For 21 years, the 134-foot-tall thermometer in the center of Baker, California has provided a landmark for people traveling on Interstate 15. That will likely remain the case for some time, though whether the thermometer remains lit depends in part on who volunteers to pay the electric bill.
The landmark, built by local businessman Willis Herron for $700,000 in 1991, has attracted a bit of press attention in recent weeks, as the thermometer's 4,900-odd lights have been dark for the last few months.
"That thermometer's generated more press for being turned off than it did when it was working," says Le Hayes, General Manager of Baker's Community Services District. The Community Services District acts as a local government for the unincorporated community.
Why are the lights off? It's a complex combination of economic downturn and a legal dispute between the thermometer's owner Matt Pike and the corporate owners of the Bob's Big Boy Restaurant chain, which won a recent court judgement against Pike for alleged failure to pay tens of thousands of dollars in franchise fees.
According to Pike, the thermometer cost upwards of $8,000 a month to keep lit. Pike told reporters in September that he'd switched the lights off when the economy slumped and hoped to relight them in better times. Given the court decision, those better times may be a ways off: Pike's Big Boy franchise in Baker, next door to the thermometer, is expected to close in early January.
The gift shop at the base of the thermometer, once home to a temporary Visitor Center for the Mojave National Preserve, has also been shuttered for some time.
Baker's economy has been hit hard over the last few years, as evidenced by the Starbucks just off the main drag that's been boarded up since Autumn 2008. Pike has offered to unload the thermometer on the city, an unlikely outcome given that the cash-strapped Community Services District exists to provide basic utilities and emergency services.
But though some neighbors have called for the termometer to be torn down, it's also unlikely that anyone will step up to do so. Months after it was first built in 1991, high winds snapped the thermometer off and sent it hurtling to the desert floor. Soon after it was rebuilt and reinforced, another windstorm caused the three-sided structure to twist wildly, popping out light bulbs to rain down on the parking lot around it. At that point Herron got serious in his reinforcing: the thermometer's shaft is now concrete with thick steel reinforcement. It would probably cost more to demolish the thermometer safely than it would to get it repaired. "I don't think the thermometer's going anywhere," Hayes told me.
So Baker's stuck with a 134-foot obelisk, a monument to a late village elder's optimism.
Pike's alleged $8,000 per month in electricity costs may offer a way out, though. Given recent advances in economy in the new generation of LED bulbs, which can put out light equivalent to an incandescent bulb's for less than a quarter of the energy input, it would certainly seem that the thermometer's nearly 5,000 bulbs -- few of which are lit at any one time -- could be made far less greedy. And given the setting and nearby available rooftops and parking lots, it would be straightforward enough to install solar panels to produce more than enough power to run the thing.
If a solar leasing company that had an eye toward grand promotion stepped up, it could boost business in Baker by providing shaded parking places, cut down on existing businesses' power bills, and earn a spot in the PR hall of fame for remaking The World's Tallest Thermometer into The World's Tallest Solar Thermometer. Not that the idea is fool-proof. As Hayes says, there are limits to the amount of solar power available in Baker. "The sun only shines here 364 days out of the year," he told me. "We'd have to make plans for that one other day."
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. He writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.