A Brief History of Giant Rock, America's Most Bonkers Landmark
Here's a giant rock.
It's called Giant Rock, because desert living requires many things, but wild flights of poetic fancy aren't one of them. It's not a very special rock. There's nothing particularly interesting about it. There's certainly nothing remarkable nearby, except for the time machine. It's not even that giant in the grand scheme of things. It's just a fairly big rock. Over the years, it's also been a family home, a center of pilgrimage, the scene of a bloody standoff, a potential rival to Las Vegas, and the galactic antenna for the wisdom of interdimensional aliens. A few years ago part of it cracked and fell off. Nobody seems sure why it did that. The giant rock doesn't have to explain itself.
The giant rock's modern history starts in the 1930s, when a German guy named Frank Critzer stumbled on it, conveniently located in a part of the Mojave Desert so remote the scorpions had to get two buses and a cab just to murder you. The local vultures all died of starvation, and then the vultures who came to eat them died of boredom. If you wanted a quick conversation with a neighbor you had to shoot yourself in the head and hope Satan was feeling chatty. It wasn't exactly a happening scene, is what we're saying. Naturally, Frank Critzer decided to live there.
And we don't mean he decided to live nearby or something. He literally burrowed beneath Giant Rock and proceeded to live there for the next ten years, like some kind of man-sized Gila monster, or monster-sized Gila man, only nowhere near as sexy as any of that sounds. Now, Critzer absolutely did not have permission to do this -- the rock was on government land -- but fortunately the official in charge of checking random chunks of desert for mole people was out sick that decade. Besides, Critzer was reportedly quite fond of waving a shotgun at any distant neighbors who came snooping around. Since ornery old shotgun weirdos are a crucial part of the desert ecosystem, nobody asked too many questions.
In fairness, Critzer turned out to be a little better at homebuilding than the average Mojave maniac. Using only dynamite, pickaxes, and insanity, he managed to excavate a large cave underneath the rock, which he turned into a cozy 400 square-foot home that reportedly stayed cool all year round, despite the harsh desert climate. He also single-handedly built a road up to the rock, then went ahead and installed a functioning airstrip as well, flattening the desert by dragging some old iron debris behind his ancient jalopy. All told, it actually sounds like a pretty sweet setup, although we'd like to emphasize that "I live in an illegal burrow on government land" is still absolutely a dealbreaker on Tinder.
And Critzer wasn't entirely an isolated loon, even if he was given to boasting he could recharge batteries by touch. Once his airstrip was built, he started welcoming curious pilots, initially attracted by the unexpected sight of an airfield in the middle of the desert, and later by growing press coverage. Flying visitors would be invited underneath the rock, into a room packed wall-to-wall with explosives (an open crate of dynamite served as a footstool), where Critzer would whip up some delicious German pancakes. Before long, he was welcoming over a plane a day, and fantasizing about converting the whole area into a Vegas-style winter resort.
These plans were destroyed by the arrival of WWII, when the other scattered inhabitants of the desert reported seeing mysterious flares in the mountains, as well as missing dynamite. Public opinion turned against the mysterious German with the massive radio antenna on top of his rock, particularly after the FBI swept up the Silver Shirts, a group of Nazi sympathizers attempting to convert a Hollywood mansion into a self-sustaining headquarters for American fascism. What happened next is debated, but here's the facts: In July 1942, three sheriff's deputies paid a visit to Critzer to ask about some missing dynamite. The group went down into the house under the rock, where Critzer exploded. Which probably answered their questions about the dynamite.
It's clear that something set off the dynamite stockpile underneath the rock, but it's unclear exactly what. The deputies' version of events has Critzer screaming "You're not taking me alive! I'm going another way, and you're coming with me!" before detonating his dynamite stockpile. Which is a fairly kickass way to go, although possibly an overreaction the first time the cops swing by your house. A second version of events claims the deputies fired a tear gas canister under the rock, which then set off the dynamite, although cops being insanely trigger happy with tear gas sounds pretty far-fetched in this day and age. In any case, Critzer was instantly converted into "wallpaper," while all three deputies were badly wounded. One just about managed to drive 40 miles to the nearest telephone to get help.
The house under the rock was left abandoned until the arrival of George van Tassel, who worked as an aircraft engineer for Howard Hughes and claimed to have met Critzer back when he first moved to California, although his story of the meeting might be the most implausible thing in this whole article. According to van Tassel, he was helping out at his uncle's auto garage when Critzer showed up and asked if they would fix his car for free. Not only did they fix the car, they let him sleep in the garage, bought him a bunch of groceries, and gave him $30 to see him on his way. Which would be about $450 in today's money. It's unclear how this was a functioning business model. (We actually tried making a similar request at our local garage and wept in terror as the entire staff lined up in the parking lot and took turns beating us with a rolled-up calendar.)
Van Tassel originally paid the rock a visit to honor his friend, or possibly just poke around for his $30. But just like Critzer, he quickly fell under the rock's mysterious spell. In 1947, he decided to move his family out there, which involved scrubbing Critzer's dried blood off the walls. Just remember, if your husband ever comes home and says "Honey, we're moving to the desert and make sure to bring your blood sponge!" there's no need to even divorce him, the law says you can just empty the bank accounts and go. We don't care how beautiful the Mojave sunrise can be, it's not worth glancing at a dark corner of your ceiling and thinking "oh, that's why they only found one of those."
