Desert Junk (This Land Is Your Land)

Sheep Hole Pass, California
Sheep Hole Pass, California

What amazed me most when I first drove into the Californian deserts some twenty years ago was the junk. I don’t mean the dilapidated houses or buildings, or the ruins — you expect that in a tough environment. I mean the sort of junk people must have deliberately gone out of their way to dump there: television sets, fridges, sofas, mattresses, beds, cars — all dumped or accumulating in the middle of nowhere. You actually have to make a real effort to throw a dead television into, say, the Stoddard Wells ruins — it’s miles down a dirt road from the nearest real settlement, and you don’t just find yourself there in the pickup with an old TV in the back, do you? Ditto for places like Sheep Hole Pass— do people really wake up one morning and think “I’ve just got to throw that old toilet bowl and spare mattress out at Sheep Hole Pass today! Let’s load up the truck!”? And all those dead cars….

The junk at Stoddard Wells, California
Some junk at Stoddard Wells

Ditto for places like Sidewinder Road near Barstow. Sidewinder Road is where I took my first Californian desert photos. After driving out along Highway 58 from Bakersfield, up and over the Tehachapis and through the town of Mojave, I’d already encountered the bizarre sight of personal and industrial junk strewn across the desert, and when I stopped to take photos, the first thing I saw was a red car door propped up against a large rock. So I took a photo of that, thinking I’d get more scenic photos later — after all, I was really just getting used to taking photos in the desert at all back then. But as I drove along Sidewinder Road and (a few hours later) the old Route 66 to Amboy and back to Barstow, the most noticeable thing for me was the omnipresent junk (and the shotgun and bullet casings and cartridges, more of which in a later article). I remember stopping near Amboy Crater on that trip and walking a mile or so across the desert around the crater and coming across things like discarded shoes and a stripped-down lawn mower all in the lee of this beautiful cinder-strewn landscape a long way from any real town; and nearly all the junk I saw was full of bullet holes. I remember thinking “I’m not in Australia now”.

The toilet bowl in the middle of nowhere (Sheep Hole Pass)
The toilet bowl in the middle of nowhere (Sheep Hole Pass)

All of this really offended my Australian sense of what deserts are about, but over the years I got more used to it, more used to the idea that almost no matter where you were in the Californian deserts, if you were within a few hundred yards of a road or even the remotest dirt track, you were only a few short steps from (often shot-up) junk, whether it’s just a thrown-away drink container or small car tire, or something larger like a sofa or a fridge, or really large things like entire cars or trailers. I conceived of doing a series of photos called, pretentiously enough, “This Land Is Your Land”, where I wanted to highlight the issue, especially on public lands. I even attempted to do a series of night flash photos of the junk along Sidewinder Road (this was before the huge desert outlet mall grew up there) to be called “Desert Wildlife”, in the same vein as the Jingletown Wildlife project, but I never really got around to doing that one.

But the outrage faded, and I came to terms with the fact that many Californians either didn’t know, or didn’t really notice, or just didn’t care (some of them probably even liked it that way). And a pretentiously-named photo essay probably isn’t the best way to change much around here, so I stopped concentrating on the junk a long time ago. I still occasionally take photos of junk in the desert, but not as part of a coherent project or anything. It’s more because (in my experience at least) you can’t help taking photos of junk when you take photos in the desert, and it’s such a (dare I say it) natural part of the Californian deserts nowadays anyway.

So I’ve put together this small gallery of fairly-recent photos of junk in the desert, which will undoubtably grow over time. The gallery doesn’t do the subject justice — there’s just way too much out there to cover, and what I’ve got here is just a tiny fraction of what I’ve seen, and most of the earlier desert junk photos are on film and still unscanned (and likely to remain that way).

And yes, I’m sure that if I went back to the Australian deserts nowadays I’d find they’re not so pristine any more (if they were ever that way in living memory anyway). But there’s still a hell of a lot more desert there; and far fewer humans.

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