Attempt to talk to someone about California’s upper Mojave Desert, and you’ll see the superlatives quickly pile up. Everything is going to be the greatest, the largest, the hottest—bigly. While some interlocutors might read into your enthusiasm a debilitating case of Trump-speak, others familiar with the Mojave’s wonders may wonder not why you lie, but why you speak at all. The desert doesn’t need your paltry declaratives. Ancient yet nascent, the Mojave groans beneath the ravages of time, the gouges of glacial carved canyons, the distensions of volcanic domes, the sawing of mountains. And yet, staring from a roadside turnout, the silence is total. Only the occasional roar of combat jets ripping through the canyons breaks the calm.
Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, the U.S. navy’s largest worldwide landholding, spans 1.2 million acres and quietly abuts Death Valley, the hottest place on earth, and the lowest point in the western hemisphere. Here, every July, a starting gun fires and so begins the toughest sporting event in the world—the Badwater Ultramarathon. Ninety miles into the race, the runners wind around a mountain range known as Coso, “fire” in Paiute-Shoshone. The Cosos run southward across the border of China Lake, which just so happens to contain the highest concentration of Native American rock art in the western hemisphere. Over a million petroglyphs were carved here, some nearly 20,000 years ago. The images constitute the oldest artwork in the Americas.
New Age-type spiritual people tend to get their energy vortex fix at Stonehenge, Sedona, or the pyramids at Giza. They do not often go to China Lake because it’s closed off, a top-secret military test range where they’ll kill you if you climb the barbed wire. And I suppose that’s all for the better: China Lake’s petroglyphs are still the best preserved in America. Nonetheless, while I place little stock in vortex fields, I do find it hard to resist China Lake’s surreal confluence of forces.
For thousands of years, Native Americans throughout the Great Basin sought China Lake as the ultimate source of spiritual power. Since the 1940s, brilliant scientists and billions of black-budget defense dollars have preserved China Lake’s stature as a preeminent source of international military power. And similarly, every July, just beyond the base, there’s always a hundred or so world-class masochists kneeling in the asphalt, tying their sneakers, and muttering a few final prayers.
There is a reason that people pilgrimage here.
The following excerpt is from my book China Lake: A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe. For decades, the US military has been studying ways to manipulate the weather at China Lake. A rainmaking technology called cloud-seeding was “perfected” here during the Cold War and used as a weapon across Vietnam for nearly a decade. Today, however, in the evolving Hot War of global warming, it may no longer be enough to merely fiddle with local weather. The more the United States slinks away from is climate commitments, the more it obfuscates reality and clouds discourse, the less surreal a totally terrifying and wholly imperfect “solution” begins to appear.
In the fall of 2013, in the hope of investigating this solution, I took a rare military-guided group tour of China Lake. My mother, the survivor of a recent stroke, came along for the ride—she hoped the supposed healing “energy” of the base might alleviate her headaches. The excerpt finds us having hiked halfway down Renegade Canyon, the most densely carved rock site in the United States.
You would not know from reading most of what follows that China Lake is a book about weather modification, climate change, and solar geo-engineering. However, like any gold-miner, marathon runner, or rain shaman traversing a landscape of tablelands, lava canyons, and ballistic test ranges, out here you cannot proceed directly. Only the F-16s and Boeing 747s advance in straight lines. But the superlative, our greatest existential threat, that hoax conjured by the Chinese—it’s just around the bend.
“Look!” the redhead says. “An alien wearing a space helmet!”
She halts in the creek bed, her boot heels spraying a rattle of dry sand across the granite rocks at her ankles. She lifts the camera and presses her finger down. Click. She smiles. I catch my mother’s eyes as she stands behind the redhead, staring at the back of her skull, and mouths the words “shut up.” The redhead is apparently either some kind of failed archaeologist or an aspiring comedian. Nobody laughs. There are ten of us left. The other fifteen on the tour turned back for the shaded picnic bench beside the gravel parking lot.
“Look, an alien with a cell phone!” she shouts, pointing across the canyon at yet another one of the strange round-headed humanoids chiseled into the rock wall.
A small box floats at the end of his stick-figure arm.
“Take a picture of it,” she says, gesturing at Tom.
