Appreciating Vacant Land in the Antelope Valley

The view, looking north towards the Tehachapi mountains, of 'The Trinidad Ranch,' an empty parcel of land owned by the author's family, in the western Antelope Valley.
The view, looking north towards the Tehachapi mountains, of 'The Trinidad Ranch,' an empty parcel of land owned by the author's family, in the western Antelope Valley. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

I've always heard them talk about "the land."

The triangular-shaped expanse of desert north of Los Angeles known as the Antelope Valley is something that doesn't factor into my life too often. I hardly know anyone there, and if I do, I see them when they're here in L.A. to work anyway. But whenever the topic of the Antelope Valley does come up between my parents and I -- from watching space shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base to an ex-girlfriend who lived in Lancaster to visiting the California Poppy Reserve to my annual meteor shower-watching parties -- my parents have always mentioned "the land."

"We own a plot of land there," they would remind me.

In the mid-1970s, my parents bought two and a half acres of land in what they have always referred to as "Lancaster." They purchased it, sight unseen, from a family friend who sold real estate as a sideline.

Even back in the '70s, the potential for rapid suburban growth, spurred by a booming local aerospace economy, existed in the land named after the pronghorn "antelope" that once roamed there. At one point, the city of Los Angeles proposed a large "Intercontinental Airport" east of the 14 Freeway to either supplement or supplant LAX, that was outlined for years on Thomas Guide maps.

My parents aren't wealthy, but they both hail from the rural Philippines, where land ownership is a cultural value, usually passed down as a family heirloom. Where even the poor own their own real estate.They purchased the land as investment property, perhaps intending to sell it at the right time and at the right price, to put one of their children through college. They also own parcels in southwestern Nevada, and in central Colorado.

My interest piqued when, after taking my parents to the California Poppy Reserve for my mother's birthday a couple years ago, they dug out the property records and we finally pinpointed the parcel via Google Maps.

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It turns out the land wasn't in Lancaster proper, but somewhat east, in an unincorporated section of northern L.A. county called Fairmont. The Poppy Reserve was "in the neighborhood," being only a few minutes away. But our land was only accessible via a dirt road.

Later that summer, I organized a Perseid meteor shower-watching party with friends, and picked a location in close proximity to the family-owned plot of land. The dark of night made it hard to find the dirt road, so I was just content being in the vicinity.

Finally, earlier this month, while doing research for my L.A. Aqueduct article, and watching the 100 Mules parade along the Aqueduct in nearby Neenach, I made it a point to visit "the land," hopefully before the sun went down.

Some 20 minutes later, with the help of my smartphone's GPS app, I braved the dirt road, which wasn't as bumpy as I thought, used nearby manmade structures as a reference, and finally set foot on what I affectionately call "The Trinidad Ranch."

There was...not much there. Mostly dirt, dotted with dry creosote bushes. There were no Joshua trees on it, though I'm led to believe that they were cleared out years ago, as there are many of them growing not far away. The only other evidence of human intervention was a rusted tin can partially buried in the sand, and a crushed beer can, which, judging from the design of the tab, dates back to the 1970s. There are line patterns in the dirt, suggesting that maybe someone rode through on their off-road motorcycle.

There was a shallow ravine on one side of the parcel, which, according to satellite views, is part of the alluvial plain of the Tehachapi mountains. Numerous holes in the ground dotted the property, made by burrowing animals, none of which made their presence known to me. I was naturally concerned about snakes, but realized there were no rocks or boulders around for them to hide under. Then there were two small piles of animal droppings, which I couldn't identify by species, but both looked like they'd been there for years. And that was it.

While there, I took pictures, some video, and having a guitar in my trunk, started "serenading" to the land, with the distant howls of coyotes being my backup singers. The evening sun made a nice curtain call behind the nexus of the Sierra Pelona and Tehachapi mountains, and aside from the breeze, the sound of sweet silence brought a smile to my face.

In addition to the Poppy Reserve, the neighborhood seems more interesting than its apparent desolateness would suggest. Just west of the poppies is the Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park, a preserve of sorts for Joshua trees. The San Andreas Fault runs not to far away in the south, which cut through an extinct volcano. Because of the fault, the other half of the volcano, over the eons, slid some 190 miles north to become Pinnacles National Park. Not one, nor two, but three aqueducts cut through the area: The century-old first L.A. Aqueduct to the west, the second L.A. Aqueduct to the east, and the California Aqueduct to the south.

Though considerably distant from the farthest reaches of Lancaster, development in the form of energy generation has encroached "the neighborhood" in Fairmont. One of the "neighbors" is First Solar's Antelope Valley Solar Ranch, a 2,100-acre industrial photovoltaic solar power facility. And the Mojave Wind Farm is visible in the Tehachapis to the north.

But by far the biggest threat to the area is a massive 11,700-acre planned community called Centennial, developed by the Tejon Ranch Company and various real estate partners. Located some 10 miles west, it's designed to hold a population of some 70,000 people, living, working, and commuting halfway between Los Angeles and Bakersfield (right by the San Andreas Fault). Say goodbye to my meteor-watching parties once that happens. Needless to say, the locals who do live in the area aren't too crazy about it, either.

I can't say I haven't daydreamed about building a small "weekend retreat" on the property, but the cost and planning are a bit prohibitive for the foreseeable future. For now, I'll just use the land every so often to host my meteor-watching parties (not for long if the Centennial folks have their way) or an occasional camp-out. More realistically, I'll establish some sort of sustainable desert garden to visit and enjoy the relative peace of the area, while I can.

Last week I took my parents to finally see the land they owned for the past 38 years. We took photographs and sowed California Golden Poppy seeds on the lot, in hopes that we'll have a mini desert poppy reserve of our own come springtime. Though my dad half-jokingly talked about "cashing in" when we passed by the solar facility, knowing what I know today about the value of protecting environments, I'm actually glad my folks haven't sold the parcel after all these years, the lack of interested buyers notwithstanding. It's made my family stakeholders of the area and given me a tangible connection to the western Antelope Valley and Mojave Desert, as well as a link to the western frontier heritage of Southern California.

Though my family has had ties to this place on paper for many years, it was actually the experience of actually standing on it that sealed the relationship to the land. While the material appreciation of the land hasn't really increased too much, my emotional appreciation has. I can't wait for my next visit, come spring, when hopefully a blanket of poppies will welcome me back to "The Trinidad Ranch."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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