He podcast listeners, this is Emily Guerin, host of California City. So last week on September 3rd, L.A. Studios and the Autry Museum of the American West held a virtual event together about the allure of the Mojave Desert. I was the host and our guests were Ken Lane of the Desert Oracle podcast and Kim Stringfellow. She's a writer and photographer whose work is focused on the Mojave. We talked about a lot of interesting things. The myth of the desert is a wasteland, utopian fantasies, spectacular failures, UFOs and coronavirus refugees.
Here's an edited version of our conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
I feel like a lot of you probably know the story of the podcast California City, but I just kind of want to give a brief overview. So I've spent a lot of the last few years thinking about the Mojave Desert and in particular this one small town in the Mojave Desert, California city. And basically the story I told through this podcast was one that took place over 60 years. And over that time period, real estate developers have been selling this dream, right, that this place is going to boom one day.
And if you buy land now, you'll get rich. And lots of different people have made this pitch in California city over the years. You know, in the 60s, the pitch was kind of tied up in suburbanisation. L.A. was crowded, it was polluted. It could be obliterated by an atom bomb any day. But out in the desert, there was more room, there was clean air. It was safer. The pitch changed a little in the 80s and 90s.
Back then, it was more about having a getaway, a place to relax, spend time with your family. And then more recently, the pitch was more investment oriented. Invest in your future. Get ahead. Lots of people have gotten rich for owning land. Why not you? And one assumption that I think underlies all these pitches is that the desert is a wasteland. It's this empty, barren place just waiting to be developed and exploited and really profited off of.
So I want to start out our talk by asking him to talk a little bit more about where this assumption came from, that the desert is a wasteland. So can what can you tell us about that?
A great part of the way we perceive the desert is from our physical experience of it. You know, as we got technology that made it more comfortable to be out in the desert, air conditioning, things like that, then our idea that started to change. But really, the foundations of how we perceive it are from Eurocentric cultural traditions such as religion. These ideas, they really permeate our understanding of their places. And I think also it depends where you're place, where you're from, you know, depending on where you originally come from.
If you're a New Englander, you may see the Mojave is a wasteland, you know, just an empty, empty space. And you may say, well, it's perfect aside industrial wind and solar developments. You know, Mormons came out to the west with an idea of making the desert bloom and they had a huge impact on how the American southwest was utilized and commodified. They have a lot of respect for it as well. But, you know, on the other hand, if you're a business Shoshoni, your chum, WAVY, Mojave, Southern Paiutes, you may see this as a really rich, diverse and verdant landscape.
It could be a sacred geography.
And I think that there was something very alluring to a lot of people about this place that that many of them did consider an empty wasteland. You know, it's something I wrote about in the last episode of the podcast. That kind of nothingness makes the anything possible. And I think that the desert really does lend itself to kind of wild visions and huge plans, many of which have kind of a utopian bent. And so can you've written about some of these kind of wild, outlandish and ultimately failed schemes of the Mojave.
And I was hoping you could tell us about a few of them.
Not all of them were the failed Palm Springs developed as first as a bohemian colony for artists, poets, visual artists, especially, and the. Springs were developed as health resorts and the desert was seen as very helpful, the clean air, the wild, very wild landscape, the rugged landscape, so people who had tuberculosis and had money would come spend their time in places like Palm Springs and throughout the Southwest where they had these very luxurious but romantic Western lodgings.
And from those sorts of approaches, you also had more complete societies like Yanno Del Rio and the Antelope Valley.
It's near Felin and Pandian Hills, not too far south of Edwards Air Force Base. And their people made a socialist utopia a century ago and it struggled as as an organization and as a business. But the idea of communes and utopias have sprung up in the desert again and again, and there's lots of small ones to this day. And Jim, you wrote about some of these sort of utopian, kind of very preplanned societies as well, I think you've actually written about Yanno del Rio, too, right?
I looked into it. It's it's really fascinating at the time. I mean, it sounds like a wonderful place, I think, to though, in the context of the time, let's say that, you know, it was it was probably you had to be white to be part of it. And that was one of the things that I kind of looked at and exposed. And I contrast it actually in that particular dispatch, because in Landser Valley, which is the eastern Mojave Desert, there was a community called Dunbar, which was an African-American settlement out in the desert.
They homesteaded out there. And so there were like Can says there were these groups of people that were looking for this place. And the desert has always kind of been a place to project these kinds of either fantasies or these ideas, because it is kind of an open, you know, the way the physicality of the place.
