In the Mojave Desert, a winding route reveals the weird and the wonderful
By David Kelly
Jun 07, 2017 | 6:00 AM
There is no place as intense and wondrous and few people as compelling as those who make the California desert their home.
There’s no road trip like a desert road trip.
You rarely run out of road, and you’re sure to meet people far more compelling than yourself. But I wasn’t interested in the irrigated, moneyed enclaves of ex-presidents and chief executives.
I wanted to explore the remoter edges of the Mojave — those threadbare hamlets, burned-out ghost towns and unsettling moonscapes that often prompt the question, “Who would ever want to live there?”
I set out in April to find the answer. Along the way I met a tormented artist, an isolated man planning an epic party, a band of gentle monks and a woman selling the town she loves. All of them are playing out their lives against a backdrop of enveloping light and unrelenting solitude. Sometimes the road trip less taken is the most inspiring.
I began at the eastern edge of California in tiny Nipton and worked my way northwest, with stops in Shoshone and Tecopa, before heading through Death Valley to the ghost town of Ballarat. From there I traveled south into Trona and finally to Newberry Springs.
I drove into town on Nevada 164 shortly after sunrise and wandered through the cactus garden outside the century-old Hotel Nipton.
The community of 20 sits on the edge of Mojave National Preserve, a few miles from Nevada, and for $5 million it can be yours. Roxanne Lang, Nipton’s owner, is looking to sell.
You’ll get the wells, the hotel, the café, the general store, two houses, an RV park, solar panels, 80 acres and Jim Eslinger.
“My price is $5 million, and the town comes with me,” said 60-year-old Eslinger, who manages the place.
The Nipton Trading Post, top, Hotel Nipton, bottom left, and an old wooden railroad car are among the sights in town. Nipton is for sale for the asking price of $5 million. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
The former truck drivercame eight years agowith a buddy from Washington statelooking for gold. His friend claimed he had found a river full of the stuff inside a desert cave. If only he could remember where.
They scoured the desert for months. The friend bailed but Eslinger stayed.
“This place grows on you,” he said, as a train rumbled past. “I still think there is a river of gold out there somewhere.”
Gerald Freeman, a geologist from Hollywood, bought Nipton in 1984. He and his wife revitalized the place. Freeman died last year, and running the town is too much for Roxanne.
“My husband basically saved Nipton,” she said, standing inside the general store. “There aren’t many towns like this left. It’s bittersweet.”
Shirley Howard, 82, of New Jersey walked in. She was here looking for fossils.
“My primary mission is to find trilobites,” she said, referring to the extinct marine arthropods.
“There is a certain thrill in finding them,” she said. “And I enjoy staying out here away from the crowds.”
Lang smiled. I think she missed the place already.
I left Nipton on Interstate 15 and headed into Baker, where I hopped onto California 127 north. The desert had begun its dress rehearsal for Death Valley.
Gray hills emerged, tall sand dunes arose, and dry lake beds gleamed white in the sun.
Susan Sorrells greeted me in Shoshone, the little town she owns with no plans to sell.
Sorrells graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts, lived in Geneva, served in the Peace Corps in Liberia, worked as an intern in the U.S. Senate and is the granddaughter of the late California Sen. Charles Brown.
“This was a mining town when I was growing up,” she said. “We might have a prospector at our dinner table or a governor or a bunch of geologists.
“My life here was very rich and cosmopolitan.”
When her mother became ill in the late ’70s, Sorrells returned to Shoshone.
We wandered through an oasis of palms and clear pools where Sorrells played as a child. Now it’s the last refuge of the Shoshone pupfish.
A pond along the Shoshone Spring Trails is home to Shoshone pupfish. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
She showed me around the impressive Shoshone Museum, packed with historical documents, mining relics and fossils.
Sorrells is transforming Shoshone into an eco-destination where travelers can bird-watch, hike and have a beer at the Crowbar Café & Saloon, which attracts visitors from around the globe. In many ways life here is as rich and cosmopolitan as it ever was.
“We get more and more people every day,” she said. “It’s working beyond our wildest dreams.”
I left Shoshone and drove south toward Tecopa, stopping to check out an abandoned Quonset hut near Delight’s Hot Springs Resort.It was crammed with rusty washing machines. The carcass of a dead pickup, sandblasted into something approaching art, rested in peace out front.
Following the signs, I drove down a deep canyon. At the bottom I saw something resembling an illustration from “The Arabian Nights,” a vividly green oasis of palms and burbling creeks.
“Welcome to China Ranch,” said owner Brian Brown, 62, a former high school teacher and football coach.
His 1,500-tree date farm glowed like an emerald against the surrounding desert. Hiking trails, open to the public, led into the cliffs and a distant slot canyon beyond. Another followed a creek with crayfish, frogs and the rare speckled dace — a kind of minnow. A bakery sold date shakes.
“People stop on their way to Death Valley and are astounded,” Brown said. “They see the austere surroundings and then all this greenery just around the corner.”
