Thursday, January 31, 2008

Memories Of Red Mountain, California's "Desert Museum"

California highway 395 runs from Interstate 15, paralleling the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada range, until it finally crosses into Nevada somewhere north of Bridgeport. I've driven that road dozens and dozens of times on my visits to the Sierras and Death Valley, and it's probably my favorite highway in the United States. Not only do you get spectacular scenery, you also see interesting man-made sights, like the late, great "Desert Museum" in the semi-ghost town of Red Mountain, California.

Red Mountain is in the high desert at about 3500 feet, and is named for Red Mountain----an oxidized volcanic cone-----which looms another couple of thousand feet above it. It has scattered mobile homes for miners and a couple of abandoned stores and gas stations. And, until 2002, it was the home of the "Desert Museum."

I drove by this place for years until I finally stopped in 2001. There was no hint from the road that visitors were wanted, but I quickly learned I was welcome as long as I made a "donation" to help with expenses. I tossed $5 into the "tip jar" and was admitted to the wonders within.

The "docent" for the museum was a guy who looked to be in his late thirties; I was introduced to an elderly gentleman who was his father. I learned this "museum" was actually stuff his father and a friend had found abandoned/dumped in the desert regions of southern California. They had started taking the stuff back to their homes in Riverside (or was it San Bernardino??) but their wives eventually insisted they store it somewhere else. They found some land cheap in Red Mountain, and that land was actually in the desert. In short order, the "Desert Museum" was born!

Okay, so all the stuff there was junk------it suggested a yard sale in the post-apocalyptic world of those Mad Max movies-----but it was carefully and even lovingly arranged for display. And these photos are misleading, because it all started to make an odd sort of sense after a while. It was like looking at grains of salt through a microscope; the seeming chaos resolved itself into order and even beauty.

I was told that a couple of music groups had asked about shooting videos at the museum, and they got far more European and Asian visitors than American ones. I couldn't figure out whether all this was serious or a big put-on; were those European and Asian visitors possessed of superior aesthetic sensibilities or just suckers----a bunch of cultured rubes with exotic accents----for a con job pulled by a pair of grizzled desert coots? It didn't matter, because I got a kick out of two guys following their own demented passion to its (il)logical conclusion.

Driving by a couple of times in the fall of 2002, I noticed the "Desert Museum" sign had been replaced by a "No Trespassing" one and the gate was padlocked; many of the items seemed to be gone. In January, 2003, I drove by the site again and noticed a big new sign reading "Okie Ray's Desert Museum" out front. However, even more stuff seemed to be missing. My guess is that one or both of the elderly proprietors had either called it quits (or died), and the place was under new ownership/management. But it didn't seem the same. I haven't been back in the last five years, and I can't find any reference to it on Google. Maybe it still exists; maybe it doesn't. Sic transit gloria, which is Latin for "Gloria has motion sickness."