I wasn’t planning to go to Trona at the weekend, but there I was in Ridgecrest, and Trona is just 24 miles down the road, and I couldn’t resist.
It’s hard to say exactly what Trona is. Officially it’s designated as an “unincorporated community” but that doesn’t tell you much. It’s not a desert ghost town (though it kind of looks like one) because it has a thriving industry – mineral processing – which has been there in some form, booming and busting, since the late 19th century. Today Searles Valley Minerals run the show, extracting soda ash, sodium sulfate, and various kinds of borax and salt from the not quite dry lakebed.
Not a lot of people live there. Most of the workers at the processing plant commute from Ridgecrest, but there is a small resident population; maybe a couple of thousand. There’s something oddly suburban about the layout of Trona, a grid of neat streets, individual houses on small plots of land. Some of the houses are abandoned, some are broken down, a few surprisingly intact. The one below is for sale - priced to move.
I wouldn’t say that people were necessary proud of their gardens but a certain amount of ingenuity goes into some of them. Like this rock garden:
On a Saturday afternoon in November there were one or two people going in and out of the pizza joint, but otherwise the streets were pretty much deserted: a couple of kids playing football in the middle of the road, and one man walking along unsteadily in the direction of the general store.
Some citizens had definitely embraced that whole “desert weirdness” thing, sometimes with their hood ornament:
And sometimes with their yard decorations; skeletons still in place even though Halloween was some way behind us:
As you walk around the empty streets you hear dogs barking at you, lots of them. Sometimes they’re behind wooden fences so you can’t see them, though others are behind chain link and you definitely can. Sometimes they’re small and yappy, sometimes they're large, angry and drooling. In some cases their bark may be worse than their bite but I wouldn’t want to put it to the test.
And finally there were cats. I saw a couple of strays walking the streets, timid but free in a way that those dogs weren’t, and as long as the cats stayed out of the canine-infested yards they had the run of the place. And you remember that thing in Spalding Grey’s Swimming To Cambodia where he can’t bring himself to leave Thailand until he’s had his perfect, transcendent moment?
Well, in general I’m pretty skeptical about the need to expect, much less force, an epiphany, but I had just such a moment in Trona.
I saw just one cat at first, sitting on top of an air conditioner, and then one peering round the side, and then I finally spotted the third, looking out from inside the house, finally the whole trio looking out at me, looking in at them. About as good as it gets.