May Pola Llano

Llano del Rio maypole festivities on May Day (undated) | Paul Kagan collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University 

This essay was originally published in The Reservoir, a journal by Woodbine, an experimental cultural hub and community space to build political autonomy based in Ridgewood, NY. The author would like to thank her fellow editors at The Reservoir for their vital editorial recommendations.

I am thinking about failure and ruins of many sorts. Systemic failure, academic failure, financial failure. Heart failure. Capitalist ruins, war ruins, utopian ruins. Failure from its etymology, as both the condition of being unsuccessful and as dying; not the contemporary idiom of “failing forward” with a “growth mindset,” but failure as unredemptive and unredeeming. A return to the late fourteenth-century meaning of the verb to fail: of persons, to suffer loss of vigor and grow feeble; of material objects, to break down and go to pieces. Ruin from the Latin ruere, to fall violently, to collapse. And I am thinking about failure and ruin as related to abandon, abandon as both giving up and as surrendering oneself or something. I came to the ruins of Llano del Rio, as to all ruins, partly for the wish to be afraid, for the confrontation ruins rouse: the threshold of the bardo

So when the world
Failed to charm us into mystery
We came to these abandoned places.

—Steve Orlen, “Abandoned Places”
Llano ruins
View of some of the Llano del Rio ruins with the San Gabriel mountains in the background, November 2022 | Author photograph

There is no marker on the road where the diverse ruins of the former Llano del Rio colony rest in the Mojave Desert. Just offset from the winding and rolling Pearblossom Highway (also known by its less lyrical name, “Blood Alley”), a two-lane road in the Antelope Valley, white crosses decorated with red, blue and fuchsia plastic flowers punctuate the landscape along what is one of the deadliest highways in the US. Though a California state landmark, there is no sign of the official description of Llano del Rio reported to exist there:  

This was the site of the most important non-religious Utopian experiment in Western American history. Its founder, Job Harriman, was Eugene Debs’s running mate in the presidential election of 1900. In subsequent years, Harriman became an influential socialist leader and, in 1911, was almost elected mayor of Los Angeles. At its height in 1916, the colony contained a thousand members and was a flourishing communitarian experiment dedicated to the principle of cooperation rather than competition.

Instead, one might only glimpse the small green sign announcing the town of Llano (meaning “Plain”), elevation 3,169 feet and population 1,319, just a bit over the population of the Llano del Rio (“Plain of the River”) colony before its final demise on this site in 1918, when it relocated to 6,000 acres of land in the sawmill town of Stables, Louisiana (the colony renamed it “New Llano”). It was active there until 1938, making it the longest surviving Socialist colony in U.S. history. New Llano also established Commonwealth College in Louisiana, founded to be a radical workers’ college; due to conflicts between the college’s director, William E. Zeuch and New Llano manager George T. Pickett, it moved to Arkansas in 1924, where it remained until 1940.

Once at the ruins of Llano del Rio that lie on both sides of Pearblossom Highway, there are no plaques, no markers, no signs about how to traverse the vast space, no telling of what purposes the various structures of fieldstone and cement served. Delicate yellow Goldenhead flowers, spiky shrubs of crucifixion thorns and Joshua trees are scattered amongst the ruins—or perhaps the ruins are scattered amongst them. Some of the stones arranged in imperfect and broken circles near the looming grain silo may belong to the colonists’ graveyard a couple of miles from the ranch house in which Aldous Huxley, his wife Maria and son Matthew lived during the 1940s and that Huxley described at the end of his 1953 essay largely excoriating Llano del Rio, “Ozymandias, the Utopia that Failed.” But those stones could also be something else entirely; it is impossible to tell.

A “Private Property, No Trespassing” sign is affixed at a wayward tilt to one of the five large fieldstone foundation pillars of what was the Llano Hotel, the colony’s main gathering and dining area. It is the most prominent of the ruins on the west side of the highway approaching Llano from Los Angeles. These ruins are framed by the ferocious velocity of cars and trucks on Pearblossom Highway on one side and a railway line for freight trains on the other, a slow-moving, multicolored, mirage-like snake through the desert. The “Private Property, No Trespassing” sign first seems absurd in its futility in this lonely expanse of desert where the only visible inhabitants seem to be tiny sand-colored lizards that scurry underbrush, packs of prancing wild dogs, and the occasional crow. Yet there is ample, silent evidence of humans passing here: piles of rusted beer cans, crushed paper cups, and lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” spray-painted around part of the rim of what was formerly a fountain: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” 

The late Mike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990) opens in Llano del Rio. “The best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future,” Davis writes in its prologue, “The View from Futures Past.” Llano del Rio’s ruins, in this sense, are not only or even necessarily remnants of the past and reminders of its lost potential but are prophetic and prophesying. As Svetlana Boym observes in “Ruinophilia: Appreciation of Ruins,” “Ruins make us think of the past that could have been and the future that never took place, tantalizing us with utopian dreams of escaping the irreversibility of time.”  

