I’ve always been intrigued by those little Podunk towns you see on the way to Laughlin and Vegas. What kinds of people live in them? How can they live without a Bed, Bath & Beyond? Where do they go when they get a craving for Thai?
That’s the problem with living in the middle of nowhere—there’s no “bad” cultural garbage, but there’s none of the good stuff, either. Still, it’s somehow comforting that people live on the outskirts of society, in homes where you can’t easily high-five your next-door neighbor.
Newberry is about 30 minutes outside of Barstow, and except for the slag heap on the other side of the I-40, it’s a pretty, quaint little town. Featuring a feed store, a dive bar and an American Legion post, this not-quite-bustling burg could almost claim to have it all . . . except they don’t have a Starbucks, a fact that could be changed by the time you finish reading this story. The guy who mans their sole gas station is mean, which didn’t bother me too much, as I was listening to the terrific IE band Bucksworth while driving around town—the perfect soundtrack. Amount of time I could live here? Two weeks. Three, with cable.
Ludlow has all the charm of an aging hooker. Whether it’s the town’s creepy motel or its dilapidated coffee shop, I’m not feeling Ludlow. This, despite the fact that it’s the gateway to Twentynine Palms, and it was once a mining town when Rutherford B. Hayes was president. One end of Ludlow is literally a ghost town, and a moving tribute to what it might have become. If Ludlow was on the East Coast, Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen would have written a song about it during the ‘80s. Amount of time I could live here? One week, even with cable.
A seemingly abandoned school, houses with broken windows, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe—all of these make Essex the most surreal desert town I’ve stopped in. At two in the afternoon, not a person in sight, yet the trailers and running cars suggest someone lives here. Located in the middle of fuck-all nowhere, Essex is a monument to desert dreaming, strangely and esoterically gorgeous. The silver mountains in the distance look as if they’re dancing due to the undulations of the 105-degree temps. Staring at them, I slip into a trance, which is only broken by the SUV that comes screaming past doing 90. Amount of time I could live here? Over a year, provided the locals don’t kill me and use me as an ingredient in the rather shady-looking beef jerky stand a few stops further up on I-40.
If cockroaches take over the world after a nuclear war, they’ll make Baker their headquarters. Home to a Mad Greek and several other crappy chain restaurants, Baker’s chief export appears to be homemade methamphetamine. It also has the world’s tallest thermometer, built by businessman Will Herron—134 feet tall, and, considering Baker, probably the rectal variety. On the bright side, by the time you get to Baker, you’re most of the way to Vegas. Amount of time I could live here? About an hour.
While not small, Barstow is the Paris of the Mojave. This is where desert culture thrives, reaching a level of sophistication not seen since the height of the West Texas shitkicker towns of the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s also where you go if you live in Newberry Springs and want a decent Merlot. Amount of time I could live here? Far longer than I want to think about.