And to me, one of the most audacious, kind of stale failed imputation schemes is Salton City, partially because the developer of Salt in City can fill up. He actually mentored Nat Mendelson, the developer of California City. And apparently Panfilova used to go around saying, you know, you can't buy a bad piece of land in California. I know both of you have spent time kind of thinking about Salt and City can do you want to just start out and kind of give a little overview of what kind of what the what the pitch was like?
What was he supposed to be? And how in your mind does that compare to to California City?
Well, you know, they were they were really looking at it. OK, so Palm Springs had been you know, it was established, like Ken said, you know, it had become this popular destination for Hollywood. So they came in in the nineteen fifties and decided to make this masterplan city. And AMPM Phillips was, you know, working with the beet sugar companies and that they they had all this land and then they started to develop it. But it was also very like it was speculation.
That's the problem with all of these communities is people most people didn't go in there to build houses. They went in there to make money. You know, they decide as a place where I'm going to buy this and hold on to it. And it didn't work out so well because they had this heyday. And actually during the late 1950s, they had more visitors to Salt City than they did to Yosemite National Park. It was that popular. And when they started to have the environmental problems, the flooding, all the things that started to happen in the 80s and 90s, that just completely collapsed.
So I'm wondering, actually, Ken, when you go to Salt and City or when you go to California City, I feel like these two are sort of these examples of like some of the biggest planned communities in the desert that didn't necessarily pan out. Like, how do you view them? Do you view them as failures? Do you view them as warnings? Like, what do you see when you go to these places?
Oh, a couple of things. One way I think of them is how my older relatives in California, the people I knew from previous generations, how they saw these places and they saw them as these wonderful winter getaways. The second homes away. If you live, say, in Wisconsin or Minnesota or something, you might have a cabin by the lake. They were affordable places where a family could buy a little cabin or build something. They had some glamour associated with the fact that Hollywood people were flocking to Palm Desert and Palm Springs.
So these were more the the regular people's version of that. And people would take their boats out to the Salton Sea and stay in their little house for Christmas. And they thought it was it was wonderful and it can be very pleasant. And in wintertime, especially before the season started sinking, in the case of the Salton Sea, it smelled a lot better. So they were. I think we have added a sort of apocalyptic gloom to them after the fact that they did not have at the time, even in places like California City, I had an older relative from Orange County who thought it was wonderful that she didn't have any neighbors for three or four of those streets.
You know, she had a bunch of rescued tortoises.
It's definitely a good place to go if you have a lot of space. And I think, too, in terms of your point about how it was seen then versus how it was seen now. One of the questions we're getting is if the kind of scam that existed in California city existed other places, and I think Salton City is an example of a place where probably, depending on who you ask, you could find people who felt like that place was a scam and they had been scammed by buying land there.
And then you could find other people who maybe sort of feel like it ended up being this beautiful remote outpost on a lake with great birding. Not a lot of neighbors. Like sometimes I think that scam is in the eye of the beholder. I mean, what do you guys think about that?
Oh, certainly for the birding is exceptional there. It's definitely changed because of all the environmental issues. But they I think they sighted more birds there than in the Everglades because it's on the Pacific Flyway. So there's a lot of different aspects to that area. And there's also Slab City, which is a very interesting cultural phenomena. You have some artists that do the Bombay Beach, the Analeigh that are working in Bombay Beach area, which is on the eastern side of the Salton Sea.
And they've been working with people, the residents there, but also bringing in this very interesting cultural event, you know, yearly. So there are some things that are happening. And as I said, you know, people do live in Salt and City. I haven't been down there for quite some time, so I haven't actually, you know, I can't really give you firsthand, you know, information about where it is right now. But I suspect that it will evolve know like a lot of places in Southern California, I actually went there last winter and they had a map.
There was a real estate office I went into and there was a map up on the wall like a tract map. And I talked to a real estate agent there. And it was like to me, I was like, oh, my gosh, this is it was very similar to California City and that there were still sort of selling plots of land. And I think, Kim, you've written about kind of how this desire people have to just own land, just this sort of irrational desire to own something.
Own desert land has kind of been with us for a while in the United States. And so, I mean, you could talk a little bit about some of the origins of this with a small tract act, this wildly popular US government program in the 30s that essentially gave away little pieces of government land in the desert to people. So like, what was this program and why was it so popular?
