Repurposing the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a Pathway for Sacred Pilgrimages | Tyler Stallings

Photographs by Tyler Stallings

The year 2013 is the centenary of the Los Angles Department of Water and Power’s Los Angeles Aqueduct, an engineer’s 233-mile dream. A small fraction, 24 miles, is an open ditch, along with 37 miles of lined channels, 12 miles of steel and concrete pipeline, or siphons, 52 miles of concrete tunnels under the desert, plus the most notable and visible sections, the 98 miles of open-air concrete conduits. I will be visiting sections of each from the viewpoint of a future Aridtopia, a speculative, utopian, desert-based community that encompasses southern California. In its future, the aqueduct’s water flow will be shuttered as a matter of principal, based on sustainability and restitution to the Owens Valley.  But, even though it will be dry, it will still exist as The Great Incision in the Mojave Desert, or more simply, the Incision. How could it be repurposed in a way that reconnects people to the land and the water?

Aridtopia is a state of desert mind. It is a place where the most valuable commodity is fresh water, rather than oil, diamonds or gold. Hot, dry winds; unrelenting sunshine; gritty sand in your crevices; a weathered sign that reads “Tropical Oasis,” evoking impossibility. It is a place that is around the world: Mojave, Sahara, Atacama, Arabian, Sonoran, Artic and many other places where precipitation is almost absent. Robes, vented hats, snakebite kits; jackets for the cool night since there is little moisture to hold the heat as the sun sets.

The satellite image on my smart phone reveals the linear lines of the concrete aqueduct cutting through the Owens Valley. An extraterrestrial might consider rightly, while peering through its equivalent of a telescope, that they are canals carrying water across the planet’s surface to cities. Their correct estimation would be in contrast to the incorrect interpretation of blurry images of Mars seen through telescopes in the late 1800s, which created optical illusions that suggested crisscrossing canals on the Martian surface and thus:  life exists!

Today, as we consider settling the planet Mars, or Jupiter’s moon, Titan, we ask ourselves—from where will the water come? The next question that we ask: is there life beyond Earth, and does it exist in the harsh conditions of either the remnants of an atmosphere or the frozen seas of methane and ethane? These are the same questions that a nascent city on planet Earth in southern California asked in the early twentieth century.

Los Angeles needed water in order to realize its potential in a near desert environment. From where will it come? The answer was the Owens River. The next question: will this affect life in the Owens Valley? No, as there are only the scattered Paiute and Shoshone people and settler-ranchers using the land.

So, like the potential futures of Mars and Titan, the Owens Valley became a colony of Los Angeles. The city bought the land and the water rights for the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  It began to flow in 1913, allowing for the growth of Los Angeles from a city of just over 100,000 people on 44 square miles in 1900 to over 500,000 people on 364 square miles by 1920. Rather than terraforming Mars into a human-habitable planet, Los Angeles deformed the Owens Valley and reformed itself as a livable city.

I begin my journey on the outskirts of what may one day be Aridtopian boundaries in a former region of the U.S., in order to evaluate the repurposing of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. I drive a silver Mini Cooper, near the same size as the Mars Curiosity rover, exploring on Earth an arid landscape and the Incision.

Pearblossom, California, U.S. Route 18

I wear a green baseball cap to protect the beginning of a bald spot from the sun. My back is perspiring from leaning against a faux-leather car seat, despite wearing a thin, cotton, and plaid buttoned shirt. My vision is intermittently blurry because of the dry air as my contact lens need to slip and slide across moisture on my eyeball in order to work effectively.

The farther I drive away from Los Angeles, toward the Mojave Desert, the more the blue dots of swimming pools disappear from my phone’s satellite images. I am leaving my home. The Earth’s blue, watery surface barely registers from the Voyager 1’s viewpoint of 11 billion miles away. It is about to leave our solar system for interstellar space—the first human-crafted device to do so. No more water. No more Earth.

