“You should create your own icons and way of life, because nostalgia isn’t glamorous…live your life now.”
I grew up in Riverside, California, on the Western edge of the Mojave Desert. My interest in urban exploration came from my childhood here, full of frequent trips into the Mojave exploring old mining towns to break up my rather mundane suburban childhood. Coming back to visit this year, I knew that what I needed from this trip was to rediscover what it was that brought me down the UrbEx path. So I hit the desert for some old school federal trespass.
My friend Joel tipped me off to the existence of Boron Federal Prison Camp, a US Air Force site that was abandoned in 2000. I rolled into Boron on an incredibly windy day, with light rain splashing in off and on (rare here I assure you!). I found all the gates open and amazingly drove right past a dozen derelict buildings, straight up to the old water tower.
It was only when I stood at the edge of the cliff at the water tower that I realized how extensive the site really was. There were at least 30 buildings here, some multi-storied, spread out over maybe 5 or 10 acres.
As I looked out across the flat expanse of desert toward Barstow, the wind was whipping my hair in my face and I was constantly wiping water drops off of my lens. I decided to take shelter in the only thing higher than the water tower – the stucco church.
I stepped into the church and found myself in a silent room that had one wall painted and others covered in banal graffiti. As I stood there, I came to realize how much different this exploration felt than those I had been undertaking in Europe. It was so much lonelier. Part of this, of course, can be chalked up to the fact that I was indeed alone, but there was also a spatial dimension. It seems to me that perhaps because of the availability of space here in the desert, it is much easier to simply walk away from a place. And when that happens, an essence of loneliness particular to this dusty landscape seeps in. It is a loneliness, a sadness, so deep that even destruction of the place does nothing to erase it.
When I explore in more urban landscapes, the predominate emotion is fear-fuelled adrenaline. There is a sense of urgency that drives explores and has been one of the difficulties I have encountered in trying to get video footage of our explorations – we never really stop to take it in. We move fast, we pack multiple explores into a day. It’s like derelict architecture speed dating.
In contrast, this federal prison invited me to stop, to spend the day, to really take the time to let it scar me. It felt less like a conquest and more like an invitation to meditate on the possible pasts that led to it’s untimely death. The site encouraged more of an archaeological eye, little artefact mysteries to be uncovered around every corner. The fear of being caught here (which was very high, with possibly sever consequences) was so overwhelmingly overshadowed by the lonely introspection the place invoked that I simply sat down for some time to listen to the wind whipping power cables and slamming doors open and closed and forgot that a patrol might roll in at any moment.
I went on to explore the kitchens, mess hall, work corridors, carpentry shop, the fire station, basketball court and finally the “vehicular component factory”, whatever the fuck that means. It had been almost completely stripped out, every window broken, and despite the emptiness of the place, it continued to have a particular thickness to it. It was a place full of sad memories, left to rot our here 50 miles from the nearest city where the incarcerated inhabitants could do no harm.
The camp seemed to be connected with a company called Unicor – a name which I think has an oddly Orwellian feel to it. There was also an active air traffic control station on site covered with live cameras which was beginning to make me a little nervous 3 hours in.
I jumped into the truck to follow my gut instinct that it was time to leave, feeling rather satisfied with my day, when I noticed a side street I had not seen before. I drove down it, finding nowhere to park (a vehicle is a serious limitation to exploration I have realized – hiding a car in the desert is usually almost impossible) and walked into what turned out to be derelict inmate housing.
As I walked down row after row of empty cul-de-sacs lined with derelict tract homes, I was pulled right back into the sadness of the place. I walked through people’s homes and looked at their landscaped yards, taking notice of which domestic plants had escaped and were thriving without human intervention. In one, I found a constructed mini-bar and waited a while for a drink to be served. In another, a brick oven filled half the backyard. I imagined summer BBQs in 120 degree heat, families of inmates coming together for a few drinks and a chat about who-was-whose bitch that week.
I was struck anew by the imposing affectual qualities of the place and when I reached an abandoned playground. I stopped to play alone on the teeter-totter.
By the time I left the housing area, all numbed by the weirdness of my experience, my truck was blocked in by a stereotypically overambitious security guard wearing a fake federal badge. He told me I had been filmed and that he was supposed to call the FBI (I call bullshit on that one buddy) but I think he could sense that I had come here for different reasons than he might normally encounter. We ended up chatting about the history of the place and he sent me off with a stern warning, locking the gate behind me. After a day of modern ruins, ghosts and self reflection, I drove off into the Mojave Desert in a familiar cloud of pink dust looking for the next adventure.