Tom’s long mustache jerks in the breeze as he stares at her with bright blue eyes, the sun reflecting off his shaved scalp. But for the redhead and an amateur photographer from Utah named Dan, most people have stopped taking pictures. There’s really no point anymore. We’ve been hiking through the rugged canyon over boulders the size of Volkswagens, squelching over the deep sands of the dry creek bed, and staring up at thousands upon thousands of stick-figure sheep engravings, innumerable abstract carved zigzags and spirals and checkerboards, and hundreds of creepy anthropomorphs, and our camera memory cards have begun to wane along with, it seems, any enthusiasm for the petroglyphs. Everyone seems pretty much intent now on just reaching the cliff at the end of the canyon and eating lunch, everyone except the ebullient redhead.
“Which petroglyph?” Tom asks. He’s a Vietnam vet turned private military contractor who works on the base and has been guiding petroglyph tours for more than a decade. He describes his job as information technology.
The redhead points again at the wall.
“That one,” she says.
A palimpsest of several hundred scratched images covers the entire rock surface from base to summit. Tom lifts his camera and fires randomly.
“There you go,” she says.
She turns and looks at the group, smiling, then dances down behind the other guide, Randy. Earlier in the tour, Tom tried to correct the redhead. “Archaeologists call those patterned body anthropomorphs,” he said. But the redhead would hear none of it. “No, I think those are aliens.” Tom told me afterward that he doesn’t like telling people how to interpret the petroglyphs, but the whole alien thing really annoys him. Apparently the idea became popular in the sixties after a man named Erich von Däniken published a book called Chariots of the Gods, in which he argued that all ancient technological and artistic achievements — pyramids, sacred texts, and Paleolithic cave paintings — were made possible only after the tutelage of extraterrestrials who visited Earth and fathered humanity.
Speaking of the rock art in Inyo County, the county of the Coso Range, von Däniken writes, “I should like to be generous and am willing to postulate that the primitive artists were unskilled and portrayed the figures in this rather crude way because it was the best they could do. But in that case, why could the same primitive cave dwellers [in Europe] depict animals and normal human beings to perfection? So it seems more credible to me to assume that the artists were perfectly capable of drawing what they actually saw.” And what did the artists of the Coso Range actually see?
According to von Däniken: aliens.
“That writing as careless as von Däniken’s,” Carl Sagan wrote in 1976, “whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times.”
After nearly fifty years, von Däniken’s book is still in print and remains a major source of inspiration for New Age mystics, Beverly Hills psychics, and the plastic shamans of Sedona’s weekend sweat lodge retreats.
Tom said the Coso Range petroglyphs are a sacred site for the Paiute-Shoshone. “It’s incredibly disrespectful to infantilize their ancestors in such a way.” Local Native Americans, unlike the average US citizen, are allowed to visit the petroglyphs year round, provided they give the navy thirty days’ advance notice.
Somewhere off in the distance there is a deep rumbling sound.
“Is that thunder?” the redhead asks.
No one seems inclined to respond. Zero clouds, birds, planes. A pale sickle moon floats like a feather curled on pond water.
“You’re on a military base, sweetie,” Randy says.
“But I don’t see any planes,” she says.
“How much farther?” the man from Utah asks.
“Oh, not far,” Tom says. “Half a mile.”
Randy says that it’s worth it, that the best images are in the lower canyon.
Earlier, when I tried to slip off to take a piss, I found the man from Utah crouched behind a rock, lighting a spliff. Squinting through the smoke, he reached out a hand and asked if I wanted a hit, but I told him no. It didn’t seem like a good idea out here. And not because of the navy.
“Look! A bighorn!” the redhead cries suddenly.
“All right, bitch,” my mother whispers behind me. “Last one.”
She’s formed a friendship with a woman several years her senior who, apparently, went to the same high school as she did though they were in different classes and never met. The woman’s straight silver hair dangles over her shoulders in some kind of long- frozen hippie waterfall.
“I think I’ve seen enough bighorn sheep to last me the rest of my life,” the woman whispers. “But I love these fall colors.” She stands at the shaded base of a black basalt wall crusted over with bright lichens. “Orange and chartreuse …”
“Wonderful,” my mom says. I listen to her tell the lady how she managed to attach redwood moss to the top of her computer monitor with hot wax.
“Wow, I never thought of that,” the woman says. She seems genuinely impressed. The petroglyph tour appears to have devolved into some kind of walking New Age networking tool. The man from Utah told me he wanted to come here because his spirit animal is the bighorn sheep. I told him I haven’t found my spirit animal, but my first name means “bear-strength” in Old German.
“Right on,” he said.
