A Journey To Vernon, The City That Inspired ‘True Detective’s Second Season

I found the first season of True Detective to be charming as hell. The literary references, the bayou scenery, Harrelson and McConaughey vacillating between brotherly love and brotherly hate… I ate it up for nine episodes. In the finale, feverish references to the Yellow King and Carcosa failed to pay off. Time was not a flat circle. There was a monster at the end of the book and monsters are monstrous.

Case closed.

Still, creator Nic Pizzolatto had given me a gift that few TV shows ever have: He sent me spiraling into the farther reaches of my own brain, leaping down worm holes, and puzzling out theories. He inspired curiosity in me and that was a big deal, more that enough to earn my loyalty.

So, I tuned in for Season 2. Gone were those two charming, twang-talking rapscallions. Gone were the moments of surprisingly levity. The second season of True Detective has been bleak on bleak on bleak. But, once again, Pizzolatto has kickstarted my curiosity. He’s prompted me to google strange histories of evil cult leaders. He’s led me to theorize and take time to consider the theories of others. If the ability to make viewers dig deeper is Pizzolatto’s greatest gift as a storyteller, it’s a damn good one. Who cares if you seem a little too focused on e-cigarettes, as long as you also leave watchers trying to puzzle out the bigger forces at work.

To make a viewer (or reader) say, “Hmm, I wonder…” is an act of tremendous skill.

Three episodes in, I’ve already wondered about many things. I’ve wondered how a seedy underground bar can afford an in-house musician and whether picking such a morose one is a good business decision. I’ve wondered about cops and gangsters throwing the word “apoplectic” into their sentences. I’ve wondered whether there are real people out there who would be comfortable with their psychologist wearing a silk ascot, like Rick Springfield in his Episode 2 cameo.

Most of all, I’ve wondered about the show’s fictional setting, Vinci, Calif., which I consider Pizzolatto’s best-rendered character since Rust Cohle.

It’s no secret that Vinci is based on the city of Vernon, Calif. Its creator has said as much in multiple interviews. The two share key characteristics: an almost non-existent population, environmental shadiness, and a history of corruption. Pizzolatto has borrowed more than just the backstory. In the show, Mayor Chessani lives in Bel Air — which makes him a spot-on facsimile of Leonis Malburg, the longtime Vernon mayor who got caught living in a mansion in Hancock Park, 20 miles east of town. True Detective‘s double-dealing Ben Caspere is probably cribbed from Vernon’s Eric T. Fresch, who routinely made upwards of $1.5 million dollars a year working for a city with only 112 residents. Or maybe Caspere is meant to be Bruce Malkenhorst, Sr., who was at one time the highest paid municipal employee in the state and still managed to bilk Vernon for $60,000 worth of massages, limo rides, and golf rounds. Truth is, there are so many skeletons in Vernon’s closet that it’s hard to keep them all straight.

Vernon resembles its fictional counterpart geographically, too. It’s an independent city, half-swallowed by greater L.A. Which means that it happens to lie within easy striking distance of my apartment in Laguna Beach. So, with my curiosity sparked, I decided to go see Vernon for myself. Because, at the end of the day, True Detective‘s second season may not have my emotional buy-in like Season 1 did, but it’s left me every bit as inquisitive.

The day before I drove to Vernon, I mentioned the trip to photographer Baldemar Fierro. He was a pretty easy sell; he watches True Detective and, like me, wondered how Vernon and Vinci might compare. For the sake of schedules and lighting, we left Orange County (55 miles southwest of Vernon) at 6 a.m. Baldemar’s assistant, Ashley Wilhardt, was with us, too, and the two of them buzzed back and forth on the drive about the photos they hoped to find.

At one point, Baldemar mentioned a scene in Episode 2, in which kids splash around in waste water gushing from the side of a factory. He asked, “Do you think we’ll see something like that?”*

I didn’t know how to answer. Did I want to see something that depressing, knowing that seeing it would mean becoming fully aware that it actually exists? Would that feel like a win or a loss?

We drove into Vernon from South Central L.A. The buildings wore layers of mismatched, peeling paint. Businesses that rely on low overhead started to pop up (storage facilities, button and zipper supply) then thin out, replaced by huge rectangles only distinguishable by the color of the concrete used in their construction. At a traffic light, an emaciated homeless man motioned to us with his hand out. His skin was cracking like the building paint. What little flesh he had hung loosely from his limbs.

“Can you spare some change?” he asked.

I didn’t have any. I could have stopped at an ATM or bought the man some food but…I didn’t. I drove on, searching for rationalizations — chief among them being, “it wouldn’t have helped.”

That’s a horrible thing to write. The truth is, I’m no nihilist and the encounter (or non-encounter) cut deep. It was not his homelessness per se — we’ve all seen that — it was the irreversible-seeming nature of his homelessness and the fact that upon witnessing both of those things I couldn’t be bothered to roll down my window.

As we slowed to see the “City of Vernon” sign, I was still burrowed deep inside myself, wrestling with existential questions like “How is my life meaningful to someone like that, someone scraping to survive?”

Y’know, fun stuff.

Whenever I surfaced to speak, my traveling companions were treated to the sort of conversation-smothering statements that Marty Hart had dealt with back in Louisiana.

“What would that man back there think of how we’re spending our day?”

Ashley laughed nervously from the back seat.

Where a train track cut between two buildings, we stopped for our first photos. This attempt to describe a world through photography rather than words helped me surface from my funk. The remove created by the camera’s viewfinder allowed me enough breathing room to reset myself. The snowdrifts of trash just a few feet from Vernon’s only houses were now simply adding to the ambiance rather than harbingers of an impending apocalypse.

