No Butcher or Candlestick Maker

Mojave MotelOnce upon a time Baker, CA was a thriving junction town famous for the Mad Greek diner, full service gas stations, hotels for the weary, a gateway into the Mojave Desert Preserve, and center-point between L.A. and Las Vegas. Today however, Baker is beaten up and casts a sad shadow, reminding all who can remember that it once did have a heyday.

The town’s most prominent feature is a 134-foot “teller of temperatures”, dubbed “the world’s tallest thermometer”. Visible for miles, and recently restored, its height commemorates the hottest day ever recorded; 134 °F.  Let’s hope we don’t see 135 °F anytime soon!

Baker has a population of 735 but it’s dwindling.

We rolled into Baker from the north which is a route few take as it’s the back of the town. We drove past a mirage we thought was a lake, fields of desert grass, and an impressive new school on the towns outskirts. On first impressions Baker seemed to be doing just fine.

Main street runs parallel to the highway and was at one time the road used by many to scoot out from the coast to Vegas looking forward to a weekend of gambling in Sin City. Today it is a hub of fast food eateries, old unused buildings, and vacant lots; traveled only by those who exited the interstate in need of fuel for themselves or their car. 

The urban decay we think of as having sole ownership of inner cities is alive and well in Baker. If it weren’t for the mega gas stations there would be little reason to stop here, unless you had a hankering for spanakopita with a hearty Oompa!

The desert towns of the Mojave are being reabsorbed.

Our intention had been to find a hotel for the night and rest up.  It had been a long day which had come on the heels of a long night; see Box Beetles. We had seen the sun rise and now all of a sudden it was 6pm. One of the great things about the desert, besides the oven-like heat, is the length of the days. They go on and on. We had another four hours left in this one.

There was nowhere to stay in Baker.

The remnants of hotels lay as roadside economic wreckage. We wandered through one; Arnes Royal Hawaiian. In its day it must have been proud; it had the look of a 50’s Vegas hotel complete with a cluster of heart-broken palm trees that swayed out from the neon sign displaying its name.

The inside courtyard looked more like a battle zone from a sci-fi movie. The swimming pool was empty apart from a brackish puddle in the deep end. All the room doors were smashed open and windows had suffered the same fate. Misspelled graffiti degraded the place even more with words like “Pigs Fuch Off” and another giving homage to the Shining stated “RedRum” on the wall of a wood-paneled room.

It was fascinating in a macabre kind of way. 

We decided to keep moving and after a fill up we headed south towards a road all others were veering away from.  We entered through the gates of the Mojave Preserve in the early evening and for the next two hours we saw almost no sign of life.

We did see a sign that warned us to “Watch for Tortoise” but we never saw him.

We were in the heart of the desert again and if I drove on the left of the road, the right, or down the middle it made no difference to our safety. We saw only one other vehicle in the two hours we were on that road and I spotted him about 5 minutes prior to us passing by.

The preserve was different from other parts of the desert we had driven through. It was more tundra than sand, more seared than burnt, more greenish than brown. It gave off the appearance, true or not, that it was more survivable if your car were to break down.

After two hours we reached Route 66 and swung right. Our destination and place of rest for the night was to be Barstow. Driving Route 66 is, and I know this is a cliché, a step back in time to an era of road travel that was casual, unhurried, interesting, and peaceful. Of course this was all enhanced by the fact that we were the only ones on the road.

Seems amazing that you can still drive for hours in the US and see no-one else.

We stopped briefly in the down of Daged and watched a military train go by loaded with tanks, missiles, armored cars, and other weapons of war. The train must have been two miles long; its slow pace making it seem even longer. Where it was heading was a mystery.

What struck me though was not just the sheer size of the shipment but the fact that it coursed its way through the figurative backwaters of America; out of sight, out of mind was the expression that rang in my head.

We entered Barstow as the sun set. We had a gorgeous meal of Mexican food, looked forward to our trip tomorrow as we would explore more of Route 66, and crashed out praying the box beetles had been left far behind.

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36 thoughts on “No Butcher or Candlestick Maker

  1. Makes me wonder, if and when mankind disappears from this planet, how long before nature removes any sign of us? Will there be anything left to show the world we were even here?
    A wonderful post and thanks for sharing.

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  2. This part of your trip reminds me of driving from San Antonio to El Paso via interstate 10. Although I saw more vehicles than you did on your trip we drove through areas that seemed abandoned. At one point during the trip we would only see an exit that had a gas station every hour. It felt like I had went back in time.

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  3. I realize reading your story that I have read one too many J. Konrath novels because my imagination keeps working overtime thinking of seriously creepy things that could happen and wanting you to hurry, hurry, hurry on out of there! It’s been a couple of decades since I last spent any time on Route 66 – makes me a little sad to see the decline but I’m enjoying reading about your journey without having to deal with the heat – or the box beetles!

