"Rock-A-Hoola," by Harmony Hertzog
Photo by Harmony Hertzog
It happened again. Not exactly the same as before, and this incident is even harder to believe than the first, but it happened. You probably won’t believe me, again, but I’ll tell you anyway.
We’re urban explorers. We seek out abandoned cities, places, and landmarks of the past and explore them, taking photo documentation of the decay of manmade structures and the reclamation of the land by nature. Our hobby is dangerous; condemned, unstable structures, trespassing, potential conflicts with vagrants who may inhabit the abandoned places...and things people won’t believe, like California City being inhabited by people who live completely in darkness; generations of people who haven’t seen the light of day in over 60 years. Most of us take these dangers in stride, I mean, don’t most hobbies involving physical activity have risks? But sometimes the dangers aren’t tangible, thought to be outside the realm of possibility, and therefore aren’t taken into account. We found that out when we decided to explore Rock-A-Hoola, the abandoned waterpark on the I-15 in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
We heard the stories of Rock-A-Hoola, the area’s first and only waterpark: Built in the 1950s, it was doomed from the start. The man behind the waterpark, Thomas Newberry, thought Rock-A-Hoola would be a great pit-stop for those on their way to or from Los Angeles and Las Vegas and began building the waterpark in the vicinity of Lake Dolores, which was named after his wife. The actual construction of the waterpark went smoothly, but Lake Dolores was not an adequate source of water to sustain the park. With no feasible water source, Newberry had to build a reservoir, which put them way over budget. When he was finally able to open Rock-A-Hoola in 1953, two years later than planned, the opening day was met with catastrophe. There were only a few dozen people there for Rock-A-Hoola’s grand opening, Newberry’s wife and children included. With a less than spectacular turnout, Newberry and his family proceeded to enjoy their waterpark. While on one of the slides, Dolores Newberry somehow drowned, her lifeless body floating in the catch pool in front of the meager clientele. Thomas Newberry closed the park indefinitely, depressed over the loss of his wife and life savings.
Rock-A-Hoola was revitalized in the 1960s; the waterpark had a much better reception this time around, whether from advertising or from people wanting to see where Dolores Newberry died is unknown. Either way, Rock-A-Hoola was a success for the time being. Seven years after the reopening, Rock-A-Hoola was struck by lightning in a desert storm, common for that area. Almost all the patrons were electrocuted and killed. Rock-A-Hoola closed again, this time the slides and anything else of value were removed and sold off, leaving skeletal towers and stairways to nowhere throughout the waterpark.
Since the 1970s, few people have expressed interest in buying and reopening the park, the most recent in 2013. Only one of these ventures panned out for a short period in the late 90s, so it still stands abandoned to this day. Rock-A-Hoola has been ravaged by vandals, animals, and years of desert weather, but it still stands. We, recovered from our terrible trip to California City, decided to go document the remains of Rock-A-Hoola. We decided to take more people this time, perhaps due to the old adage of safety in numbers, but we would never admit we were scared. Rock-A-Hoola had a well-documented history; it’s outdoors, and, yes, in the middle of nowhere, but at least shouting distance from a major Interstate highway.
If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d miss it. The easiest way to get to Rock-A-Hoola is to pass it, backtracking about a mile on the ill-maintained frontage road off the Minnetonka exit. Great skeletal palm trees and a giant faded statue of a Coke cup mark the entrance to the waterpark parking lot. We park close to the front gates and get out, marveling at the decay. An old billboard welcomes us to Rock-A-Hoola, the bottom half of the poster marred with graffiti. We walk through the abandoned turnstiles, photographing what we find interesting. I think I notice the smell first. It’s a combination of things—animals alive and dead, long ago fires, aerosol paint—that form a miasma within the waterpark. I’m immediately mad at myself for getting spooked so quickly. This place was nothing like California City; what could I possibly be afraid of? The worst things out here were rattlesnakes and coyotes, and the former were unlikely in the colder winter weather. I shake my feeling of unease off and forge on, entering what appeared to have been an administration building.
I ‘m greeted with typical brainless graffiti: swastikas, poorly rendered penises, pentagrams. But there were some works of art, and some pieces that weren’t greatly executed, but got credit for creativity. I photograph what I like, which includes a literal rendition of The Lonely Hearts Club, an extremely well done Felix the Cat, a Banksy-esque portrait of a girl, and a crude but creative rendering of the word “TITS” in psychedelic colors and swirls. As I wander through the building I relax, forgetting my earlier feelings of foreboding as my sense of adventure took over. I photograph everything I can: animal tracks, graffiti, decay, shots of the surrounding desert through doorless entryways and paneless windows. I surprise a coyote who made his home in an overturned desk in one of the rooms, and I laugh at his expression, even more startled than my own, as I snap his picture. I wander outside to what had once been a garden walk filled with lush, tropical flowers and wholesome billboards, reminding you to enjoy a Coke, wear Coppertone, and buy Chevrolet. The flowers were long dead and nothing but gravel piles remained, while someone had masterfully repainted the billboards, the Chevy ad now warning us that the future is blight as the young couple in the Bel-Air look upon a city in turmoil, background painted in atomic blast orange. I snap several shots of the billboards and grounds before returning to the actual waterpark.
