May 9, 2006

Quirky desert town takes pride in what it has to offer

NIPTON - They came here for the gold.

The Press-Enterprise

Not that they found much, at least not enough to get rich.

But that didn't keep them from staying in this speck of a town in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Nipton is California's last outpost off of Interstate 15, just 2 ½ miles from the Nevada state line.

Heading south on Nipton Road from the interstate, the town is a small puff of green in the road on the far side of the valley that bleeds into Ivanpah Dry Lake.

Its 30-some residents live in a brutal yet scenic landscape, where the wind whips west from the Mojave National Preserve's barren New York Mountains and trains thunder by on their way to and from Los Angeles.

Coming into town, visitors cross the rails to find a dirt parking lot on one side of the road where the Nipton Trading Post is flanked by a café and the Hotel Nipton. A dusty RV park sits on the other side of the road.

Nipton was once touched by celebrity -- silent-film star Clara Bow occasionally stayed in its tiny hotel. Now it is a curiosity for tourists, a road stop for bikers and a place for people with little love for the city to hide away.

Jerry Freeman, who bought the town in 1984, is working to make it an inviting place for artists. He has begun an artist-in-residence program with the help of the national preserve and hopes to expand it.

While any large mining operations around Nipton have pretty much dried up, Freeman still finds the gold connection interesting.

The first man to settle here, at the turn of the 20th century, was Samuel Duncan Karns, a man who made millions in Pennsylvania oil and then lost it by investing in railroads. He came west to look for gold and established the Nippeno Consolidated Mine, reportedly borrowing a Pennsylvania area Native American name.

Karns died in 1909, four years after the railroad came through and dubbed the spot Nipton.

In 1913, another prospector showed up. Harry Trehearne was a miner from Cornwall, England. He never had much luck finding precious ore, but he opened a store in Nipton, selling supplies to other miners.

That building, not much more than a shack, still stands on the property, behind the Hotel Nipton and across from a dirt road that Freeman says was once a stage route linking Searchlight, Nev., -- 20 miles east -- with the rail line.

A trained geologist, Freeman first came to Nipton in the late 1950s when he was a college student. For a time after he graduated, he would show up most weekends, looking for gold.

"I'd take the train and arrive here in the early a.m.," he says. "I had a Jeep parked here and I would spend the weekend prospecting. At that time, the hotel was in service."

But things were on the decline. Trehearne, who took over construction of the hotel from the railroad and later added the trading post, had died in 1949. Subsequent owners let things fall apart.

By the early 1980s, when Freeman noticed a sales ad for the property and drove out to look at it, Nipton was more desolate than he remembered.

"The hotel was a wreck," he says. In fact, the county had condemned it.

"We bought a ghost town and decided to transform it," he says, "to take this clay and reshape it into something I consider more useful and interesting and enduring."

He stops talking as one of the many daily trains rumbles down the track.

"Out here the protocol is don't try to talk when a train goes by," he says. "Nothing you have to say can't wait until after the train goes by."

After investing lots of time and money in the hotel, Freeman and his wife reopened it in 1986 as a bed and breakfast. It has only five rooms. Four eco-cabins have been added out back.

A cactus garden with a geometric design fronts the small hotel, which was built sometime between 1905 and 1910. On its front porch are old round-back wooden rockers. Inside, historic photos dot the walls. An old wood stove is the centerpiece of the long narrow lobby.

Freeman points out Room No. 3.

"Clara Bow, she was the most famous celebrity to visit here and this was her favorite room," he says.

She and her husband lived on the Walking Box Ranch near Searchlight. "Her husband drove their cattle here to load them on the train and they would stay here."

When the hotel first reopened, Freeman says, business was understandably slow. But with the establishment of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994, things picked up. The hotel is usually booked for most of the spring.

Warm Welcome

People began moving in and making Nipton their home, as well.

Initially miners populated the RV park when the area enjoyed a brief boom in the late 1980s. Most moved out, but others came. Those who live here say it has a charm that may not be immediately evident.

Cindy Adams, 57, remembers her first visit. She and her husband moved here six months ago from Colorado when he took a job at the mining operation in nearby Mountain Pass.

They pulled up one evening, hauling a trailer with their belongings.
"I leaned down and looked out the window and then at my husband and I said, 'Is this it?' " she says.

The friendly greeting they received improved her outlook.

"I went into the store and they were like, 'Oh yeah, we knew you were coming,' " she says.
She's now adjusted to the isolation of the desert, even though sometimes it's a little too slow for her. She works in the Trading Post two days a week and helps out at the café.

"Every two weeks we have big excitement," she says, laughing. "The bookmobile shows up on Wednesday and everybody comes down and gets coffee at the store and their books. And on Friday, the Schwan's man comes.

"But there're days when it's very quiet and we're all, 'Hmmm ... ' "

Rosie Davidson and her husband Donald are Washington, D.C., residents who are in their third extended stay in Nipton. Donald is part of the Artists in the Parks program and is working for the Mojave National Preserve as Nipton's current artist- in-residence.

"I fell in love with it the first time I saw it," Rosie says of the town. "I think this place is idyllic in many ways."

Donald says he finds beauty in the stark desert surroundings. He spends most days in the field, cataloging and doing pen and ink drawings and watercolors of native flowers. He may drive as much as two hours into the desert to find the particular species he's looking for.

"There's so much to preserve here," he says. "It's one of the most unsullied desert environments that the public has access to. The programs that I am part of and that I promote are more needed out here."

In addition to providing artwork and information to the park service, Davidson conducts educational workshops, teaching adults and children how to recognize and draw native plants.

"Visitors no longer just want to walk through a park," he says. "They want to engage in an experience such as a hands-on workshop where their work can make a contribution."

Some of Davidson's work hangs in the Trading Post, which is filled with curious items such as old lanterns hanging from the ceiling, American Indian dolls, papier-mache camels from India and plush scorpions and tortoises. If you want to buy a Nipton postcard you have one choice, showing the hotel, of course.

Desert Dwellers

Next door, the Whistlestop Oasis boasts a rooftop sign that says, "Best Burgers Around."

Being as there isn't much else around for 20 miles that might not mean much. But Bill Sarbello, 60, who runs the place, says customers drive from as far as Henderson -- 50 miles -- to eat in the casual hominess of the diner. Then they leave, which is just how he likes it.

"Come in and have a couple of beers, something to eat, play a game of pool and go away," Sarbello says.

The ex-New Yorker by way of Florida came to Nipton three years ago to take over the café.

"I'm making something grow out here in the desert," he says.

He'd been to the area before and knew what to expect when he arrived, not only from the town but the residents. He'd seen the same thing when he lived on St. John, one of the Virgin Islands.

"St. John is a desert," he says, with the only source of water being rainfall. "Everything that grows there has a thorn or a barb, and so do the people. Nipton's the same way. If you're going to come here and live, you're probably going to have some kind of thorn."

Larry Jordan, who has been running the Trading Post for six months, has seen it, too.

"Desert dwellers, they're kind of not in the mainstream," he says. "Maybe they're here because they couldn't make it anywhere else in society and they kind of keep to themselves."

Jordan and his wife are temporary residents. They are part of a program that provides store managers and workers to national parks and private campgrounds. They plan to be gone when the full heat of summer hits.

Until then, he says, he tells friends, "We're conveniently located in the middle of nowhere."