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  4. I’m so bummed you didn’t see the tortoise, Tim. I would have loved a nice picture of the two of you together!

    I always try to distract myself while driving through the desert from thinking of what would happen during a possible break down. I just always load my trunk with lots of water and hope for a trip without adventure. Because even you, who probably has more adventure than anyone I know, doesn’t want THAT kind of adventure.

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  5. Another reminder of a long ago trip west, Tim. Haven’t been through Baker in 30 years and I can’t remember it being all that impressive then. I always think of the residents and how sad it must be for the old timers to see things change so drastically. Anymore Box Beetles show up?

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  6. Wow, it really does sound like you’ve not only travelled into the heartland of America, but also back into time. Imagine what Baker was like in its heyday. All in all, an interesting backdrop to the train loaded with weapons and military gear …

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    1. Yep, that was a road trip that ended with a mind trip. That train really blew us away. Of all the crazy stuff I saw while driving around the Mojave that would rank up there as one of the most disturbing sights.

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  7. Tim, I have a book titled “You, me and yesterday” and it talks about the pleasant life in small American towns in the mid 1900’s. I thought about that as I was reading this post thinking how many of these small towns have moved from pleasant carefree communities to urban decay as you said. Rather sad, that.

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  8. I cannot imagine that dry heat found in the desert. It must be all consuming.

    How much freedom you have moving from place to place at your leisure.

    Great writing as expected.

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  9. No butcher or candlestick maker but certainly plenty of heat in Baker, California. Like Jacquie, an expression comes to my mind too–“being on death’s doorstep,” where I suppose you were (in a manner of speaking), given pics of forlorn palms and a gateway sign to Death Valley.

    Your writing is wonderful, Tim. I especially liked:

    “Today however, Baker is beaten up and casts a sad shadow, reminding all who can remember that it once did have a heyday.”

    “The urban decay we think of as having sole ownership of inner cities is alive and well in Baker.”

    Thanks for the decadent (or is it dying?) portrayal of Baker, CA.

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  10. Loved the description of Baker. I could imagine the whole scene even before your pictures came up. I always wonder about the process of the decay of towns. What rises must fall… but to live through that must be so difficult.

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  11. Certainly a different part of the world than what I’m used to. I enjoyed your descriptions. Your words bring the decay and ghostliness to life. ‘We did see a sign that warned us to “Watch for Tortoise” but we never saw him.’ – good line, I could also see imagining Mr. Tortoise.

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  12. What a fantastic post Tim. Truly fascinating. I have to say I love that part of the world, though I’ve not been to that particular town. But certainly there are roads near there where I’ve driven with literally no-one else in site. And then come across a one horse town that is a few trailers and a pokey gas station etc. Bizarrely, there was an episode of Breaking Bad that featured the motel we had stayed in one time in Albuquerque, and it was pretty much in exactly the same state as the one you describe complete with the wobbly grafitti and weeds around the once busy motel rooms. Something very spooky about them – even more so than empty houses.Thanks for the little armchair travel. V. enjoyable.

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  13. Tim how way cool! I live in a totally different America for 1-2 months a year 😉 In New Jersey now, and no, we can’t drive hours without seeing anybody. We can drive about 1 to 2 seconds on a slow day without seeing someone LOL! You have been to more of the States than me likely because I have become a world traveling guy, and fell in love with SE Asia when I started traveling 46 months ago. Time to see more of the USA….after I visit Bali for 4 months, starting on Feb 3 😉

    Thanks for the fun story and inspiring picture Tim! Ryan

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    1. I used to live in Chicago and the same was true there about seeing others. I spent many years, and continue to, in SE Asia and other parts of the world. It has only been fairly recently that I discovered how much I enjoyed road trips around the US, especially for shorter journeys. Glad you liked the story and hope you delve deeper into the blog and check out the stories from other parts of the world. All the best.

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  14. Tim — I’m an American and you’ve seen more of my country than I have! What’s exciting is the diversity of the terrain and the people. I couldn’t live in a more different environment — the vertical, jam-packed city of New York. I’ve never been to the deserts in the west. Thanks for the tour.

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  15. Loved this post, Tim. It reminded of long ago, when we had taken that same route. Fortunately … We missed the Arnes Royal Hawaiian, although back in the 70’s it still may have been in decent shape! Eerie about that train of weaponry, isn’t it?

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  16. This still has the feel of a Twilight Zone episode:) I’ve not traversed that area of the country, so the pictures (wonderful) really drive home the desolation of the area. What comes to mind is the whole idea of “dust to dust” …the common funeral service prayer!

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