I drive past old, sun-bleached, drive-in motels, still advertising free HBO and air-conditioning. There is an erasure of signs. The lettering fades and peels from the sun, designating  past purpose: gas station, motel, roadside bar. The cloudless sky and the relentless sun send text into oblivion. Perhaps this will help the future Aridtopian squat in the questionably abandoned structures and then post a new sign: “Last Border Stop Between Aridtopia and the United States of America.”

Heading north on the 18, I turn left onto Longview Road, prompted by a sign that promotes a section of the L.A. Aqueduct as a fishing spot.

I drive up a paved road into the hills, turning off onto a dirt road that leads to the Los Angeles Aqueduct that is not visible from the road. I locate it by satellite on my phone. It is so well hidden here. Standing on its concrete banks, I watch the water flow smoothly and constantly. Perfect engineering. No trees on the banks nor boulders in the channel to thwart the pull of water down a steady decline from over 3,500 feet in the northern end of the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The water flows on its own; a visible reminder of an invisible force—gravity. Claims have been made that when it poured fourth in 1913, William Mulholland announced, “There it is! Take it!” My objective as a future Aridtopian is to reconsider this sentiment. One day, I may stand upon a purposefully dry aqueduct and announce, “There, it was never meant to be!”

The concrete aqueduct is a miniature valley. Its hard, sloping walls are like the steep, sheer grades of the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo White Mountains with the once fertile Owens Valley between them. It would be hard to pull myself out if I fell in because there is so little that can be grabbed. I suppose that I would float downstream, like a new day Huckleberry Finn, meeting characters of the desert along the way, until I slid into one of the several reservoirs along the aqueduct’s route. And just as Mark Twain’s character satirized old, deep-rooted attitudes by Southerners pining for the days before the Civil War, I will become known as No-Job Mesquite, and would offer scathing observations on entrenched views toward water-use.

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If the aqueduct were dry,  it could provide a protective trade route, shielded against the daytime desert heat where it is below ground, and against nighttime chill since the concrete will radiate heat absorbed from the sun. Vendors could set up shop too, alongside the upper banks. A narrow track could be laid down the center whereby gravity pulls carts down. Another track could be for carts pulled upslope with ropes.

Creosote bush, Mormon Tea shrub, and Mojave yucca surround the concrete aqueduct with its deep, flowing water. They are spaced apart, creating less competition for water and mineral resources. The Paiute, who were the first inhabitants of the valley, once lived spaced apart in smaller family groups. The Cahuilla in southern California did too. They divided when the group reached 200 or so. The idea of living together as a larger tribe was forced by settler governments more interested in containment than dispersion. I hope that the Paiute, or the Numa, as they call their people, and future Aridtopians will be able to live by their own fates.

Centuries ago, water flowed into imperial ancient Rome from the countryside via beautifully engineered, arched aqueducts. Los Angeles is imperious too, treating the Owens Valley as a resource-colony. The concrete aqueduct is a prison for the water. The snowpack—the blood of the mountains—is being drained slowly.

I am sweating profusely in the near 100-degree July heat in the Mojave Desert. A lizard scrambles along the concrete embankment. I will not allow my water to drain from me into the aqueduct.

Jawbone Canyon, northeast of Mojave, California, U.S. Route 14

I drive north from Pearblossom, past the town of Mojave and the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm—hundreds of single- and double-blade turbines spinning in the wind—and pull off at Jawbone Canyon, named for hills that resemble mandibles. In the 1800s, several gold mines dotted the landscape. Now, it’s the site of one of the largest sections of the L.A. Aqueduct’s metal siphons.

