High Desert Memories - A Hometown Journal Commemorating Ridgecrest California
When I first saw the valley I . . . . .
Wildflowers proliferate the desert in the spring
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Fish Rocks on the road between Ridgecrest and Trona
My first real day in China Lake, was the beginning of Feb. 1970. It was extremely strange to me. I, as a Navy brat, was used to being transferred every so many years, but this time was somehow different. It was a very hazy, cold and windy day, something I wasn't used to. We were staying in a temp house right across the street from the Theater, Malt Shop area. I remember being very nervous about going to a new school, so my mom took us to the Saturday Matinee, even she felt like a fish out of water. Within a couple of days we moved to Independence Street, and the following week I was entering my new 6th grade class at Murray, Jr. High. And I can say without any doubts, that was the first day of my new life "in the desert."
Dee (D'Laine Brannan)
Ah yes...The first memory of life on the desert! Having moved to China Lake at the ripe old age of 2 1/2 in the late fall of 1945, I don't remember a whole lot. I do remember Kindergarten in the huts next to the Old Admin Building and the big wide WOODEN slide in the middle of the playground...I also remember laying face down on the kitchen table while my dad used tweezers to remove pieces of the WOODEN slide from my backside. More dark periods until the second day of school in the first grade at Groves Street Elementry School. Of all the times to have the measles, I got the Dr's permission to go to school the second day of school. Not being in school the first day of first grade made me a total stranger to the old salts that had already whethered the first exposure to education. That attitude presisted until well into the second grade and my first school fight...with who else but the most popular kid in the class, Ronny Marker. After that, he and I always had a quiet respect for oneanother. The early years...
Robert (Bob) Rumpp
I moved in to the military housing off of French road (I think that is it-the road leading to Burroughs)when I was in the 4th grade. Anyway, I remember being totally amazed at all the houses that looked alike. The first day that we were there, a great big black widow walked across my shoe, and I almost fainted. That was the first of many black widows, lizards, snakes, etc-they were a part of everyday life in the desert and we all learned to live in harmony, much to my dismay at that young age.
Cindy (Cynthia Homley)
It took two days to make that first trip out from Los Angeles, most of the roads were dirt after we left the highway from Cajon Pass and San Bernardino. I remember my first view of Ridgecrest and the Indian Wells Valley as we rounded the corner by the old White Star Mine. It looked like a great wasteland to me. It was hot and dry and the 2:00 PM wind was blowing so the sand was kicking up a bit. It felt a bit as though I was in one of those western movies and was about to make a never ending trek across the wastelands . . . . .
I was able to find this in the RC site, doesn't go into detail about it, though.
"Ridgecrest, incorporated in 1963, is located in the northeast corner of Kern County in the Northern Mojave Desert. Prior to the establishment of the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at China Lake in 1943, Ridgecrest, then "Crumville," consisted of a few scattered farms and homesteads. Ridgecrest evolved during the 1950's and 1960's as a support community, vital to the mission of NOTS, by providing housing and services for Federal employees and contractors."
WELL DONE! I had always heard it was called that before it was changed in about '43 when the based developed (have you ever wondered where the "ridge" and the "crest" were? I remember another story that evidently someone chose that name as it reminded them of their hometown back east/south somewhere! But yea it had definitely become "r/C) when the base developed!! I remember when we incorporated--my dad was always pretty politically involved and I remember discussions at home about whether it would be a good thing! Now that IS a strange thing to remember (and even stranger that it was worthy of discussion)xx
"On June 27, 1941, Ridgecrest got its name and post office. The first post office was located in Bentham's store at the southwest corner of China Lake Blvd. and Ridgecrest Blvd. Bill Bentham became the first postmaster. This is the current site of the Bank of America. The name for the community was selected through a contest, initiated by the Bentham girls. Names were submitted. Sierra View was first choice. However, Sierra View was officially rejected because it was felt that there were too many towns in California that contained the name Sierra. Ada Thompson, a visiting friend of the Benthams, suggested the name Ridgecrest. Ridgecrest won over "Gilmore" (the name of the gasoline sold by Bentham) by only one vote.
