Some Like It Hot


I highly recommend, one day, getting yourself out to a place in California called Ballarat. I know it seems weird to recommend a tiny ghost town out in the middle-of-nowhere desert (and I'd suggest not going in the heart of the summer), but hear me out.


I'd always wanted to explore a ghost town, you see them in old movies and Westerns and it always seemed like such a surreal experience to walk around those abandoned buildings and wonder what they were like in their heyday. I'd heard good things about Calico Ghost Town, so we headed there first. I hadn't realized though, it wasn't so much a ghost town as it was a former-ghost-town-turned-theme-park. It was lined with gingerbread architecture houses, filled with kitschy saloon-type restaurants, places to buy Western-themed souvenirs, and tons of people. There was an eight dollar entrance fee, and they asked for additional donations to "maintain the buildings in the ghost town", which just seems like an oxymoron to me. I'd been expecting just a few ramshackle buildings for Peter and me to wander through aimlessly, so I was more than a little disappointed, especially because we drove hours to get there. But we resolved to try again, for real this time. We headed west via route CA-178 so we could pass through the Trona Pinnacles - a collection of rock spires in what used to be a large lake.


The road to get to the pinnacles was pretty brutal - full of potholes and divots, and for almost six miles. Our entire van was shaking uncontrollably, we almost didn't make it. It took us fifteen minutes to go halfway because we had to go so slowly, the car was literally falling apart - pieces from both the rearview mirror and the steering wheel fell off into our laps - and I feared for the rest of the van. We wondered if getting stranded out here was worth it to keep moving forward, but we were just too close to turn around. Thankfully the car powered through, and we're so glad it did. It felt like driving around the bottom of a huge, empty, 600-ft high fishbowl.


We continued on the highway towards Ballarat. We didn't really know what to expect, all I knew about the place was that it used to be a mining town, it had been abandoned for almost 100 years, and that it would give us a more "authentic" ghost town experience. The sun was blazing, over 115 degrees, which is when we realized the engine's heat gauge was broken so each additional mile felt like a gamble - we counted three cars stranded on the side of the road. We turned the heat on high to draw it off the engine, deliberately blasting ourselves with hot air. I thought opening the windows would help, but every gust of wind felt like we'd just opened an oven. Peter tried to see the silver lining - what's the point in driving to the hottest place in the world (Death Valley), unless we do it in the hottest month, too?


We rolled into the town and immediately realized how different this was from Calico - no entrance fee, no gift shops, and no tourists. We were greeted by its one and only resident - "the caretaker, the mayor, the sheriff, the judge, and the undertaker" of Ballarat - a man named Rocky Novak, who's been there since 1971. He was surprised to see us, not many people get out here this time of year - it's "so hot the devil himself went on vacation, and we're not likely to see him again until September". Rock usually has cold drinks for people who come though, but his power was out so all he could offer us was some homemade moonshine, 100 proof. We quickly took him up on his offer - one whiff of that moonshine could bring you back from the dead, and it burned like a rocket going down. 

We talked to him for a long time, asking him questions and getting his musings on life. He's generally alone out there, except for some donkeys, roadrunners, and "the occasional wild person", so he seemed more than willing to chat. He showed us around the yard, telling us stories about living out in the middle of nowhere and his various collectibles, including a car he says used to belong to Charles Manson, and a huge snakeskin from Africa. Rock said it's quiet out there, but not lonely. You can do what you want.

I was happy to get our real ghost town experience - part of the beauty of these places is they are ephemeral, unmaintained, and they won't be around too much longer. So talk to Rock now, when you have the chance - if only for some of that moonshine.