Vasquez Rocks

May 21, 2009 — Vasquez Rocks should have just been an innocuous rock outcropping of mildly interesting-looking shape baking anonymously out in the middle of the Californian desert. Then, in the mid-1800s, when the notorious bandit Tiburcio Vasquez chose the formation to hide from the law, inadvertently bequeathing his name to it, the rocks should have just taken on a minor local-area historical significance.

But then Hollywood found it.

Since that time, the rocks have been used as filming locations in, well, everything. Mel Brooks burned saddles there. Bill and Ted died there. Ash made love the Bruce Campbell way there. Logan ran there (series, not movie). Planet of the Apes was remade there. Buck Rogers 25th-Centuried there. Hell and Rowdy Roddy Piper came to Frogtown there. Austin Powers was annoying there. Johnny 5 short circuited there. The Flintstones went all live action there. Stringfellow Hawke did Airwolf flybys there. Macgyver Macgyver’d there. It was the wild, wild west for Will Smith and Kevin Kline, as well as for just about every Western in the history of the genre, and Transylvania for Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Michael Jackson, Radiohead, Marilyn Manson, and Wolfmother (needed a fourth) have all danced there for music videos. The rocks have even shown up in ink- and computer-animated form in such movies and television shows as Over the Hedge, Cars, and Futurama. Basically, Vasquez Rocks is the Wilhelm Scream of scenery.

And, man, that’s the paragraph I’ve always wanted to write.

There are actually tons more examples, but most iconically, it was the spot where James T. Kirk fought the leopard-print-leotard-wearing reptilian Gorn in the original Star Trek episode The Arena. Honestly, if all the moments from the previous paragraph had happened and this latter hadn’t, these rocks wouldn't be as interesting to me. It was one of the many times Star Trek used the location, in fact, although never again as memorably. Also, apparently the words leopard and leotard have only a one-letter difference.

There are quite a few reasons that Hollywood wants these rocks thrown in their camera lenses. First, they’re ludicrously accessible. Located in Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park in the area of Agua Dulce, they’re only about 20 minutes outside of Los Angeles and the movie industry as a whole. In addition, even though these rocks look all rocky and formidable, the ground around them is cleared and flattened, with easier road access than most of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in. That makes it a relatively painless place to schlep and set up trailers, animals, equipment, and fragile-handle-with-care actors.

Vasquez Rocks also has a unique and imminently cinematical shape that, besides making one wonder why a bandit would want to hide in such an eye-catching spot, is asymmetrical enough that moving the camera just a few degrees in the horizontal or vertical can turn the outcropping into a whole new alien planet/fantasy world/arid landscape/mountain pass.

The rocks stick out at an angle that would be called jaunty if they were a hat, acute if they were a geometry exercise, and jagged if they were a rock. So a jagged angle. The striking shape is due to the fact that they are products of the San Andreas Fault, which did enough violence to the underlying rock to make Vasquez Rocks jut out like Joe Theisman’s leg bone. That’s the only sports-related simile I allow in my vocabulary without punishment (usually Seinfeld re-runs).

To visit Vasquez Rocks, you just drive to them…and then right through them. They’re only seconds away from the park entrance off Escondido Canyon Road, and the lower, flat area on the farther side of the rocks does a great impersonation of a parking lot, complete with Dr. Who rooms (Can never bring myself to say the usual, silly names for portable restrooms, so I've invented my own silly name for them).

In person and in rock, Vasquez Rocks is just as impressive as all the movies want us to believe. In fact, they make me wish my religion had earth spirits to worship. At their highest point, the rocks soar to 150 feet tall, and the sloping angle pretty much lets you climb right up them pretty easily as long as you’re more okay than I am with being sweaty, dusty, and a badly placed foot away from a broken neck.

Of course, these rocks and their environs have other, more scientific uses than as movie frame filler, including geology and desert ecology. In addition, recreational activities such as hiking and camping are also popular uses of this nearly thousand-acre park...although camping in anyplace but a forest seems like an activity worse than Seinfeld re-runs to me. Still, movies are the filter I see life through, and that’s what more often then not gets me excited. And causes me to feel overwhelming amounts of self-loathing.

A few signs posted in the area point out a small fraction of the movie history and also warn against mountain lions...although it if there's one spot in the world that mountain lions should not tangle with me, it's the inspiring spot where Kirk beat at all odds in a ferocious mano-y-beasto fight the terrifying and expressionless Gorn creature. I mean, I’d still go down like the spineless and badly built Jenga tower I am regardless of the circumstances, but in this case the mountain lion would be subjected to the inevitable screams of pain and entreaties for my life in Shatner cadence. But even if you avoid the mountain lions, there are still rattlesnakes, bears, black widows, scorpions, and J. J. Abrams-inflamed Star Trek fans to get you. I’m not sure how many reasons the desert needs to suck, but whatever works for it.

Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more easily accessible example of the accidental splendor of insensible nature than Vasquez Rocks...great for movie backgrounds, geologists, and writers who need to exercise the rusty “Z” key.