I take several shots of the Rock-A-Hoola entrance signs, some nearly illegible, sun-bleached and rotting. I glance around the park, getting an eye on my friends. I couldn’t see them all, but I didn’t think anything of it; there were several buildings around and I wasn’t at the best vantage point anyway. Speaking of vantage points, I really want to get some shots of the entire park from the stairs to nowhere. As I made my way across the waterpark, I was suddenly aware of how cold it was. You don’t normally associate the desert with cold; but those winds in early December will get you. I zip my jacket up and make my way up the stairs. As I finally get to the top, cheeks pink, nose running, and sucking in sharp breaths of frigid air, I freeze. Rock-A-Hoola is full of people in bathing suits, lounging in the sun, playing in the water, and waiting in line for slides. I do a double-take, and they were all gone. I grasp the railing and lean out, looking around wildly. What had I just seen? You didn’t see anything, I chide myself, you’re lightheaded from climbing all those stairs in the thin, cold air. One of my friends waves and shouts something I can’t hear over the wind. I wave back and start taking aerial photographs of the park, zooming in on the pools now filled with desert debris and dead palm fronds. Satisfied, I start making my way back down the stairs. It’s starting to get darker; it looks like a storm may be moving in. I see distant flashes of lightning, but they’re so far away I can’t yet hear any thunder. At a riser, I hear laughter. I’m still too far away from my friends to hear any of them laughing, and this laughter was like that of a child. I pause and listen hard, hearing nothing but the wind and the steady drone of semi-trucks from the Interstate. As soon as I continue my descent, I hear it again, laughter, and splashing. I whip around, looking up frantically at where the slide these stairs led to used to be, where I could hear a child squealing with excitement, zipping down one of these long sides into the pool below. Of course there was nothing there, but I hurry back to my friends anyway. Most of them are gathered near the main pool, huddling around one of the cameras. The looks on their faces make my insides freeze like no winter wind ever could.
They hand me the camera wordlessly. The image on the screen is surreal: imposed on top of the abandoned pool filled with debris was a filmy, translucent image of people enjoying the waterpark in its salad days. Children laughing and splashing in the pool, mothers and teenagers lounging in the sun, dads taking pictures for the family albums, all in ghostly relief on this tiny preview screen. My friends are looking at me for explanation, like my encounters in California City make me an expert on creepy weirdness. We all know Rock-A-Hoola’s history, but even then it’s hard to imagine a haunted waterpark suspended in time in some ghostly dimension. I hand the camera back and pull mine out, looking around the waterpark through the lens. I see nothing; no kids, no water, nothing at all extraordinary. I turn back to my friends, shaking my head, but I stop cold: behind my friends was an advancing crowd of translucent, ghostly people. I scream and nearly drop my camera, and as soon as I’m not looking through the lens the apparitions disappear. I’m backing away wildly, fumbling with my camera in order to see if the apparitions are still approaching, but I can’t get my trembling hands to cooperate. One of my friends looks through their camera lens, trying to see what had me so terrified while I continue to back away and gibber incoherently. They must see something, because they start shouting at the rest of us to run. One of my friends grabs me and we sprint for the cars. We get around the pool, past the abandoned shops and buildings, to the gates. They’re locked.
The gates are locked. We shake the bars and scream and yell, frantically trying to find a way out. I look around, realizing we aren’t all there. Two of my friends are missing, still somewhere in Rock-A-Hoola. There is no way they can’t hear us yelling and screaming even if they are in the buildings, but there were no replies or any signs of them. I start flipping through my photos, looking for the images of the entrances, because something’s wrong. I already think I know what’s wrong, but I need to see it. I find the images and see what I was hoping couldn’t be true: there had been no gates when we first came in; most of them were flat-out missing, the surviving few lying mangled and rusted on the concrete. I look back at the gates of Rock-A-Hoola and realize something even stranger: these gates look brand new. Freshly painted bars, well-oiled hinges, and nice, shiny chains and locks. I bang my hands on the gates in frustration. How could this be real? Ghosts? A possessed waterpark? Impossible! My fear subsides as my anger rises. I show the images to my friends, trying to get everyone to calm down. Others realize two of us are missing as we look back through our photos, trying to make sense of our situation. We know we have to find our friends and find a way out, and being calm and logical is the only way to do so.