Founded on May Day, 1914, just two months before the beginning of World War I, Llano del Rio declared its existence to be the “birth of a new order of social relations.” Located on several thousand acres of desert about 60 miles from Los Angeles and 20 miles from Palmdale, the nearest city and railroad station, Job Harriman and his partners purchased the land from the Mescal Water and Land Company, land where a temperance colony called Almondale had stood for several years beginning in the late 1880s before folding largely because irrigation problems prevented the cultivation of almond crops, what were to be its sustenance. In his 1914 Western Comrade article, “The Gateway to Freedom,” introducing and describing Llano del Rio, Harriman states that “this is NOT a co-operative colony, but a corporation, conducted upon the lines of ordinary private corporations.” The colony promised a salary of four dollars a day; those who accepted the wage became stockholders in the company in which the colony was incorporated, the Llano del Rio Company, which required a $500 investment (an approximate equivalent of $15,000 in 2023), $1,500 of which would be deducted from each person’s pay. This model made it very difficult, if not impossible, for those with considerable debts to become stockholders in the colony.  

Tents at Llano del Rlo
Tents and crops at Llano del Rio (undated) | Paul Kagan collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University 

Llano del Rio started with five families who stayed in tents, four horses, and 16 hogs; several months later, in December 1914, the population was over 150. By its end in 1918, Llano del Rio had around 1,000 members, 100 adobe houses, 125 cows, 300 hogs, and various types of industrial machinery—and, throughout the period of its existence, was self-supporting through its dairy, apiary, fish hatchery, and 2,000 acres of corn, grain, alfalfa, fruit and vegetable crops, though oftentimes carrots were the only readily available vegetables. The land was considered to be one of the best for the cultivation of pears in the US, and Bartlett pears were to be one of its main crops, though the time needed to cultivate them coupled with the colony’s irrigation problems did not allow the crops to flourish until the year it left Llano for Louisiana. Llano del Rio also had several industries, notably rug weaving, and a red Montessori schoolhouse, one of the first and largest in California. There was a photography studio headed by photographer Meyer Elkins, one of the several Jewish members of the colony, a post office, library, and assembly hall for its two orchestras, Esperanto language clubs, women’s reading groups, dancing, and theater. “No matter what happened in the field of finance, in the industrial, horticultural and farming end of the colony,” R. K. Williams, a resident of the colony, recalled in his reminiscences about social life at Llano del Rio, 

“Nor how poorly all of these functioned, the outstanding star of colony life had always been the social phase … the things best remembered by the colonists has been the enduring friendships, the pleasantness of close association, the mutual understandings, all due to the fact that money or selfish interest did not obtrude in those associations … We did not try to beat one another out of anything. We mutually enjoyed the successes of our associates. Take the dances we had. Where in the world could better dances have been held? No price of admission. Just think of that. “ 

Colonists Jessie Richardson, Gladys Cassidy, Elizabeth Richardson and Walter Millsap at a Llano del Rio masquerade dance | Photograph by Meyer Elkins, Llano Studio Paul Kagan collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University 

One colonist reportedly built the first motorized airplane at Llano del Rio but was so afraid to test it that he destroyed it by setting it on fire. Modern dancer and choreographer Bella Lewitzky was born at Llano del Rio, as were social activist and architect Gregory Ain and artist and animator Fred Moore; Lewitzky and Ain were later pursued by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI for alleged Communist views. Through its two publications, The Western Comrade, a monthly magazine mostly devoted to writing about the colony with the purpose of recruiting members, and The Llano Colonist, a weekly newspaper, the colony became the main California publisher and disseminator of socialist literature in the early twentieth century. Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Rabindranath Tagore, and Max Eastman all published in The Western Comrade, though none were ever members of the colony.

