_Park_(California)).)
So was one of my earliest interests in anything science fictional triggered by nostalgia for a childhood landscape? Did Apple Valley inspire me to science fiction? That’s probably imposing too much story on coincidental events. But it did lead, as the years past, to the appreciation of the desert as a science fictional landscape.
This phase came to an end as we left California to move to Illinois, in the Spring of 1968. We made the trip in the family car, that Chevelle station wagon by then, staying one night with Grammie in Apple Valley before heading northeast across the country. As we left the house, we drove back through Victorville to get on Interstate 15, then headed northeast…and along the back of Bell Mountain. It was unrecognizable. Our view of its perfect shape for all those years had been from a privileged position.
In the Summer of 1971 we moved back to California from Illinois. As we had done when we moved there, we left Illinois without having a house to move into, and so my father parked my mother and us kids in Apple Valley for the summer, with our grandmother, while he went to LA to work and to shop for a house. We arrived in Apple Valley about 25 June, and moved into our house in the LA suburbs, in Sepulveda, in mid-August.
After three entire years away, in an area of the country far more different from Apple Valley than Los Angeles was, returning to the desert was both a homecoming and a revelation; its strangeness and appealing isolation struck anew with full force.
By this time I was in high school, entering the 11th grade that fall. The family resumed its occasional weekend trips to visit Grammie, but at a reduced rate, perhaps four or five times per year. I suppose because all four of us kids were in school by then, and had things going on.
And I was of an age when, still living at home (even through four years of college at UCLA), I began pursuing my own interests, and grew a little frustrated at being in a house with three younger children. (I did not have high school friends to hang out with…) This played out in two ways. First, just as I declined to continue attending church, I sat out some of the weekend trips to Apple Valley, and stayed home just to have some time by myself.
Second, the reverse: over the summers for several years, I managed to arrange stays in Apple Valley of a couple weeks or more, sometimes with the other kids there but often by myself. These private retreats became of central importance to me. From 1971 to 1977 (the family moved away to Tennessee in early ’78) there were seven of these summers, that I look back on fondly, and have never been able to recreate. They were my refuge, my Seven Summers in the Seventies, when I was able to revisit the landscape of my childhood, escape household circumstances to read my books, look at stars through my telescope, and be myself away from the squabble and cigarette smoke of my family.
In was during these summers, weeks at a time being in the desert every day, that I noticed patterns that I hadn’t paid attention to as a child. Mornings were crisp and clear, and still. The San Gabriel range to the southwest stood blue and sharp against the morning sky. But the winds came up invariably at mid-day, blowing from the southwest toward the northeast. As smog from the “Inland Empire” (as it came to be called) of Riverside and San Bernardino pushed its way through the pass and onto the high desert floor, the view of those mountains vanished in the haze.
- In 1971, my mother and us kids spent about 6 weeks in Apple Valley while my father went to work and looked for a house in LA. The family had a 2nd car by then – a used Buick Skylark with peeling paint on the hood – that my grandfather had driven out for us, so after he left we had a car to get around in AV. My grandmother was working, as a receptionist for some kind of social services office in Victorville, in a building at Victor St. and 7th St (the latter the main drag in town), and across from a bowling alley long since torn down. I read some 22 paperback books during those 6 weeks, mostly books I’d acquired in Illinois and managed to pack in the interstices of the telescope box. I also had the telescope.
- In 1972 I spent 4 weeks in AV from late June to late July, returning home earlier than planned for a family vacation, a car trip to Oregon (Crater Lake), Washington’s Olympia peninsula, and the Oregon Coast (Salishan Lodge). This was the summer I had my father’s old clunker bicycle from Cambridge, that somehow we managed to move with us. I would ride from the house to “the village” area of town, a half mile stretch of commercial district along Highway 18 at Navajo. There was a pharmacy there that had a decent magazine rack and paperback book rack. On one such trip, the right pedal broke off, out of its socket, and I had to awkwardly finish the trip home pushing on just one pedal…
- Summer of 1973 was the period between high school and college. I spent a week in AV in early July, another 10 days in early August. A family vacation—a drive to Illinois—fell through. I applied for a couple summer jobs and did not get one (I didn’t want to bag groceries yet was overqualified for the one I applied for—I recall I had to fill out an enormous application with questions about which people we admired and why, which I realized later must have been a ploy to weed out kids who wouldn’t focus on their job).
