The Secret City
I am in the back seat of a stranger’s 4x4, crossing a missile test range in the Mojave Desert. We are heading to a canyon full of ancient rock carvings that sits more than 40 miles inside Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, once known as the Secret City. These petroglyphs were made by unknown people for unknown reasons over uncertain millennia. Archaeologists disagree, but the semiconsensus is that most are between one and three thousand years old.
The landscape is flat and sandy, the bed of a long-lost glacial lake. Here and there we pass white domes that house instruments used for testing rockets and bombs. Roads head off to nowhere. The desert might seem barren and exposed, but its inhospitable vastness offers obscurity, sanctuary. In the distance: the tail fins of several airplanes, including a Southwest Airlines passenger jet. A sign:
WEAPONS SURVIVABILITY LAB.
China Lake is roughly equidistant between Los Angeles and Las Vegas as the crow flies, which it can’t, because the air space is restricted. It is larger than Rhode Island: more than 1.1 million acres of desert and mountains and an abundance of volcanic basalt containing the densest concentration of petroglyphs in the Western Hemisphere. Since the final years of World War II, virtually every American airborne weapon has been developed or tested here, and yet there is probably no safer place for the petroglyphs, because the difficulty of access prevents vandalism. The Navy takes its custodianship seriously. A base archaeologist is kept on staff.
On Google Earth, you can see China Lake’s runways and golf course and poker-faced buildings, plus hundreds of cars and tanks and boats and planes that look like game pieces and are used as targets. Certain things out there need to be concealed from foreign surveillance satellites; they are covered or retracted underground.
To see the petroglyphs, you must be a U.S. citizen and you must fill out paperwork. Then you must show up before dawn at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, California, and present your ID and meet your guides and get sorted into a caravan. At China Lake’s main gate, military police search the vehicles and everyone’s bags and check for appropriate footwear. “Tour caravan. Four and eleven,” a voice crackles over the guides’ radios as we enter the range. Four cars. Eleven people. “Go ahead.”
At the far end of the lakebed are the Coso mountains, and we turn up into them. We pass abandoned mines, an old stagecoach stop, a secluded facility called Junction Ranch where, according to the internet, objects are analyzed for radar detectability. Five wild mustangs stand together under some Joshua trees.
The canyon is at an elevation of 5,000 feet, atop a mesa. As we walk down into it, suddenly there are petroglyphs everywhere, light-colored etchings in the basalt’s dark patina. Bighorn sheep. Deer. Dogs and mountain lions. Dots and squiggles. Spear-throwing devices called atlatls. People with bows and arrows. E=MC2, courtesy of some Manhattan Project joker. Horned figures with rectangular, geometrically patterned bodies and clawed feet.
Places like China Lake spawn rumors and theories. People are goaded by not knowing. Imaginations concoct. There are people who believe the world’s petroglyph record documents ongoing contact with extraterrestrials. There are people who stake out the test ranges for UFOs and spin stories about weather-modification projects and mind control. The truth is less dramatic, I think, but I feel the pull of the rumors and theories, the signs and symbols. We are so small compared to the universe, to the whole span of time. It’s uncomfortable being so far from the center of the narrative. We look at blank spaces on the map, at inscrutable leavings of the past, and we long to uncover some grand, unifying system.
No one knows what the petroglyphs mean, but everyone speculates. Where one person sees a bear claw, someone else sees a comet. We stay for hours, and as the light changes, some vanish while others emerge.