Diego Hemken, top, jumps down from a date palm tree after hand-pollinating date flowers. Bottom left, David Washum sorts out imperfect dates to be used for baking and making date shakes. Bottom right, Dylan Bueche hand-pollinates date flowers. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
We went into the date groves, where I watched Brown hand-pollinate the trees. He didn’t trust the wind to do the job.
Brown was jolted awake one night by two men pounding at his door. They thought China Ranch was a brothel like the Chicken Ranch in nearby Nevada.
But no brothel is this nice. Brown’s 4,500-square-foot house is made of 18,000 handmade adobe bricks. It’s emptier now with the recent death of his wife, Bonnie. He may even sell the farm.
Rocky “Rock” Novak sat inside the Trading Post chewing tobacco.
For the last 13 years, Novak has been caretaker here. He lives alone with nothing but a radio connecting him to the outside world. He built a small swimming pool behind his house. The deep end is 28 inches.
Novak, 62, came to the Panamint Valley from Arkansas in 1973 looking for gold.
“I’m retired now,” he said. “I sell cold drinks. Soft drinks, something stronger if you like.”
He spat into a plastic cup.
Novak is a laconic man, answering questions when necessary but just as happy to sit and stare into the desert.
For the third year in a row, about 100 off-roaders and others would converge on these 80 acres Easter week for three days of revelry. Novak supplies the beverages and the pool.
His handwritten invitation, unencumbered by punctuation or grammar, described the event thusly:
“To party un-wind socialize play music. Camp Bar-B-que…soaking pool clothen optional. Wild stuff. Fire dancing. Poll dancing. Play music. Alls welcome. Anything goes during Freedom Days that don’t involve personal or physical harm.”
My mind raced.
I asked, “You know what you got here, don’t you?”
“Your own private Woodstock.”
“I don’t want it to get too big,” he said warily.
But the idea was percolating. He went onto the porch and contemplated the warthog head mounted on the wall.
“I want to get [it] a pair of those big sunglasses, you know, with those huge lenses,” he said. “Then a hat. I already have a cigar for his mouth.”
I became increasingly annoyed that I was going to miss this desert blowout.
“Then I put on the hat and hang a sign around his neck that says something like, ‘Dude, let’s party!’”
Excitement over, he returned to his chair.
“Do you ever get bored out here?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “Every day is different.”
I left the Panamint Valley on California 178 and drove into Trona, a ragged mining town along dry Searles Lake named for a mineral that begets sodium carbonate.
A yard sign on Marshall Street caught my eye: ‘C’ MY ART FREE. Palm trees were transformed into freakish trolls. One had a volleyball in its mouth. Broken glass crunched beneath my feet.
The artist, William Fuller III, 53, lost five family members to a drunk driver when he was 10, was sexually abused as a child and his wife Frances died of cancer in 2013.
“Each piece of art is seen through the eyes of a victim, screaming in horror, ‘Listen, please listen!’” he said.
It’s an eclectic collection. The bottom of a palm, roots painted green with yellow taillights for eyes, sat in a wheelchair mounted onskis.
A Bible verse below says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’
“He’s a paraplegic,” Fuller said of his curious creation.
There were odd kite-like things made of suspended palm fronds flying in the wind.
I asked whether he ever sold his art.
“Do you think anyone would buy it?” he replied.
“I think so.”
His face brightened.
We talked about the desert, the strange lights he sees in the skies and religion.
“When my wife died I got really angry with God,” he said.
One night while sleeping, he erupted into laughter.
“Uncontrolled laughing is an intervention of the Holy Ghost,” he said. “I spent the next day full of wonder and delight.”
“What do you want out of life?” I asked.
“I want to be famous,” he said.
He thought a bit.
“For my art, I guess.”
St. Antony Monastery
I motored out of Trona through Poison Canyon before turning onto Highway 395 and finally Interstate 15, exiting near the abandoned Lake Dolores Waterpark in Newberry Springs. I followed a network of poorly marked dirt roads before driving through the iron gates of the St. Antony Coptic Orthodox Monastery.
The place was empty. Two men cleaning a pile of malodorous fish pointed to the church. I crossed a blazing courtyard and ducked inside.
Clouds of frankincense filled a dark room with red carpeting and walls lined with icons. Monks in white robes chanted in Greek, Arabic and Coptic.
The Coptic Church traces its roots to Egypt, where most of the monks come from.
One of them with a flowing white beard handed me a prayer book opened to Psalm 30.
“Weeping shall be for the evening but joy shall be in the morning,” it said.
I sat for two hours among these humble men of steely faith, considering the debt religion owed the desert. The codes so many of us live by were handed down by prophets beaten into iron by sun and wind. Everything beautiful and harsh is magnified in the desert.
After the service, Deacon Pavle St. Antony approached. He loved the desert hermitage but said it was no barrier to evil.
“The closer you get to God,” he said. “The more the devil will fight you.”
With the devil closing in, it was time to leave.
If you go
Hotel Nipton, 107355 Nipton Road, Nipton; (760) 856-2335. Ecolodges from $68 a night; hotel rooms $84 a night plus tax.
Shoshone Inn, 491 Highway 127, Shoshone; (760) 852-4335 or (760) 852-4224. Rooms $140 a night.