Yeah, so the small tract at nineteen thirty eight was really designed to provide veterans with kind of script land for them actually to recuperate. There were a lot of World War One veterans that had lung issues from mustard gas. And so there was a doctor out here, Dr. Lucky, and he was sending was from Pasadena. He was sending a lot of these veterans out to the Twentynine Palms Morongo Basin area, and they were setting up homesteads and things like that.
So there was a general land office representative and he came out and he started to study what they were doing and decided, you know, people don't really need to have a huge homestead and need to prove it up with a working ranch or farm and all these things. What they could use is some land to recreate on, recuperate, probably a little recreational cabin. And so he came up with this idea for Congress where you could get five acres and these were going to be areas of that they were disposing of, which I think is such a strange land disposal.
Yeah. So they don't have any mineral rights. They don't have water, there's no utilities, no roads. You got to do everything. You just own the surface of land, essentially.
And I guess what struck me about this and was that like there was no deceptive marketing required. Right. Like the Bureau of Land Management would be pretty straight up with people about like this is really remote. There's no utilities. It's probably not worth a lot of money at these auctions. People were like, oh, me, I want to bid. I want to bid. And I just wonder and maybe can you can weigh in on this, like, what is it about this?
Like, why is there this allure to just like ownership of the desert? Like why do people just want to have their own little piece of it and are willing to seemingly overpay? You know why?
Well, the land in. The Morongo Basin, today's Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, twenty nine palms, you could not get ripped off, that was a bargain. It was just a small fee to the federal government. And as Kim said, as long as you built your cabin, you proved up what you could do for under a grand. You could have a standing cabin. A lot of those places are worth a half million dollars today. So that was a good investment.
So now they've got anything right?
Lots of them were knocked down in the early 2000s before our current fad of loving the Mojave Desert, which kind of goes up and down, and Southern California, it was considered a nuisance that we had so many of these cabins standing around. And so San Bernardino County got a grant to knock off a whole bunch of them down.
Yeah. People would kill for those today, they called it shark attack. I you know, I think it's interesting, too, and I know this can you've written about this that sort of at the same time as people were like kind of just wanting to do their little modern pioneer thing and like Homestead on these little pieces of land. There was also this kind of like very spiritual, almost like religious draw that some people had to the desert. Right.
And, you know, I saw that in California city. I talked about this. There's the ceremony on the 13th of every month. Some lady of the rock or women in white robes sort of claimed to see the Virgin Mary and the sky. And I know the desert is sort of littered with these sort of spiritual groups that gather and you've written about some of them. So like what are a couple examples?
And there's Judaism, there's Islam, there's Christianity. They are all desert religions. And in North America, we have the Mormon Church, which even though it was established by a New Yorker, it flourished by following a prophecy that went to the leaders to go to the desert, reclaim the desert and green the desert.
It seems like there's and I know you've both sort of written about like that, even beyond religious and spiritual, but like sort of extraterrestrial, like this idea that anything can happen. There are vast mysteries in the desert. And I wonder if there are sort of a few examples you guys can give these kind of like great sort of conspiracies or just like great mysteries that have come out of The Hobbit. Sure.
One thing that has always happened at the same time in the West and specifically in Southern California is the development of science fiction and the development of UFO theology. They've gone hand in hand because by the early 50s, the few scientists who were looking at UFO said whatever they are, they're not spaceships from other planets. They're seen too often. They don't make any sense. They're not doing anything useful at some sort of phenomenon. We don't understand. But Hollywood had come up with the pulp magazines, have come up with aliens and spaceships and everything else.
So a giant rock, which is right in the middle of land tract castles north of Flamingo Heights and Landers today, ten, twelve thousand people would come from L.A. and Long Beach over treacherous dirt roads to stand out in the sun, a giant rock and listen to people talk about how they had met the people from Venus or they met the people from this galaxy or that galaxy, and they had a message and they were spaceman.
Sighs So a lot of the people learned about the desert, learned about the area where Kamini live, in particular from these UFO conferences, which went on all the way until the early 70s.
Well, and I wonder if some of it has to do, too, with the kind of space race sort of military presence in the desert. And anyone who's driven really into the hobby outside of greater L.A. has seen how much of the land is owned by the military and sort of fortified. And what role do you think that kind of the military presence has played in these kind of like myths that we tell ourselves about the desert, especially the sort of supernatural like space type myths, the original Star Trek, which was shot in Los Angeles and the outdoor scenes were mostly shot in the Mojave Desert around Los Angeles.
