Johannesburg, CA. Johannesburg, CA is one in a cluster of ghost towns where Hwy 14 and Hwy 395 meet, at the southernmost edge of the eastern Sierra Nevadas. I had just come off the heels of Randsburg, a quirky town with characters and rusted equipment and dreams going to waste. Johannesburg threw me for a loop with its families and double wides, kids riding bikes.
We came across the cemetery a few streets into the neighborhood hills. The expanse of graves about equalled the town’s plot of houses. It’s a hardscrabble life and then you die.The child graves were the worst. Tiny mounded piles of desert rocks, plastic toys, stuffed animals. They were a stone’s throw into a time machine of survival and remembrance. The mine works were right there on the edge of the cemetery. Quiet and rusting.
I knew about mining on the East Coast, along the Appalachian vein of coal that runs through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. My mother’s grandfather died of black lung. My great grandma’s sons would spend the night drinking only to be dragged down the hill to the mines by my great grandma. The cold and dark and hangover must have been brutal. Eking out a living. Stay in school, kids.
California seemed different to me. All that sun. All that promise and flicker of precious metal. Today there was a bitter wind in the high desert. The graves were cobbled together out of what was at hand, an iron bed frame, lacquered tree slices, mounded stones, simple welded crosses. There were plastic flowers stuck in the dirt and Joshua trees standing guard. Rusted equipment and American flags dotted the place. I wondered how many people felt like that promise had been an illusion, how many people had forgotten it ever existed. Johannesburg was just home now, hard to imagine another. The cemetery was beautiful in its way, informal, lovingly dug and stacked by people who were close, knew your honorary town title and your horse’s nickname. We were frozen. We got back in the truck and blasted the heat. We headed to Randsburg for dinner.
Where: Hwy 395 Mojave Desert East of Ridgecrest, California
From Los Angeles: About 2.5 hours