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September 29th, 2021

Zorthian Ranch Is A Historic Wasteland For The Eccentrically Mad

The culmination of our experiences and emotions stack up like Southern California traffic. They get bottlenecked up to a point then explode out into open lanes, the pains and congestion assuaged in an instance of relief that spreads throughout and across the surface of our existence.

Then there is only the wind coming in through the open windows as the road rolls past as if nothing happened. This is the cycle, the story of our lives, our relationships with each other, ourselves, our work. After resolve the boulder tumbles downhill and the whole thing begins all over again.

The open roads of Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Nevada came to a screeching halt on the 210 west towards Pasadena. Red lights stacked up as far as the eye could see with smog and the sun up there going to work on a grey morning. We were no longer in the climate of green things but of the desert and rock and chaparral and traffic. As we wormed our way towards Los Angeles Guff and I dusted off some residual attrition from the road, her body and mind lopsided from my corrections rather than compliments. It’s much easier to try and change others than myself.

It’s less vulnerable to point a finger than to roll my eyes around internally and search out my own faults within and make the adjustments.

This is no easy task and the fact is my ego doesn’t want to take responsibility sometimes. So in order to feed her need of reassurance and love I did my best to formulate words of my affection towards her in a state of fatigue. From my perspective my inability to articulate seemed to have little affect.

I became frustrated wrestling with my on ineptitude to help her understand how I felt about her. I had a brief meltdown right there in the mobile menagerie of sedans and pick-up trucks and big rigs. I couldn’t quite get it right. I had to work and rework the wording to say it in a way she could understand in order to connect. I could see in that instance why the world is at war with each other. It takes great strains of effort to set aside the ego and the barriers built up over years and generations, to sit still and listen and hear with pure ears the words and not the stories whirling around in our own heads.

By the time we exited Lincoln off the 210 we were back on solid ground headed into the hills on Fair Oaks with the small one-story houses lining the street. We pulled over and did a quick change of clothes, brushed our teeth and swiped our pits with deodorant after the long stint without grooming. And then we were ready for whatever came next.

Zorthian Ranch sits tucked up against the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena, California. This architectural junkyard was built in 1954 by Jirayr Zorthian, an Armenian refugee who narrowly escaped the genocide of that people. Instead of an ill-fate, Zorthian ended up at Yale studying art. His work was well received in the creative world and after a marriage gone south he came out clean on the side with the property where the ranch resides. Guff and I parked at the base of the mountain and walked the premises. We came across a small man chipping away at a piece of granite the size of a sumo wrestler. The artist covered in white granite dust, standing before the large stone, stopped his work and waved us down.


The artist’s name was Yoshi, and he was working on a bench system for a park somewhere in the area. The system was of large granite pieces that fit together like a puzzle and he was working out the shapes of the things with a hammer and chisel and stone grinder. When we asked him how long it took him to make one of the pieces he laughed and said, “I’d rather not think about it.” Yoshi had been on the ranch for several years before moving around the country then returning almost thirty years later. He knew Zorthian and had been to many of the parties on the ranch.

“I remember one time when there were curtains behind him as he sat on a large cushion, and then from behind a cushion a naked pregnant woman came out and began dancing around him.

Not long after, more and more naked women came out and moved around him. I tried my hardest to get the image of the pregnant woman out of my mind,” he laughed.

When we asked if we were in the right place Yoshi pointed up the hill.

“Up there.”

We shook hands with the Yoshi and got back in the car and headed up the dirt road past a bridge on the verge of collapse winding into the hills. We were the first to arrive.

We parked and got out and walked the grounds, admiring the strange textures of the place. The walls of each structure varied. Some seemed like a mosaic of brick and concrete mixed with debris from a demolished building. It was home to throwaways taken and repurposed into sculptures, the roofs corrugated metal and hard plastics. Metal sculptures were carved and reworked into strange shapes, painted and placed in beautiful display. Wind chimes of pipes and screwdrivers, nuts, bolts, clanging and ringing into the air. There were cows and goats and pigs and roosters on the property amidst run down campers and buses used as domiciles for local artists and Airbnbs.

Back in the day people came from all over to enjoy the company of Zorthian, everyone from the likes of Warhol and Bob Dylan, Buckminster Fuller and Charlie Parker. Today the property is used for music videos and tv shows for its unique architecture and views over the hills and downtown Los Angeles standing like a ghost in the smog and the ocean just beyond.