NOTS (Naval Ordnance Test Station) was established in November 1943 at its first headquarters at Inyokern Airport which was called Harvey Field by the Navy until deactivation in 1946-47. The station consisted of eight quonset huts and test ranges. The airport was returned to the county in 1947 after construction of facilities at China Lake. One of the most significant construction projects was Michelson Laboratory (named for the first American Physics Nobel Laureate).
After the Navy came, Ridgecrest was a boomtown. Many lived in make-shift housing in Ridgecrest and Inyokern. Tents and small house trailers provided the housing for construction people, Navy personnel, and Department of Defense employees.
From D'Laine Brannan's "Mojave Memories"
What I really remember about growing up on the High Desert was the availability to being able to just roam. We hiked to "B" mountain, walked all thru Mirror Lake area, hunted lizards, snakes, and rabbits and went up to the mountains to fish and play in the snow.
I remember one year at Easter time when it rained. and rained and rained. So much that there were people actually in row boats in the streets!! While the summers could get to 120 degrees the winters could me pretty cold. That darn wind blowing off the mountains chilled me many a morning and afternoon while walking to school.
What really impressed me at the time was the cost of everything on the Base. Movies, although infrequent, were only a dime!! Saturday matinees were something all the kids had to attend. Beer parties, once we were in high school, were conducted out in the desert where no one could get hurt. Yes growing up on the High Desert was a fun affair. I can't even imagine how much trouble I would have gotten into doing the same things elsewhere that I was able to do on the desert. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
My first day was actually a night. I had orders to report to the Naval Air Facility, China Lake, in late October of 1959. Having been born and raised in Chicago, and having traveled extensively in the east, I was anxious to get to California.
I left Las Vegas at 8 pm and a few hours later I was northbound on 395 out of Four Corners. It was mid week, and so no, I repeat, NO traffic. The farther north I went, the more convinced I was that I was lost. The whoop-dee-doos on that road didn't help. But I pressed on, because that's what the map showed, even though I had to stop and read it by my headlights.
Finally the lights of Altolia (yes, Altolia) and Red Mountain. I'm almost there. Wrong! Lights, but no life, so I continued. I soon rounded the curve south of the Jo Burg turn-off, and had to stop and re-check my map.
As I got out of the car, I felt a very unfamiliar chill. A dry chill that I've never felt before. Like crawling out of a down bag in the middle of the winters night. I was not comfortable at all. The moon was high and full. The air was so clear and clean that it offered no hint of the lights of Ridgecrest a mere 25 miles to the north. The scene was awesome. A deep blue hue tinted everything. Only mountains and valleys in all directions. Occasional "things" masquerading as trees stood by, rigid, watching the bushes at their feet. Every few minutes a breath would interrupt my eyes, and offer something new for my nose.
A feeling of confidence passed over me, almost warming me. It felt like someone stuffed me back into the down bag. I reached into the car and turned off the lights and the engine. I had never heard such silence. After several minutes of meditation, (a record for this 19 yr. old) I thought I had all my senses working. But it wasn't until 40 years later that I realized that I was still connected to the high desert. I left in 1979 to pursue another career, but to this day I refer to the desert as where I grew up.
R B Saiger
Huntington Beach, CA
Well, many of us here grew up in the upper Mojave Desert. I still live here and it is, for many, a very beautiful place. It is an acquired taste for some though. The heat here in July/August can reach 117 degrees.
I live about 20 miles outside of the main community of Ridgecrest where the bulk of employment is directly related to the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. We are in a valley which is bordered on the West by the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the North and East by the Coso Range. I am within a couple miles of the Sierras, so I have a pretty great view from our 5 acre abode.
You should visit the desert. The desert nights are spectacular and nothing can beat the star gazing from horizon to horizon. There is also a real variety of wildlife and vegetation in spite of the somewhat barren picture that the word 'desert' invokes. Right now the wildflowers are just starting to appear and in some years the wildflowers are quite thick and vivid in shades of bright yellow, orange, purlple and pink. I also have allot of mesquite and sage bushes on my property which bloom in purple and yellow.
The downside of the wildlife is the rattlesnakes and scorpions for me. But we also have lots of other kinds of snakes, lizards, ground squirrels, jack rabbits and cottontails, bobcats, coyotes (who really do serenade us on many nights) as well as the occasional mountain lion and bear because of our proximity to the mountain ranges. Lots of birds here too. I have dove, quail, robins, hummingbirds and the occasional visitors of geese and even seagulls blown off course somehow which are attracted to the alfalfa farm just up the road. Ravens and vultures keep the roads clean of road kill and other dead critters while hawks and owls help keep the mice and rodent population from turning into herds of their own!
