"For the main providers, there will never be enough return on investment," said Doug Thompson, president of a regional planning agency, the Desert Mountain Resource Conservation & Development Council, which is working to identify underserved pockets in an area of California the size of Maryland. "Out there, no one is going to help you. You got to help yourself."
The road to Darwin shoots southeast from Lone Pine, skirting the alien-looking salt flats of Owens Lake and boring into a country of dry washes, Joshua trees, abandoned silver mines and 1,000-year-old creosote bushes.
Cross a ridgeline, and the snow-covered Sierra in the rear-view mirror disappear — along with the mobile phone signal.
Darwin, founded in 1874, was the hub of a vast silver and lead mining district, a place known for its brothels, saloons and shootouts. A century of booms and busts later, the mines were closed and Darwin was hanging on by a thread.
That's when it was rediscovered by a different sort of prospector: aging hippies and artists from around Big Sur. Among them were sculptors Gordon Newell and James Hunolt, known for their collaboration on the Haupt Fountains, which frame the view of the White House from an adjacent park.
That spirit remains today in Darwin. Amid the junk piles and slanted buildings is an incongruous gallery of public art.
There's the "Peace Cannon," a.k.a. "Darwin's Missile Defense System," made from old mining equipment with a bouquet of plastic flowers in its muzzle. A yard full of Hunolt's abstract white marble sculptures. A dozen massive slabs of black dolomite arranged in a circle and connected by a roof of steel pipe, built by Newell's son, Hal, and dubbed "Halhenge" by locals.
Distant Darwin calls out to a different kind of desert rat — a dreamy sort of drifter, an escapist who is still engaged.
Judyth Greenburgh, 47, and her husband, Pierre Valeille, 58, moved from the Bay Area to build their dream home in Darwin — a shelter made from a pair of shipping containers dug into into a hillside, beautifully appointed and filled with art.
"I think there's something very clear about being in Darwin. The air is clear, the views are clear. You can pick and choose how you want to live," said Greenburgh, a London-born former advertising executive. "But living remotely doesn't mean you have to go backwards in time."
It does when Greenburgh takes on freelance projects. Large files take hours to load. She can't teleconference. Emergency runs to Lone Pine to access email are as common as Darwin's phone service is unreliable.
"A lot of people I do business with don't know I'm working from here," she said. "I don't know what they'd think of me, living underground in the desert in a shipping container…. I just deliver."
Without broadband, Darwin is a kind of mirror image of computing's Moore's Law, its tentative connection to the outside world receding as fast as information technology advances.
The weathered Darwin Post Office, whose busted windows are covered in plywood, is a stark example. It's one of nearly 4,000 offices targeted for closure beginning this year as the U.S. Postal Service struggles financially under the Internet's boot.
"So, not only are we being excluded from the information superhighway, we may also be kicked off the Pony Express route," said Goss, the "dial-up girl."
If there is hope, it can be found a few miles west of town, down a bumpy old mining road to where a wild mustang with a deep cinnamon hide and jet black mane seems to be leading the way to a ridgeline from which Darwin can be seen in the distance.
Darwinites have dubbed this rocky mound D.B. Hill — Darwin Broadband Hill. From here, Rothgeb says, a microwave radio relay station could conceivably connect Darwin to Lone Pine and the coming Digital 395 broadband infrastructure.
"All you'd need is some batteries, a parabolic antenna. You'd need a bag of cement and a pole with a solar panel on top," said Rothgeb, who said he has a degree in physics and once worked at the Point Mugu naval air base. "We're not asking for anyone to put it up and maintain it. We can do it ourselves."
The frontier ethic at work, a digital-age barn raising.
"This could be a pilot project," Rothgeb said. "We're a test case. If you can get broadband to Darwin, you can get it anywhere."