A stark white line crosses the desert surface. It is one segment of a miles-long, nearly seven-foot in circumference, metal pipe, or siphon, transporting water from the Owens Valley River to Los Angeles. The siphon’s extreme straightness suggests a contemporary rendition of the ancient animal-shaped Nazca Lines in Peru, some seemingly visible from an aerial viewpoint only. This same pipe zigzags atop hills in the distance, perhaps suggesting a slithering rattlesnake over the landscape, at least as seen from the sky, or the satellite image on my phone. The reflection of the sun off the chalk-like paint covering the pipe is blinding. I walk across the powdered desert sand to touch its side. No sensation of rushing water—of the Sierra Nevada’s blood—beneath the metal, as I had expected.

Several fire rings are near the siphon. They are made from nearby stray stones, and placed in a circle. They are left by what I call “desert-reckers.” (Those that use the desert for recreation, such as off-roading, do so within a federal embrace of “land of many uses.” An Aridtopian might define it as “wreck-creation.”) I imagine the fire circles as demarcating one of many resting places for future Aridtopian pilgrimages along the aqueduct’s route.

The Mojave Desert is a land of many uses: people retreat into it for the landscape’s solitude, quietness, and stillness, seeking spiritual replenishment. At the same time, the U.S. military maintains several bases such as Edwards Air Force Base, just south of Jawbone Canyon, and China Lake, north of here in the Indian Wells Valley. The desert provides the military bases with plenty of land for secrecy and distance from a civilian population for their protection. Experimental rockets and planes do blow up and they crash hard.

How could these siphons be repurposed? Could they provide a pathway from Aridtopia into Owens Valley that would provide even more protection from the elements than the concrete aqueduct sections that I saw earlier in Pearblossom?

With the siphons, ventilation slits could be cut into their metal sides so that air circulates continuously. This will allow pilgrims and travellers to traverse the desert in coolness. Doorways would be cut into the sides so that people can enter and exit at will, perhaps to sit around one of the fire rings. Flat platforms could be erected atop the curved surface so that people could climb out and up on to them for camping at night, away from snakes, coyotes, and scorpions.

However, these seem like only practical suggestions. There’s an opportunity to use the aqueduct for enacting a sacred journey, seeking spiritual truth. Maybe it could be a journey that the youth will take as they transition into “deserthood?” It would be like walking in a dream as they walk in the pitch-darkness of the siphon with their eyes wide open; severing their tie with the outside world. It would be a waking “dreamdesert” ritual.

Keeler, California, located on the east side of Owens Lake, U.S. Route 395

I leave my Aridtopian fantasies behind at Jawbone, finally merging onto the 395, heading further north into the Owens Valley. I drive past the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake on my right, or east side, in Indian Wells Valley. It’s the Navy’s largest base and the source for a variety of rockets and missiles with desert-animal inspired names, such as Sidewinder and Shrike. The first is a venomous pit-viper and the second is a bird known for its feeding habit of impaling lizards and insects on the thorns of plants or barbed-wire fences, giving them the nickname, “butcher bird.” Whether in Nazca Lines, lengthy metal pipes carrying water, or missiles, desert animals are evoked to represent otherworldly power.

Finally, I reach the southern tip of the desiccated Owens Lake. I turn right off the 395 onto the 190, which curves around the lake’s east side, reaching an intersection.  If I continue on 190, I’ll enter into Death Valley, but if I turn left on the 136, then I’ll continue skirting the perimeter of the lake, until I reconnect with the 395 at its northern end.

My MiniCooperMarsRover curves around the depleted, dusty, briny Owens Lake. Large expanses of salt flats lie at its center. When there is some rain, the water mixes with the salt and other minerals, making a small brine pond. Brine-fly larvae from its edges once sustained the Paiute. But, there is no more water. No more reflections of the sky on a shimmering, undulating, liquid surface.

The lake’s main contribution for decades has been alkali dust storms, since the aqueduct began tapping the Owens River above it. As much as four million tons of dust blows off the lakebed, spreading throughout the United States as one the country’s largest polluters.

I pass the DWP’s Dust Mitigation headquarters. They dump gravel, encourage some vegetation growth, and spray water to tap down the dust. The process has been successful to a degree, but has cost over a billion dollars, and has been executed only because of a court order.