The sunrise and sunsets of the desert is not surpassed anywhere I have seen. We get some pretty wonderful sky watching treats between those and the stars. And the full moon on the desert at night is an experience all its own. I love it when we have a full moon because you can see the mountains and desert bathed in moonlight and it seems to have an aura of its own. However much I may dream of green grass and white fences with trees everywhere, I will always appreciate the magic and contrasts of the desert where I have grown up.
Cathy Schmeer (Cat in Hat)
How do you describe to people growing up in a place like Ridgecrest?
Currently living back east here in Pittsburgh, PA, you barely get the words out, "I grew up in the Mojave Desert," and they are already painting a bleak stereotypical picture of brown sand and scrub, with a look of mild distain. Maybe that is ok, maybe the fiery red sunsets, the precious spring days where the desert is alive with wildflowers, the incomprehsible vastness, should be left for the few, and yes I can say the lucky few. What I miss is the fact that you can climb into your truck, and drive 45 minutes in any direction on a dirt road and experience a 360 degree kaliedascope of amazingly different geography/geology; from desert plain, to joshua trees, pines trees, to massive granite monoliths.
I remember one time, on a beutifull spring day when I was about 11 or 12, with the desert grasses and wildflowers in full bloom. Jimmy Craig launched his hot air ballon from our front yard. I knew, that there was a certain magic to this moment, to this place, and I felt so very lucky. And it seems funny, but in the next thought, I thought about my cousin Rick who lived in Southern California, and I felt sorry for him. I mean those city kids don't get a hot air balloons launched from their front yard, or could
they consider the 100 square miles outside their fence their front yard. And it seems, even at that young age, I felt I understood the power, the freedom of this desert place, I felt as if I was let in on some secret hidden information revealed to me from God himself. I felt sorry for all those city kids, they just didn't get it, but us desert rats understood, and we knew we were incomparable to the rest of the world.
PS: Thanks Mom
Thanks Dad, see you in Heaven
My FIRST experience with the desert.
It was late February or early March of 1969, and was home on leave near Buffalo, NY, after graduating from "A" school in Memphis. My orders were for China Lake, and of all the seasoned sailors I asked about where C/L was located, they all shrugged their shoulders and said they had never heard of it. They broke out in laughter when I told them it was in the Mojave Desert in California.
A Navy base in the desert? Absurd!
A well travelled sailor I was not. And anything west of the Mississippi river was uncharted territory as far as I was concerned. So I got suited up in dress wools, wearing my beloved and warm P-coat, toting my seabag over my shoulder, my folks drove me to the airport. I was ready to venture forth and
see what California and especially the desert was all about. I arrived at LAX about 7 PM, walked thru the terminal to my connecting flight to Inyokern. I noticed something strange - everybody was wearing shorts and t-shirts. I thought these were really tough people braving the cold. To my surprise, it was an unusually warm day there, and I must have been the brunt of all the jokes. I didn't have to wait long (Thank God) and I flew the "white knuckle special" to Inyokern. An hour of this flight was way more than I bargained for. It was pitch black out, nothing to get my bearings in order, and breathed a sigh of relief as I got off the plane and into the little building they called the terminal. The lady there said she would call the base to have the bus pick me up and take me out to the temporary barracks out at NAF. I passed the time chatting to the lady about the desert, sounded like a pretty neat place to be, 'cept for the snakes and crawly things.
The busride from Inyokern to NAF also seemed like an eternity. Pitch black, Lord only knows where this guy is taking me, thru a couple checkpoints, and finally arriving at the barracks. I unloaded my gear, jumped in the shower, and got ready to hit the sack, and thought to myself: This has been one heck of a day. I fly 5 hours on a plane, never been to California, fly another hour to an isolated patch in the desert, then a busride into a God forsaken place.
What could be next?
The next day I woke up and was totally awestruck!. I looked out the window of the barracks and talk about the most beautiful, magnificent and majestic mountain view anyone could ever experience!!! It was absolutely gorgeous out there. I LOVE IT! It was definitely worth the wait.
