Essex Army Airfield trip, the last day of 2009

updated 22 aug 2022

The last two days of 2009 I took a brief road trip to the Mojave Desert, part of a portion of southern California that fellow artist Eve Andree Larimee calls the netherzone. This trip as always was about mixed motives, not all of them clear to me (nor do I need them to be clear).

Part of the trip was information-gathering for a new longer-term project (still unnamed, but it's about automobiles, the embodied experience of road travel, "virtual" travel and Google Earth), part was to semi-formally explore WWII and Cold War artifacts in the desert, and part of it was for a ... fictional sci-fi-ish narrative I wanted to make around all of these subjects. And finally, I just like road trips and need no excuse, only time and resources, to pull one off.

Over the dead-bird holiday Eve and I indulged in some indulgent netherzone-mapping with Google Earth and came up with a handful of interesting sites for... well we don't know yet. I decided I needed to visit them now. Now turned into a month later; not bad overhead.

I packed up the Rambler and headed out about noon on Wednesday; I returned by dark on New Year's Eve. First day out I bombed it to Barstow, then headed up old highway 66 starting at the Newberry Springs exit. The day's goal was The Essex Army Airfield, General Patton's World War Two training airfield, now abandoned and largely forgotten. Along the way I stopped at Pisgah, Bagdad and Saltus, all abandoned sites, some mere rail sidings.

I did not anticipate the heavy consumer traffic to Las Vegas that plugged I15 for dozens of miles, which meant I didn't reach Essex until well after dark; the main problem with that is that in fact I had absolutely no idea how to reach the airfield, since I've only seen it in old aerial photographs. I had to poke my headlights into openings in the side of the road that appeared "road like"; after multiple failures (attemping to drive up a wash in a 46 year old car in the dark is umm not advised) I was humbled to noticed that in fact, crappy old Microsoft Streets and Trips, which I was using with a commodity crap GPS stick, actually showed the stub of a road; I followed the GPS red triangle to the spot, and lo! access road appeared.

The airfield access road was still a bit loony to take at night, but hey, I've done worse in this car. I'd studied the airfield imagery so much that I was able to navigate it by shape alone, with 50 foot or so visibility, even though it was partially overgrown with creosote. I made it to one of the nicely concrete pads in total dark.

It was a full moon (actually a blue moon) but it was full overcast, and threatening to storm; it in fact had been raining back in Los Angeles when I left. As soon as I arrived it of course began to sprinkle. No worries from the rain though, I was on a concrete pad with a stable pattern of washes.

I at least got to set up a table chair and antique gasoline (yes, motor fuel) cooking stove (probably not coincidentally, a WWII GI issue Coleman 530) and made some tea and ate a packed sandwich. (On this short a trip cooking food makes little sense.)

Being on an utterly urban schedule, and it being cold, windy and spitting rain, I was forced to attempt to sleep at probably 7 or 8pm (I don't track time). When the clouds cleared, and leaving being behind incredibly bright moonlight (and no man-made sources for miles to interfere) I was unfortunately forced to stay in the car from sheer cold wind. Too bad.

The next morning, with great weather, I was finally able to really "set up camp" in this case which was simply a table, chair, stove, food and crap on the Rambler's tailgate. I shot all the scenes for my narrative (involving booze, magic mushrooms, guns, a failed alien rendezvous, of course) then did some exploratory documentation of the site (which I'll eventually post here and on Google Earth links) and drove the runways. A swell time was had by all of me.

The next major stop on my loose agenda was Crucero Road out of Ludlow, up to Broadwell Lake and the Mesquite Mountains, but that was 100 miles thataway so I hit a number of extinct and otherwise cultural constructs along the way back 66: Essex (and it's GWEN site), Danby, Chambless, Cadiz, then up Kelbaker Road to I40, to Ludlow.

The run up to Broadwell Lake was aborted due to lack of time and gumption. Crucero Road was very rough. I did find out though that the road through the dry lake was easily passable though, in an amusing manner I wish I had caught on video: as I was picking my way (15 - 20 mph) down the jeep trail known as Crucero Road, I encountered a pack of dune buggies. They were quite courteous, slowed and pulled to one side. Either that, or they were freaked out at seeing an antique car on their trail. What I wished I had recorded: they were in two full-desert buggies, in full FOX brandname moto-X regalia, with the requisite special goggles, reinforced gloves, special dustmasks, fuel canisters, the whole kit caboodle and several brands' product lines: here I am, in a T-shirt and cheap plastic yellow goggles, in a passenger car older than the buggy driver, ambling along with my arm out the open window. We stopped as we passed, and I asked them about road conditions, and the first driver said 'the part we're on here is as bad as it gets'; I thanked them and we parted company.

Another few miles up, probably a mile from the south end of the lake, I turned around, as it was 2pm already and I needed to head back before dark (I had an all night dance party long scheduled for that night) and the trip up to Mesquite would have required another overnight.

The trip out from Los Angeles

Route 66 Newberry Springs to Amboy

I drove up 66 from Newberry Springs (The 210, I15, I40 from Los Angeles). This long sectino of Route 66 through the Mojave is now closed. The surface was pretty rough even then; perfectly intact, with randomly-spaced dangerous monster potholes. People whine about this legendary road not being kept open, but this section through San Bernardino County alone has 880 timber bridges (most so small you're not even aware of driving over them), and no one wants to allocate road tax money to fix them.

66 near Pisgah, close up

There was essentially zero traffic on 66 even at this time; it doesn't go anywhere useful that I40 doesn't do better. Around Pisgah I turned the key to off, coasted to a stop, got out, and laid in the road for a few minutes. And took a few intimate closeups of the surface.

The rest of the drive to Amboy...

Essex to Army Airfield

Poorly planned, I got there at night, and had to locate a navigable path from Fenner Road to the airfield. At this time there was no cell service, and little of this part of the world was on Google Maps. In fact Google had the town of Essex in the correct place, and on the map twice. Location of the airfield was derived from paper maps, and I had to physically poke around (in the dark...) to find a way in. Turns out -- a decade later -- there are many easier ways than off Fenner Road (up from the south, basically).

Airfield photos

I drove around the airfield as much as I could. The eastern runway was still in decent shape, so I got the Rambler up to 60 on it.

Visible in the distance is the tall tower for the GWEN (Fennner CA location). GWEN is a now-obsolete AN/URC-117 Ground Wave Emergency Network communication system, involving very low frequencies. It caused and was subject to electrical interference with various industrial systems and has since been deprecated. This particular tower was torn down. The photos of the Essex (Fenner) installation on the Wikipedia page are ones I took, and there's more photos somewhere on this site.

Website contents, unless otherwise specified, © 2023 by Tom Jennings is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0