A sign hangs on a building in Randsburg, CA, Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/The Sun/SCNG)
By Michel Nolan
The San Bernardino Sun
It happens suddenly. You’re traveling along an endless stretch of the Mojave Desert, and like you’ve noticed a hundred times before, the U.S. Highway 395 road sign comes into view, pointing left at the turnoff to the town of Randsburg, a two-minute drive on an unpaved road.
The sky is a brilliant blue, the July heat hasn’t risen yet, so you decide to try it and take the path less traveled.
Within three minutes, you’ve left the parched expanse and arrived more than a century back in time.
Could your eyes be playing tricks on you?
Is this a desert mirage?
You are on Butte Avenue, the main thoroughfare in an Old West town that looks like an authentic Old West town.
Welcome to Randsburg, a desert gold-mining town that struck it big more than a century ago.
On a recent Thursday, staff photographer Jennifer Maher and I set out for a Randsburg adventure and were delighted with the town and its inhabitants, who were friendly and eager to share stories of their living ghost town.
The area’s mining operation, at its peak between 1895 — when gold was discovered — and 1933, took out more than $60 million in gold profits from the earth.
There truly is “gold in them thar hills.”
As gold became scarce, however, so did the people, and the 1896 boomtown that sprang up overnight was no more.
During the area’s “Gold Rush” era, the population mushroomed to nearly 4,000, but has now dwindled to about 50 hardy souls.
Greeting us at the edge of town was the weathered wood facade of an aging Post Office, which bears the skull of a steer, along with the ominous words, “End of the Trail, Randsburg, CAL.”
The General Store, just two doors down, looked friendlier so we decided to check it out.
We were hooked. Randsburg had us, reeling us in.
Built in 1903, the Randsburg General Store/Soda Fountain/Restaurant is a purveyor of fine provisions, necessities from pancake mix to soup, Clorox to mousetraps. The store serves fresh coffee, as well as restaurant menu choices and its famous soda fountain phosphates.
The focal point of the store is the 16-foot marble-topped soda fountain with stained-glass cabinet doors.
According to one story, the soda fountain was carried from Boston on a clipper ship around Cape Horn, arriving in the desert in 1904. Another story claims it traveled from Boston via mule train and arrived about the same time.
General Store owners Brad Myers and Carol Dyer, who moved to Randsburg part time from the San Fernando Valley and took over the store on July 1 of this year, are enthusiastic entrepreneurs.
“We wanted to get out of the rat race,” said Carol, a former legal secretary who has been dirt bike riding up here for 40 years.
So, three years ago, they started a T-shirt company in Randsburg, MadInk Designs; then, they opened up the MadInk Motorcycle and Surf Shop next door and the Hole in the Wall Antique Store down the street, and finally the General Store.
They envision a thriving future in the dusty little town.
“We want to keep our history, but we want to expand to keep it alive,” Carol said.
“Randsburg is a mecca for motorcycle riding and other off-road vehicles,” said Brad, who admits he tells everybody to call him “Pitt.”
Folks don’t forget his name, he says with a smile.
Brad begins his day fixing breakfast, and then goes out and sits on the yellow line in the middle of the street to have his coffee and bagel.
Where else can you do that?
A former fabricator, Brad also rides motorcycles and he reports the influx of desert riders and campers within a 20-mile radius reaches about 190,000 during Thanksgiving weekend.
The little town is jumping.
The hospitable couple learn local history from the old timers who come in.
Randsburg has more than its share of colorful characters.
The aroma of fresh morning coffee lures Ron Bush, 75, a Randsburg resident for 30 years, and Gary Gearhart, 67, of Johannesburg, a town a few miles away.
Ron, a native of New York, worked for Wells Fargo, also working security in nearby Boron at the Borax plant and the solar fields.
Gary, who worked in Boron at the Borax plant for seven years, was a heavy equipment operator. He later spent 29 years in Mojave.
Obviously, desert lovers.
While Jenn and I sipped our lime phosphates, the old-timers talked about mining borax in the nearby mines at Boron and how the 20-mule teams, made famous in ads for borax soap, hauled the borax in old wooden-wheeled wagons through the rough terrain, across Trona Road, to California City and over to Mojave.
The trip took one month in 1872.
They talked about “the old days,” the people who have come and gone and the changes in the town, which are few because the townspeople want to keep the character of Randsburg authentic.
There is pride here.
The elementary school and high school are gone, but an elementary school still stands in Johannesburg, two miles away.
The old hospital is also gone, so locals go into Ridgecrest for medical needs.
Many of the homes that look ancient on the exterior have been remodeled and are comfortable and clean on the interior.
According to Ron, residents get their water from three wells dug at the end of town.
Air conditioning is so expensive that residents opt for swamp coolers to keep them comfortable in the summer’s brutal heat, which is usually in the triple digits.
Winter temps are the other extreme — dropping way below freezing, and occasionally blanketing the desert in snow (drought permitting).
With spring comes the wildflowers: lupines, primroses, sand verbena.
There is no cable TV service here, so residents have satellite dishes. As for Wi-Fi, there is none.
While it’s not an easy way of life, it’s somehow simpler.
The scattering of eclectic homes ranges from those built into the hills, to a few ranch homes to others patched with old wood and corrugated metal.
There is also a sprinkling of outhouses dotting the landscape.
Along the street are the Opera House, the White House Saloon, the Randsburg Inn (which has lodging and lots of antiques), The Joint saloon (a former bakery), the Randsburg Museum, a barbershop and the “Goat Sky Ranch,” bed and breakfast owned by Goat Brecker, an old Supercross racer from the ’70s and ’80s.
There are two churches in town — Methodist and Catholic.
Up a winding road is the original jail, last occupied (according to Brad) by two ladies who had too much to drink, got into a gunfight, and fortunately, in their inebriated state, couldn’t shoot each other.
They each had a cell in the two-cell adobe jail.
This fascinating place is real — not Hollywood — and it’s technically a ghost town, but don’t tell that to its inhabitants, who number about 51 — give or take.
If Randsburg looks like a scene from some old Western, that’s because it has been — TV commercials, movies from “Hidalgo” with Viggo Mortensen to “Chopper Chicks in Zombietown,” starring Billy Bob Thornton, have been filmed in the area.
We enjoyed our adventure and the Old West charm of the place, returning richer without even looking for gold.