After a few early stops, we wove around “town” (Vernon is five square miles) until we came upon a 10-foot concrete wall, painted with a pastoral scene that showed pigs grazing across idyllic grasslands. Each pig was separated from its pals by a giant swath of open space. Flowers bloomed. Lovers picnicked. We followed the wall (and the painted-on pigs) for a few hundred feet before realizing that this was a piece of company propaganda. The heady smell of curing bacon tipped us off.

Coming to a stoplight, we peered up to see a sign indicating that we were at the Farmer John meat packing plant. The happy pigs painted on the walls were perhaps lost relatives of those being processed just inside. We turned right and continued along the painted wall, then drove across a bridge, where the fumes being expelled from the backside of the factory met the air wafting up from the Los Angeles River.

All at once, the smell of bacon was overpowered by death and rot. We raced to roll up our windows, but the stench twined through the vents and filled the car, clinging to our clothes and singeing our nostrils. I will not try to encompass the smell’s awfulness or power with a clever metaphor. I will simply say that I have never seen three adults start retching so immediately and violently in my life. We drove a few hundred more yards then jerked the car into an empty parking lot and tumbled out, gasping for fresh air.

John Oliver talks about the Sausage Principle (“If you love something, never find out how it was made”). I would add that if, like me, your metaphorical sausage happens to be actual sausage, never smell how it was made either.** Back in the car, I saw a woman, one of Vernon’s rare residents perhaps, walking across the bridge we’d just driven over. She was right in the smell zone, but she wasn’t running. She wasn’t even holding her nose. The very idea that someone has to get used to that smell left me depressed all over again.

We stopped away from the fumes to take pictures of the plant. A fire engine roared past. We looked down into the L.A. river, and I muttered some Cohle-isms to myself, then we moved on. The morning turned into a blur of these moments… trash, weird smells, random steam jetting from the sides of buildings, strange warehouses, and graffiti.

Later, we walked across a train trestle to a spot where a number of tracks crossed. Below, a bridge sat a tent city that looked identical to the one in Episode 3 of True Detective. The pungent smell of dog food washed from the exhaust vents of an adjacent building. We chatted sporadically, squinting into the sun’s hazy glare (in Vernon, even the balmy Southern California weather is an antagonist force).

As he took detail shots of graffiti, Baldemar said, “I keep asking myself, ‘Could I envision a dead body being buried here?'”

“And,” I wondered, “could you?”

“Every place we’ve stopped so far, I could imagine dead bodies buried.”

A few minutes after leaving the train trestle, we drove past a massive heap of greasy machine parts piled in a driveway. When we started to take photos a man, dressed in all white down to his shoes, came outside and ordered us to stop.

“That’s private property,” he said. “You can’t photograph my private property.”

The man was the first person we’d met in a day of walking around, and perhaps I was a little jarred. Or looking for drama to sensationalize my story. Or still agitated from the Farmer John’s smell. I argued with him about photography legalities and whether or not we were allowed to photograph the mass of trash in plain sight. It was a far cry from the friendly vibe that I try to cultivate. The man twirled his pinkie ring and scowled. I thought there might be trouble, but in the very next moment, the man flipped the script. Smiling, he said, “If you want to take photos, just come inside.”

In the man’s cavernous warehouse, we saw another huge collection of pistons, gears, and gasket heads, soon to be sent to Asia to get melted down. I lobbed a few questions about doing business in Vernon. The short answer is that when your business is machine parts and some of those parts are going to be piled in the driveway, it’s easier to do business away from people. I didn’t ask about nefarious mob bosses… but it’s hard not to wildly speculate about a man who chooses to wear all white while running a business that ships used machine parts.

Once we started driving again, we were out of Vernon in seconds. As we merged onto the freeway, I went back to thinking about the homeless man. When we’d seen him, I’d made a snap decision that nothing could be done to help him and that’s exactly what I’d done…nothing. Now, I chewed my nails and wondered if my father (deceased) would have found a way to show him some small kindness. The answer is “yes.”

A few miles from home, we passed a man walking along Pacific Coast Highway in full Stormtrooper regalia. He even wore the helmet. I stopped the car and ran back to talk with him. He’d walked nearly a thousand miles (always in the suit) headed to Comic-Con in San Diego, as a means of honoring his late wife, who had died from cancer. He told me a few quick stories about her, and we made plans to meet two days later. So it goes in this life: The heaviness of witnessing suffering is mitigated by the beauty of witnessing love and devotion.

The weight I’d been carrying eased up a little.

Later that afternoon, I shared my theory about Pizzolatto’s greatest gift being his ability to inspire curiosity in viewers with Uproxx TV critic, Danger Guerrero.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s definitely a ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ type of show.”

The journey, not the destination. That maxim was certainly true for our trip to Vernon. There was no real destination (“No there there” as Gertrude Stein might say), but the journey into a city plagued by corruption and pollution was worth the effort. Chasing curiosity is important; it has value. If for nothing else than to know that cities like Vernon are there, real, ugly and mistreated. The day hadn’t been all grit and grime, either; it’s not every day you meet a Stormtrooper walking in his wife’s memory.

There was a strange symmetry in Visiting Vernon and crossing paths with the Stormtrooper on the same day. It provided as good of an answer to my existential angst as I was going to get. Because if Rust Cohle is right, and the stars are winning, the light has a responsibility to bear witness to the entire galaxy, in its misery and in its beauty.


End Notes:

*It turns out that this scene is modeled after a particularly egregious offense by Exide Battery, which admitted to 20 years of violations and agreed to cease operations and demolish its plant in March 2015.

**I would later learn that Farmer John also renders tallow from pig carcasses (a necessary activity), which was the source of this death smell. It’s a hotly contested issue due to the way that the smell lingers in some of Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods.

Additional Photos by Baldemar Fierro