Day Sixteen: Lucia, CA to San Luis Obispo, CA I hadn’t planned to visit Hearst Castle. I had, however, been looking forward to passing it since it sits at the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But when it appeared up on that perfect green hill I thought: maybe it would be fun to have a peak at the palatial estate of a richer than God newspaper mogul. So after getting all excited about photographing the trappings of phenomenal wealth, I was disappointed to learn that the tour costs twenty bucks. I poked around the visitor’s center for a bit, helped myself to a yoghurt, then moved on. Morrow bay has two iconic objects that stand out against its sweeping coastline: Morrow Rock and the Morrow Bay Power Plant. Of similar height and in relatively close proximity, they face each other in a kind of silent standoff. While the ex-volcano clearly wins, the plant’s stacks hold their own. The freeway between Morro Bay and San Louis Obispo took me passed a high security prison and a National Guard armory. Arriving in the college town after dark, I booked a bottom bunk at Hostel Obispo. Morro Bay Power Plant
The Morro Bay Power Plant has much in common with Moss Landing. Both facilities burn natural gas, both were shuffled through the hands of several energy companies during California’s experiment with energy deregulation, and both have uncertain futures. During my visit the plant was completely silent and appeared virtually deserted. Dynergy Inc., the plant’s current owner, has plans to modernize with a combined-cycle replacement but the proposal is stuck in legal purgatory while the courts and the EPA figure out how the Clean Water Act applies to power plants. There’s fascinating debate among locals regarding whether or not the three 450-foot stacks should be preserved. For some they’re landmarks that, since the 1950s, have been a familiar feature of the Morrow Bay landscape. For others they’re simply eyesores; best removed and forgotten.
Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant top left: No, the plant is not still under construction. That’s 1972. bottom right: If this siren is going off, expect an earthquake, a tsunami, or to be bombarded with radiation. They build Nuclear power plants in the most inconvenient locations. This one went up in the early 70s on one of the last chunks of undeveloped coastline in California. Before making the arduous trek out to the only point where one can get a glimpse of the Diablo Canyon facility, I went to visit Ellie at the plant’s community outreach center. It was good to finally meet face to face with the woman who’d been taking my phone calls for the past month. I’d been trying in vain to secure official access to the plant and she’d been my only ally in the endeavor. That morning I’d called for what turned out to be the last time and had, predictably, gotten her familiar voice on the other end. I told her I was in San Luis Obispo (less than ten miles away) and she insisted I come by the visitor’s center and she’d try and get me in.
When I arrived Ellie gave me the news I’d been dreading. Feeling genuinely sorry about not being able to grant the single wish of someone who’d ridden their bike 4000 miles, she tried to be obliging in other ways. We talked for a long time about the plant and when the subject inevitably made its way to security, she laid a tactical gem on me. It was obvious she’d been doing some thinking on the issue and almost seemed eager to share. She had concluded that to attack the plant itself would be wasted effort. It’s heavily guarded and built like a fortress. She suggested targeting the transmission lines that carry energy away from the plant. They’re relatively unprotected and with a little monkeywrenching one could keep maintenance crews busy for days while the plant was effectively disabled.
After perusing the interpretive displays and collecting a bundle of brochures and pamphlets on waste storage, Ellie and I said our bittersweet goodbyes. I hopped back on the bike and began the long ride north to the Point Buchon Trailhead. Allegedly, there was an overlook somewhere on the newly opened coastal trail that provided a distant and only partially obstructed view of the plant. I had set aside the entire day for the purpose of acquiring Diablo Canyon imagery and was not about to give up, even after such a disappointing setback. Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant it surrounded by 12,000 acres that has largely been maintained in its “natural” state. This land functions as a “buffer zone,” keeping the plant out of sight and out of mind. Several years ago, when PG&E wanted to construct an on site above-ground storage facility for the plant’s highly radioactive used reactor fuel, The California Coastal Commission required that they open a portion of the land for public access. The 3.5 mile long Point Buchon Trail opened in the summer of 2008 and marked the first time in hundreds of years the public has been allowed on the property. At the trailhead stands a small shed manned by two security personnel. Their job is to require prospective trail users to sign a waver, limit the daily visitor total to 275, and make sure everyone is off the property by 5:00. They are not employed by PG&E, but by a private security company responsible for maintaining the Point Buchon Trail. If you’re not back at the shed by 4:45 they come chasing after you in a little four-wheeled ATV. If you’re hiding, they call the guys with guns at Diablo Canyon security.