Not long after our arrival the bridal party showed up like a caravan headed for Burning Man. There were conversion vans built-out and lived in and there were trucks with tarps draped over racks as coverings for sleeping quarters. They came in boots and strange hats and they came from Denver and Berlin and New Mexico and Omaha and all over the Los Angeles area. There were opera singers and drag queens and fire dancers and artists. Some of them worked on movie sets and some of them played music at festivals or on the road and some of them were comedians to lighten the place up. It takes all kinds and this wedding party was no different.

After we unloaded everything from the cars and got situated it was almost dark and the whole thing started with a bottle of whiskey. Weary from our travels, Guff and I hit went to bed early. In the middle of the night I woke up to the howls and laughter of this mad congregation off in the distance and as I laid there in my tent I heard a grunting and hacking coming closer to me. I opened my eyes.

Beside my tent an old man with white beard unzipped and pissed right there in the dirt near my feet just outside my tent.

In the morning I heard word that the same guy drove down the hill drunk and got stuck in a ditch. One of the employees of the property had to call a tow truck to pull him out.

In the morning the wedding party was already hard at work, arranging flowers and setting up tables and chairs with boxes of Portos pastries all over the place. Every possible combination of sweet and savory, and there was already weed and wine and beers and bodies moving around kicking up the dust. I watched Guff do her thing with her camera while I followed and ran messages between the bride and groom and held flowers and water bottles and the bride’s sunglasses. I watched Guff orchestrate the whole thing. She was commanding and sweet and complimentary. She moved this person and that and they listened to her every word.

I loved the way she worked. Her understanding of lighting. Timing. Her eye for moments. How the wedding party should stand. What looked best. What props to use. Where. She photographed all the small details. The wedding dress. The rings. The displays and odd trinkets of the place. The “first look” of bride and groom. Knowing how to capture those intimate moments when no one is looking (or so they think).

At one point the bride was found weeping in the kitchen, saying, “I’m glad Anne isn’t here to take pictures.” Though she was right there the whole time with her camera. Or the time the groom was sitting alone outside and we came around the corner, his eyes red with tears running down his face, cigarette in his hand and she trying her best not to be seen to capture the whole thing. Then the thing happened and I got a glimpse into her world. With a camera I had access to anywhere, anything, anyone. Shooting as her second I could move around freely without the eyes of the wedding on me. I could, if I wanted, walk right up to the altar and kiss the bride with my aperture. No one would protest. Not a soul! Because I had a camera. I was documenting memories.

The wedding was a bouquet of flowers. It was a festival with live music and entertainment, Frick Frack Blackjack and hammerchlagen. Everyone surreptitiously digesting and inhaling and snorting.

It was a wedding on acid inside a piñata . . . At least for some.

The party went on into the night and at four in the morning when Guff and I made the long trek down the dirt road to our car in the cold morning shivering all the way down, we could still hear the music, some of the attendees up until the sun rose the next morning, never shutting their eyes at all even into the next day with Bloody Mary’s, one of the guests walking the grounds in his birthday suit who later fell asleep by the pool naked, his junk tucked between his thighs giving everyone a horrifying stare-down as they swam.

I didn’t think it would ever end. I just sat and watched everyone dance and move and talk. There was laughter and tears and there was so much in such a short period of time and then it was all over. The sun went down over the horizon. The mountains distant and dark with the lights of Los Angeles scattered across the dark earth like tiny galaxies living their existence long after ours would be over, and in the morning everyone would go back to their ordinary lives. The groom and bride would start their journey as husband and wife. A new chapter with more experiences and emotions culminating, disastrous and loving, as they chaotically navigate this beautiful union.

Relationships seem to be the key to unlocking our hidden selves. Each person that enters our lives teaches us something we never knew. When I look in Guff’s grey eyes I see my own reflection, only, it’s not the version brought out by her being. It’s the one of barriers and learned behaviors.

I like to think there is a circadian rhythm that pertains to connectivity and relationships.

In every relationship we are either moving in accordance or away from it.

These days I constantly wrestle with my ego, not sure if the old order of my being serves the future I see for myself. I’m trying my best though, to align with it, to walk the copper path towards the life I envision. I have Guff to thank for this. I have my friends and my family and myself. And you. I have you too.



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