That was back in '69, and have loved it ever since.
I first saw China Lake during a brief stay during the summer of 1948. I came from another small town on the desert (Arizona) and since I was coming to California I thought I would be going to a city with tall, multi-story buildings. I had seen such buildings once in Phoenix. So the first thing I remember about China Lake was - no tall buildings! We stayed in some temporary-type housing towards the back gate, which I think lasted as homes for a large number of years (does anyone remember the names for these?). We (parents and my brother Charles) moved to the base in 1950.
Daniel Hanne, Class of 1958
We arrived in Ridgecrest in August of 1965, after a grueling drive across country. I was 3, so I don't remember much. However, family lore tells me that when first driving into town on that hot (of course!) August day, squeezed into a 1960 Chevy Biscayne with Dad and 4 children under the age of 6, my mother burst into tears upon seeing a sign on Inyokern Rd. that proclaimed "Slippery when wet or icy" My mother, a proper, Irish Catholic former nun, reportedly sobbed "This road has never been wet and it sure as HELL has never been icy!!"
In typical Ridgecrest fashion, however, the town and it's people drew us in and it became, truly our "home."
I was 14 years old when my Dad was transferred from Norfolk, Virginia to China Lake, CA. in June of 1960. I will never forget how desolate and yet beautiful the desert was as we traveled up hwy-395. The sunsets were to die for. It was amazing to me, but not my sister who cried until we saw that big patch of green - Ridgecrest and China Lake. I loved the fresh, clean air and the warmth of the sun.
We had to move in to a quonset hut for most of the summer until base housing opened up. It really wasn't too bad - we had air conditioning, a place to sleep and eat. Base housing eventually opened up for us at 1313 Lauritson.
Our little home is no longer there. My husband and I made a motor home trip there in 1999 and it was really sad to see all the homes, trees and grass gone. I took a walk through the desert, as I had done many, many times to go to school at Burroughs High. My memories are filled with lots of good things from living and going to school there. I spent all my free time at the base swimming pool and base theatre with my best friend Evelyn Whealen.
We got involved in a group, with both military and high school kids to make relations better between us. There was an article in the "Rocketeer", dated 9-1-1961, about our efforts and how well we were getting along. For years there had been tension and by coming together we made a difference.
I really enjoyed being part of everything and I especially enjoyed the good health I experienced. In the past I had suffered from many bouts of bronchitis - but not in China Lake. I couldn't have been healthier with the exception of cracking my head open on the high dive at the base community pool.
The pool has also changed a bit - they moved the women's shower and bath away from the gym area and closed off an opening to the outside. It unfortunately made it more closed in and not quite so bright inside. The baby pool and juke box are also gone.
My Dad retired in June of 1962 and we had to leave a place that had brought me such happiness and joy. I have stayed friends with Evelyn and have recently hooked up with an old friend named Doug Johnson. We reminisced about the good times in China Lake and are really pleased to see how much Ridgecrest is growing. It is, however, sad to see the decline of China Lake.
It always amazed me that the Navy and Civilians, working together, could do so much in such a short time. The massive construction effort during the late 40's and early 50's must be considered a great feat, indeed. Everyone involved should be proud of their accomplishments. The men, equipment, and materials, mostly all arrived on highways # 6 from L.A. and # 395 from San Bernardino, CA. The highways were only paved through towns, while the dirt was oiled a lot between. Potholes grew in short order. Lewis construction tried hard to keep driving safe,
however, it was always a losing battle. The Navy and the three counties (whose boundaries are on the base at China Lake) continually fought over road monies.
In the 30's, there was a dirt road called "Kern River Canyon", from Bakersfield to the base of Walker Pass (#6). It was pretty well traveled for the times. The brush was cleared through the desert, eastward, to (#395); further east to Trona. The idea was to have a wagon trail roadway from Death Valley to Bakersfield. This fell through because of arguments between Kern and San Bernardino Co's. In the 40's, when the Navy built Inyokern Road; then, in partnership with Kern County, built China Lake Blv'd.; California got in the act and declared the road from Bakersfield, through Inyokern, to China Lake, to Ridgecrest, to Trona, etc. to be Highway #178. The initial State surveys (before the navy) used what we know as "Bowman Rd." How about that ?
Roy J Gerard