After removing the "wallpaper," the van Tassels set about renovating the property, building an above-ground house and maintaining Critzer's roads. They reopened the airstrip (adding a cafe) and later claimed that Howard Hughes would regularly fly out to enjoy some of Mrs. Van Tassel's famous pie, which is actually not in the top 10 most implausible claims about either Howard Hughes or George van Tassel. They also obtained a formal lease on the land from the Bureau of Land Management, meaning there was less need to yank the ripcord on a suicide vest every time someone knocked on the door. In fact, they made the airfield so nice that people started landing for a quick visit from the vast reaches of interdimensional space.
In 1952, van Tassel announced that his time at Giant Rock had led to him being visited by a race of aliens, who looked like tan white people and spoke in posh English accents. (It's actually possible that he was just confused by a group of English tourists.) According to van Tassel, he was meditating beneath the rock when he suddenly received a message from "Lutbunn, senior in command, first wave, planet patrol." Which again, could just be a very drunk English person trying to buy petrol while van Tassel reeled back screaming and wheeling his arms in horror.
Van Tassel continued to make contact with the aliens, who included Ashtar, Clatu, Locktopar, Singba and Totalmon, all of whom sound like cards in an off-brand Pokemon deck, and at least one of whom is just a line from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Ashtar became the breakout star, going on to contact several other UFO fans, before achieving eternal fame in 1977, when the "Ashtar Galactic Command" successfully hijacked the UK's Southern Television broadcast and interrupted the evening news to announce "For many years you have seen us as lights in the skies. We speak to you now in peace and wisdom...only those who learn to live in peace will pass to the higher realms of spiritual evolution...We here at the Ashtar Galactic Command thank you for your attention. We are now leaving the planes of your existence."
Van Tassel continued to commune with the aliens for several months, until he was finally allowed to meet their leader, Solganda, a member of the Council of the Seven Lights, which is probably way more important than those hexagonal clowns at the Council of Six Lights. The Space-Lord helpfully made a house call, shaking van Tassel awake in the middle of the night and escorting him to a UFO parked neatly on the airstrip. Solganda then treated him to a tour of the ship (he was apparently quite impressed by the retractable seating). In case you're having trouble picturing all this, van Tassel mentioned that Solganda sounded pretty much like actor Ronald Colman. This was either a massive failure of imagination or an attempt to keep the budget manageable on any film adaptations.
Also feel free to enjoy this interview in which he describes the shimmering spaceship walls as "mother of pearl plastic, like what we put on toilet seats."
Before leaving, Solganda supposedly beamed plans for a "time machine" called the Integratron directly into van Tassel's mind. The Integratron supposedly used electromagnetism to rejuvenate the body, effectively moving it back in time, thereby allowing humans to live for hundreds of years. Van Tassel spent the next 28 years building it out in the desert, declaring that a working fountain of youth would single-handedly prove all his doubters wrong. He was funded by donations from loyal supporters, who had been convinced by his popular book I Rode A Flying Saucer. People even began flocking to Giant Rock for yearly UFO conferences, all hosted by Van Tassel's registered religious group, the Ministry of Universal Wisdom.
In 1957, Van Tassel used the rock as a platform to announce his run for president in the 1960 elections. He declared that by 1960, the Democrat and Republican parties would merge and four new parties would decide the election, which he would surely win with the help of his alien friends, who had given him a "conascope" capable of spying on anyone, anywhere. As it turned out, he lost that election (presumably Richard Nixon and JFK didn't have any shady secrets that could have derailed their campaigns). But he continued to build the Integratron, producing detailed new plans each year, every one of them stolen from an interesting variety of Russian mystics. But somehow the machine was never finished (in fairness, time machines are complicated, and it would be cynical to bring up the ongoing donation money) and he died in 1978, without ever publishing a complete plan for the machine. Solganda must have been devastated.
The internal machinery of the Integratron mysteriously vanished shortly afterward, but the painstakingly constructed building remained. It was built of wood, using no metal of any kind in order to avoid interference with galactic signals, an effect Van Tassel subsequently undermined by lining the walls with coils of copper wire. This unusual construction process, which definitely wasn't made up on the spot, resulted in an "acoustically perfect" building, a highly rare phenomenon previously observed only in every bathroom ever. There were even plans to turn it into a disco, but sadly that couldn't possibly be allowed, since dropping acid on the space alien time machine disco dancefloor would instantly open a stargate to the Funk Dimension. Which would mean 1,000 years of global enslavement in the Funklord's groove mines. The Funk Dimension is not a joke people. Dance with caution.
Instead, the Integratron was purchased by three sisters to use as a center for healing "sound baths" created by rubbing quartz bowls with rubber mallets (we assume that they discovered these healing powers accidentally, while rubbing some quartz bowls with big rubber mallets). Having attended a Coronavirus-inspired online sound bath via Zoom, we can confirm the experience is basically like having relaxing tinnitus and possibly works better if somebody doesn't start watching Airplane 2 mere feet away. Although all our old scars did heal, we understand with perfect clarity how to design a warp drive, and we also now feel a compelling urge to refer to ourselves in the plural. So, yeah, four out of five on TripAdviser, good job George van T!
Top image: Rosa Menkman, Sdecoret/Shutterstock