The original story of the captain and Captain Pike is that he's from Mojave, California, which has been turned into this green paradise and it's a Starfleet place. So, of course, today Mojave is really a spaceport and it adjoins Edwards Air Force Base by a few miles where we tested all of our hypersonic jets, where the space shuttle used to land. We name the space shuttle after Star Trek, the Enterprise. That was the first one. So there was this idea that we were reaching some sort of utopian military global space culture.
If we could only get to the moon first and then we got to the moon and of course, they shut it all down and laid everybody off.
But the dream had been that's where we were going. That's why baby boomers to this day are so angry that they never got their jetpacks. They got everything else that they didn't get jet packs.
Right. And, you know, you go, Kim. Oh, I'm just saying, you know, there's my hobby is the Center for Civilian Space Travel, if you have the money, you know, so there is lots of really interesting things that are going on there.
So we're getting a question about about that going back to kind of this failed scheme conversation about what it actually takes to make a desert city work. And the question in particular is about water resources. But I think it's broader, too, I mean, what does it take to make a community become a Palm Springs and not a salt and city? So what do you guys think was sort of the key to success for these, like, grand plans people have in the desert?
And what distinguishes the successes from the failures?
Well, I think in you know, with Coachella Valley, there's a vast aquifer underneath it which is being drained. I mean, you know, I did a project where I counted all the golf courses in Coachella Valley. There were over a hundred and twenty five golf courses. Only some of them use recycled water. So all of that water is being drafted or supplemented through metropolitan water district, things like that. But they have subsidence just like they do in Central Valley because they're pumping so much.
So, yes, that's definitely in a desert community. You got you got to have some water or you got to you got to bring in the water. Know, for instance, the Center for Land Use Interpretation map, Coolidge did this great piece on the Mojave River. The Mojave River doesn't flow. There's Lakes Development Lakes where there is suburban communities all up through to Barstow and all that water comes from northern California. So, you know, it is really interesting when you look at the hydrology of the area and how it's been manipulated.
I wonder, too, about the way the cities are kind of sold because both Salton City and California City, the land was sold very piecemeal to people all over the world. I mean, you can come in and buy a lot for like two hundred dollars and then fifty dollars a month versus sort of other kind of older communities where, like neighborhoods were planned, the lots were sold to a developer who would then build houses and then people would buy the houses.
I mean, I feel like this sort of scattershot land sale model has resulted in a lot of sprawl. And, you know, going back to the homestead stuff we were talking about earlier, the little cabins that are scattered all over, especially the Joshua Tree area, that's a very I think when you sell land piecemeal, you don't necessarily result in like a well planned or definitely one of the problems with it is, you know, it's checkerboard.
There is public lands, federal lands, county lands, private lands, people up here and Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley in this area.
We love that it doesn't look like an Orange County suburb where every miserable house looks exactly the same and it only has a different color car in the driveway, you know, like Edward Scissorhands, because we have this wonderful landscape where you have a bunch of lots that have been cleared. So they don't have any sort of housing there. They just have wildlife and plants, flora and fauna. And the land that did not sell during the Homestead Act was returned to the government.
So throughout the Morongo Basin, you might have five acres and five acres is awesome. There's a reason why people want land because you get to walk out, look around and say, this is mine. But if you have five acres and it's surrounded by five other five acre lots without a cabin or these days and Airbnb on them, you're a king. You have twenty five, 30 acres. You know, all the animals. That's where you hike.
And it's like living in another century, even though you're two and a half hours from Los Angeles.
Hey, this is Emily here. We're going to take a quick break, but stick around, because up next, we're going to talk about the new commodification of the hobby, Instagram. I was excited to talk to Ken and Kim about tourism and Instagram, because I think it really ties into a lot of the themes we'd been discussing, the allure of the desert, the commodification of it, the perception of it is like this harsh, barren place.
And so how would you describe the image of the desert that is being marketed now via Instagram or via influencers? Like what is that image that they're selling?
It is a life that you can live outside of the rat race.
It's a life with an affordable house, an affordable mortgage, open skies. You can hike anywhere. You have wildlife trampling on your porch every morning.
And so it's all those things are good, what they leave out with that stuff. We talked about Delario before the socialist utopia. Their main problem was not that the business failed, that they were trying they were trying to make industries to run their little town. Their main problem was hostility from right wing ranchers who surrounded them. They all got together and sued Yanno over water rights. And once they didn't have water anymore and they didn't have enough income coming in to build the aqueduct, to serve the place, they were done.
There wasn't going to be any farm. There wasn't going to be anything like that.
So I'd say what gets left out are things like heavy wildfire risk, the fact that we are a very poor community.
