For their fifth anniversary celebration, Esotouric’s Kim Cooper and Richard Schave headed off on California’s old, lost highways in search of the unexpected.

First stop, the remote Saint Francis dam disaster site, with its surprising companion, the stunning Art Deco D.W.P. Power Plant #2. The 1928 disaster provided an architectural opportunity to rebuild in the high style of the day, and it’s certainly a gem.
St. Francis dam site

To access the spot where the dam collapsed and millions of gallons of water poured to the sea at Ventura, dragging about 500 souls to their death, one must stop on the two-lane highway and walk out along an abandoned, partially washed-out road. Within moments, the heat of the canyon dissipates and all mechanical sounds vanish.
St. Francis dam site
The road is clogged close by trees feeding off the stream that’s filtered up through the asphalt, and down in the thin layer of mud and water, swift black tadpoles darted away from our shoes.

St. Francis dam site

The walk is short. Round a bend where bullet holes dot old road signs, and there it is: the big canyon with unmistakeable signs of Mr. Mullholland’s hubris in building atop an ancient landslide.
St. Francis dam site

Shaken by this quiet monument to the suffering caused by L.A.’s booster egotism, we left quietly, our spirits much buoyed by the sight of a colony of incredibly tiny frogs, too small to photograph, frolicking in their mud puddle.

Next on the agenda was a stop in Tehachapi, that little mountain town best known for the prison which used to house all the southland’s Tiger Women and Black Widows.


After exploring the cute little downtown with its replica train station (a recent fire ate the landmark original), German bakery (try the Harvest Loaf)
and vintage neon hotel signs, we found the tranquil cemetery, just off the highway out on the community dump road.

Tehachapi Cemetery

Eager to settle in for the night, we gunned it on to Bakersfield, where Richard posed with the object of our trip, Mr. Deschwanden’s shoe repair shop which is, yes, shaped like a shoe. It seems to be vacant. A business opportunity for you, perhaps?

Bakersfield Shoe-Shaped Cobbler's Shop, circa 1950 (builder: Mr. Deschwanden)

At Richard Neutra’s Norwalk Service Station, now a Sir Lube, we learned that the roof leaks, but the old gal is otherwise holding up nicely.

Norwalk Service Station (former), Neutra, Bakersfield

We admired many fine neon signs.

Sinaloa restaurant neon, Bakersfield

Harper Pools neon, Bakersfield

And found an old iron hitching ring in the sidewalk, in front of what used to be a popular saloon, but is now a vacant lot.

Iron hitching ring, Bakersfield

The heat was getting to us, so after a cozy night in the restored Padre Hotel, we lit out for points more coastal, via Delano, a birthplace of farmworkers’ rights where the derelict brick Hotel Kern caught our eye.

Derelict Hotel Kern, Delano

The road to the coast followed James Dean’s last drive, and we pulled off the road at the spot where he crashed his Porsche to muse for a spell on the life lost and myth gained. Kim had Phil Ochs’ lovely song about him stuck in her head for the next couple hours.

James Dean death site

After the outrageous heat of the central valley, San Luis Obispo felt like heaven, so of course we had to seek out the putti and pink fluff of
Madonna Inn Resort & Spa

Madonna Inn

It was just about a year ago that we’d last dropped by, on the way home from our Nittwitt Ridge Excursion, and we were delighted to see that the innkeepers have again welcomed a family of swallows to nest under the eaves of the porte-cochère. A little luck, and we captured an image of feeding time.

Baby swallows being fed, Madonna Inn

Down to town the next morning, Richard was reluctant to go thrift shopping, but happy he had when he came away with a beautiful set of vintage Samsonite luggage, cheap.

Richard scores vintage Samsonite luggage set, San Luis Obispo

Breakfast was served at Louisa’s Place, which we liked for our sassy waitress and the ingenious addition of grilled mushrooms to the Eggs Florentine.

Last stop before home to kiss the cats was a long stroll out onto the boardwalk through the dunes at Guadalupe, a strange and beautiful place.

Guadalupe Dunes

Somewhere out there are the ruins of exotic silent film sets, but we were more keen on bird watching and admiring the very odd plants that thrive in the sand.

Guadalupe Dunes

Thanks for tagging along with us for this latest road trip adventure, and stay tuned for more peculiar excursions. For more photos, click here.