Solitary, Splendid Squalor

Times Staff Writer

Fed up with the crime, congestion and cost of Orange County, Fred Hermon went looking for a place where he could be alone, a place so remote, so unappealing that few would ever want to live there.

His strategy was simple: Locate the popular, pricey towns on a map and move steadily outward. That's where he found Trona.

When he searched the Internet for information, the word "hell" kept popping up -- 'Is Trona Anywhere Near Hell?," "Where the Hell Is Trona?," "Long, Lonely Ride Through Hell."

Hermon didn't actually expect to find perdition as he descended through Poison Canyon into Trona three years ago, but the smell of sulfur, the blast-furnace heat and barren landscape made it feel uncomfortably close.

A real estate agent showed him a neighborhood with block after block of burned-out homes.

"I said, 'Oh my God, no,' " he recalled. "Another area looked like Los Angeles after the riots. I love the desert, but this was pushing it."

Nevertheless, he found a house for $24,000, installed an enormous swamp cooler and now spends his days digging for old artifacts while caring for nine cats, an inquisitive packrat and two desert tortoises, Speedy and Kid.

Hermon, 60, has already spent $2,600 on a chain-link fence and rarely leaves home for fear of being burglarized. On his first night in town, someone swiped his $15 garden hose. He stays for the solitude but wonders how Trona came to this.

"Something must have been going on for a long time to bring the town to this level of devastation," he said.

Over the years, Trona, once a thriving community of 6,000 on the ragged edge of Death Valley, has shriveled to just 1,800. Drug dealers looking for cheap housing have moved in. Parolees abound. Arsonists have torched dozens of vacant homes, leaving charred skeletons behind. Business owners, unable to make a profit, have simply locked up and walked away.

The result is blight on an industrial scale. San Bernardino County has torn down a handful of houses, but officials say it's too costly to demolish entire blocks of dilapidated, asbestos-riddled buildings.

Meanwhile, many Tronans are fleeing to Ridgecrest, 25 miles away, leaving mostly senior citizens and a smattering of young professionals behind.

Whether Trona can survive as the population dwindles is an open question.

Most workers at Searles Valley Minerals, the major employer, now live elsewhere. The high school has just 160 students with a graduating class last year of 15. The football team, unable to field 11 players, now plays with eight.

"A lot of people are leaving town," said Ruth Soto, the high school guidance counselor. "Closing the school has been talked about."

Many who stay love Trona for the friendships they've made, memories of better times and the desert's stark beauty. Others are simply stuck, unable to afford a house elsewhere.

Homes here are among the cheapest in California, with a median price of $40,000, according to DataQuick, which tracks real estate sales.

Even die-hard Trona boosters agree that it has seen better days. They concede that streets lined with torched houses, combined with the pungent odor from the chemical plant, add up to a poor first impression.

Pastor Larry Cox of the First Baptist Church said his first words on entering Trona were "People live here?"

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has offered deputies willing to work in Trona free housing and less jail duty. Most prefer jail.

Hollywood comes calling when scouting places resembling alien planets or how they imagine the end of the world might look.

Parts of "Planet of the Apes" and "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" were filmed at the Trona Pinnacles, towering mineral formations near town. Conspiracy buffs have long held that Trona was the site of NASA's "moon landings."

An old highway sign put it this way: "End of the World 10, Trona 15."

Yet this extreme environment has bred people as tough as the rock and desert around them. They endure months of 120-degree temperatures and winds that fling boulders down mountainsides.

Seniors hit the links at the bare bones Trona Golf Club, batting balls on a mostly sand and dirt course while skirting the occasional rattlesnake.

"The sand leaves the clubs a little dog-eared," noted 82-year-old Barbara Crowther.

The Trona Tornadoes, named after dust devils spinning off dry Searles Lake, may be the only high school football team outside Alaska to have an all-dirt field. Astroturf would blow away, they say.

The white lines contain eye-stinging sodium sulfate to better stick to the field.

"It gives us a psychological edge in home games," said Coach John Foster.

The town was a stopover for the homicidal Manson family, who loaded up on water before heading to Barker Ranch about 20 miles east, where they were eventually arrested in 1969.

"I got my picture taken with Manson -- with the girls too," said Robert "Ballarat Bob" Dunlap, an 83-year-old gold miner living in a desert shack.

Dunlap is one of the last in a long line of miners who burrowed and dynamited their way through here hoping to find a fortune.

In 1862, John W. Searles came looking for gold and found borax instead. His mining business would lay the foundation for a new town.

Named after a kind of sodium carbonate, Trona was established in 1914 by American Trona Corp., which owned the community outright. It built the schools, homes and dance halls and issued its own money to be used in town. Even when the business changed hands, residents were well cared for.

Teachers earned among the highest salaries in the state, often $96,000 a year in pay and benefits, thanks to royalties the company paid in exchange for mining on federal land. Sometimes local schools got $5 million or $6 million a year.

Lately, that number has dropped to about $1.6 million, school officials said. "I came here from Cleveland in 1945," said Kathe Barry, 75. "I loved it here because so much was going on at the time. We had a dance every Saturday night. There wasn't an empty house in Trona. It was just wonderful."

Ralph Garner, 94, stumbled on Trona during the Depression.