- Piano. During these second and third summers, my grandmother still had her job, so I would spend weekdays alone at the house. She had the piano that my family had had in Reseda, back when my mother had given me some informal lessons. (I still have a stack of the lesson books she’d used as a child.) I never had formal lessons, but I could play pieces from those lesson books. (Fun fact: back in the ‘30s and ‘40s when my mother was growing up, you could subscribe to magazines of piano sheet music, some pieces simplifications or reductions of classical pieces, some full original scores. One issue a month, with 30 or 40 pages of music. The days before TV! I have some of those too.) At best, I could finger my way through the entire original score of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1st movement), with its steady rhythm but increasingly complex accidentals.
- Transcriptions. I also tried to write down, from tape recordings, a couple three pieces of music that entranced me. One was the main theme of the 1973 film The Day of the Dolphin, score by Georges Delerue, that I first heard on TV; another was the opening of the last movement of Mahler’s 9th symphony; another was the main theme of Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, a piece by George Handel. They all had had such clear, open chordal structures and harmonies, and the Mahler such clearly separate lines among the various strings, that I think my piano reductions were pretty accurate.
- Astronomy. I had my telescope, I had my Star Observer’s Guide, by the summer of ’72 I had Brown’s What Star Is That?, and by 1974 I had Norton’s Star Atlas. I would sit out in the evenings and split doubles and find Messier objects. Moreover—I would occasionally sleep outside the entire night, in a sleeping bag on a chaise lounge, in order to wake up an hour or two before dawn and see another quarter of the sky than was visible after sunset. There were no dangerous desert critters. On the contrary, there were a couple stray cats that found me, jumped up on my sleeping bag, and befriended me. (Years later – 1980 or ’81 – my grandmother had adopted a couple stray cats, one white, one black. I was in a college computer science program at the time, learning about various historical computer languages. I named them Snobol and Cobol.) It was dark enough at night that the glare from a street light, a mile away, interfered with my night vision. I would block the light with my hand, or avoid looking that way, while looking through my telescope, to see the deep sky.
- Jet planes. It was during these summers, either standing outside at night (I would step outside several times an evening, always, while my grandmother watched TV after dinner) or sleeping out overnight, that you could hear… high overhead… the faint roar of jet planes. They would move from the southwest to the northeast. That is, a standard flight path for planes leaving LA heading northeast would be directly over Apple Valley. (Whereas, I observed years later taking many such flights, returning flights from the east or northeast would aim first for Big Bear Lake, then angle the plane due west for LAX.) Moreover, when you looked up into the night sky to spot the plane, it would be over *there*, 10 or 20 degrees across the sky in the direction of travel from where the sound seemed to come from. Because it took that long for the sound to reach the ground.
- 1974. After taking a summer course (Freshman Comp) at Valley College, I spent 6 full weeks in AV, from early August to mid September. Grammie had just retired from her job, so she was home all the time. Kevin and Lisa spent one of those weeks there. We must have gotten that old bike fixed, because I rode around to libraries and bookshops. (In those days even small towns like Apple Valley and Victorville had two or three new and/or used bookshops each.) This was the summer a stray dog chased me on my bike and scratched my leg sufficiently badly that Grammie took me a doctor.
- 1975: Just two weeks in August, but the second week Lisa and Sue were there too, the latter with her ever-running radio.
- 1976: After taking two summer courses at UCLA, I spent two weeks in AV myself, just before construction began on a remodel of the house by my Uncle Bob. Earlier in August my high school buddy Phil Klutch, taking pilot lessons, flew me to Apple Valley for a weekend. During the day he took me up again for some practice stalls. That means stalling the engine and going into free fall for a few seconds, then starting the engine back up. Of course, I got sick
- 1977: Just after graduation from UCLA, two weeks, and instead of being dropped off and picked up, I drove the Skylark and had a car there. This is the summer I sat in the yard, looking northeast, and read new hardcover novels by Varley, Pohl, Bishop, Leiber.
This what the house looked like after the remodel in 1976. An extra room was added at the front left (behind a tree in this view), enclosing the laundry room and created a large dining room, and the entire house got this mock-adobe facade.