“Are you tired of struggle in the cut-throat competitive system?” asks the colony’s 1916 pamphlet, “The Gateway to Freedom,” an extension of a 1914 article by the same name by Job Harriman and published in The Western Comrade. It invites the reader to relocate to Llano del Rio through a series of questions: “Have you fought long enough in the uneven and all but hopeless battle? Are you not ready now to join forces with these comrades, the men and women who have gone into their cooperative movement with the determination of making a collective effort to reach the goal of freedom and happiness and to show the world the possibilities and desirability of cooperative action?” To determine whether one was a suitable resident, the colony asked the prospective resident to reflect upon yet more questions: “Do you believe in the profit system? Is happiness a state of mind or dependent upon affluent material conditions? Do you believe in a peaceful settlement of ALL misunderstandings?” Llano del Rio, the unnamed authors of the pamphlet urge, offers a respite from “modern society [that] conducts its affairs under conditions which create and maintain an ever-increasing burden on all humanity … No one is secure against the hazards of possible financial failure. No one has a guarantee against disemployment, poverty, and suffering for their loved ones.” In the “strife” men and women face every day on this battlefield; the only successful ones are those for whom “successful trickery” comes naturally, or those who remain continually vigilant to urban capitalism’s continuous dangers. “For the masses,” they write, “failure is inevitable.” And in the “turmoil of life,” it is the “modern city” that is the main culprit, a “battlefield where competition crushes, maims and kills.” 

The Llano del Rio colony imagined an alternative to this modern city most concretely in the vision of Alice Constance Austin, a self-taught, upper-class radical feminist and socialist architect from Santa Barbara, who Harriman hired to create the plan for the colony’s circular city, one that was only partially realized. The daughter of a railroad and mining executive, she first became inspired by the model industrial city of Pullman, Illinois, and by workers’ housing she saw in Europe. Her vision for Llano del Rio was for a radial city with kitchen-less houses, underground delivery systems for hot meals and linens, communal daycare areas and laundries, built-in furniture, and heated tile floors to reduce the time of domestic work for women, which she conceived of as “the thankless and unending drudgery of an inconceivably stupid and inefficient system, by which her labors are confiscated.” Patios would allow for people to care for children communally.

One of Alice Constance Austin’s designs for Llano del Rio’s radial city (undated) | Paul Kagan collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University 

Between 1915-1918, Austin brought her drawings and designs to the colony’s weekly General Assembly and wrote a series about her plans for The Western Comrade. In her 1916 article for the magazine “Building a Socialist City,” Austin described her vision for an aesthetically, ideologically, and practically aligned urban dwelling place: “It should be beautiful … constructed on a definite plan, each feature having a vital relation to and complementing each other feature, thus illustrating in a concrete way the solidarity of the community; it should emphasize the fundamental principle of equal opportunity for all; and it should be the last word in the application of scientific discovery to the problems of everyday life, putting every labor saving device at the service of every citizen.” Her plan for Llano del Rio included row houses that would represent “the solidarity of the community,” but that would have differing facades to allow for the individual expression of each inhabitant.  

Yet Llano del Rio’s “new order” was not without problems. Walter Millsap, a member of Llano del Rio from 1916–1919 who helped to move the colony to Louisiana, summarized the reason for Llano del Rio’s move as “shortage of water and political opposition.” Harriman also faced internal opposition from a group from within the colony that referred to themselves as “the Brush Gang,” colonists who met in the sagebrush outside the main hall to discuss how dictatorial Harriman had become and who demanded that popular votes be taken on all decisions. Gentry McCorkle, a banker and friend of Job Harriman, helped finance Llano del Rio by selling his home and investing $35,000 into Harriman’s purchase. McCorkle summed up the colony’s decline similarly to Millsap: lack of water, difficulty in growing and maintaining healthy crops, and arguments with the colony’s elected directors. Yet this did not change his commitment to what Llano del Rio intended to create nor his belief in their experiment. “I have no regrets about underwriting the venture,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1962:

I am sorry it failed. I would do it again if I knew it had a chance of success. Southern California in 1913 was a succession of soup counters. I wasn’t a socialist; I was a successful banker … then, I happened to meet Job Harriman … He told me about his idea to organize a cooperative colony. I bit. Then and now, I believe the profit system is wrong … I believed in what I was doing.