You may see on Instagram influencers spinning around in five or six outfits in front of a Joshua tree and paying three hundred dollars a night. The neighbor to that Airbnb, who probably can't sleep because of the D.J. playing all night, is probably living off Social Security.
If he said, yeah, yeah. I mean, it's and we both have friends that this is their business and they're they're great hosts. They do this. But there's been we've we have so many people now that are kind of looking at this is, you know, this this way to make a quick buck, too, and so different.
Right. Sorry to interrupt, but it's really not that different from sort of femur's of the past. Yeah.
So they've they've come out and invested and of course, you know, it disrupts like in a lot of places the rental market, you know, for the people that need to live in town because they don't have a car and they need to be able to get to the local store, things like that.
So, you know, there's a lot of different concerns. But I think what's always interesting, too, about this marketing and this the way Instagram and social media has really created the projection that a lot of people are drawn to and come out here, you know, they're not taking into account like we have biblical winds out here, you know, and so there's a lot of people that they see this, like, really kind of perfect, you know, and but that's not really the way it is.
You know, there's scorpions, there's all kinds of Tooya that you're going to step on. You know, it's it's it's still rough around the edges. And I like it that way. I'm sure Ken does, too. You know, that's part of the appeal is it's not you know, it's not perfect. It's not that cookie cutter suburb.
Well, and I think to the at least, correct me if I'm wrong, but kind of the the tourism boom, especially in the Joshua Tree area, to me, seems very predicated on the proximity to a national park and having access to these public lands, whereas the kind of way that and City and California City were sold and marketed had very little to do with preservation or access to public lands, it was very much about like a personal investment. Like you could you could own this land with private property and you could get rich.
And so I wonder how it's different when the kind of new marketing of the district is so dependent on this public resource being preserved and haven't been to Joshua Tree in the past few years. It's like lines to get in. And I know the park is under resourced. And so, like, what is that tension like?
Well, it has changed a bit lately because of the economic collapse and the pandemic. The National Park was closed for a long time. In fact, the national park has been closed routinely over the last several years as the federal government is collapsing. So every time there's a government shutdown, every time there's some failure at the federal level, we pay for it here. They closed the roads. Nobody can come into the park. And people who depend on tourism, which has always been one of the economies here, the Marine base and tourism, a lot of public lands.
Remember, the federal government took all of the desert, the entire desert after the US war against Mexico that. Look, all of this territory, so they took the land and decided what to do with it. So really what we see in these developments, like California cities and cities, wherever it might be, those were the scraps, Fort Irwin, Edwards Air Force Base.
Twenty nine palms. These places got most of the land, the military bases.
Yeah. And I wonder, too, I mean, are there I'm sure as a local that you have a very different perspective on the kind of latest commodification of the area. But are there are there upsides to it? And if so, like what what benefits use the kind of tourism and Instagram driven tourism bringing to the area?
Well, you know, it's definitely part of the economy here. And it also brings in really interesting people, you know, so being someone who is very urban, in my younger days, you know, I lived right in San Francisco for years. You know, I feel like I can live in a place like this, but I can still have a sense of culture. And that's that's very attractive to me, you know, to be able to be in a more remote area.
I don't like the in between, you know, I don't like the suburban spaces I grew up in. And I had to scan is nodding.
Yeah, no, you don't find a lot of a lot of suburban lovers.
We chase David Brooks out here with a rattlesnake, I'm sorry to say. You guys were alluding to we're getting a question on this to kind of like how the area's changing now with coronavirus and sort of like coronavirus refugees who are fleeing.
Yeah, I saw that question. Yeah. So what's going on? Well, what's going on is that a lot of us who could work remotely, maybe because we were writers or professors and artists like Cam or whatever it is, we did environmental work consulting. We could not live out here full time if you require the Internet until about twenty two thousand nine. That's when we started getting barely tolerable Internet.
You know, in America, there's no rural infrastructure. And so it's it came in slowly.
People some people use satellite, some people use over the Internet. But until then, you did not have as many people from, say, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, the Pacific Northwest coming down here and staying or living here most of the year. Now that that's possible, a lot of people who may be bought a cabin or were thinking about getting a cabin as an investment because the Airbnb thing has been kind of a goldmine land rush of of this area.
It's mostly small operators with a couple of properties. But you you got these companies coming in and they've got 20, 30 properties. A lot of them are underwater now. So they saw. Oh, yeah, you can live out there. There's Wi-Fi.
