Siberia, California

When I first got to California, I didn’t know much about the deserts here, but I knew a bit about the old Route 66 and its role in California’s history. I was curious enough about it that when I first visited the Mojave, I drove down the bits of old Route 66 (now known in that area as the National Trails Highway) between Barstow and Amboy (California). Lots of people do that — it’s a popular, easy drive, and if you ever get the chance, do it — some of it’s ruggedly-beautiful, and you’ll see a lot of natural and human history, often within an easy walk of the road itself (and some of it — especially the bits around Barstow and Daggett — will give you a good feeling for the harsh realities of life in California’s High Desert).

Before I did the drive I looked at the map and noticed a string of places with names like Bagdad, Siberia, Cadiz, Ludlow, Klondike, etc., marked along the way on the map. I had to visit Siberia, California! I had to see Bagdad, CA! (The Bagdad of Bagdad Café — except that the movie was actually mostly shot a bunch of miles west at Newberry Springs). I had to see Ludlow, CA! (I’ve passed through the original in Shropshire). And so on (I’ve never been to the original Cádiz, as far as I know. Or Klondike, for that matter).

As I quickly learned, these mostly aren’t (or weren’t by the time I saw them…) real settlements in any sense — they’re often just locations, with some hints that people once lived or worked there. Ludlow is a (tiny) real place, though, mostly because it’s on the freeway and is a convenient place to stop for gas or food on the way to or from Vegas; it has a small ghost town on the edge of the new town that I took a bunch of photos of a long time ago. Cadiz is also sort of real, but waaaay off the beaten track.

And Sibera, CA? When I first saw it the old telegraph station (or whatever it was) next to the railway was still recognizably a building (but had no roof); nowadays it’s just a crumbling graffiti-strewn ruin. I took a bunch of photos of the building, then walked up to and onto the railway tracks a hundred metres or so off the road (as an UnAmerican, I’m often amazed that in America it’s often possible to walk on the main line like this!). Looking down the line towards Amboy I could see a sign saying “Siberia”, with a palm tree right near it, all in stingingly-bright (and boiling hot) sunlight. I took a bunch of photos of that, thinking they’re not really going to work, and I was right — the light was all wrong, and it needed more than the little 35mm film camera I had on me right then.

So every time over the next few years I visited Siberia I’d lug a larger camera up to the railway and stand there right on the main line taking a photo, often using a tripod, and always feeling a little, well, exposed. This one’s the best shot of the lot, I think — taken in a soft slightly-hazy morning light, and done with a 4x5 view camera (yes!) right next to the tracks. People sometimes complain about the way the horizon isn’t level in the photo, which bugs me — it isn’t level in the real world right there, either, but never mind, it just looks slightly wrong to them. They also complain that the colours can’t be real, but they’re not far wrong from what I remember of that day. Oh well. At least most people get the obvious point of the image, I guess.

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