Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
It was June, 2016 in the Mojave desert and the sun was blistering. The land around me was empty, scorched, and flat, dotted by brush and the occasional piece of windswept trash. Judging by the map, the intersection where I’d stopped was a busy crossroads between two major thruways. But when I shifted into park in the middle of the road, no one honked. No one looked at me funny. I hadn’t seen another car in an hour at least.
It was probably the safest intersection in America to pull over and take a nap.
According to the map, I was surrounded by cul-de-sacs and neighborhoods. In reality, there was nothing but sand and more sand—and roads. Endless roads. Roads in all directions, marked by white fence posts and the occasional lonely pole. Some were paved. Some were dirt. Some had long ago been reclaimed by the encroaching sand.
California City, California, is the third-largest city by area in America’s third-largest state, and most of it barely even qualifies as a ghost town—a ghost town needs people to have lived there first.
California City is a ghost grid.
That afternoon, it was 98 degrees. Bugged out by the isolation, I kept thinking about everything I didn’t know how to fix if something went wrong with my car. I checked my phone in case I needed to call AAA: no reception. I shaded my eyes with my hand. In the near distance were two hulking wrecks, old cars like two relics of a previous era. The 14,000 or so people who do live in California City were miles behind me, in a concentration of ranch homes and stores clustered around the main drag. Out here, the only evidence of life was a half-dozen RVs I’d spotted, circled like wagons, and two dirt bikes I saw cresting a hill.
A hundred yards away, I spotted a mini tornado kicking up sand, whirling straight toward me. Time to go. I jumped back in the car, shifted into drive, and hit the gas—and 30 seconds later, plunged the nose of my Honda Accord off the lip of a three-foot drop.
Who put a sand dune there?
The history of California City is one of fever, fervor, and near-bust. Even today, it’s a town of weird contrasts. Two hours north of Los Angeles, in the Antelope Valley, the town takes up 204 square miles of land. In California, going by total acreage, only L.A. and San Diego are bigger. But the city’s population makes it one of the state’s smaller towns.
Of course, the founding dream was much more grandiose. Nathan K. Mendelsohn, a Czech immigrant, taught sociology at Columbia University in the 1940s before he moved west with big ideas about developing communities in California. Mendelsohn was a visionary, a dreamer. Prior to California City, he worked with famed real estate developer M. Penn Phillips, who helped build California’s Salton City—a resort community that was practically built out of nothing, only to collapse at the end of the ’70s.
In 1958 Mendelsohn, working with investors, bought 82,000 acres of land in the desert to develop a metropolis. The idea was to build a community that would join the ranks of America’s great cities, even outdo them. Mendelsohn and colleagues drew plans, cut roads. Streets were named after the country’s best universities, its biggest car manufacturers: Stanford, Yale, Pontiac, Cadillac. He built a park in the center of town named Central Park, and even included a man-made lake. When it came time to fill it, he flew in water from New York’s Upper West Side.
The radio jingle for the town said it all: “Buy a piece of the Golden State / You’ll be sitting pretty when you come to California City.” People could buy a vacant lot for $990. Three-bedroom homes went for less than $10,000. “There was a kind of buying hysteria up there,” Carl Click, an optometrist, would later recall to the Los Angeles Times. Believing that California City would soon be bustling, many landowners paid for property hoping to get a big return on their investment in just a few years. Buses of people would arrive regularly to look around. Mendelsohn himself donated a small church and a city airport. He offered land to corporations for $1 an acre—if they would build a plant and provide jobs.
Cities are not often created out of nothing. Damascus, one of the world’s oldest cities, had from the beginning an oasis to farm, a river to drink from. In the United States, the early 1700s saw a diminutive island called Manhattan become an important global trading port. “When Mendelsohn first pitched California City, he saw it as a rival to L.A., even bigger than L.A.,” said Geoff Manaugh, the futurist and architectural writer. “It was inspired by the greater sprawl of L.A., to make something even bigger.”
To lots of people, sprawl is a dirty word. It sounds like a real estate–transmitted disease. But in many parts of America—Southern California, the urban West, the cities of the Southeast and Texas—it’s how communities grow. Sprawl-wise, though, California City didn’t stand a chance. Thousands of lots were sold, but the lack of industry and interest meant that thousands were abandoned. By 1962, only 175 homes had been constructed. Seven years later, a decade after the project had started, the population was a mere 1,700. People needed jobs, they needed grocery stores. Neither was materializing, and neither were future residents. A real estate broker told the Times, “Most of the lots were sold sight unseen, mostly for speculation.”
By 1969, Mendelsohn had given up. He sold his stake in the city to a Colorado company specializing in processing sugar beets. He left for Texas and was rarely, if ever, seen again in the city of his dreams. He’d built it, but they hadn’t come.
When I arrived in California City, hours before I sank the nose of my car into the sand, I didn’t know what to expect. “It’s like the painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Manaugh told me. “You’ve got this place that tried to be like Los Angeles, totally failed, and became the voodoo version.” Manaugh meant this in a positive way; he’s caught the Cal City bug and has visited three times. Whereas I couldn’t shake the feeling of California City as a fever dream: a dystopian predictor of greater L.A., should the big city start to fail.