"They told me it was darn hot but I said I could take it," he said. "I was a mechanic and earned about 49 cents an hour. I had a good life here."

But times changed. In 1954, the company, then American Potash & Chemical, sold its homes to employees.

Workers were no longer required to live in Trona. In 1982, more than 400 chemists and engineers were relocated to Oklahoma.

For many, this was the beginning of the end. Layoffs and bitter strikes followed. The workforce shrank. Houses that couldn't be sold were abandoned.

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Touring Trona with Russell Rector, 75, is a jarring journey from what was to what is, a landscape of memories rudely interrupted by jagged reality.

He nosed his red pickup toward the empty tennis courts.

"Everyone used to play out here," he said. "We would have beer parties in the desert and everyone would come. It's not the same place anymore."

He passed the old dance hall, once alive with laughter, now closed. The bookie's house stands empty. Trona had 13 saloons; now there are two.

Down at the First Baptist Church, Pastor Cox typed a sermon in his small air-conditioned office. He came from Simi Valley three years ago and feels like a missionary in a remote land.

"You step into Trona and you are stepping into a Third World country," Cox said. "This is a place where a lot of people have been forgotten. When a house burns down, it stands for 10 or 15 years. I tell people if they are looking for the middle of nowhere, we are in the middle of that."

The pride of Trona is the Old Guest House Museum, a shrine to the town and the minerals that made it. There are old photos of John W. Searles. His violin sits behind glass. Small bottles of potash, borax and fly ash are displayed, along with maps, history books and assorted mining and railroad paraphernalia.

Margaret Brush, 79, is curator and the town's most energetic promoter. She recently won funding for a kiosk along the road to Death Valley offering information about Trona.

"We needed something to attract people to Trona and to our museum," she said.

The heart of the town is Searles Valley Minerals, a vast, twisting array of pipes snaking above mountains of chemicals.

Arzell Hale, 69, has lived in the community for 28 years and handles public relations for the company.

"I'm going to die here, no question," he said cheerfully.

Yet he concedes that Trona suffers an image problem. The mere sight of it, he said, can scare off potential hires.

"When I first came here it was 10 at night, so it wasn't as bad as the daytime," Hale said.

That was in 1978 when the company had 1,450 employees. Now it has 650.

Hale drove around Searles Lake, a 42-square-mile expanse of mud and brine producing a million tons of soda ash a year and nearly a million tons of boron. The former is used to make glass, the latter soap and detergent. So far only 10% of its reserves have been used, Hale said.

"People drive out here and say, 'I wouldn't live in that godforsaken place for anything,' " he said, scanning a landscape more lunar than earthly. "But you don't know a place until you know the people, and the quality of people here is unreal."

True, but some are higher quality than others.

On a recent afternoon San Bernardino County Sheriff's Cpl. Tim Lotspeich drove into the hardscrabble Argus neighborhood and quickly found trouble brewing.

A shirtless man apparently high on methamphetamine was screaming abuse at another man down the street.

Lotspeich warned him to calm down and not do anything he would regret later.

Eric Cartmell, 37, watched from behind his chain-link fence.

"Look around you," he said, pointing to the trashed houses along the road, "and see what meth can do to a town. The drug addicts have stripped these houses of toilets and whatever they can sell for drugs. If they cleaned this place up, there would be no better town."

Lotspeich, who has patrolled Trona for three years, must carefully decide when to make an arrest.

The nearest county jail is 100 miles away in Barstow, and he has only two other deputies.

"I could spend all day out here doing under-the-influence arrests, but by the time I drive them to Barstow that's half my day, and sometimes they are back before I am," he said.

Minutes later he rounded a corner and spotted a man wanted for a parole violation and arrested him.

He arrested another parolee shortly after. With two men handcuffed in his SUV, he stopped a teenager riding a motorbike on the street.

"Take it out to the desert," he said.

A woman flagged him down to point out a homeless man wandering her neighborhood.

The corporal had been on patrol just 20 minutes.

Methamphetamine abuse is a scourge in Trona, leading to other crimes, such as burglary. Arsonists also have helped destroy much of the town.

"That was the mentality -- you had a problem with someone, you set their houses on fire or you set their car on fire," Lotspeich said. "That was just what you did up here. Once we made an arrest and they saw they would actually do time, it stopped. We haven't had arson in a year."

He credits aggressive policing for an upsurge in arrests. Trona went from 12 felony arrests in 2002 to 56 in 2005, according to sheriff's records.

"The good outweighs the bad here, but there is a lot of bad," the officer said.

Not far away, the Trona Tornados took to their dirt field for practice. "It's 115 degrees but it feels like 105 with the breeze," said Coach Foster, 41.

The team has won its league three times and has a reputation for hitting hard.

"No one else plays on dirt," said running back Emilio Horta, 16. "They all cry about it."

Asked if he will stay in Trona after graduation, he shook his head. "It's not where I want to be," Horta said. "I want a more civilized place."

A hot wind blew, carrying a bracing whiff of rotten egg.

Foster smiled.

"I said I wanted to leave as a kid," he said. "I went to the Navy for four years, then I came back. I like the small-town atmosphere and I love knowing where my kids are at night. I have no plans on going anywhere."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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