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'Abandonment Chic' and the Modern Desert

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High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

Mojave mining towns come and go. They burst upon the scene, prosper and grow for a few years. Then the mines play out. The towns dwindle and eventually blow away. Their ruins fill with ghosts. Their memory entices the desert enthusiast from the city to come and visit.

Randsburg is one of those towns. Once it was the Queen of Rand District. It dominated the western mining news and gold fever rumors. It had companion communities of Johannesburg and Red Mountain. There was a train. Red Mountain laid claim to servicing miners with brothels, cribs and sin. Things are quite different now.

Today, Randsburg is recreating itself. After its heyday, it was known as a ghost town. Now it strains to straddle the worlds of tourist destination, motorcycle Valhalla and a peaceful isolated town in a diminished landscape where civilized specters remain. Some residents who live there like the area just the way it has been for a generation or more. Most days, it is still quiet and isolated. The only action is the wind whistling through the closed antique shops, crumbling buildings and quaint faded signs. But things are changing.

Call the style of the new Randsburg "abandonment chic." This design requires a delicate balance between the charm of the past and an ironic modern sensibility. "Chic" denotes "up-to-date, contemporary, au courant, trendy, snappy, happening." Now "ironic" is often misused in common discourse, so let's nail it down. The New Oxford American Dictionary opines: "happening in the opposite way to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this." The modern copy of the past is ironic as it never existed in the way it is being represented today.

New businesses with fresh-painted signs are popping up on main-street. The businesses are located in old, often distressed buildings from Randsburg's raucous past. There are all the attendant inadequate plumbing, electrical and structural challenges. The appearance of the past is seductive though. "Abandonment chic" requires facing down these challenges without obliterating the abandoned town mystique. The citizens there are determined to fight to save their town.

Visitors want to rub shoulders with the restored past, but without the black widow spiders, splinters, lead paint and asbestos from the abandoned past. Comfort is a focus of these entrepreneurs as they recreate an ersatz century old mining camp. They mean to market this historic conceit of the romance of the West that many Americans harbor deep in their hearts.

Antique stores have great appeal for the tourists, if not for the bikers. There is no sissy shopping in cute boutiques for them. These leathered riders spend their weekend attacking the arid land, hills, gullies, arroyos and trails of dust and rock. The general store offers meals of simple hotdog and hamburger fare, great ice cream sodas, and relief from the dry cold winter winds or suffocating summer heat. The store is quaint and friendly, matching the sense we have of a once welcoming vibrant community of the past. There's no room for social problems and civic discord in this fantasy.

Many business owners live in the nearby economic center of Ridgecrest. The struggle for Randsburg is to keep the town open during the week. The real entrepreneurial visionaries want the town to flaunt its abandonment chic seven days a week. "Keep your doors open" might be the Chamber motto, if there were a Chamber.

For the Randsburg merchants of Butte Street, it comes down to a survival choice. They hope for marvelous prosperity like the miners of yore. The jury is out. The town markets itself as a mining camp where the gold now lives not in the hills but in the pockets of the travelers passing through. Extracting that gold is as arduous yet delicate a task as ever the mineral presented miners.

On a Saturday this spring, the serenity of town is split by the rumbling of Harley hogs, four-wheel drive rhinos, the quiet scuffing of footsteps and gentle talk between tourists wandering through the dusty art galleries and shops. They have nothing particular on their shopping list. They like the changing scene for different reasons. For the bikers, it is a welcoming spot of shade, refreshments and camaraderie with other riders on weekend desert rendezvous. For those passing through, disembarking from their air-conditioned cars to find the true romance of the old West, it is a trip into nostalgia with credit cards to bring a piece of the past back home.

The past remains safely encumbered when locked in a quaint artifact.

"Abandonment chic" courts the lost and useless past for profit and gain today. It doesn't always work, but life in small forsaken Mojave mining camps is all about the quality of the journey on the way to survival.

To explore more High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain visit desertdispatches.com or the project's Facebook page. We welcome your questions and comments.


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