So why am I paying twenty eight hundred dollars for an apartment on the West Side or in those fellows or something when I could own my own place for a third. That much interest rates are low. You can't go anywhere anyway. At least you can walk out here. Of course, if they make this decision in August in monsoon season, you know the time we're in right now where you get up and want to die every day, they might reconsider.
But it's still maybe better than sitting in a climate change affected apartment in Los Angeles right now and roasting because you have no escape there.
So I'm seeing people who can start to move out here. And I'm getting the questions like, how are the schools? And my kids grew up here. They went to school here. Schools are fine. They're public schools. They're like everywhere.
And, you know, how how long does it take to get to the airport, this sort of stuff. So it's part of a nationwide trend since we've failed so spectacularly at dealing with the coronavirus.
So now people, whether you're in New York or the Bay Area or Chicago or whatever, you're looking at those vacation cabins, a lot of them have been sitting empty and they're coming up on the market. So, like, why not the Sam's done for now.
And it's so funny because I just feel like everything keeps repeating. Right. It's like when California City was being marketed, cities were done then, too, but for different reasons for this sort of like very thinly veiled racist, you know, like, oh, they're dangerous and then polluted and then like the Cold War and now cities are done for different. A totally different reason. I'm wondering, Kim, do you think it's going to be permanent or do you think it's just people are going to come for a little while and and go back?
Well, you know, it's it's hard to tell. But I mean, there definitely has been people seriously bought houses during coronavirus, and it's. The strange recession to not have the real estate market, you know, it's basically staying just just where it's at.
And, you know, for instance, a realtor friend of mine, she sent me a there's an area called the Highlands, Joshua Tree Highlands, which is up near the park entrance. And there's a little cinderblock cabin up there on five acres. And this is a very desirable area. I actually ran it up there on five acres. This is one room. There's no plumbing, indoor plumbing or anything. It's going for three hundred and fifty thousand, you know.
So that's that's quite an appreciation of, you know, you spend a thousand dollars to get a small tract. Of course, that person has been long gone.
But I like the idea, though, personally as an environmentalist of people being closer, especially their children, getting their children outdoors into a place like this where they can actually spend time, maybe even free range. You know, I think that's really healthy. That's the way I grew up. And so that's one thing that you don't get in some of these urban spaces is the freedom, especially for children, young people, to actually experience nature. So I hope it's a good thing.
But also people need to learn to respect it and to recreate properly, which we have a lot of problem in the national park.
Yeah, so a question about kind of a different type of like gold rush and that does deser. We've got a question about marijuana and like pot cultivation. And I know that a lot of small desert communities, California city Adelanto, are really kind of like banking on this to be their next cash cow. And I know you've written some about this. So like what you know, first of all, like, why, why, why or why are these cities opening themselves up to these industries?
And do you guys think that they actually will sort of succeed in making these places boom when, you know, not much else has in the past?
Well, I don't know if they're going to boom necessarily, but it has been like desert hot springs. I'm noticing that they're getting tax dollars to do some improvements, beautify, do things like that. And I think that's really a good thing. I think Adelanto is really interesting because Adelanto doesn't really it really doesn't have anything special there. And I'm not I'm not saying that to be mean, but like Victorville has some rock formations and things like that, they don't have much.
So they've really made in the 90s prisons, you know, it was known for all these prisons. And so that doesn't sit well with people that are looking for a place to raise their family. You need to make sure that you can market your your city, your town in a certain way. So I think what they're doing is really interesting, getting the medicinal it was even before the ordinance for recreation had passed, but they kind of figured it was going to happen.
And I guess the thing I wonder about, because California City also is, you know, when I was there, the city manager at the time described marijuana cultivation as like like the train is in the station and it's marijuana. And this train is going to leave the station. And we need to get on it because we don't know when the next train is coming. And it reminded me of and maybe this is why I gravitated towards California City when I first moved to L.A., reminded me a lot of the oilfield towns in North Dakota where I used to be a reporter, and that kind of like boom bust mentality and really like catching yourself to this one industry that you think is just going to make you and then it could also break you.
And so I always am a little skeptical of that, like, boom bust. Oh, yeah. Of course, regardless of the industry, you got to safai.
San Bernardino County has been very hostile to any kind of industrial marijuana operations in the Morongo Basin. There are there are not even marijuana retail stores. There are no dispensaries. There were no grow operations. And I think that that's been a pretty good choice as far as pursuing that as an industry, because. When you pursue something like that that's industrial, that that depends on being industrial scale scaled, then as soon as the market dips, like in the Bakken where you were a reporter, everything falls apart.