After battling a headwind over miles of hilly terrain then signing my life away to a private security force, I was beginning to doubt whether this view was to be worth the effort. Fortunately, the lovely weather and nearly deserted trail were enough to ease my misgivings. I bounded along the edges of bluffs and across wildflower meadows on the way to Windy Point: the often-blustery overlook from which the plant becomes visible on a distant horizon. While the windy spot is the trail’s highpoint, its not its endpoint and I decided to press on and see if the plant would re-emerge. After another half mile the official trail ends with a rope barrier and a slightly unnerving sign that warns of the use of deadly force in the interest of protecting the plant (see image). With part of me expecting to be picked off by a sniper’s bullet, I stepped over the rope and started up a gentile incline in the direction of the plant. Sure enough, after a few hundred yards a fence appeared along with a second (much closer) view that was obviously meant to stay hidden by ending the trail in that particular location. Feeling proud of myself for in some way having foiled the plant’s defenses, I took a second round of shots from this forbidden territory.
What started as a stroll back in the direction I’d come soon became a run when I realized I had a long way to go before check-out time at the security shed. Arriving at 5:00 on the dot, I cheerfully reclaimed my bicycle then got the hell out. What links Diablo Canyon with the other power plants I’d visited in past few days is that they all were built at the continent’s edge to access seawater for cooling. This particular plant lacks the highly visible cooling towers normally required to vent the immense heat generated when atoms are split. At Diablo Canyon, that heat is simply diffused into the ocean. Ellie put it quite gently when she credited the process with creating a miniature Southern California marine environment off the Central California Coast. How nice. This system works very well from an energy generation standpoint but is an ecological catastrophe for local marine life. wikipedia page
35°12'41"N 120°51'19"W Day Eighteen: San Luis Obispo, CA to Lompoc, CA top right: I love maps painted on walls. According to this one in Guadalupe, Los Angeles is only twenty-two bricks away. I ate a giant undercooked pancake at the hostel before saying a few goodbyes and setting off under foreboding skies. It was raining steadily by the time I reached the coast and I stopped at a café in Pismo Beach to dry and wait out the weather. The coffeehouse I’d chosen was cozy and staffed by three attractive girls which meant a longer than anticipated stay.
Consistent with the established routine, I stopped in at a Conocophillips refinery in Arroyo Grande and requested a tour. Actually, I had already snapped a dozen images by the time security showed up for the meet and greet. It seems the September eleventh event has fixed it so that the only people who see the inside of such places are employees. I mean I kinda understand: the yellow threat level placard on the front gate did read ELEVATED.
Just south of the refinery, the road enters Santa Maria Valley. The valley is a highly productive agricultural region producing strawberries, broccoli and wine grapes. Also, if you’ve eaten one of those bagged supermarket salads, there’s a good chance the lettuce was grown here. In the middle of the valley I passed a large refrigeration and packaging facility where food is put in deep freeze before being shipped to distant corners of the globe. Tattered remains of the storm system that dampened my morning continued to make their way through the area; adding cumulous drama to my photographs. The sky was especially dynamic during my visit to the abandoned Betteravia sugar plant. I’d been looking forward to Betteravia more than any other site on the itinerary and it’s difficult to convey my excitement as I watched its giant silos grow larger in the distance. The low afternoon sun gleaming off their rust patinated surfaces was enough to make me giggle with joy. Having spent a bit too much time climbing around Betteravia, I’d committed myself to crossing the vast emptiness of Vandenberg Air Force Base in darkness. I had tried to cram too much into one day and it was inevitably catching up with me. With the light fading from the most brilliant sunset I’d seen in a while, I began to feel loneliness. The sensation was one I’d been able to avoid on the trip thus far, but something about being alone on what was basically a freeway crossing miles of coastal scrub was too much to handle. I turned to the moon and the wind for companionship, thanking them for lighting my way and blowing me ever closer to my destination. As I’d been doing a lot in recent days, I spoke to myself. A lot. I spoke with force as if addressing a room full of people. It just felt natural to make noise—something to interrupt the monotonous sound of cold night air rushing past my ears.