We make our way back into the park, calling for our friends. As we come upon the abandoned buildings, we stop in our tracks. All the buildings look fresh and new: bright paint, shiny windows, merchandise on the shelves. They didn’t look just new, they look occupied. As we gawk at the transformations, we notice things that are more than shadows, but less than solid, moving around amongst the shelves and racks. Shopping. The apparitions are shopping. A loud, ripping burst of thunder startled us back to our mission. I look up, realizing the storm arrived, and we were going to be caught in it. I didn’t want to seek shelter in the buildings with the apparitions, and I can tell my friends shared the feeling. We head past the buildings, into the actual waterpark, and took shelter under some of the rotting canvases that still clung to long-forgotten cabanas. As we huddle together, trying to figure out our next move, another burst of thunder and lightning illuminates Rock-A-Hoola in a fiercely bright light for just a moment, but it is all we need. The entire park was changing before our eyes: graffiti and debris are disappearing, colorful signs and paint appearing; the pools are filling with bluish chlorinated water; slides are appearing from the platforms that led nowhere only minutes ago. We all stand, in shock, watching the transformation. Another burst of thunder: the storm was moving closer. The closer the storm gets, the more rapidly Rock-A-Hoola changes from an abandoned, decaying waterpark to its former glory.
Another scream broke our trance. We wheel around to find the source of the scream, only to see a man trying to drag one of my friends from our now plush cabana. He’s wearing flowered board shorts, but they’re out of style: very short, with contrast piping on the sides. As we grab onto our friend to keep them in the cabana, we inadvertently pulled the man closer, and we are able to tell his entire appearance is dated: permed hair, caterpillar-like moustache, thick gold chain, and gold framed sunglasses despite the impending storm. I’ll never know who figures it out first, but we all understand with a clarity sharper than the approaching lighting: This man is a victim of the lightning storm and subsequent electrocution that happened in the early 70s. For some reason, the storm is restoring Rock-A-Hoola to its former appearance, and the ghosts of the victims are manifesting and trying to capture us. But why? Do they think we’ll be able to take them away from here? Do they want more people in their eternal waterpark limbo? We can never know. We just know we need to get out.
We jerk our friend out of the man’s grasp and sprint through the rain that’s starting to fall, passing the manifestations lounging around the pools: some start to make moves toward us, some watch us impassively, and some don’t seem to notice us at all. We scream for our missing friends as we run through the rain filling the restored waterpark, heading for the gates. We’ll jump them if we have to; we just need to get out. Some of the ghosts come out of the shops to watch, a few join the man in his pursuit, but even more just don’t notice us. We keep screaming for our friends, and one bursts out of the administration building, joining our run to the exit. We hit the gates and start climbing, all of us scared, soaked, and terrified. We all make it to the top, climb onto the cement stand that holds the now brilliant marquee, proclaiming “Welcome to Rock-A-Hoola,” and jump down onto the concrete below. We continue to run for the cars, but the sense of urgency seems to be dissipating, like the rain is washing it away. Some of us turn to look at the gates, and we realize we’re no longer being pursued: several ghosts stand at the gates, looking at us almost sadly, the way your dog looks at you when you leave for work in the morning. There is no malice in any of the spirits, just sadness. Because they’re stuck here? Because we got away? I snap photos without even realizing I’m snapping photos. One of my friends tugs me into the nearest car as we roar away, heading back to the safety of Los Angeles.
We left one of our friends. We all know it, but none of us can talk about it. We know they are gone. Gone: not lost, not missing, but gone; stuck in Rock-A-Hoola with all the other people who were just gone, who could only appear during desert storms. I flip through the images on my camera, looking at the surreal scenes: in some photos, a mere abandoned waterpark, the next, what looks like a photograph that has been double-exposed, showing both the abandoned and the flourishing waterpark, fighting to be the image. Shadows of Rock-A-Hoola patrons long dead, blurry captures of what look like tangible, substantial people dressed for a day at the waterpark. Decay. Rock-A-Hoola in 1973. Ghosts. Nothing but decay. The images scroll by, mesmerizing, disorienting. There is even more proof this time; even more people, even more cameras. Regardless, no one would believe me, us, again. As we near the Los Angeles county line, I come across the final image on my camera: standing amongst the ghosts at the gate is our friend, somewhere between shadow and substance. They are waving what appears to be goodbye, but I know better. They are waving us back, beckoning us to join them at Rock-A-Hoola.