A page from a photo album from Llano del Rio showing from left to right: A bust of Alice Constance Austin; Job Harriman at Llano del Rio; Job Harriman’s tent at the colony | Paul Kagan collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University 

Though in his unfinished and unpublished history of Llano del Rio that exists only in manuscript form in Yale’s Beinecke Library, Millsap writes extensively of the nefarious interrelationships between the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and capitalist exploitation, the colony also had a policy of Caucasians only, and it is unclear to what degree the majority of the colonists were as aware as Millsap. In the colony’s 1917 broadsheet, “101 questions that have been most frequently asked about the Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony of Llano, Los Angeles County, California,” the question of whether or not anyone of any race can join the colony is answered with a firm “no” (members did not, however, need to be U.S. citizens to join). The reasoning for not including other races other than Caucasian is explained as “not due to race prejudice, but because it is deemed inexpedient to mix races.” This discriminatory policy continued when the colony moved from California to Louisiana. The colonists’ intellectual support of equality for Blacks still did not extend to practices, including them as members of the colony, even though George Washington Carver served as New Llano’s main (unpaid) consultant on nutrition and agriculture and suggested several farming methods that saved the colony from hunger. As historian Robert Hine writes in California’s Utopian Communities (1953), Louisiana was “a regrettable choice” for the colonists, the majority of whom came to New Llano from Llano del Rio and had no experience living in the region that was hostile to the colonists’ comparatively very radical social and economic views. Hine gives the example of a New Llano colonist who came to a local Louisiana courthouse to apply for a marriage license and filled the section that required the applicant to note their “color” with not “white” or “Black” but “Red.” “Louisiana society,” Hine explains, “intent as it was on the distinction between Black and white, would not have appreciated the joke, and yet New Llano depended economically on this society.” Others joined New Llano from Texas, many of whom had helpful experience in understanding how to farm in the Deep South but who were also focused on proving the rumor that there was oil in New llano correct. A schism developed between the colonists from Texas and California due to their differences in experience and in priorities. At the same time, the colonists faced strife with New Llano colony manager George T. Pickett, who threatened colonists with firearms for enacting decisions that had been democratically approved, telling them to get off the “his” land, referring to land that was actually owned communally; he also attempted to close down the colony’s print shop to halt publication of its weekly newspaper, the Llano Colonist and many smaller publications. “Pickett has wronged the entire colony by his word—spoken and written,” one colonist wrote in an editorial in the Llano Colonist.He has shown an utter ignorance of the principles of real co-operation, and has failed entirely in any form of cooperative action. Study of principles is worthless unless put into practice … He has always insisted that the colony furnish him with things the others could not have—a car, better food, better furniture … Yet it is … ‘work as a slave’ for the majority of us, except the aged and invalids.”

There is a set of crumbling stairs in the ruins of Llano del Rio that could seem to be the material representation of its demise: shaky, broken-down steps leading to nowhere. It could be on the surface tempting to see Llano del Rio, as Huxley did, as a catalog of incongruities, hypocrisies, and mistakes. Harriman’s vision for Llano del Rio was grand and noble: “We will build a city and make homes for many a homeless family. We will show the world a trick they do not know, which is how to live without war or interest on money.” In reality, no members of Llano del Rio or New Llano ever received any cash wages as there was never a profit, and even in 1918, its last year in California, the colony consisted of more tents than adobe houses. In Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790–1975 (1976), Dolores Hayden, like Huxley, criticizes the colony for being too lofty and idealistic while neglecting the collective’s immediate needs. “Llano del Rio community lost cohesiveness when discussions turned away from the buildings which were actually needed and under construction,” she writes. “When Llano’s leaders introduced the chimera of the ‘ideal socialist city’ of the future, the working out of current problems in assemblies was ended.” 

A 1946 photograph of Aldous Huxley by George Platt Lynes shows him looking out of one of the windows of his house near the ruins of Llano del Rio. Huxley’s expression in the photograph is critical and skeptical and recalls the sardonic tone of his essay about the colony. Yet there is also a tinge of melancholy about both his expression and his essay on Llano del Rio as if his scorn were borne out of disappointment in its potential. “All that [Llano del Rio] teaches is a series of don’ts,” Aldous Huxley writes bitterly. “Don’t pin your hopes on a water supply, which, for half the time, isn’t there. Don’t settle a thousand people on territory which cannot possibly support more than a hundred.” Llano del Rio’s downfall, he argues, resulted partly from Harriman’s out-of-touch intellectualizing and his tendency to think about human affairs “only as a Socialist,” an idealistic, unrealistic theorizer who had little concern for practical matters vital to the colony’s and the colonists’ survival. Harriman paid little attention to the risks and realities of the extreme desert climate and rugged landscape. Huxley acknowledges that a great sense of shared beliefs made the first few months filled with happiness for the majority of colonists, as former colonists he encountered around Llano expressed to him. “There was a sense of shared high purpose,” Huxley explains, “a sustaining conviction that one had broken out of an age-old prison and was marching, shoulder to shoulder with loyal comrades, towards a promised land.” But Harriman’s poor judgment, he writes, along with “too little water, and after three years, no money,” caused the colony’s demise in Llano.  