I expected my arrival in Lompoc to break the spell of loneliness but it actually worsened my condition. The businesses in this dreadful place all shut down at ten so my prospects for finding a hot meal were poor. I remember asking a dude outside a Subway in the middle of a sea of strip malls and gas stations where the town center could be found. “You’re looking at it,” he said. I rolled up to several Mexican restaurants that were just locking up before I found a Chinese joint that would sell me some takeout. I ate my spicy eggplant sitting on a concrete curb overlooking a vast empty parking lot. My fortune: disappointingly unmemorable.
Simplot Soilbuilders: 300 million years ago there was a vast inland sea covering much of the North American continent. Prevailing winds picked up dust particles of a certain composition; carried them out over this sea and then dropped them. The particles sank to the bottom where they joined other compounds and accumulated in sedimentary strata. This process of sorting and sedimentation continued for some 15 million years until a 350,000 square kilometer area, encompassing present day Idaho and Wyoming, had accumulated a layer of relatively homogeneous phosphate minerals. Fast forward to present. The sea is gone, replaced by high desert, and the layer has become phosphate rock: 420 meters thick in some places. An advanced species of terrestrial mammal has discovered that if this rock is dug up, crushed, and combined with phosphoric acid, the resulting substance can be applied to topsoil where it replaces a missing nutrient necessary for healthy plant growth. Since the members of this species are so numerous, and their demand for plant derived sustenance so great, they have come to rely heavily on this and other “inputs” to support their bloated population. Why the geology/human ecology lesson? Consider it background information to help make sense of what it is that Simplotdoes. Their Smokey Canyon mine in Southeastern Idaho is the largest of four in the region and supplies high quality phosphorite ore to their Pocatello fertilizer plant via a 140-km-long slurry line. Joe and I stumbled upon the sprawling plant on our way out of town one frosty morning in October. We took these images of it.
Already somewhat acquainted with Simplot after looking into their Idaho operations, coming across one of their retail locations in Guadalupe was like bumping into someone you’d connected with at a party, but since forgotten about. I had now seen two points in the phosphate fertilizer production and distribution system and could pretty well infer the steps in between.
But getting to know an industry means uncovering its hypocrisies and half-truths. The most glaringly obvious is Simplot’s deceptive subtitle: Soilbuilders. Their fertilizer products don’t build anything, least of all soil. Any farmer or gardener worth his salt will tell you that the only way soil gets ‘built’ is through a complex combination of physical, chemical, and biological processes acting upon a variety of organic and inorganic compounds. Paradoxically, the use of synthetic fertilizers actually depletes soil over time. Sure, maybe it’s just clever marketing but its going to sound particularly perverse when the last of the topsoil blows away.
A propaganda document outlining Simplot’s Pocatello plant reads: “…by improving the efficiency of food production, the fertilizers and feed inputs produced at the Don Plant help to feed our nation and the world in an affordable fashion.” The word efficiency is here used in an ambiguous and misleading way. It’s important to keep in mind that improvements in efficiency related to fertilizer use, one aspect of the so-called “green revolution,” are strictly economic in nature. From any other standpoint, including energy, efficiency is not the correct word. What’s really been realized through technological progress over the last century are new ways of harnessing prehistoric sources of energy and nutrients to increase the productivity of the planet’s acreage. Because the time and energy it took to create these ancient resources is absent from the equations we use to calculate efficiency, we’re looking at some seriously skewed results. Remember, the Permian Phosphoria Formation took 15 million years to form. We’ve dug up a significant portion of it in a fraction of that time. In other words, modern man has allowed himself to mistake prodigality for efficiency. Simplot is a perpetuator of this dangerous illusion.
