Antelope Valley Blues

By Nigey Lennon

L.A. Voice, February 22, 1974

Out there in that shiny depression: the lowest point in California – the Antelope Valley, where sharp-edged winds rake the flailing sagebrush and cactus. The carcasses of old cars lie almost buried in sand, bleached white by so many years of unmercifully punctual sunrise and lingering sunset. Small houses huddle together in nervous clusters near towering power poles and the soundtrack is the high-pitched whine of the aerospace industry.

Not necessarily the spiffiest way to spend a Saturday morning and yet we somehow found ourselves heading there. The first time I ever saw the lovely defense kingdom of the Antelope Valley was a few years ago. A band I was working with was playing in Lancaster, at Antelope Valley Junior College on Quartz Hill. We set up our stuff in the men's gym and then dispersed severally; some to find a hasty hamburger, others to merely admire the fantastic terrain. I found myself being evicted from a liquor store on Avenue O (or was it R?) – the proprietor didn't seem to like my garb, which in those days (and in that location) was considered outlandish, if not actually dangerous.

Driving north (or was it east?) towards the valley, some miles before Palmdale, a sign announces the Pearblossom Highway/Littlerock. As a child, during the Little Rock (Ark.) race riots, I always thought the action was taking place near Palmdale. However, though I was wrong on one count, I was right on another: down the Littlerock road lie the remains of a former Negro settlement called Sun Village, which we never found. But I have it on good authority that the place indeed existed and may even still exist.

A little farther along and the signs mention Rosamond, "Gateway to the Aerospace Capitol". No one seems to live there. The highway to Gorman curves dryly away to the west. If anyone lives in Gorman, it's a safe bet that they spend their weekends in Bakersfield. Or Los Angeles.

Palmdale popped up still farther along, and here Lionel [1] decided we should stop for a cup of coffee once we reached Mojave. I think that stopping for coffee is a built-in instinct in humankind; if Piltdown Man suddenly found himself transported to a 1966 Mustang convertible passing between Rosamond and Gorman, I'm sure his reaction would consist of grunts translatable as, "Let's stop at that Howard Johnson's and get a cup of coffee, honey".

Lancaster itself came next and it really deserves a special section all to itself. To begin with, the shifting, mercurial, here-today-gone-tonight quality of the town is evident immediately upon entering it. Like the arid bedrock it squats sullenly upon, Lancaster is composed of equal parts hotness, dryness and an inability to yield. Socially it presents a bizarre balance; as in other isolated towns of moderate size, everyone who lives there is eccentric to some extent. Desert rats and riders of garishly festooned motorcycles rub elbows with commune-inhabiting hipsters, religio-socio-vegetarians, neo-Nazis and yet-to-be-discovered; pseudoscientific geniuses. There is, of course, a large contingent of Okies who run the roadside cafes and gas stations and give the area its legendary stiff-necked reputation. Saturday night shootings aren't particularly rare here and neither is the age-old mountain tradition of conjugal infidelity, which seems to benefit by the transplant from high to low altitude. But those are all old stories, whereas Lancaster is the epitome of newness and rootlessness.

The aerospace/defense industry is largely responsible for all this moving around. In fact, an uncanny resemblance to the Bedouins can be ascertained; across the desert's shifting sands and hoary vegetation pass many families who find themselves crowded into family vehicles and head for new territory, laid-off, broke, looking for a new start. Many of them hit Lancaster and Palmdale, settle down long enough to pitch a prefab tent and maybe raise a couple of kids, then slip off some night once again seeking the aerospace ideal when it becomes apparent that what they want is elsewhere. Always elsewhere. In that, Lancaster resembles the rest of California in the last thirty years. It's always somewhere else. How many broken hearts have gone into the construction of those missiles, rocket stages and bombs? No one will ever know – nor do they seem to be asking.

In Mojave we had a ten-cent cup of coffee and Lionel regaled me with the story of the weekend Hell's Angels party he had once attended in nearby Acton (well, not nearby, but in the area). We also discussed Antelope Valley land speculators – those cigar-chewing Rotarians in double knit suits who sell imaginary land or fraudulent tract houses, capitalizing on the supposed "Palmdale Airport Boom". The Antelope Valley fervently hopes one day to be part of the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis, for some strange reason.

On Highway 58, near Mojave Rexall Drug, sat a lone trash can bearing the hopeful sign: "Help Keep Mojave Clean". The sidewalk beside it was littered with miscellaneous candy wrappers, cigarette butts, used kleenex, etc. I threw an empty M&M's bag in, hoping others would follow my example, but nobody was around to see it.

Finally we turned around and aimed for L.A., the gusty wind now depositing 80 percent of the Mojave Desert on the plastic rear window of the convertible. I had seen alkali dust stirred up similarly on several past occasions, but today there luckily was none to be seen. As we droned on through the flat sameness, I reflected that if I had any spiritual qualities (besides getting off on car exhaust or vacant lots, going 120 on an empty road at midnight or overindulging at Burrito King), this desert brought them out in me. Not only did it encourage them, it even made me write long boring diatribes like this one.

– Aw, the hell with it. Let's get a cup of coffee in Palmdale. And a cheeseburger.

1. Lionel Rolfe, Nigey's husband

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