Ever since I was young, I’ve always sort of assumed that my mom was on acid when she named me. My middle name, Donatuis, she claims, is a family name. The records, however, indicate otherwise, that is, that she hallucinated.
“Here, take my picture in front of this one.”
“All right,” Randy says, continuing to humor the redhead’s asinine insouciance.
It’s hard to tell if her joy is genuine, if the rock-carved pictures that she regards as whimsical kid scribbles have actually revived some childish wonder, or if it’s all feigned, the swan song of an ailing coquette. While she flutters away over the rocks, I watch Randy’s gaze slide slowly up from her leather hiking boots, past her woolen socks, and up over her glinting shaved calf muscles. His eyes lock somewhere along the rear seam of her faded cutoff jeans. She jumps between two boulders and perches up beneath the canyon wall.
“Nancy, be careful!” her taciturn friend suddenly calls. She adjusts the black solar shield of an enormous pair of bug-eyed Gucci sunglasses. A silver-sequined peace sign floats at the center of her maroon tank top.
Randy smiles and lifts the camera. “Ready?”
I puff my e-cig and stare.
Whatever the redhead’s intentions, she does seem younger, especially as she continues to point out and name every petroglyph — she’s like a toddler stuck in the reference stage. To name and point is to pretend to know, to imagine control. I’d managed to avoid her earlier at the gates of the base while she went around asking everyone where they were from and what they were grateful for. She handed her card to those who drove from Los Angeles: Elizabeth Rainmoon — Spiritual Healer. As she made the rounds, men with machine guns filed between the rows of SUVs, station wagons, and sedans, while stragglers unzipped suitcases and slipped on extra sweaters. Pale blue streaks of light wormed along the steel doors as they slid open and closed. The sun hadn’t yet cracked over the mountains.
“It’s going to be a beautiful day,” Tom said.
I stared at the myriad hatchbacks, doors, and hoods propped and glinting like the broken wings of chloroformed beetles while house sparrows chittered softly in the bushes behind me. The sergeant’s voice boomed out from the mouth of his plywood guard box: “If you have any guns, knives, or explosives, any homegrown pharmaceuticals, any pills outside their prescription bottles, anything sharp in your bags — insulin syringes or whatever — let us know now. I don’t want my guys getting stuck by anything when they search your bags.”
Twenty- five people stood silent on the curb at the gates of the base before a decrepit bungalow bathroom.
“Yeah, it’s looking pretty good,” I said, staring at my mother’s car.
A white van protested the stab of an ignition key still switched on. The dull mechanical bell blended strangely with the bleating birds as they continued to tune for the dawn chorus. The night before, I swallowed half of one of my mother’s Percocets to help me sleep. The other half now sat inside the pocket of my sweatshirt, which I left lying on the passenger seat cushion. During the night I dreamed that navy guards escorted me away from the gates of the base to a padded cubicle where they injected me with an experimental drug that made me feel like all my bones were breaking simultaneously.
“There are no drugs or weapons allowed on the base,” the sergeant continued calling, “and we don’t want to find any. In addition, we don’t want to find any Al-Qaeda fighters, illegal immigrants, or exotic pets stowed in your trunk, glove compartment, or gas tank. If you have anything you wish to declare, do it now. If my men find anything they shouldn’t, the entire tour’s canceled.”
Pairs of latex gloves popped quietly in the gathering dawn. The sergeant finally gave the signal, and my mother walked off toward the bathroom as the men started unzipping bags and lifting seats.
“If you need to use the restroom, feel free,” the sergeant called. “But avoid your morning jumping jacks — that floor is as old as I am.”
He looked to be about sixty. I stared past him west at the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada. It’s always been a game for me to see if I can single out Mount Whitney, but the angle wasn’t right. We were too far south. An arsenal of crows came sculling across the neon sky, cawing up their morning phlegm. They looked like fresh- ground black pepper twirling in beaten- egg batter. I sipped my Styrofoam gas station coffee and waited several minutes until the sunlight struck the eastern wall of the Sierra Nevada and started dripping down.
“This your first time out here?” Tom asked.
I turned to face him, a massive bald man with a gray tombstone mustache. A fat black camera sat perched on his belly while the glittering sky appeared to pass perfectly through two round windows bored in his skull.
“Yeah, yours?” “Oh, no. I’m a guide. I work on the base — Tom.”