Fourth Apple Valley: Apple Valley visits with my Uncle Bob (1978 to 1982)
My family moved back east in 1978, and I stayed in LA, working a job and going back to college, but having no car. I bicycled everywhere. (See sidebar essay about bicycling.) My Uncle Bob, now owning and having remodeled the Apple Valley house, took to visiting his mother there regularly now that my parents were gone. And so often I rode along with him. He would go once a month or so, do whatever chores needed doing, and relax. These trips were more efficient that my family’s had been; Uncle Bob wouldn’t leave until Saturday morning, and then return first thing Sunday morning. He’d pick me up at my apartment, we’d stop for breakfast along Highway 14 in Canyon Country (this is about the time I started drinking coffee), and be up there before noon. He’d run back into Victorville, or to “the village,” for supplies to do this or that home repair. These were about monthly in ’78, but ramped down to only three in 1981.
During this period I got my first camera, in May 1979, and in ’79 and 1980 I took lots of my own photos of the house, the hills, Bob’s car (a Mazda), later in ’82 my own car and my uncle’s Cadillac.
Meanwhile I got quite fit riding my bicycle everywhere, and at my most ambitious, and to connive yet more visits to Apple Valley, I embarked on 100-mile rides from my place in Northridge all the way through the mountains and across the desert to Apple Valley. And in one case, from Apple Valley back home; each time I arranged it so Uncle Bob could pick me up or drive me there for one leg of the trip. I did two of these in 1980, and one in 1981. Only the middle one was more than a couple days; that one was about 9 days, during which I cycled the fringes of valley, read books, maybe did some sky watching. (I think at some point I’d left my telescope at the Apple Valley house, since I never used it down in LA.) Unfortunately I don’t have photos from those bike trips, mainly because my SLR camera was too bulky to fit into the bike carrier along with whatever else I was taking.
Fifth Apple Valley: Until my Grandmother’s Death (1982 to 1984)
In June 1982 I got a professional job and bought my first car. Now I could drive to Apple Valley any time I wanted! Except, I didn’t have the time for the week or weeks long excursions of earlier years. I had no vacation the first year on the job. I was still taking classes, at night, that Fall. So weekends at best.
And the visits themselves were getting less pleasant, because Grammie was getting batty with age. She’d always had silly peccadilloes -– one was her off-hand, obviously unserious brags, e.g. when seeing someone perform an athletic event on TV, she would say that oh she could do just as well if only she bothered to try. Ha ha. Check back at the hundredth repetition. (Another: Thanksgiving dinner was always a success because she made the gravy.)
A couple times I took friends with me to Apple Valley – once Phil Klutch, my high school and UCLA friend, for a “star party,” and once a fellow grad student named Taro. Those were awkward visits. What are your interests, Taro asked her? Oh, music, literature. In fact she sat around watching TV all day, and I never saw her read a book.
Here’s another memory just now — at some point, in the ‘70s, my parents taught my grandmother to smoke. My parents were near-chain smokers, as I’ve mentioned, and in the ‘70s people still smoked in offices, in restaurants, on planes. My parents convinced my grandmother that smoking a cigarette was a nice thing to do after dinner. So she did, for years, just the one each day. When I was there for summers or weekends, she would dutifully light up as we watched the TV news after dinner. I would move to the far end of the sofa away from her chair. She never took the hint. (There were no windows to open.)
I should give my grandmother some credit. She lived a long life, one shocked in her 40s by the death of her sheriff husband when my mother and uncle were about 13 and 12 — so she raised them herself from then on. Just 12 or 13 years later, following her children to California, she uprooted herself from a life in small town Illinois and settled, eventually, in the completely different environment of high desert California. There she settled in; she found a church community to belong to; she worked until her mid-70s; she lived there fully 20 years. She was always congenial.
Sixth Apple Valley: Glancing Visits (1984)
My grandmother died in early 1984. Services were held at her church in Victorville, but no funeral – her body was flown back to Cambridge, Illinois, to lie beside her husband.