California City is a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. On my way, I passed a state landmark called the Oak of the Golden Dream. I’d heard about it before: Supposedly, in 1842, a mineralogist took a nap under the tree and dreamt of gold—and when he found some in the ground nearby, he basically kicked off the Gold Rush.
Mendelsohn’s vision wasn’t so dissimilar, at least in his own mind. But what was he thinking, really? None of the accounts I found suggested it was a real estate scam. How bloated must an ego be to propose a metropolis, to force a city into existence in the middle of the desert? When I got off the highway, the only road into town ran straight for six miles. For a moment, it felt like I was driving up one of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s long boulevards that lead into Paris. I started to expect colossal architecture to appear. Instead, I got a sign: “Welcome to California City, Land of the Sun.”
Gradually, strip malls cropped up. A couple of restaurants, a doughnut shop, a nail salon. Half a dozen real estate offices. And behind them, the endless land.
Compared with everything I’d read about Mendelsohn’s ambitions, the reality looked like a mistake.
The Coyote Café is a diner on the town’s edge. I took a seat at the counter and asked my waitress if there was anything to see nearby. “I mean, we have a Rite Aid,” she said. “And there’s a McDonald’s. That’s about it.”
She explained that most people in Cal City, as locals call it, work at the correctional center outside town, the borax mine nearby, or a Hyundai-KIA proving ground for testing cars. But what about the ghost grid? The endless roads that were never used, north and east of the downtown? “Yeah, people race up there. Dirt bikes and stuff. Some people are out there in RVs. But that’s it.”
She added, sadly, “We don’t even have a bowling alley.”
Little of Mendelsohn’s legacy survives. I didn’t find any statues, not even a street named after him. Central Park is some municipal greenery. Its heralded lake is more like a midsize pond, a water feature for a golf course. I walked around the park and came across an old hotel. A rusting sign read “Lake Shore Inn.” Someone had started to demolish the place—the entire back wall of the hotel had been ripped off—but the rest of the hotel was left intact, so its rooms faced out as if mooning the town.
On my way toward the outskirts, I noticed a newish Best Western. How could it stay in business? “We get a lot of business travelers,” the clerk at the front desk told me. “Corporate accounts, the solar-panel technicians. The weekends are when we have many people visiting. Tourists, bike riders. Especially for the holidays.” When I asked what he meant, he launched into a tutorial he’d clearly given before: where to rent vehicles and get off-road permits, even stressing that I’d be able to safely park my equipment in their lot overnight.
That’s when I started to connect the dots. And remembered at least a dozen trucks around town I’d seen hauling ATVs or loaded down with dirt bikes in the back.
The road that leads out to the grid is Twenty Mule Team Parkway. The name refers to wagons that, in the late 19th century, hauled borax from Death Valley to Mojave. I stopped to read a plaque by the parkway’s entrance. “Not one animal lost their life on the trail and no wagons broke down while hauling over 20 million pounds of borax.”
A while later, when my Honda ate sand, I thought back to that plaque. I should have brought a mule. Stuck at least a mile from any road that could lead me to civilization, I rocked the car back and forth a couple times. My wheels spun. Finally I caught some traction, crawled backward—and was free.
The truth is I chose the wrong type of vehicle. California City is an off-roader’s paradise. Four-by-fours, ATVs, motocross bikes—all are welcome in Cal City, assuming the drivers pick up a permit in town. I spoke with Oscar Branham, owner of High Desert Cycles. Ten years ago, he used to work out here fixing tires. “The riding’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s been going on forever. Every Thanksgiving, people come from Wisconsin, North Dakota, to ride where their great-grandfathers would ride. Come the holidays, the desert turns into a city. We’ve had 100,000 people.”
I figured he was exaggerating. He wasn’t. According to the California City Police Department, Thanksgiving 2015 saw 75,000 to 100,000 people tooling around the desert. It’s the town’s grand ritual. They’ve had riders come from France and Israel. In 2008, before the economy tanked, they had a quarter of a million people out there on bikes. “It’s a tradition,” said Karen Sanders, an administrative technician. “Out here, the riding’s family-friendly. Our area isn’t as far out as some riding goes. So it’s a good place for mom and dad to bring the kids and the RV and all the toys and enjoy the desert.”
What characterizes a city, ultimately? Often, a specific attribute stands out: entertainment in L.A., finance in New York. I don’t know if Mendelsohn would enjoy the irony that the people who get the most out of his streets are ones who’d never be there had homes been built on them. Yet they’re buying land. Sanders tells me many off-road families purchase lots in the ghost grid just so they have somewhere to park their RVs.
The desert calls to lone dreamers—and those who travel in packs. Each fall for the last couple years, California City has played host to Wasteland Weekend, a festival celebrating dystopian style. It’s a post-apocalyptic Burning Man, and California City’s endless desert roads are the perfect stage. A few thousand people dress up and outfit their cars like they’re auditioning for Mad Max. There are fire dancers, ersatz fashion shows, gladiator fights in the sand. In a way, the same adventurous spirit that sent Mendelsohn into the desert to make something out of nothing is being reincarnated, except the current dreamers wear goat masks.
“It’s a weird place,” Manaugh told me. “There’s nothing to see—but that’s the point. California City rewards people who approach it with an imaginative sense of what it can be.”