When Alex Ross, a music critic, wanders from criticism to commentary or into especially unexpected territory, it is always for good reason. He clearly has a love of desert ecosystems. His most recent publication intersects desert ecosystem with a deserted mining community. It reaches me just after yesterday’s link to a model for improving the prospects of a coal extraction community, so there is something in the air:
How Susan Sorrells transformed a Death Valley mining village into a model of ecologically conscious tourism.
Next services 57 miles” reads a sign at the southern end of California State Route 127, which goes from the Mojave Desert town of Baker up to the Nevada border, skirting the edge of Death Valley National Park. It’s one of those two-lane desert roads that slices across the landscape like a never-ending airport runway. There’s an extended stretch that consists of a long downward slope followed by an equally long ascent. If you’re driving at night, the headlights of cars coming in the opposite direction float above one another in midair, like planes waiting to land. But cars are infrequent. For mile after mile, there are no services, no homes.
The fifty-seventh mile brings you to Shoshone—population thirty-one, as of the 2010 census. Palm and mesquite trees signal the presence of an oasis—a surfacing of the Amargosa River, which runs largely underground, from Nevada to Death Valley. Most travellers stop only if they require gas or a snack, although the Shoshone Inn, a seventeen-room motel, stands ready for the weary. The Chas. Brown Co. Market, on the left side of the road, is quainter and cleaner than your average roadside store, but there is no obvious reason to linger. If you aren’t pressed for time, you might be tempted to grab a bite at the Crowbar Café and Saloon, which convincingly presents itself as a vintage Western establishment, while also serving espressos and lattes. Next door is a small museum that documents Shoshone’s scrappy past as a mining community, with a surprisingly sophisticated collection of geological specimens tucked into the displays. Nature trails wind through the marshland to the back, where you don’t see the Amargosa River so much as hear it. As you head north again, you might notice a mid-century-modern house on the left-hand side of the road, next to an R.V. park. A keen-eyed architecture fan in your car might exclaim, “Is that a Neutra?” At this point, you begin to realize that there is something not quite ordinary about this tiny town in the middle of nowhere.
I first visited Shoshone in 2016, when I was working on an article about Death Valley. I returned last year to research a piece about Richard Neutra, who indeed designed the sleek modernist house in the village. But I’ve gone back before for no particular reason—because I never know whom I will meet or what I will learn. Scientists and their students bunk down at a facility called shear (the Shoshone Education and Research Center), which is led by the geologist Darrel Cowan. At the Crowbar, you may run into members of the “Vole Team”—biologists from the University of California, Davis, who are trying to save the endangered Amargosa vole. Other researchers may be in town to inspect the local pupfish population, which was once thought extinct. You can also find race-car drivers, massage therapists, and deputies from the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office, one of whom keeps a chicken coop…
Read the whole article here.