High Desert Adventures (all photographs by the author)
While camping in the high desert of Lassen County last weekend, my intention was to unplug, leave work at home, and enjoy the simplistic landscape of Secret Valley.
A desolate stretch of rough, rocky desert in Northern California, Secret Valley is a snapshot of the Wild West frozen in time — a place where cattle ranchers warn that trespassers will be shot, dust devils form in the blink of an eye, and abandoned buildings crumble in the scorching sun and unforgiving cold.
Secret Valley in Lassen County, Northern California
Determined to turn off my “Atlas Eyes” and mindlessly cavort with my friends, I was thwarted by the mention of an abandoned brothel. Allegedly a stagecoach crossing-turned-whorehouse, the building had apparently been relocated onto private property about a mile up the road, where it sat abandoned. The property owners had no interest in restoring the historic building, but refused to demolish it for reasons unknown.
While there was no question that I had to see it, it was a problematic adventure. The area was scattered with abandoned — and not-so-abandoned — trailers, the occupants of which are not the sort who enjoy company or trespassers. The likelihood of stumbling upon a cranky rancher was the best case scenario — getting too close to a meth lab was just as likely.
After assessing the danger, I was considering letting it go. Seeing my disappointment, a friend offered to accompany me, and I realized I had the best armed guard a foolhardy explorer could ask for — a retired security contractor with a big gun. Feeling just about as safe as one can be while trespassing in the desert, I set out with a small group of curious campers and my personal armed security guard to see the remains of the building that locals swore was haunted, and that no one dared to demolish.
While possibly overkill, a professionally trained security escort does alleviate any anxiety about running into unsavory characters
After a short hike down a dirt road and a nervous climb over a clearly marked “No Trespassing” gate that was recently welded shut, we came upon what seemed more hidden oasis than haunted house of debauchery. A small grove of trees and greenery was welcoming after trudging through the brutal heat, and the house itself looked almost inviting, light shining through where doors and windows used to be.
The roof was damaged by a falling tree, which was later removed for firewood
Before arriving at the former house of pleasure for weary travelers, we poked around its workshop. While many of the abandoned structures in the area had been stripped, trashed, and graffiti-filled, these remained somewhat unmolested — the workshop even had tools scattered throughout.
My armed escort and I — this is what privileged exploration looks like
While the rotting porch of the structure provided a challenge, once inside the house was a vision of a bygone era in decay, and it was clear why the haunting rumors where so strongly supported by those who had visited before us.
Just inside the old brothel
Downstairs, kitchen appliances were strewn about and light fixtures swung partly dismantled.
Much of the kitchen was a nesting area for various creatures, including swallows who were not pleased with the intrusion.
Against our better judgement, we braved the narrow stairs to explore the upstairs bedrooms, filled with filthy mattresses left by squatters and what seemed to be a few pieces of furniture, presumably from before squatters came to roost. While clearly inhabited by transients since being condemned, the house was left unmarked, empty of the usual beer cans and spray painted obscenities.
In every room, mattresses were in varying stages of disgusting.
Light shining through to the crumbling spaces
Ancient wallpaper peelings and tattered strips of fabric remained on the walls, revealing an echo of what was once a lavish place of pleasure.
The excitement of discovery was somewhat burdened by the reminder that we were pushing our luck — glancing outside to see our escort alert and on watch was a motivator to see what we could see, snap as many photos as possible, and get out in a timely fashion. Despite the discomfort that paranoia brings, the location was quiet and serene, the house more comforting than I had imagined. When I asked a local friend if the brothel had a name, he said it did — it was called “Secret.”
Broken table in the disarray
A room of faded yellow
Years of wallpaper exposed above wood details
Walking down the staircase back to the desert
One of the most important things to us here at the Atlas is to always keep traveling and discovering. Notes from the Field are first person reports from the most inspiring trips taken by the Atlas Obscura Team. Read more Notes From the Field here>