AWE AND ART IN THE MO­JAVE

Los Angeles Times - - ROAD TRIPS CALIFORNIA - By David Kelly travel@la­times.com

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 ex­pres­i­dents 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.

Nip­ton

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-yearold Es­linger, who man­ages the place.

The for­mer truck driver came eight years ago with a buddy from Wash­ing­ton state look­ing 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. Why? “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.

Shoshone

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.

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.”

China Ranch

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.”

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.

“I think I’d like to do some trav­el­ing,” he said.

Bal­larat

The next morn­ing I drove through Death Val­ley Na­tional Park on Cal­i­for­nia 190 be­fore tak­ing 178 south to the turnoff for Bal­larat, a ghost town high above a dry lake bed.

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.

One thing did an­i­mate him — Free­dom Days.

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-Bque…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?” “What?” “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.”

Trona

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 on skis. 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. “For what?” 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 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 with a f low­ing 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.

Lou Spir­ito Los Angeles Times

THE TOWN OF NIP­TON, pop. 20, is for sale for $5 mil­lion. The cen­tury-old Ho­tel Nip­ton is in­cluded.

JENN McMANUS and her hus­band, Mike, ride along Cal­i­for­nia 127 in Shoshone, an eco-des­ti­na­tion.

CHINA RANCH is a date farm in Te­copa. Here, a worker jumps down af­ter hand-pol­li­nat­ing a tree.

Pho­to­graphs by Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times

THE NEW YORK Moun­tains as seen from Nip­ton, on Cal­i­for­nia’s Eastern edge.

“ROCK” NO­VAK lives alone in the ghost town of Bal­larat, a ra­dio his con­nec­tion to the out­side world.

FA­THER MOUSA prays out­side St. Antony Cop­tic Ortho­dox Monastery in Newberry Springs.

WIL­LIAM FULLER III works on his art in­stal­la­tion at his home in the min­ing town of Trona.

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