MOUNTAIN PASS, Calif. — On those rare days when clouds roll over the cactus-covered hills and snakes are not about, Bridgett Sandoz and her mother, Wanda, often go for walks among the nearby clapboard and tin ruins left by frontier prospectors.
As they wander among the relics, they muse that by this time next year their own mining community of Mountain Pass also will be a ghost town.
No more company socials in the recreation hall marked by a tattered sign that reads "Eats and Beer." No more birthday parties by the swimming pool. No more Jeep chases over the barren Mescal Mountains.
By order of the company that owns this town--tucked in a canyon about 60 miles southwest of Las Vegas--the Sandoz family and about 100 others will have to find another place to live by September, 1987.
Peace, Security Shattered
The eviction notice came in April and shattered the sense of peace and security that has existed in this nest of mobile home dwellers since it was created by Molycorp Inc., a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Unocal Corp., about 25 years ago.
"It hurts to think that pretty soon our town will be just like those ruins," said Bridgett Sandoz, 23, who moved here with her family 21 years ago, married a mine worker and is now expecting her first child.
"At first we wanted to fight, but this is Unocal we have to fight--a big company--and now many are resigned to it," said Wanda Sandoz, 42, a member of the Mountain Pass Town Council and a Sunday school teacher. Her husband, Henry, is a maintenance man at the mine.
The eviction order will bring an end to one of the last company towns in Southern California.
"In many ways, Mountain Pass represents something very basic about frontier society," said Tom Anderson, senior geologist for the California Department of Conservation's division of mines and geology. "It is the last vestige of early Americana out there and it will be sad to see it go."
No Choice But to Close Town
Company officials say they had no choice but to close the town and make the mine workers commute to their jobs. The mine will stay in full operation.
"The reason is basically economic," said Robert Sega, manager of the open pit operation, which produces rare earth minerals such as neodymium, europium and lanthanum.
Sega said reduced demand on the world market, increased competition here and overseas, coupled with higher costs of providing services at the camp, have made it a $750,000-a-year financial burden that the company can no longer afford.
"Lead being taken out of gasoline had a lot to do with it," Sega said. "The mineral that paid the rent here, lanthanum hydrate, was used to increase the yield of gasoline from heavy crude oils. . . . New refining processes use less lanthanum and half our market has evaporated.
"We are not the big bad monsters they think we are--we care about them," Sega insisted. "The mine has been a money maker for us but the profit margin has gone down."
In an effort to ease the shock, the company has agreed to relocate mobile homes anywhere within a 75-mile radius of Mountain Pass. Mobile homes that cannot be moved will be bought by the company at fair market value, Sega said.
Many residents say they will move to Las Vegas. Others will scatter among the tiny towns that dot the nearby desert landscape, including Cima and Nipton, Calif., and Searchlight, Nev.
Some commuting workers will be eligible for company-operated van pools at a cost of $3 per day. Those living in remote areas will receive a travel subsidy of $6 a day.
But that may not be enough to satisfy those mine workers who have grown dependent upon the company over the years for more than an hourly wage of $12 to $15.
To lure workers to the isolated community, the company has charged each family only $30 a month to live here. Most trailers have television sets connected to satellite dishes provided by the company.
Within a five-minute walk of the mine is a general store where mine workers buy necessities on credit, a post office, a fire station with ambulance, a small park with a playground for children and a community swimming pool. There are about 100 mobile homes in town.
Half a mile west is the three-room elementary and junior high school. High school students attend classes in Baker, 30 miles away.
Center of Community
Most important is the recreation hall, which houses a small diner, four bowling lanes, seven video games, a beer bar with a small jukebox and walls covered with friendly graffiti.
In this plain brown building, the residents have held company functions, church services, birthday parties and fund-raisers. In recent weeks, they have also thrown tearful going away parties for some of the dozen or so families that have pulled up stakes since April.
But life here has been anything but cozy and residents have paid a price for the amenities.
"Your soul belongs to the company 24 hours a day," said Wayne M. Faire, 50, a shipping foreman at the mine. "They call you at 2 a.m.--you get your pants on and get to work."