Death Valley as a mid-summer destination is not high on most people’s list as a desirable vacation spot. It’s hot, very hot. It’s below sea-level. There’s no obvious life, no water, no vegetation. Everything looks dead and for much of it that is precisely the state it’s in. However for us the onslaught of unrelenting heat, it’s like sticking your head in an oven, topping out at 120 degrees was a pleasure we relished. Stocked and prepared with a case of twenty-four water bottles, a map, and a sense of adventure, we hit the road.
Leaving the town of Joshua Tree, and its high desert temperatures, we headed towards Yucca Valley then altered course north to Apple Valley, Victorville with a slice of historic Route 66, and onto Ridgecrest, our final stop before descending into the cauldron of desert life, the unexpected, the unusual, and the underpopulated was waiting for us.
Ridgecrest is high country and occasionally receives a blanket of snow. The last time was way back in the early 90’s and a picture of it is proudly displayed at the entrance to Kristy’s, a local diner that fed us well and loaded our calorie count before we descended to a place where the a snowflakes appearance is even rarer.
Before dropping into Panamint Valley I would be remiss if I didn’t make mention of Searles Lake and the town of Trona; both could act as sets for any one of countless zombie movies.
Crossing through the last of the foothills Alison was excited at the prospect of our approach to Searles Lake. “I’m going for a swim” was her proclamation. I could see her splashing around in the mountain water run-off. Neither of us giving much consideration to all the streams and rivers we had recently driven over that lay as relics of a more moisture-laden time.
We came around the bend and in front of us, beaming with pride, was the 1970’s funpark type roadside greeting to the much-anticipated lake, and the associated valley. There was an audible sigh of disappointment and laughter.
Welcome to Searles Valley stated the sign…the town of Trona sleeping in its wake.
Borax is a household name and is a mineral used in many laundry detergents and common cleaners. This mineral along with a variety of others is mined out of the dry lake bed and surrounding mountains. The high saline content of the ground makes growing grass impossible; the earth is barren and desolate. The Trona school playing field is made of sand.
Only 170 miles northeast of Los Angeles you would think you had been transported to another planet. Nothing stirs. There was not a person, plant, or animal to be seen or heard and the quiet, it was eerie. Factories fermented, cars lay idle, and dust blanketed everything.
Beginning in the 1800’s the lake was mined. Shortly after, the town of Trona was formed. Owned exclusively by the mining company, for miners, the towns people were paid in scrip and this was only accepted at the for-profit Trona General Store which in turn was owned by the company. Not the best deal for the workers but common practice back then.
Some of the final scenes in the original “Planet of the Apes” movie showing how mankind had destroyed the earth…that was filmed here.
They say the town has a current population of approximately 2,700 but they must have all been indoors when we nervously scooted on through; apprehensive about something but not exactly sure what.
This would be the last major settlement we would see for quite a while.
Descending deeper into the desert we entered Panamint Valley. The road cut through the sand and rock; a cliff face to the left, a sheer plummet to the right. The view stretched for miles and before us lay a vast openness of beige; highlighted by a myriad of lines, spots, and splashes all in a variety of brown. The landscape resembling that of a cake mix ready for baking. It was gorgeous.
The absolute evaporation of moisture became apparent as we began driving along the plains of Panamint. Mountains rising high on either side of the valley. There was nothing else.
Out of nowhere was a marker of historic significance. We stopped to take in the information and what followed was an episode we are not likely to forget in a hurry.
Ballarat, population one.
We circled our car on the road as we decided if we were going to investigate further; drive down the dusty road to nowhere and see if this town even existed. With the upper hand going to curiosity our tires vacated the security of the mapped road for one that existed barely in reality; sometimes not even there depending on the season and amount of rain.
After several miles the road disappeared and the dry expanse of a lake lay ahead. The track we were riding dipped from higher ground and cut though the center; I felt like the antithesis of an “Ice Road Trucker”.
On the distant hills the small town began to reveal itself.
Click play for theme music…
Ballarat boomed from 1887 to 1905 with a population peaking at around 400 people. The town was a supply center for the Panamint Valley and boasted a post office, a jail, a school, 7 saloons, a Wells Fargo station, and 3 hotels.
As with most of the towns in the area she had some colorful characters.
Prospector “Seldom Seen Slim” who claimed he hadn’t taken a bath in 20 years because water was too scarce to waste. Or Shorty Harris who fell in love with and proposed to a woman who was 6 ft. tall and weighed 210 LBS., she turned him down by saying: “You’re a good friend and a handy little fellow to play with; but you’re too little for hard work”. Shorty never proposed again.
But that was then…
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Today as you drive up from the lake bed and head into the center of town you go past the remnants of Shorty’s house, the jail, a few old buildings, the graveyard, relics of yesteryear, and eventually you saddle up to the General Store run by the towns last remaining resident; Rusty.
Everyone is greeted with the same pitch; “Cold soda, cold beer”?
Today, as I imagine he does every day, Rusty relaxed with his thoughts; seated in his rocker on the inside of the store. With him was his best friend who lives 13 miles away in the mountains. They were laughing and telling yarns when we approached. Gobs, the friend, who we nicknamed, began to talk to us and the exchange summed up Ballarat perfectly.
“I live up there in the mountains. Thirteen miles as the crow flies. I come down here to spend the days with Rusty. I retired you know” Gobs announced with a crooked smile and the wink of a mischievous man-child.
“Must be nice be’in retired” chimes Rusty. Returning to his chair he caps a beer and settles down to echo the activity of his retired friend.
Life in the desert, in a town for one, it’s kinda quiet….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz