By DIANE CARDWELL
New York Times
NIPTON, Calif. — Gerald Freeman leaned on a walking stick on a dusty hill near the four rows of his solar arrays, talking about it like an apostle on a mission. Down the road are the eucalyptus trees he planted as a potential source of biomass. And not far away, he said, he hopes to install a hydrogen system, another source of renewable fuel.
It’s all part of Mr. Freeman’s unlikely dream here in the Mojave Desert — to turn this tiny town into a community running on clean power entirely of its own making.
“The more independent we can become of outside resources, the better,” Mr. Freeman said, citing the rising cost of utility power, frequent outages and preserving the environment as motivation. “I’ve been conscious of the global warming issue since my early days in school. It’s only now beginning to be so much part of the present day. People are slow to adapt to an oncoming reality.”
For decades, people have experimented with self-reliant living, whether hippies flocking to communes in the hills or survivalists hunkering down across the plains. But not since Henry David Thoreau took off into the woods near Walden Pond has the idea of going off the grid seemed so within reach — albeit this time without sacrificing the modern conveniences.
With cheaper and more widely available ways to make power at home or in town, individuals and communities have been moving ever closer to declaring their energy independence, using technologies like solar, batteries and even small-scale wind. In recent years, towns dedicated to environmental sustainability while reducing the reliance on fossil fuels — known as transition towns — have sprung up in Europe, Australia and the Americas.
Still, it is not yet easy to unplug from the power system, as Mr. Freeman’s journey — which he may not get to complete because of flagging health — illustrates.
Mr. Freeman, 81, first got to know the place — not much more than a few buildings plopped behind the railroad tracks like a movie set — back in the 1950s. With a degree in geology from the California Institute of Technology, he would come from Los Angeles to prospect for gold, spending days climbing and sampling the rocks on his own. He eventually established a successful mine and moved to Malibu with his second wife, Roxanne Lang, now 63, whom he had met on a dive boat off Catalina and wooed with the opening line, “Can I help you with your wet-suit?” she recalled.
But Malibu became expensive and was far from the mining operations he oversaw. So when Nipton came up for sale, he bought it, moving there with Ms. Lang in 1984.
The town offered tremendous natural resources in the form of a Pleistocene-era underground lake whose waters flow there first and strong, year-round sunshine barely trespassed by clouds. It also had a rich history, bustling from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries along with the mining industry, and even boasting a hotel that played host to the silent-movie star Clara Bow, who owned a ranch nearby.
But by the time the couple moved there, it was all but empty and in disrepair. They stayed for six years, until their son outgrew the one-room schoolhouse that serves the area, and then moved to Henderson, Nev., a Las Vegas suburb.
In that time, they reopened the store and cafe and restored the hotel room by room, creating a destination for bikers, hikers, miners and tourists, especially Europeans, looking for the flavor of the Old West.
Michael Truman, for instance, usually escapes the cold of Medicine Hat, in Alberta, Canada, to come to the area from November to March. He had never been to Nipton before, but took a different road looking for places to travel with the dog he was planning to look after for friends and stumbled upon it.
“It looked cool, so I said, ‘I’m going there,’ ” he said, adding that he would probably bring the dog back for a day in the preserve bordering the town. “I like plants and animals more than people — they’re easier to get along with.”
It has also attracted a cluster of about 10 full-time residents who work in Nipton, some who say they were attracted by its peace and solitude.
The couple running the cafe, Susan and Fernando Gamez, have begun growing some of the vegetables they use for offerings like the If Looks Could Kale burger, using an intensive vertical system intended to save on space, energy and water.
“The whole area is more and more into how do we use our environment,” said a woman behind the cash register who gave her name as Brenda M. “Let’s not trash it; what can we do with it?”
For Mr. Freeman, those questions were there all along. He had begun experimenting even before he bought the town, using a grant from the state to plant eucalyptus as a potential energy source and farming euphorbia, which produces a latex that can be refined into fuel.
But he had always been interested in solar, he said. Over the years, he talked to several companies about installing an array, but it was too expensive. Then he came across a Palo Alto-based company that used mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays on light-sensitive material to increase the efficiency and lower the cost, and decided to go ahead, especially given the generous state and federal incentives.
That company, Skyline, has since gone out of business, but the array shines on.
“It seems to come up when the normal path of the 20th century toward eternal growth is stymied or when groups of people feel like that path is not going to work for them,” said Dona Brown, a University of Vermont professor and author of “Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America.”
Mr. Freeman said he was now looking to a system to make hydrogen, both to store energy and to sell. The couple have put in five tent cabins using a modified Frank Lloyd Wright design and are talking about building an R.V. park to accommodate workers from the giant Ivanpah solar power plant nearby and a rare-earth mine just around the bend.
Mr. Freeman may not be the one to see all those plans to fruition, however. With diagnoses of congestive heart and renal failures, he is considering selling the town or finding a partner who can realize the vision.
Standing near the spot where, on those long-ago prospecting trips, he would call the train depot to tell the motorman to pick him up on the way back, he referred to the need for self-sufficiency in the face of global warming and economic instability.
“Things are evolving and the future is clear,” he said. “It’s just a question of how soon we can get there.”