My Uncle Bob had talked for years about perhaps retiring to the Apple Valley house, had my grandmother lived even longer; but in 1985 he was only 50 years old, and not ready to retire. So over the months after her death, he cleared the house of her furniture and effects. (I got her 10-volume set of an encyclopedia called The American Educator, from 1938, which of course I still have. Fascinating to look back at what they thought about various subjects, 80 years ago.) He sold the house in November 1986, for $55,000, and according to Zillow, it hasn’t been sold since. Google views now show the property razed of all the trees and a big fence surrounding the house itself (it’s 15791 Winnebago Road, Apple Valley, CA).
My records indicate a couple trips to the house later in 1984. Once in May to pick up the encyclopedia, and a set of water glasses with cacti designs (all of which have, alas, broken over the years since then, though I’ve kept the last one, in pieces, in my display cabinet), and a bicycle – I think at some point I had two bicycles, and had left one at the Apple Valley house. And a trip in June to get my telescope, on my way to a bicycle club event at Big Bear Lake.
There was a final visit in 1985, when I spent the night in a motel, on my way to pick up my friend Larry from a bicycling event at Calico, northeast of Barstow. And a close pass in 1986 when I drove a couple guys from work, very early one morning, to see Halley’s Comet before dawn, from an area south of Highway 18 between Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley (we didn’t stop at the house).
Seventh Apple Valley: Return visits since 2009
Over the next twenty years I had no occasion to go to Apple Valley, or even past it. Perhaps returning from a trip to Big Bear with someone, we took the back route home, through the desert along Highway 18? But never to just go there. It’s not a resort town, there’s nothing much to do.
But a new, final phase began in 2009 with a series of nostalgia visits. In October of that year my partner Yeong was out of town (in Europe on business), and I drove his recently purchased Subaru SUV (with its Nav function, the first of our cars to have one) to the area on a day trip. In part I was curious to explore some of the far north and eastern pockets of the valley, on the sides of Fairview Mountain, that I’d never explored because the dirt roads are too rough for an ordinary passenger car. So from Woodland Hills I drove through the mountains on Sierra Highway, through Little Rock, across the remote roads (where I’d ridden my bike on those centuries) through Adelanto, to Apple Valley, and poked around for a few hours on some of those roads. Of course I drove past the house. Though I never did find roads all the way around Fairview Mountain.
A year and a half later, in April 2011, Yeong away in China visiting family, I drove my six-month-old M3 on another day trip to the desert. One aim of this trip was to find a remote road (I used Barrel Springs Rd. south of Little Rock) to get the car up past 100 mph, if only for a few seconds. I also visited Wrightwood, a ski resort on the north slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains that I’d never had occasion to go to. Once in Apple Valley I drove out to the airport, just to check it out (Phil Klutch and flown us there back in 1976), and also visited the Victor Valley Museum in Apple Valley, which had opened in 1992. It was an interesting blend of natural history, about the landscape and indigenous people who once lived in the area, and memorabilia concerning Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, movie and TV stars who had settled in Apple Valley (and who are buried at the cemetery in the northeast corner of the valley).
It was during these trips that I saw, of course, how the area had changed. More and more houses. On Winnebago Road, where in the ’70s the half-mile stretch where we lived had perhaps three houses, widely separated, on each side of the road, now almost every lot was built. Along Highway 18 just south of the house there was now a Walmart (!) and a Target (!) in a two-block shopping center also filled with generic fast food restaurants. — This has been the course of American society, over 50 years, as national chains have replaced the local businesses that once made every village and town a unique place. The small market in “the village” where my Grandmother had shopped was now garden shop; the larger chain supermarket at Highway 18 and Navajo Rd. that succeeded it in the ’80s was closed and vacant. The main road through Victorville, 7th Street — a curving, gradually rising road from the Mojave River on the north up to the surrounding desert floor a couple miles south — was mostly shuttered, in favor of the big mall down the Interstate at Bear Valley Road. It was my personal illustration of the maxim, You can’t go home again.
Six years later, in June 2017, on the way home from an overnight trip to LA (from Oakland, where we’d moved in 2015), I took the long way home and drove through Apple Valley, barely stopping. I had a specific goal, though, to take photographs at a couple key places. One was Vasquez Rocks, just north of LA and on the way to the desert. They’re distinctive angled sandstone outcrops familiar from location shooting of dozens of films and TV shows over the decades (including Star Trek’s “Arena”). The second was to get a photo of the back side of Bell Mountain, which looks completely different than the symmetric profile view from the south, from the Apple Valley house. That done, I drove north through Barstow and west over Tehachapi Pass – a highway I’d never had occasion to drive on before – to Bakersfield and north home. (I posted about that trip here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2017/07/06/trip-report-apple-valley-2017/.)
