Darwin, California. To be clear, Darwin, California is not a ghost town and never has been. It has had some close calls since 1875 when it got a post office and became a hub for silver and lead mining. It’s survived smallpox, fires and the closing of the Anaconda mine. Driving into Darwin, the mine company housing sprawls into view, arresting and decaying, letting you know that sometime, here, something happened. The mine closed for the last time in the late 1970s but not without a few long, good runs.I visit on a day in early summer. Darwin sits on the western edge of Death Valley, southeast of the infamous Owens Lake. At 4,750 feet of elevation it’s hot but not uncomfortable. What is uncomfortable is the feeling that the few residents may be glancing out their windows, waiting for me to leave. I wave to the one person I see standing in an impressive yard full of metal, bottles and other desert castoffs–what could be junk but is sculpture medium instead. He doesn’t wave back. I’ve read that after the mines shut down for good in the 1970s Darwin became home to artists and other refugees from civilization. In a quick calculation of “holdout or artist?” I take him for an artist. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Darwin is a baffling place. At first glance it looks like another small forgotten mining town a little beat up by the harshness of the desert. At second glance the rusted cars, broken machinery and other desert detritus seem to have a deeper meaning. I’m not sure if I’m looking at a dry sea of rusting trash or an apocalyptic outpost dedicated to living out the last days through only the purest self-expression. It’s a mining town turned survivalist art experiment, and I dig it. To top it all off, it’s tucked in the shadow of China Lake Naval Weapons Center. It’s easy to imagine that the proximity to China Lake gives Darwin a built-in defensiveness against outsiders, that the heartfelt roar of low-dipping aircraft brings a spike of conspiracy with each maneuver.
Darwin came into being in 1874 after Darwin French, a rancher near Fort Tejon, joined an expedition to look for the Lost Gunsight Lode. This fabled streak of rich silver ore had beginnings that are now twisted up in the wishful thinking of Death Valley treasure seeking history. One version of the story goes that a group of ‘49ers trying to cross Death Valley in search of gold were camped, exhausted and hungry in the Argus range when they discovered their only working gun was missing a sight. An Indian guide willing to fix it disappeared into the hills and returned with a new sight made of pure silver. The Lost Gunsight Lode became an indisputable place in Death Valley mythology, found once and lost forever. People still search for it.
Past the mine works the town sign tells me that the population is 50. I don’t buy it—partly because I just watched a documentary on the town, partly because it’s a remote and strange place. It would take a special kind of person to call this home. At its height in 1877 the town had more than 3,500 people.
The sun is hot and bright and outlines my every move. I’m experiencing a mix of feelings—curiosity about the semi-art installations and sensitivity to the fact that I’m gawking at people’s lives. In the middle of town I see a tiny sign to the cemetery and follow it. I end up in a sea of dead cars. Dirt roads shoot across the desert toward the distant mountains, but there’s not a tombstone in sight. I wonder if this is an obscure joke by the town, sending me to a car graveyard, but then the caves distract me.
The caves are man-made, semi-modern dwellings carved into the slight hills just off the main street. They have stovepipes, windows and doors, and it’s clear that people have called them home over the years. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. The Dublin Gulch Caves in Shoshone CA housed miners who dug homes into the soft mud rock on the edge of town. The caves at Shoshone are haunting and picturesque—as are these. In one the box spring is new and not rodent-eaten. There’s a braided rug on the floor and someone has made a flower vase of a shiny beer can sitting on the woodstove. There’s a defunct lounge chair outside. The cave sums up the town in some small way—the old and new rolling on together, turning trash into something more. It’s time to leave. I don’t belong here, but part of me very much wants to.