A Pilgrimage to the Buried Electrical Network Outside Los Angeles

By Geoff Manaugh on at

On our way back from CES, Gizmodo took a detour into the desert to explore a particularly bizarre aspect of the region's electrical infrastructure, the so-called Coyote Dry Lake Return Electrode.

The electrode seems to exist more in the realm of the not-entirely-confirmed. According to the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), the electrode "is part of a high voltage DC line connecting the Intermountain Power Plant (a large coal fired power station in the middle of Utah that was built to serve Los Angeles) to a substation near Victorville." Which is all straight forward enough, of course—until you read what is supposedly happening there.

"The ground itself has been used as a return electrode for the current," CLUI explains, "basically energising the desert over the five hundred miles between here and the plant. The current enters the ground through a buried network of wires, laid out in a half mile wide circle, with a small building in the middle, on the edge of Coyote Dry Lake."

The earth itself is acting as an electrical return battery for the California state electrical grid, energising the landscape from below and storing power in the planet. The electrode itself is apparently "a grid of wires underground, but a small utility building is visible on the surface."

CLUI warns, however, that "the road is very sandy and may be impassable," and this proved true for us after a certain point on the unpaved road, sadly enough; after all, at this point you are driving on the outer edge of the Coyote Dry Lake, and the "road" is more like a beach than a linear piece of transportation infrastructure. In fact, we actually had to drive around a yellow traffic sign saying "END," pass underneath electrical wires, and tentatively head further north along a road rapidly turning into deep drifts of sand. There are a few more miles of this, CLUI suggests, before you reach the electrode.

In our case, driving an economy class rental car unprepared for much more than your average city street, we had to stop.

A Pilgrimage to the Buried Electrical Network Outside Los Angeles

Somewhere up ahead, the earth was crackling with buried electricity, a nervous system without nerves flowing through the ground around us. These peripheral networks and the designed infrastructural landscapes they sit within form an interesting contextual halo around our existing CES coverage, as it is these systems from which our gadgets and cities draw power.

But that wasn't even the strangest part of the story. On our way to the electrode, we passed the Saint Antony Coptic Orthodox Monastery. The monastery is way out there, and it first appears on the horizon looking not unlike a nuclear power station—which actually seems fitting, given the intensive nature of the state's electrical system here, as gantries and power lines all seem to converge at this point in the desert. From a distance, though, the monastery's orthodox domes pass, instead, for an ageing power plant, some midcentury temple for the splitting of the atom, a secular church of radiation and power shivering ahead like a mirage in the oceanic landscape of sandy soil and huge skies.

Eventually, though, signs appear and, as you approach the site, its religious affiliation is obvious.

A Pilgrimage to the Buried Electrical Network Outside Los Angeles

At this point in the drive, you are passing what appear to be failed agricultural experiments, such as a dead olive grove reduced to gnarled old silver stumps desiccated by desert heat and aridity. The monastery itself has irrigation equipment spreading outward from the central facility and its industrious—albeit unrealistically optimistic—effort to turn this deep desert site into a thriving farm of some sort becomes obvious.

But what is so spectacular—and so awesome—about this is the very notion that an electrified patch of the earth's surface seems to host or, at least, to coincide with an institution for religious self-reflection.

It's as if monks are out there in the emptiness to serve as willing human participants in that state's power grid, meditating on the terrestrial electricity surging through the sand and gravel around them.

Surely a million comic books could be written about such a thing! Some splinter group of electrician monks living sparsely in the California desert, drawing power from the state's buried electrical grid and even feeding back into it through nightly rituals. A desert cult of the electrical meditator. A remote monastery battery inhabited by living electrodes.

A Pilgrimage to the Buried Electrical Network Outside Los Angeles

In any case, we hung out for a while on the dusty road outside the monastery as a few cars came zipping out without saying hello to us; we watched them roar off south again to the motorway, a roughly 20 minute drive south.

Then, our feet imaginatively tingling with buried electricity, we got back in our own rattling rental car and continued on our way to Los Angeles.

Lead image courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation