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Get a Piece of the Rock 

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
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On the road back to Los Angeles from Joshua Tree, a few miles past Old Woman Springs Road near the quake-rattled town of Landers, stands a boulder the size of a spaceship. The comparison is appropriate: It was here in 1953, legend has it, that Venusian travelers visited true believer George Van Tassel to hand down the architectural specs for a youth-regenerating machine called the Integratron, whose splendid white dome now rises up out of the desert like a New Age cathedral. Since then, UFO aficionados the world over have gathered at Giant Rock to channel love toward these enigmatic beings of outer space. “There used to be 10,000 people at a time out there,” says Integratron enthusiast and co-owner Joanne Karl. “But now you might see four or five cars and a few campers out there at once. Still, it’s a cool local happening.”

We found out about Giant Rock from Drayton Stephenson, who happened one Sunday afternoon to be helping Karl out with open-house tours of the Integratron. Although Van Tassel never got his requisite cell-rejuvenating oscillators spinning before he died in 1978, he did leave behind a structural wonder: No nail mars the Integratron‘s all-wooden beams, no reinforced steel girds its curves. The dome’s proximity to the rock, and the energy generated by the attendant “piezo-electric effect,” made Van Tassel think the Integratron might be the true fountain of youth. The piezo-electric effect is caused by a release of energy when friction is applied to rock -- think of the flint on a lighter -- and Van Tassel postulated that the massive granite boulder‘s electrical force would assist in recharging DNA. We didn’t have to believe him to want to see the rock. Stephenson gave us directions. “You can‘t miss it,” he said. “It’s a really big rock.”

At the end of a sandy gravel road that mires a few cars a day, we found Giant Rock, looking considerably worse for all the adoration. Climbers have covered it with anchors, partyers have littered it with garbage and beer bottles. Burn scars from continual “humongous hot fires,” as Karl describes them, have charred swaths of its once sparkling granite face. A deteriorating slab of concrete harks back to the cafe Van Tassel established in its shadow, a crumbling remnant of the rock‘s salad days. And if those days weren’t finished in the ‘50s, they are now: On February 21, the rock’s south face, weakened by campfires, rain and a morning earthquake, cracked open, and a large hunk of rock broke free. It should be a stunning geological sight -- clean white granite hidden for tens of millions of years suddenly meets the sunlight -- except that taggers have wasted no time decorating its newly exposed innards with swastikas, slogans (“Need Help? Call Jesus”) and evidence of past visits (“Luis Was Here”). When we arrived, a Bureau of Land Management ranger was taking “before” Polaroids in preparation for a weekend cleanup brigade, and a young father who‘d brought his kids to the shrine pelted him with questions. “Is this really the biggest boulder in the world?” asked the dad. “Only according to the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce,” the ranger snapped back.

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Joanne Karl says that local Indians used the rock for sacred ceremonies and prophesied that when the rock cracked, the tribes would reclaim it. “But we don’t really know what that means,” says Karl. “‘Getting it back’ could just mean that it gets to be sacred again. It depends on what side of your brain you‘re hanging out.” Karl, who’s been coming to the rock for 15 years, has her own plan to restore the sacredness of the rock. “Some old guys, you know, blues-guitarist-biker types, they‘ve offered to pay for the sandblasting if we watch the rock,” she says, meaning that before the rock gets a good cleaning, Karl has to organize the community into teams to keep a 24-hour vigil.

The logistics are complicated. For one thing, she says, “We can’t have a bunch of New Agey freaks out here. This is a tough area, a remote area. We need to arrange with the police to have radios.” For another, “We have to have mixed teams out there, because for all we know, we could be handing the rock over to more graffiti artists!” But the objective is simple: “Basically, what we‘re trying to say to people here is, ’Look, you can‘t use this as your garbage dump anymore.’ But we‘re also trying to create some harmony in a diverse community. Indians can claim this rock, locals can claim this rock, we can all have a part in it.” With any luck, the Venusians will volunteer for a shift, too. After all, the tourism started with them.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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