I drive farther north and then stop at Keeler, midway on the east side, off the 136. Stepping out of my MiniCooperMarsRover, I walk among dilapidated, petrified, sucked-dry homes. The upkeep of some places suggests habitation, but it is still a ghost town;  one of hopes and dreams turned into dust. It was built when the Cerro Gordo silver mine was active from 1866 to 1957, 9,000 feet up into the hills from here. The ore was once brought down for smelting in Keeler, and then mule trains would take tons of silver to Los Angeles.

I come upon a post and lintel entrance to nothing. The lintel is a surfboard sign reading, “Keeler Beach. Swim, Surf, Fish. Camps For Rent.” There is no more shoreline since there is no more water.

I read once that in the early 1990s, Dr. Scott Stine, a paleoclimatologist at California State University at Hayward, examined centuries-old tree stumps at Mono Lake, exposed after water levels dropped when the Los Angeles Aqueduct drained water from the Owens Valley. He was able to demonstrate that long drought periods are the norm in the California region. The relative wet period, which is coming to an end, and in which we now live, is the anomaly.

Stine gathered additional evidence from fulgurites at Owens Lake, glassy structures formed by the fusion of sand by lightning strikes and made visible after the disappearance of the lake. He found fulgurites from both decades and centuries past, whose trapped electrons allowed for dating back further than expected. This suggested that the lake had been dry many times earlier, during which a lightning strike would have had the opportunity to hit a dry lakebed, thus, creating the fulgurites. In other words, there were many, long-lasting droughts in the past. Pilgrims could treat the fulgurites as talismans.

Bishop, California, U.S. Route 395

After Keeler, I skirt the remaining east perimeter of Owens Lake, intersecting with the 395 again. Then, I drive straight through the small towns of Lone Pine, Independence, and Big Pine, arriving in Bishop. It is located above the aqueduct’s intake gates, where water begins to flow from the Owens River into the aqueduct, bypassing the Owens Lake. The river can be found in its unchanneled state in this area.

Bishop is the biggest town along the 395. Along the main street are coffee shops and outfitters for hiking, skiing, and camping around Mammoth Lakes,  just a little further northwest in the Sierra Nevada. I’m now a couple of hundred miles north of my starting point in Pearblossom.

I stop at the Black Sheep Espresso Bar to meet with Alan Bacock. He is the Water Program Coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, tasked with overseeing water quality and quantity for the reservation.  As a future emissary from Aridtopia, I’ve come to discuss the repurposing of the aqueduct as route of pilgrimage. I am curious about what Alan and other Paiute, or Numa, may propose for the aqueduct.  The Numa lived and survived in the arid environment for thousands of years before settlers arrived in 1859.

Could the dry aqueduct serve as a causeway between Aridtopia and the Paiute, collaborating in the development of a new matrix for the landscape?

I will even suggest that future Aridtopians will assume that in the wake of their Grand Refusal of the Aqueduct, that the Numa may be able to take back the 90 percent ownership in the land by the settler-DWP, and then peacefully evict the remaining settler-ranchers in the Owens Valley.

Keeler and Olancha, on the west side off the 395, could become sites where pilgrims rest. Perhaps there are areas of the lake that could be sectioned off with walls so that water can be pumped in, mix with the salt, and create a salinity  eight times greater than the ocean’s, like that of the Judean Desert’s Dead Sea. Pilgrims could float buoyant on it, their bodies touching nothing hard, losing sense of their own body, confronting their primal self as the interior and exterior boundaries of the body dissolve into the briny water.