And finally, just two years ago now in February 2018, I did a proper weekend trip to Apple. On a Friday I rented a car (a small SUV) rather than put miles on my M3, and I stayed at a motel in Victorville. I spent two full days in the area and drove home Monday. I found a small used bookshop in AV along Highway 18 that sold every book for a dollar. I poked around the now vacant Apple Valley Inn, and visited a tiny “Apple Valley Legacy Museum” in a corner of that property. I drove out to the far corner of the valley, the area where the 1st Apple Valley house was, and is now an area called Sycamore Rocks, with higher-end homes than throughout most of the area. (Mentioned here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2017/07/10/apple-valley-dreams/.) And I explored an area east of the Village called Thunderbird Ranches, with a couple hundred homes, some quite large, but all accessible only by dirt roads. Went back to the area of the house and took some photos.
On Sunday I moseyed through the “old” part of Victorville, then headed south on the Interstate to the big mall at Bear Valley Road. From there, into Hesperia, just to get an idea of the place; again, one of those areas I had never had reason to explore. East of Hesperia, where the southern edge of Apple Valley runs along the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains, I headed east until the roads forced me back onto Highway 18. Out to Lucerne Valley then, the intersection where the highway splits off southeast into the mountains where Big Bear Lake lies. Back along Bear Valley Road. I discovered something called Lone Wolf Colony (https://www.lonewolfcolony.org/), something like half a city block fenced off and with trees and shrubs inside. My Boy Scout Troop held a camp-out there, years ago! It has the appearance of an enclosed trailer park, though its site describes it as a “a recuperative health facility” with cottages and an RV park. There was an entry gate; I didn’t go in.
And I made one other serendipitous discovery that day. Driving back west on Bear Valley Road — now heavily lined with shopping center and commercial properties — I turned into Victor Valley College, and discovered, just off campus, the fish hatchery! Perhaps noticing Mojave Fish Hatchery Road was the first clue. This was amazing because I remembered being there once, with my father, when I was very little, in the years we lived in Apple Valley. Why should there be a fish hatchery in this remote desert town? Well, it’s along side the Mojave River, which flows north out of the San Bernardino Mountains and splits a ridge of hills at the junction of Victorville and Apple Valley. Apparently it’s a county function to keep parts of the river stocked with fish. Why would my father and I have been there? No idea. But it was a thrill discovering, quite by accident, a place that triggered such an old memory.
That night, after dinner at one of the row of restaurants by the shopping mall, I drove out to the far corner of Apple Valley to look at stars. It was windy, and chilly, and a surprising number of large trucks came down Dale Evans Parkways near me — there are a couple warehouses, one a Walmart Distribution Center, in the middle of the empty north valley, that of course weren’t there years ago. But I did confirm my teenage memory of seeing, passenger jets flying overhead, from LA in the southwest to points far to the northeast, but it was too windy to hear their sounds.
I reflected yet again on the allure of this area.
First, the attraction is partly about the raw topography. It’s all out there in the visible openness of the landscape, the hills and valleys, the knolls and bluffs, not shrouded by woods or grasslands or trees. The simplicity of the street maps is given multiple new dimensions, not just height, but visibility of surrounding areas, the changing horizon from one place to the next, the extensive horizons in so many places that puts everything in a larger context — as if refracted through another dimension.
Second, looking at the stars… The paradox is that, the clearer and darker the skies, the more stars are visible, and the less obvious are the traditional constellations, because their prominent stars are drowned out by the surrounding sea of only slightly less brighter stars that are visible in a very clear, very dark sky. This is especially true in binoculars (not in telescopes, where you tend to focus on specific stars or objects); the field of view in binoculars shows even more stars than you see with the naked eye, more stars than you knew were there, and implying even more if your light-gathering power were even greater. The deep sky view is seemingly infinite, more and more, greater and greater, and implying one’s own local pocket of experience is infinitesimally tiny.
The next morning I drove home. I’ll probably never be there again.