We were hoping not just to view the largest accumulation of Native American rock art on the planet but also to find some evidence to support a theory that has grown out of our Pasadena Confidential tour research into rocket scientist Jack Parsons and his metaphysical activities of the mid-1940s.
The core story is well known: in early 1946, Parsons was living communally on Pasadena's Millionaire's Row, and with L. Ron Hubbard as his frequent partner, engaging in magical experiments derived from the work of Aleister Crowley.
Somewhere out in the Mojave Desert, Parsons and Hubbard enacted the Bablon Working, a sex magic ritual which, Parsons was convinced, resulted in the manifestation of the woman who would become his widow, Marjorie Cameron.
Nobody knows where in the 25,000 square miles of the Mojave this ritual took place. But as we dug deeper into the history of aerospace in Southern California, we became aware of a site which seemed to throb with unusual possibility.
Although not himself an academic, Jack Parsons did much of his rocketry research at CalTech and with the CalTech-associated firms of JPL and Aerojet. As the race to develop bigger and faster rockets was run, the scientists abandoned the suburban arroyos of Pasadena and decamped for the secure and forgiving expanses of China Lake.
It seemed highly probable that Parsons, with his deep interest in psychic phenomenon, magic and spirituality, would be drawn to the remarkable rock carvings left behind by the Coso People. These images are located just a short flight from the headquarters of the Naval Station.
And this was enough to compel us to book one of the occasional guided tours provided by volunteer historians, to pack up our proof of US citizenship (passport or voter registration card will do) and stay the night in a quiet Ridgecrest hotel. Just past dawn, we gathered at the Maturango Museum for orientation, then presented ourselves at the Naval base gate for a search of our car and a humorless lecture on what would happen should we break a limb or a rule. Then our convoy was waved on towards the ancient world beyond.
As we were forbidden to take photographs on the ride out to the heritage site, we cannot show you the wide expanse of dry lake bed, the dense Suessian forest of thousands of Joshua Trees or the skinny wild horses who greeted us with flared nostrils as we climbed. Nor can we share the seemingly abandoned military equipment, or the distant bunkers which shimmered, ghostlike, in the sun.
But we can show you the petroglyphs. And signs of Jack Parsons or not, the Little Petroglyph Canyon is one of the most extraordinary places we have ever laid eyes on. This ancient river bed, dry and sandy now and dotted with massive smooth stones that tell of centuries' wild flow, is surrounded by high rock walls, deep brown and ochre and slashed with fissures in which small plants and lichens grow. The shadows move fast inside the canyon, changing the walls as they pass.
And on those walls, some bright as if they were carved this morning, others only visible through the yellow cast of our polarized sunglasses, are thousands of carvings left behind by the people of the place over untold generations.
There are fields of numberless dots, counting something significant but long forgotten. Broad swaths like patterned blankets. Capering sheep with long curving horns. Men shooting at the sheep with primitive rock throwing sticks, and then with bows and arrows. Wriggling snakes. Tight nesting coils. Fish traps. Rows of walking men, disappearing around a bend in the rock. Tall shamanic figures, their heads alive with light.
The walk isn't easy.
Soft sand over smooth basalt tires the ankles, and demands close attention even as the stories in the stone do the same.
We shimmy down a double height, narrow gully in the rock, taking care not to land in stagnant puddles in which bits of dead things float. Someone has propped a skull on a boulder.
And at the end: the void. The river used to terminate in a massive waterfall that poured life-giving fluids onto the fossil-rich lakebed below. We stopped a few feet back, awed by the view and conscious of all the forward rushing energy of aeons past, before turning back and returning to the trailhead as the sun crested the center of the canyon and the way back seemed suddenly long and rough indeed.
There aren't many spots in Southern California where you can have an experience this close to time travel. We won't soon forget the power and beauty of the place.
Okay, but what about Jack Parsons? Did we abandon our search for 20th Century remnants as we boggled at carvings believed to be as much as 10,000 years old?
We did not. For smack in the middle of the path, high on a huge boulder, we found unmistakeable evidence of Parsons' scientific peers.
The nuclear equation E=MC2 has been beaten into the rock–not with the smooth lines of the ancient petroglyphs, but in jagged pointillism, a sharp metal tool point driven into the surface again and again and again.
Later research confirmed that it's believed that someone aware of the Manhattan Project entered the canyon some time before the Nagasaki blast and left this message for future generations.
We found a few other recent markings on the stones. Not many–the isolation and secure nature of the site has protected it from desecration. But at one spot we found the dates 1934 above 1946.
We also found two initials, low on a rock in a side passage at the mouth of the canyon. They were almost the first thing we saw upon beginning our trek.
JP. The letters beaten into the stone with the same bold technique as the famed equation further along the wash.
Jack Parsons? We'll never know for certain. But of all the moderns who came to this place, only one took the time to inscribe their personal mark for future dwellers to see. That person shared the initials of the man whose shadow we sought.
We knelt in the sand and ran our fingers over the markings, then rose and continued on into the canyon where time telescopes.
See all of Chinta Cooper's (and a few of Richard Schave's) photos from our trip here.
And if you'd like to tour the Coso Petroglyphs, click here.