Or, perhaps Aridtopians can specialize in huge salt sculptures. The old smelting kilns for the silver ore could be used to prepare a salt solution: bring a vat of water to a rolling boil, keep adding salt until no more salt will dissolve, add food coloring. Then, bring the vat out onto the salt plains of the lake, build a skeletal wood structure over it, dip rope into the vat, then pull it out so that one end of it dangles in the vat and the other end is tied to a spot on the skeletal structure, and then leave it undisturbed. When the salt water begins to cool, the salt molecules will crystallize back into a solid, creating long, salt, multicolored, stalagmites along the rope, eventually becoming a crystalline superstructure in the desert. Temporary sanctuaries can be built in this manner. Maybe even a whole city for pilgrims on the dry Owens Lake.

Clues to the past can be excavated in the form of fulgurites, while these Aridtopian structures are being built for the eventual future.

Map by Tyler Stallings

The Numa may choose to return to the ancestral method of creating canals that branched off the river creeks flowing from the Sierra to water fields. Places in the Owens Valley may even revert to historic gathering spots for the Numa, returning to a life of constant movement and seasonal dwellings.

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Alan and I order coffee and then step out to Black Sheep Espresso Bar’s back porch area to sit under an umbrella, shielding us from the sun. Alan is a young man and has a family. His hair is black and his skin is brown. He checks his smart phone often, looking for messages from his wife, daughter, or other Paiute.

We had hoped that it would be a quiet location so that we could hear each other’s comments, but a group sits down at another table a few feet away. They seem to be friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. A couple is from Australia and another woman has just returned from travels in South Africa. Either the world is becoming one big desert or inhabitants of one desert region are attracted to arid regions elsewhere.

Alan provides some history of his people in the valley. My own thoughts, sans-italics, alternate with his.

Long ago, our ancestors realized that water did not come from the sky but flowed from the mountains. They learned long ago to build canals and ditches to irrigate seed-lands with the Sierra runoff. There were no fences or property lines so when settlers came they thought that the land was not being utilized but it was—by us.

Invisibility does not mean lack of presence.

In the past, most of the skirmishes with the settlers had to do with food. The livestock were eating plants that we had cultivated and gathered, such as Blue dicks. We would dig them up and gather the corm. Our most important item were the pinyons from the Inyo and White Mountains. There are still some that are being harvested by the Numa. And then the animals were small game that could not get around anymore due to fences, or livestock taking their food away, so starvation began to happen to us. Then, as we were starving we might kill a cow, for example, and then the rancher would retaliate. Then the military would come in from Fort Independence to protect the settlers. I’m jumping around here on history but you get the point. It’s been a slow dwindling of resources. But, we’ve survived.

To build a fence is to steal from the land. A fence makes one lose one’s soul to the impossibility of containment.

But the Paiute are adaptive. So they adjusted to the new paradigm. This was in the 1860s. Then later the aqueduct brought a second paradigm because there were no jobs with the ranchers since they weren’t getting water either. We’ve always existed, just like the Ancient Bristlecone Pine. I think that you should visit them because they are the oldest living trees, going back 5,000 years or more. They have survived in the most extreme of circumstances. Very little water, poor soil, and constant wind. They are like the Paiute; we still live here and still exist, even though many people have tried to destroy us.

Our people have always used the resources, but not to their limit because we live within it. All things are connected. Our use of water affects vegetation, animals and other people. We definitely see things as sacred. So with that point of view, we will always have a different outlook not only towards water, but life.

2013 marks not only the hundred-year anniversary of the LA Aqueduct but it also marks 150 years when our people were forced to march from Fort Independence to Fort Tejón. We just recently had a gathering, praying for peace and for the land. In fact, I have a friend who is not native, and who is walking from Fort Tejón to show the forced march in reverse, that is, to show better outcomes can happen, even today.

Aridtopians will walk the dry aqueduct upstream, against gravity, to reverse the bad intentions connected to decades of water flowing downstream to Los Angeles.

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Alan and I depart after talking for about 90 minutes. He checks his phone for more messages. He suggests that I drive to the nearby Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center & Museum.