So a more diversified economy, that's a combination of people who want to live in the desert because they love it. Nature, tourism, perhaps things like space tourism. When you're talking about. Yeah, I can very much see California City in 20 years being a luxurious Space City development. You know, if we if we haven't all gone extinct at that point because it's in a perfect place, it's close to L.A. It's going to be close to this Big East L.A. train, which is going to end in Victorville right now.
That's the latest plan.
So any any kind of move to one industry is going to save, say, like you end up with company towns like Eagle Mountain, the Kaiser Mill, where you just had houses built around the steel pit. And then once the war was over, the whole place was abandoned. Like a lot of our mining towns that are picturesque ghost towns today, they were one industry towns. And as soon as the gold ran out, the silver ran out or the water ran out to run the mill.
Then it was done and everybody just left. And now we have Kalikow outside of Barstow, where you can go and watch Old West people walk around in the dirt. That was a thriving town.
So maybe you guys can help me with this one. So a question about kind of the vast, like maze of unbuild roads that we see in most acutely in Salt in City, California city, but also in other parts of the desert. A question about like how these roads get built, how developers can just build roads kind of far beyond their ability to develop them. I mean, I only know the answer for that kind of privately owned development, which is that it was private land.
Often the roads, at least in California city, were built in the 60s and 70s. The permitting process was easier than I don't know how all that like maze of roads gets built on fear of land management land. But I think the question is also about kind of like the environmental degradation that comes with that, with just like the sprawling network of roads to nowhere. So I do have thoughts on the roads, how they get built, what the effect is.
The Mojave Desert, it may seem like really kind of empty and wilderness, but there I think David Darlington and his Mojave book said there is a road, you know, within five miles. There's always there's always if it's a dirt road or something. You know, it has been like those prospectors. They went over this area with a fine tooth comb trying to find that gold, you know, almost everywhere has been explored. So which I find really interesting.
But yet you can have something like King Creosote out in Lucerne Valley, which has been this creosote ring that's been around since the Pleistocene. And there's a road to a mine close to it or probably wiped out maybe even a bigger cone out there. But that land has been intact. It hasn't been manipulated by humankind for ten thousand years. That's pretty amazing. There's when you when you think about that.
So a couple kind of California city specific questions. I never know what to do with this question. And I've gotten it a lot. So the question is, would there be any reason to hold onto a parcel of land in California? City person says my mother's occasionally given offers to buy ours, but under what we paid for it. I mean, I would love to hear again and again what your take is, too. If someone has a piece of land, whether they feel they overpaid for it or not, I don't know yet.
One piece of advice they've given people is like there is there's a couple of good realtors in town who will just like straight up tell you what they think your land is worth. Also, the Kern County assessor's office fields these calls all the time. And you do have the option. I'm not this is not like legal advice, but you do have the option of if you can't find a buyer of not paying your property taxes and the county will auction off the land five years later.
And that's something a lot of people do in California city who find themselves with land that they feel like they'll never get any money for. But you guys do. If you own the land in California city, would you keep it? Would you sell it? Would you let it go to tax auction?
I just want to say you need to do due diligence for any investment. You really need to do research. You really need to, you know, go out there and and do that before you sign any papers. So I hope that's helpful. But I think it depends. Like if your property's paid off and you're comfortable with those property taxes and you got this place. Maybe you're off roader and you're going to come out there and can't keep it, you know, it's it is beautiful up there, you know, and can to you in California city and up in Ransburg.
So I don't know. But, you know, like you said, if if it's a burden, there are ways to relieve yourself of that burdens.
When I was a kid, I had some friends and their parents were their dads were aerospace engineers who kind of typical SoCal thing of the 70s, 80s, 60s before that.
And I was so jealous of the kids whose parents or grandparents had a California city place, not so much the ones with houses, but the ones who did not have houses because they would go up there for Christmas when the weather just incredible. And you've got the snow over the San Gabriels and the Joshua trees everywhere and the animals and everything. And they would go out and have Christmas time there, whether an RV or some kind of canvas army tents.
And people would come out and I got to visit a couple of those things when I was in high school. And it was I was doing a lot of desert driving at that time because I had the bugs. But it was one of the things that made me want to live in the Mojave being.
And it was weird going down those streets where you go by like 20 cul de sacs and they're all cracked with ragweed growing out of the asphalt and everything. But once you got on a lot and it was there, I thought, this is this is something that that middle class people and working class people were able to have. And, yeah, you're not going to make your money back probably until the spaceport requires McMansion all around California city in Mojave.