Vandenberg Air Force Base My visit to Vandenberg Air Force Base was a let down. To be allowed on the base as a civilian I had to sign up for one of their bimonthly tours. It was the only part of the ride that required advanced scheduling and I was unprepared for the anxiety of having to be at a particular place at a particular time. Also, I had hoped to photograph an abandoned spaceport but all that remains of Space Launch Complex Ten is a slab of concrete the tour guide failed to point out. Fortunately the experience wasn’t a total loss. A few highlights worth mentioning are covered below. The first stop on Vandenberg’s tour is a full-scale replica of an LGM-30 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Pointed threateningly at the sky, it stands at the center of a large concrete circle surrounded by well-tended sod. Having cleared the base’s main security gate and arrived at the missile site, my tour group and I reluctantly piled off the 60s era school bus we’d only just been packed on to. There was further hesitation when the retired military men and their families remembered they were caring cameras but only started snapping after the first brave soul had stepped forward to have his picture taken with a nuclear weapon. After quick stops at a Korean War memorial and a tank sitting on a pile of rocks, the bus lumbered out to the tour’s main attraction: The Space and Missile Heritage Center. Vandenberg’s website sums up the center with this awkward run-on:
The Space and Missile Heritage Center preserves and displays artifacts and memorabilia to interpret the evolution of missile and spacelift activity at Vandenberg from the beginning of the Cold War through current non-classified developments in military, commercial, and scientific space endeavors.
It was kinda fun looking at the museum’s collection of bulky outdated guidance computers and thinking about how much technological envelope pushing the military is responsible for. (Does anyone know what percentage of MIT graduates will go into military funded research projects?) ICBM technology seems to have peaked with the diplomatically dubbed Peacekeeper. The weapon was equipped with up to ten independently targetable re-entry vehicles, each with its own 300-kiloton warhead. The program was scrapped, along with the Soviet version, as part of the START II disarmament treaty. The weapon’s hypothetical ability to wipe out much of the enemy’s nuclear arsenal in one fell swoop meant striking first became really important. This preemptive first strike strategy was rightly identified as just a bit too risky to remain on the table. These days, preparing for nuclear war is lower on the list of priorities at Vandenberg. The last stop on the tour was SLC-6, an active site where Google’s satellites are launched into polar orbit. We had to promise not to take any pictures here. The ones I took illicitly through the window of the bus all came out blurry. Betteravia Sugar Plant
The 15th of January 1919 was an exceptionally warm day for mid-winter in Boston. At the Purity Distilling Company, an enormous molasses tank reacted to the heat by rupturing and spilling over two million gallons of its sticky sweet contents into the city’s streets. The ensuing wave of molten sugar (between eight and fifteen feet high and traveling at thirty-five miles per hour) swept buildings off their foundations and carried rail cars, people, horses, and dogs for several blocks. The Great Molasses Flood, my favorite historicized term for the event, is a catastrophe that could only have occurred at a time and place when and where sugar was being produced and stored in large enough quantities to actually flood—and flood severely enough for twenty-one souls to have lost their lives. It’s a disaster that belongs uniquely to the Industrial Age. At the time, incidentally, alcohol distilled from molasses was a key ingredient in the production of munitions. The dark brown liquid awaiting transfer to the Purity plant on that tragic day was likely to end up killing people even if it hadn’t drowned them on Boston’s North End.