I realize that people come with answers and not questions many times, when I consider Alan’s comments. And, as Alan said during our conversation, “to come with answers often leads to genocide.” He even spoke about his missionary work in Japan and how he did not like using the word “missionary,” as it suggests that one is coming with a mission, that is, with solutions ahead of time. I consider a better Aridtopian title might be “questionary,” that is, someone who comes into unfamiliar territory with questions in order to learn, rather than impose rule.

Toward the end of our conversation, Alan admitted that he’s not sure how to respond at the moment to the possibility of the aqueduct being “shut off,” in terms of what it would mean for his people, the Numa.

We did not discuss it, but having done a little research on the Numa, I am wondering if some form of forgiveness towards the creation of the L.A. Aqueduct can occur, shedding pain and suffering from present-day identities. Perhaps the Numa could line the banks of the aqueduct and enact their mourning ceremony known as the cry dance. Normally, it concludes the mourning of relatives who died the year before.

But in this case, the cry dance would be ending 150 years of mourning their forced marches, of being put on reservations, and of the water being sent away to a city that does not get rain either. Their tears would fall into the dry, cement aqueduct, filling it with hope and courage. The water would spread out in the valley, creating marshes once again, bringing back the green space; that fertility that so surprised the settlers 150 years ago as they crossed over from the sunburnt, brown basin or from a fried Sacramento. It would go down in Numa lore as The Great Dry Cry.

Lone Pine, California, U.S. Route 395

My last break before I drive back nonstop over the imaginary U.S./Aridtopia border is in Lone Pine, one of the larger towns, though still quite small, along the 395. Lone Pine is a one-stoplight town. Just as Bishop is the entryway to Mammoth Lakes, Lone Pine is the entryway to hiking Mount Whitney.

The Lone Pine Indian Reservation is home to Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone members, and is along the south side of town on both sides of the 395. The Lone Pine Museum of Film History is also located at the south end of Main Street. It’s an old movie house with a towering marquee on its façade and has the snow capped Sierra Nevada as its cinematic backdrop.

I drive up a slight incline, then consult my map, and find the site of the tent city that housed the cast and crew for Gunga Din. The movie was an adventure tale set in nineteenth-century India. According to my guide map, it was about three raucous British soldiers and their water-bearer, Gunga Din, who must stop an uprising by an Indian cult.

These hills are also the site for ancestral stories of the Numa, including one about a giant who pounced and screamed to scare people out of their hiding places, then picked them up and killed them. On his way back up the valley, a water-baby in the Owens Lake outsmarted him, dragged him into the lake, and drowned him.

I stand here amidst the rounded boulders, superimposing water-stories that are centuries apart. I am developing a story about the aqueduct, the Paiute, and Aridtopia. This place will still be here when the chronology of these stories passes, leaving them to exist all at once in this place.

Alan and I talked about this notion a bit in our conversation in Bishop. On one level, the Paiute stories serve a practical purpose: told as warnings to young kids to stay away from places where they might drown by scaring them with a water-baby creature; or as a mnemonic device for remembering the location of sources of water and food. Place connects people with the land itself, rather than emphasizing movement from location to location as an area is exploited for its resources, until it is dead as a source of food, water, and memory.

Focusing on place, rather than time, is one of the biggest mental obstacles for future Aridtopians, since we will have once lived in the United States where “time is of the essence” and “time is money.” It has been said that “time heals all wounds.” Aridtopians may rephrase this sentiment to read as “place heals all wounds.”

In my mind, for future Aridtopians, and for the Numa perhaps, the L.A. Aqueduct has been repurposed conceptually. It has been transformed from an immense mechanism for transporting water into one for transporting one’s spirit. The Incision would become a sacred pathway for rediscovering one’s place within the universe; a desertdreamtrek where one’s consciousness dissolves into the liquid cosmos from which all life has emerged.

Photographs and map by Tyler Stallings.


Tyler Stallings is a writer and curator with a focus on photography, technology, new media, and phenomenology of the body. He serves as artistic director of Culver Center of the Arts and director of Sweeney Art Gallery at University of California, Riverside.


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