The Desert Lighthouse: A Mojave Dream Come True

Desert Lighthouse. Mojave Desert. Daniel Hawkins. Photos courtesy of the artist

The Desert Lighthouse:

A Mojave Dream Come True

by Genie Davis


On an unnamed road in the middle of the desert, where the sky undulates like a wave in the heat and the desert floor could be a midnight black ocean at night, the Desert Lighthouse, 50-feet-tall and a graceful beacon of light, rises.

There is an ironic poetry here. Adrift in the darkness driving through the Mojave, Desert Lighthouse is both an art installation and a welcoming brightness, centering the weary traveler, illuminating a dark corner of the earth.

Giving the rather on-going darkness of our current politics, this glowing permanent work is perfectly timed: after laborious years of planning and fundraising, artist Daniel Hawkins built this fully-functioning lighthouse in April of this year, and officially opened it to the public in July. The lighthouse stands on a hill that its creator purchased in 2011, located on the outskirts of Hinkley, Calif.

Hawkins wants to encourage viewers to come see the Lighthouse for themselves. “It’s only two hours from downtown Los Angeles, and the desert is stunning to travel through. There will be future events at the lighthouse coming this winter so there will be plenty of reasons to see it,” he promises.

Although planning and funding the lighthouse took time, construction, Hawkins says, was relatively quick. “It was only three months from breaking ground to the lighthouse beacon’s first illumination. Originally it was supposed to be built within one month, but the weather conditions deteriorated almost immediately after we began.” Hawkins adds “I missed my winter target window trying to get the permits approved, so once we actually started, temperatures quickly rose above 110°. That was still a workable temperature but I would have to cease all operations when the thermometer reached 115° and above. So, a few weeks were lost to unmanageable conditions.”

Hawkins says the most challenging aspect of his magical creation was cost and funding. “It took roughly 10 years to save enough to afford to actually do this. I would say the real challenge was working through government bureaucracy,” he attests. During that time-period, Hawkins had to deal with re-zoning parcels, establishing avigation easements because of military airspace, and conducting structural and photometric studies, among other things.

“It was a strange and brutal odyssey through a labyrinth of paperwork, planning meetings, public hearings, inspections, permits leading to other permits, and fees on top of fees. And that was just to figure out how to even get the lighthouse considered for an official review by County regulators. Once I entered the process I wasn’t sure I’d ever find my way out.”

Currently, Hawkins is planning a documentary “detailing all the insanity of this project – the helicopter rescue mission, the bureaucratic battles, the 8,000 pounds of lighthouse falling off a wide-load truck during transport, and the many and varied local rumors about the lighthouse,” he relates. “The next endeavor beyond the lighthouse is Radical Mountain, an alpine adventure film about the conquest of a summit with an elevation of zero. There will be an actual expedition as well as a series of interactive events and exhibitions. Stay tuned,” he advises.

And in the meantime, enjoy the incongruously wonderful full-size, functioning lighthouse on a sea of sand in the desert. The project also represents Hawkins belief that the desert itself needs a beacon that will stabilize and guide us, through the darkness of a windy highway in the middle of nowhere, or through the turmoil and confusion of these times. Perched on a hill in an area bordered by militarized testing grounds, toxic chemicals (Hinkley was, after all, hometown to activist Erin Brockovich), and desert scavengers, the lighthouse both defies these elements and embraces them. With a high-powered LED Fresnel beacon that utilizes solar power, the lighthouse is built from a steel frame interior and an exterior constructed of an opalescent-looking semi-translucent polycarbonate paneling. The foundation is cement.

The lighthouse has been rebuilt once after falling victim to scavengers and is now fortified as much as possible.

Hawkins says response to the lighthouse has been varied.

“The responses have been pretty diverse, from fears of an alien invasion to excitement and hope about the prospects of nearby Hinkley. I worked exclusively with local contractors, so there has been a wonderful sense of pride within the high desert community. Many of the workers were proud to help pull off such an absurd and daunting task of bringing a lighthouse to the Mojave Desert. Rumors spread on the crews that I was insane but everyone seemed excited to join the effort. When it was complete one iron worker kept proclaiming with pride, ‘We carried a lighthouse to the top of a mountain! In the middle of the Mojave desert no less!’

To celebrate the completion of the lighthouse I held a launch event a during sunset in early July. Attendees would drive to the end of the nearest passable road 2 miles away and a jeep would pick them up and drive them the remaining distance to the base of the lighthouse. The jeep was driven by Tom, the electrician assistant that helped hook up the lighthouse’s off-grid electrical system. Each time he would pick up a new group of people, he would tell them stories of working on the lighthouse where temperatures would routinely reach 140 degrees inside near the beacon, as well as how our attempts to ward off heat stroke resulted in his sweat turning red from electrolyte supplements. By the time attendees reached the lighthouse they were fully ‘debriefed” on the complete undertaking.’”

An altogether stunning achievement, the lighthouse is a piece of random and wonderful artistic magic glowing in the dark desert night.

To visit the Desert Lighthouse, see map coordinates: 34.9575, -117.2127
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