The Ghost Grid of California City


Time was getting hazy by this point. Part of this was deliberate. “If we take the new experience, we stop time — and that’s all I really care about,” Brad had been saying.

And by Day 5 of this road trip I was in pretty unfamiliar terrain. We’d shot guns at 2am in the desert, explored an abandoned gold mine, driven through a forest fire. It had been a lot to take in, a non-stop drive the length of California and back in search of more. We were only halfway through.

Part of it was that we hadn’t actually slept the night before — Death Valley, the Badwater 135 ultramarathon passing through; staying up with whisky, beers, modafinil; 84 °F heat “a cool night”. Dawn on the salt flats, then back on the road.

Either way, by the time we got to California City around noon, I was losing track of what the hell was going on.


The drive out of Death Valley had been along unpaved roads, no GPS or maps, fuel gauge ticking lower. Two bars off empty, one bar off empty, and we were still deep in nowhere. I was a little tense.

We were driving south, I could work out that much. Emigrant Canyon Road, the map calls it now. Trona Wildrose Road. One or two other cars passed us, going the other way. They promised, I hoped, that this road led somewhere, that there’d be no turning back that would drain the fuel tank all the way. If it were still too far to the nearest town and gas station, wherever that might be, I was hoping that people out here would know to check on a stopped car.

I didn’t say anything. If there was real cause to worry, I trusted Brad and Wayne to make that call themselves. Trusted their judgement as I had been doing all trip; as I’d chosen to do by coming on this whole trip, in fact. Don’t tell my mother but it’s not as if I knew them well. Wayne I’d met once, one evening just a month previously in London. He’d passed through after a week-long West Country tour, shortly after having possibly raised a dragon on the summit of Dinas Emrys. Brad I’d last seen at a party on top of an abandoned grain silo in Oxford the summer before. Which is to say they might be crazy but the kind that I trusted. I trusted in the social network of the Institute for Atemporal Studies, the mailing list-cum-gonzo think tank that brought us together and implicitly vouched for both, and I guess I trusted in my ability to talk, tax my credit card or exit should the situation require it.