California Authors

Curiosities of the California Desert

By Claudia & Alan Heller, The History Press

Book Review by Craig MacDonald

In the first decade of the 20th Century, my grandfather mined in Rhyolite, near the eastern edge of Death Valley. As a kid, he captured my imagination with stories about this once booming mining camp and others in the deserts of California and Nevada. Stories like on Christmas Day in 1860, S.G. George, MD and the doctor's prospecting party discovered rich ore in Death Valley. They called it, "The Christmas Gift Lode." It reportedly was the first mining claim located in the Panamint Range, named by the physician for the Indian tribe living in the valley to the West.

Thus began my lifelong interest in—and love of—the beautiful California Deserts. I loved visiting the old crumbling camp of Ballarat (near the Panamint Mountains); Trona (the gateway to Death Valley); peering out of Desert View Tower (off Interstate 8 in San Diego County), gazing for seemingly endless miles and miles at Imperial Valley and the Anza-Borrego Desert, and, while driving, looking for Baker's Giant, 125-foot high, Thermometer, to check out possible record-setting temps.

It was with delight that I discovered Desert Lovers Claudia & Alan Heller's book, "Curiosities of the California Desert." It features stories about Trona High School's grassless football field. Called "The Pit," the hard dirt field is watered for the Toronado Tornadoes games. Then there's the more than 130 Sky Art Sculptures in Anza-Borrego, the largest State Park in California. Richardo Breceda's amazing sculptures include a 350-foot-long dragon with a sea serpent body, which undulates below and above the desert, slithering beneath the road and finally erupting through the desert sand with the tail of a rattlesnake.

Searles Lake, near Trona, has 500 tufa spires rising from the lakebed, some up to 140-feet high. "They create a strange city of high rises," the authors write. Several movies have been filmed around the Pinnacles of Trona, including Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek IV-The Final Frontier, Lost in Space and Planet of the Apes. Speaking of movies, more than 50 were filmed (along with Gene Autry's popular Western TV Series), at Pioneertown, off Route 62 in the town of Yucca Valley.

Thousands of travelers have appreciated Artist Claude K. Bell's gigantic, 40-foot-high Dinosaur in Cabazon, off I-10, west of Palm Springs. The imaginative fellow even created a Tyrannosaurus, complete with a slide down its tail.

If what was written so far, whet your appetite, there's so much more, with black & white as well as color photos, in this intriguing book. Until you read this, you'll never know what you'll find in the Sonoran, Great Basin and Mojave Deserts—from Route 66 remnants and historic cemeteries to real curiosities and even vanished oddities.

As the authors write, "Desert Exploring is free of airline costs and airport security lines." It's a relief, a chance to break away from the pressures and stresses of urban life. You get to breathe fresh air and see remarkable beauty, which will absorb your mind and leave lasting memories.

(The Reviewer once wrote for Desert Magazine.)

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