The Huxleys moved to Llano from Beverly Hills partially for health reasons; Maria Huxley suffered from a lung ailment and needed to be in the hot, dry desert air rather than polluted city air; Aldous was working to improve his eyesight and felt the desert light would help. It was in their house near the ruins of Llano del Rio where he wrote the nonfiction book about vision and the Bates method of trying to improve eyesight, The Art of Seeing: An Adventure in Reeducation (1942), as well as the novels Time Must Have a Stop (1944) and Ape and Essence (1948), and he began The Perennial Philosophy (1945) in Llano, a cross-cultural encyclopedic study of mysticism and metaphysics. Of all of these, Ape and Essence is the most interesting to think about in the context of Davis’s idea that Llano del Rio could be imagined as an alternative future to Los Angeles; it is a dystopia set in 2018 in the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe. In that novel, the metropolis has been transformed into a ghost town of ruins: “What was once the world’s largest oasis is now its greatest agglomeration of ruins in a wasteland. Nothing more in the streets. Dunes of sand have drifted across the concrete.” 

As Davis points out in City of Quartz, Robert Hine and other historians of California utopianism argue that Huxley likely “grossly underestimated” wartime xenophobia and warmongering and the impact of the wrath of the Los Angeles Times’s reporting on Llano del Rio. Aside from the newspaper’s historically conservative leanings, it had a probable bias against Harriman, who, when still a practicing attorney, joined Clarence Darrow in defending John McNamara, secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers and his younger brother, James. In 1910, the McNamara brothers purposefully dynamited the Los Angeles Times building because of the newspaper’s staunch anti-labor stance and practices that originated with its militant anti-unionist owner, Harrison Gray Otis. During the colony’s existence, the Los Angeles Times published articles with headlines such as “Antics of a Socialist Skindicate” and “Try to Depose Czar Harriman,” creating a narrative of suspicion, hypocrisy, violence, and corruption in what they described as a “utopian scheme to colonize ‘reds’ on government land.” When the colony left California for Louisiana, the newspaper wrote gleeful narratives of the inevitability of the failure of a socialist experiment with articles including “Antelope Valley Utopia to Give up the Ghost Today,” “Human Nature and Desert Combined to Spoil Scheme for Socialist Society,” and an extensive feature in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times, “A Monument to Failure: Deserted Town is Graveyard of One More Utopia.” In that article, the author notes that at Llano del Rio, “Only one American flag was visible. That was a ragged and bleached-out piece of bunting that floated over the Socialist schoolhouse.”

“The colony failed, but failure provides meaning,” Wilbur Shepperson writes in the conclusion of Retreat to Nevada: A Socialist Colony of World War I (1966). Shepperson’s book is a study of Nevada City, Nevada, a socialist cooperative colony of people who opposed World War I and who sought new communal and experimental ways of life there from the spring of 1916 until the colony’s demise in 1918. There is an uncanny congruency in the fact that the areas around both Nevada City, whose directors were connected to Llano del Rio, and Llano, California, are both in states of toxicity, environmental contamination, and ruination. The sparse ruins of the Nevada City colony are located just four miles east of Fallon a rural town that had the greatest childhood cancer cluster in the US in the early 2000s, likely at least partially caused by leaks from a pipeline transporting jet fuel to Fallon Naval Air Station. And as Davis explains in the Prologue to City of Quartz, the ruins of Llano del Rio are close to Air Force Plant 42, “where stealth bombers (each the equivalent of ten thousand public housing units) and other, still top secret, hot rods of the apocalypse are assembled.” The nearby city of Palmdale has the highest suicide rate in Los Angeles County and in the 2000s, had the highest rate of hate crimes in the county. It is within this broader landscape that the ruins of Llano del Rio, described by Davis as “romantic landmarks ascribed to increasingly mythic circumstances,” stand (on land owned by two doctors in Illinois) like watchful and perhaps mournful witnesses. 