He stretched out a hand, smiling. While his blue eyes fixed on me, I found it nearly impossible to look away. I could feel him downloading some data, peering into me, sifting through probabilities, already extracting a sharp hypothesis — besides a nine-year-old boy in a red Led Zeppelin shirt, I’m by far the youngest out here. Everyone else is an aging baby boomer — white skin, thinning hair, graying hair — with one exception, the middle- aged redhead who stood cackling near the guard box.
“What brings you out here?” Tom asked.
He smiled softly while his eyes clicked back and forth, weighing my words.
I felt unable to lie.
His face lit up as I mumbled something about the chemtrail conspiracy, weather modification, and the history of cloud seeding.
“Ah, yes. Dr. St.-Amand was one of our best,” Tom said. “We lost him several years ago.”
“You knew him?” I asked.
Tom nodded and his gaze dropped for the first time.
“I knew him well,” he said.
The sadness in his voice sounded genuine and checked my desire to probe.
“Well, maybe not well. But we were acquainted. He was a very dynamic individual.”
My mother tapped my shoulder then. “Sweetie, go pee,” she said. “You should go before the drive.”
I told her that I didn’t have to go and she said that was good.
“Those bathrooms are atrocious.”
She stared at Tom, and he smiled. Then he stared at me.
“You don’t believe in chemtrails, do you?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “That shit’s garbage.”
“Which ones are the chemtrails?” my mom said.
“Okay, people, listen up,” the sergeant called. He explained how we were to conduct ourselves once inside the base. “All cameras will remain stowed in locked glove compartments. Binoculars will remain packed away and out of reach. In addition, cell phones will remain powered off for the entirety of the drive out to Renegade Canyon.”
All along the sidewalk, everyone started digging through their jeans, clawing frantically.
“If anyone turns on their cell phone, I’ll get a call from the laboratory over the hill telling me someone is transmitting an illegal signal and interrupting their tests. You don’t want that, and I don’t want that.”
The sergeant waited for the parade of goodnight glissandos to pass.
“I don’t want to have to drive fifty miles back into the base to confiscate all your phones and cancel the tour.”
“In addition . . .” the sergeant continued, but the redhead raised her hand.
“Sir?” she called.
He cast a patronizing sidelong glance at her and continued talking.
“If you planned to take pictures on your cell phone you may, provided you only power your phone on once you reach the floor of Renegade Canyon.”
He assured us we’d have no reception. He told us to be careful. “No broken bones or rattlesnake bites, please.”
“You will drive single file,” he said. “No one will exceed the base speed limit of fifty- five miles per hour. Each vehicle will follow the other in front of it at a distance of one hundred feet. If any car stops for anything other than a stop sign, the entire tour will be canceled. You will not share any information written or spoken with friends, family, colleagues, or any other foreign party, national, corporate, or otherwise, concerning anything you see inside the base outside of Renegade Canyon. You are all appearing here today as guests of the United States Navy and these rules will be strictly enforced.”
Given these official orders, I cannot disclose anything I saw on the drive, especially not the fleet of Boeing 747s that stood in the shadows of towering green hangars, or the crews beneath the planes screwing hoses into some kind of chemical reservoir with sprinkler- looking pipes jutting out the back, or the pair of titanium saucers we saw grounded outside a palm tree oasis at the north end of the lake, or the clouds of reflective nanoparticles that wrapped around Telescope Peak, glittering like a golden halo, or later the partially collapsed Twin Towers replica we saw still smoking at the end of a white dust bowl. In reality, it was Sunday and the base was empty. Outside our ten-car caravan, we encountered neither another living soul nor a single source of movement, with one exception. At the top of a narrow winding canyon, the road opened onto a plateau crammed with Joshua trees, and through the flitting trunks, several hundred feet off the road, a white horse stood alone, swishing its tail and staring at the horizon. The only wild equine I’ve ever seen.
“Look!” I said, pointing, but my mother didn’t see. “You’re lying,” she said.
The caravan parked in a drifting plume of dirt. Everyone waded outside, stretching, tightening boots and the straps of backpacks, blowing noses, and drinking bottled water. Tom took a head count while the boy in the red Led Zeppelin shirt wrote “Wash Me” on a dusty truck tailgate. In the distance, Renegade Canyon stretched west across the wide desert terrace, like a black gash split across a tilting marble table, its exit at the lower ridge too far off to see.
The first thing my mom did was turn on her cell. “How do you make it do the panorama thing?” she asked.