So why begin an entry on an abandoned beet processing plant in California’s Santa Maria Valley with an account of the Boston Molasses Disaster? The short answer is that both Boston and Betteravia are sites at which sugar was once produced on an industrial scale. The now defunct company town of Betteravia, a name that refers to the French word for beet root, at one time supported a community of 350 residents. Many were employees at the Union Sugar factory, which persisted in various forms from around the turn of the 20th century until closing permanently in 1993. The facility extracted sucrose from sugar beets: a highly engineered tuber from which thirty percent of the world’s sugar is derived. While most of the town’s cottages and other structures were either moved or razed in the 1960s, the site still boasts two enormous hermetically sealed silos, a more or less intact refinery building, and a towering furnace stack. While the visual aspects of an abandonment normally demand most of my attention, I was pleased (and a bit unnerved) by Betteravia’s odd symphony of noise. A gusty breeze played long thin strips of shredded aluminum siding by picking up the dangling ribbons and throwing them against the silos’ outer walls. A flock of tiny birds added sonic texture by chirping incessantly.
I spent the most time with the silos; exploring their flooded subterranean passages and pitch-black interiors. I witnessed sunset from one of their shallowly sloped roofs then crossed the bridge between them to watch a full moon ascend from the opposite horizon. The refinery building was a bit tougher to access; requiring a tight squeeze under a wall panel that had been pried at the corner by a previous visitor. It’s interior was a dramatic assemblage of boilers, piping and shattered gauges—the floor a thick mat of droppings and feathers.
Betteravia, like Boston, was the site of its own (less catastrophic) industrial disaster. A dust explosion and ensuing fire occurred at the plant in 1988 and critically burned seven workers. The event marked the beginning of the end for the factory, then owned by Imperial Holly. The years ahead will see more of such endings, associated with the decline of industrial food production, as the model proves too unwieldy and complex to adapt to an energy scarce world. They’ll be fewer floods and fires, and more dilapidated factories to wander through as they begin the second half of their lives as industrial ruins. Day Twenty: Lompoc, CA to Santa Barbara, CA How many of one’s days begin by climbing to the top of a rusty industrial edifice?
(I imagine it’s a pretty rare occurrence for anyone that doesn’t have some obscure and dangerous job fabricating offshore oilrigs). Greeting the rising sun from Betteravia’s furnace stack, high above a misty Santa Maria Valley, was one of those rare moments when you can honestly say there’s no place you’d rather be. My twenty-nine yeas of life seemed destined for that exact place in space and time. From what was easily the highest point for miles, I gazed down at the little outdoor room I’d created by abutting my tent to a decrepit piece of farming equipment. Flashes of reflected sunlight glinted from the nearby silos’ untarnished strips of stainless steel and a flock of tiny birds orbited nearby, annoyed I’d invaded their perch.
After descending and polishing off a modest breakfast I raced the clock into town to catch The Breese, a commuter bus that runs back and forth between Santa Maria and Lompoc. I had ridden it in the opposite direction from Vandenberg the day before and had had a particularly bad experience with the driver. I was displeased to see him again, especially after he scolded me for not loading my stuff fast enough.
The Breese dropped me back in shitty Lompoc and I headed straight for the town’s only node of cool—a coffeehouse facing its main intersection. I pulled up to a couple of older gentlemen sitting at an outside table and asked if they knew where I might find a large open-pit mine. They exchanged knowing smiles as if my question made perfect sense in the context of their conversation. One asked, “Are you looking for work or do you just wanna check it out?” I briefly entertained the thought of driving a bulldozer through a barren white wasteland then answered, “Yeah… No, I just thought I’d have a look at it.” One would think it difficult to hide the world’s largest open-pit diatomaceous earth mine, but hidden is exactly what it is. Small peaks with no public roads cradle the mine and obscure most of its exposed terrain. My search for a good shot of the site took me seven miles up into the mountains and, despite lots of altitude gain, was relatively fruitless. I don’t know if it’s intentional but public outcry must remain at a minimum if no one ever sees the place.
After checking in with security at the mine’s main gate (no tours), I headed south. As the road hit the coast and veered east, an exceptionally strong tailwind blew me the last thirty miles into Santa Barbara. A bustling State Street welcomed me to town.