What alternative reshapings of history do the ruins of Llano del Rio provide? What if the same logic and narrative that has conventionally been applied to Llano del Rio—the ruin as a symbol of the experiment’s failure, and an implied inevitable failure at that—was applied to our contemporary structures of ruination, even those that are physically resplendent? As David Serlin writes in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2005), “The only identity deemed legitimate in America is a capitalist identity; in every walk of life, investment and acquisition are the keys to moving forward and avoiding stagnation.” He reminds the reader of Max Weber’s analysis: “Whoever does not adapt his manner of life to the conditions of capitalistic success must go under, or at least cannot rise.” In other words, remembering the etymology of ruin from the Latin ruere, to fall violently, to collapse—whoever and whatever does not only adapt to but does not achieve capitalistic success becomes a ruin. 

Perhaps then the fragility of ruins is part of their fascination, a potentially potent prompt to questions about their genealogies of and entanglements with failure and success. The restoration of historical ruins John Jackson writes in The Necessity of Ruins, and Other Topics (1990), brings the past back “in all its richness … there is no lesson to learn, no covenant to honor; we are charmed into a state of innocence and become part of the environment. History ceases to exist.” Unrestored ruins, like those of Llano del Rio, might then function in opposite ways: there are lessons to learn, they tell us, and the past is part of a continuum that we must continue to excavate. They inspire curiosity and are entwined in its very root, cura (“care, concern, trouble”) as their state of decay often indicates the abandonment of care.

On May Day, 1990, almost a hundred years after the colony’s founding, Davis came to the ruins of Llano del Rio to see if the colony’s former walls would talk to him. Instead of communicating with its ruins, he finds laborers from El Salvador, who tell him that it is better to live out in the desert rather than in the city, a city, as Davis describes it, that “ate the desert, cut down the Joshua and May Pole, and dreamt of becoming infinite.”  

A very different sense of the infinite concludes Huxley’s essay on Llano del Rio, and it is there that he expresses the metaphysical and meditative effects of the ruins and of Llano’s landscape on him. Describing the graveyard of the colonists that was near his own home, Huxley’s criticism of Llano del Rio as a socio-economic failure is now mollified into a consideration of the feebleness, frailty, and falling to pieces that every living thing experiences:

Outside, the Joshua tree stands guard in the empty sunlight, in the almost supernatural silence. A monstrous yucca at the limit of its natural habitat? A symbol within the cosmic symbol? The eye travels out across the plain. The buttes are like kneeling elephants, and beyond them, far away, are the blue ghosts of mountains. There is a coolness against the cheek, and from overhead comes the scaly rattling of the wind in the dead dry leaves of the Joshua tree. And, suddenly the symbol is essentially the same as what it symbolizes; the monstrous yucca in the desert is at once a botanical specimen and the essential Suchness. What we shall all know, according to the Bardo Thodol, at the moment of Death may also be known by casual flashes, transfiguringly, while we inhabit this particular pattern of patterns. 

Perhaps Llano del Rio’s desert horizons of mirage and possibility and impossibility, their thresholds of expansiveness, their transfigurative movements within the sun’s blinding radiances and striking shadows are so alluring because the mutability of this environment is mysterious and mystical in its constantly shifting perspectives, visibilities, temperatures. The wavering of distant objects in the heat and wind transforms objects into what Raymond Bellour described as “the magic in the motion blur” in film images that are unsteady and unfocused. The freight train that passes by the ruins intermittently becomes a trembling, wavering strip of colors and shapes, a ghost image sliding across a horizon that looks more like the layers of the ocean than like the sky. The seemingly infinite expanse of the desert plain, the stark desert light, the penetrating heat of the sun, and the intermittent chill of the wind create a threshold-like environment, a gap (bardo) that intimates the beginning of something novel and the end of something now frail. But in this landscape where the beginnings and endings of Llano del Rio’s ruins are ambiguous to discern, so is the boundary between what is thriving and what is weak, what is in the process of creation, and what is collapsing.

“Be not afraid,” Huxley implores, citing the Bardo Thodol. “For this is the radiance of your own true nature. Recognize it.’ And from out of this light comes ‘the natural sound of Reality reverberating like a thousand thunders.’ But, again, be not afraid. For this is the natural sound of your own real self—a thousand thunders which have their source in silence and in some inexpressible way are identical with silence.”