But you've got something. And if you can enjoy it a little bit, I want to be in a rush to give it back to the state of California. I agree.
I think it depends on what you how you define value, because obviously a lot of the land there, especially the more remote off the grid land with no road access, like doesn't have a lot of monetary value. And I'm sorry for anyone who was told that and and paid tens of thousands of dollars for this land. But I do think there are other kind of non monetary aesthetic values that or even just like the sense of you always have a place to go like that's occurred to me like, oh, I could I could buy land there and I would always have a place to go.
That's mine. And there's something about that that is appealing and very American and probably why so many people end up getting taken advantage of, because it's like this irrational thing we just want. So I guess you just ask yourself, like, why do I want this? And like, what is valuable about it to me? Because you're you're probably not going to get rich off of it.
And let's just see what are what are the property taxes on an undeveloped plot in California city right now?
A couple hundred in California city. It's funny because it has a parcel tax, which is a flat tax. So every landowner pays a certain amount and it helps fund public services in town. So the property taxes can be like two or three hundred dollars a year on a piece of land that might only be worth five or six hundred dollars total. So I think that's when the equation gets a little difficult, you know. Yeah, yeah. Let's do we're running out of time here.
But we just had one more kind of question about this is just about kind of like the infrastructure that we're talking about, the remoteness of some of these places, a question about why kind of the infrastructure in California city and I think probably a lot of other desert communities is is going to pieces. And I don't know. I mean, do you guys think like is it the climate? Is it that we see the decay more? Because there's kind of nothing to hide it?
I mean, it's like there's a lot of sort of ruin porn type tourism that happens in these towns to look at abandoned roads, abandoned buildings. And I don't know if it's that that stuff is just more visible or it actually is more decrepit. So I don't know. What do you guys think? Like why do we see so much sort of decay?
And some of these Mojave Desert towns, we don't have trees and, you know, under.
Yeah, it's just open. It's exposed. So I think that has a lot to do with it. It's interesting because when I did the Salton Sea project initially, I mean, that's what it was about, that kind of ruined porn aspect. And if I had done that project now, you know, it was just starting on it, I would have done a very different type of project. But it was a time capsule of where it was at at that particular time.
So, you know, and I think it is interesting. Myself, I've moved beyond that, so when I go to somewhere like Trauner, I'm really interested in the culture of Jim Arama or things like that, rather than just looking at that's just the surface. You need to look beyond that.
The developments like California City and a bunch of other such places that did not have a reason for a population to already be there. Those are the field of dreams kind of places, you know, build, build it and eventually somebody will come and buy it, even if there's not a huge market for it. And so those places had to throw up some infrastructure to sell it to convince people there will be something here.
You know, you're going to have shopping centers and parks and bike lanes and everything.
Eventually, if you have enough people, you're going to have it infrastructures notoriously, horrifically expensive and you have to sell bonds to get it built if it's public infrastructure. So if you have no tax base and no people, well, you're going to get California City watch out for the potholes. And it will probably be like that until something changes so that there's a bunch of people there that requires it.
And I think that's kind of a nice note to end on to sort of like looking beyond the ruin porn. And I think a lot of people that I met in California city felt very strongly that like they took offense to the idea that it's a failed community. And so I tried to make clear that it was the developer's dream that had failed, not the community itself. And so I think if you do go out there. Yeah, I mean, drive around on the empty roads like that is the most obvious thing that you notice when you're there.
But also like visit some of the small businesses and go to the waterfall on the park and try to listen to the rare birds like it's a burning hot spot, like Kim said, just to sort of see what's there and not just sort of what what failed or what isn't there. Thanks so much to the both of you for joining me. And if you if listeners, viewers you haven't checked out, can this Mojave project, do you totally should stand with the desert oracle.
They're very worth experiencing, thanks to the Ottery for partnering with us on this event. Thanks to my colleagues at CPK in L.A. studios. You can listen and subscribe to California City, where we're done with the kind of like fall season. We'll probably have a follow up at some point on the Silver Saddle case, but it's it's going to be a while. You can listen on Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. You've heard me say that in the podcast like 5000 times.
You can also follow me on Twitter at Garran. Emily, if you have specific questions about silverside, all you can message me there. Good night and thank you so much to everybody for joining us. It's been a pleasure to get to nerd out about the Mojave with you, so thank you. The news comes at you fast and it can be hard to keep up, especially right now, the podcast Make Me Smart from Marketplace is just what you need.
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