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Solitary, Splendid Squalor

Trona now suffers crime and blight along with its desert heat and a hellish stench of sulfur. Many savor memories of a thriving mining town.

October 04, 2006|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

TRONA, Calif. — Fed up with the crime, congestion and cost of Orange County, Fred Hermon went looking for a place where he could be alone, a place so remote, so unappealing that few would ever want to live there.

His strategy was simple: Locate the popular, pricey towns on a map and move steadily outward. That's where he found Trona.

When he searched the Internet for information, the word "hell" kept popping up -- 'Is Trona Anywhere Near Hell?," "Where the Hell Is Trona?," "Long, Lonely Ride Through Hell."

Hermon didn't actually expect to find perdition as he descended through Poison Canyon into Trona three years ago, but the smell of sulfur, the blast-furnace heat and barren landscape made it feel uncomfortably close.

A real estate agent showed him a neighborhood with block after block of burned-out homes.

"I said, 'Oh my God, no,' " he recalled. "Another area looked like Los Angeles after the riots. I love the desert, but this was pushing it."

Nevertheless, he found a house for $24,000, installed an enormous swamp cooler and now spends his days digging for old artifacts while caring for nine cats, an inquisitive packrat and two desert tortoises, Speedy and Kid.

Hermon, 60, has already spent $2,600 on a chain-link fence and rarely leaves home for fear of being burglarized. On his first night in town, someone swiped his $15 garden hose. He stays for the solitude but wonders how Trona came to this.

"Something must have been going on for a long time to bring the town to this level of devastation," he said.

Over the years, Trona, once a thriving community of 6,000 on the ragged edge of Death Valley, has shriveled to just 1,800. Drug dealers looking for cheap housing have moved in. Parolees abound. Arsonists have torched dozens of vacant homes, leaving charred skeletons behind. Business owners, unable to make a profit, have simply locked up and walked away.

The result is blight on an industrial scale. San Bernardino County has torn down a handful of houses, but officials say it's too costly to demolish entire blocks of dilapidated, asbestos-riddled buildings.

Meanwhile, many Tronans are fleeing to Ridgecrest, 25 miles away, leaving mostly senior citizens and a smattering of young professionals behind.

Whether Trona can survive as the population dwindles is an open question.

Most workers at Searles Valley Minerals, the major employer, now live elsewhere. The high school has just 160 students with a graduating class last year of 15. The football team, unable to field 11 players, now plays with eight.

"A lot of people are leaving town," said Ruth Soto, the high school guidance counselor. "Closing the school has been talked about."

Many who stay love Trona for the friendships they've made, memories of better times and the desert's stark beauty. Others are simply stuck, unable to afford a house elsewhere.

Homes here are among the cheapest in California, with a median price of $40,000, according to DataQuick, which tracks real estate sales.

Even die-hard Trona boosters agree that it has seen better days. They concede that streets lined with torched houses, combined with the pungent odor from the chemical plant, add up to a poor first impression.

Pastor Larry Cox of the First Baptist Church said his first words on entering Trona were "People live here?"

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has offered deputies willing to work in Trona free housing and less jail duty. Most prefer jail.

Hollywood comes calling when scouting places resembling alien planets or how they imagine the end of the world might look.

Parts of "Planet of the Apes" and "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" were filmed at the Trona Pinnacles, towering mineral formations near town. Conspiracy buffs have long held that Trona was the site of NASA's "moon landings."

An old highway sign put it this way: "End of the World 10, Trona 15."

Yet this extreme environment has bred people as tough as the rock and desert around them. They endure months of 120-degree temperatures and winds that fling boulders down mountainsides.

Seniors hit the links at the bare bones Trona Golf Club, batting balls on a mostly sand and dirt course while skirting the occasional rattlesnake.

"The sand leaves the clubs a little dog-eared," noted 82-year-old Barbara Crowther.

The Trona Tornadoes, named after dust devils spinning off dry Searles Lake, may be the only high school football team outside Alaska to have an all-dirt field. Astroturf would blow away, they say.

The white lines contain eye-stinging sodium sulfate to better stick to the field.

"It gives us a psychological edge in home games," said Coach John Foster.

The town was a stopover for the homicidal Manson family, who loaded up on water before heading to Barker Ranch about 20 miles east, where they were eventually arrested in 1969.

"I got my picture taken with Manson -- with the girls too," said Robert "Ballarat Bob" Dunlap, an 83-year-old gold miner living in a desert shack.

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