Randsburg

By Stephanie Guzman

A relic of California's mining history sits on a dusty road waiting for customers. It's a tiny town called Randsburg, with no major roads leading into it, and nowhere to go after it. It is just a name on a map, about 20 miles from the functioning town Johannesburg in the Mojave Desert.

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Six active businesses line the main road in town, Butte Avenue. One of them is on Google Maps, a restaurant and bar called The White House Saloon. It's run down, dirty, and decorated with "cash only" signs and old bottles. Human sized dummies peek out the windows. They're wearing cowboy hats or red ruffled dresses. The bartenders are bored during the week. They're middle aged, wearing boots and jeans and oversized t-shirts. A woman wipes down Coca-Cola glasses. A man sweeps cracked peanut shells off the floor.

Then the weekend comes and business is suddenly booming. There are more than 100 people crammed into the two-roomed restaurant. They stand, they push, they squeeze their bottoms onto one chair. Customers order from a simple menu: hamburgers, hotdogs, and fries. The men order beer on tap and watch whatever is on the one television. The women tend to their children, whipping dirt off their faces or taking bathroom trips. They're all covered in dust or dirt, and wearing the same thing: Bright colored jerseys with names like Yamaha or Honda splashed across the front, elbow pads and knee pads made of hard plastic, tall boots with sturdy straps, and goggles strung around their necks. They eat, talk, pee, rest, and leave. On Monday, there's no one in the restaurant. It's a ghost town.

Randsburg is historically one of many mining towns that sprung up in the late 1800s in California. In 1895 two miners claimed the land after hints of gold and silver. In just two months, they dug up over a million dollars worth of silver, and their mine was only 50 feet deep. By 1923, the mine grossed 13 million dollars, and the town hosted 3,500 people.

Then the price of silver dropped in the U.S. The mine stopped major production when profits fell. Families moved to other towns that still had operating mines. Randsburg never officially died, it was just forgotten for years, left for the desert winds to buff wooden structures.

Then the riders came in the 1960s. Dirtbike racing became popular in the desert because of open spaces and few regulations. Today, the sport is family oriented. It's a tradition to ride to town every camping trip, and the trail there is a reminder of what Randsburg used to be. Riders cautiously avoid going over hills. They know that just over seemingly innocent hills are deep holes, small mines that aren't covered or marked. They were left by dreamers in the hopes of discovering a string of silver.

The main mine has since closed, but some retired residents still work the mines. The majority of Randsburg's economy comes from the riders. "Without them, the food establishments would have to close down and reinvent themselves," says Pam Marshall. She owns the General Store across the street from the White House Saloon. It's decorated in a similar fashion, including an original 1904 soda fountain. Most of her customers are children. They come in the store for ice cream or any flavor milkshakes. "A lot of people have been coming up here since they were kids. There's a love of the town for a lot of bikers. To them, it's one of those places that has stayed the same and hasn't been spoiled," says Marshall.

Marshall moved to Randsburg from Orange County, and at 52, she runs the store seven days a week. She comes from a family of pioneers, so a simpler way of life makes sense. "People move up here for things the way they are," she says. "You have to be self-sufficient. Repair things that are broken. Most women don't like the desert when they realize that's what you have to do."

Marshall is a retired theatre teacher. The town is populated with retirees. According to Kern County's 2000 population records, the median age is 57 years old. There are about 77 residents, but no one under the age of 18 lives here. The only time you can hear children is on the weekends.

The youngest person in town is 22-year-old Skater Snow. He moved to Randsburg two years ago to help his cousin run the only hotel in town. He spends most of his time riding dirtbikes, or fixing things in his cousin's tool shop. While different than his hometown in San Diego, he says he likes it, but not enough to retire there. "I won't stay out here forever," he says.

His 50-year-old cousin Goap Breker is also from San Diego. He used to race dirtbikes in the desert, and when it was time to retire, he knew just the place. He bought the four-room motel and fixed it up, updating the electricity and plumbing. He also built a separate cottage and two cabins for visitors. Most weekends they have guests. "Europeans like that stuff," Breker says, referring to international tourists that like to see Death Valley.

The oldest person in town is Olga. At 98, she has deep wrinkles, but still dyes her hair brown and wears jewelry. She also owns the only bar in town. She's been a resident of Randsburg since the 1940s, and the main attraction of The Joint.

The Joint is less than attractive with a neon sign hanging above its door. It's small, and decorated with mining memorabilia such as old pictures, mostly from Olga's family. Olga entertains her guests, telling stories of her family, a family of miners. Her son and daughter visit, performing the grunt work of running a bar.

The pictures hanging in The Joint or The General Store or the White House Saloon look like pictures that are taken today. The decor is still the same since the town was actually a town. There's still no grocery store, no gas station, no stoplights. Repairs are the only changes. They consist of multi-colored wood and sheets of tin covering small holes or entire sides of buildings.

There are no homes in Randsburg. Residents fondly call their living spaces "shacks." They're houses made with wood. Most have been updated with water and a septic tank. Marshall was one of the last people to bring a mobile home to the area. Then Kern County put a moratorium on mobile homes. The county didn't want more people moving in with a shortage of water. It's like the desert itself doesn't want more people there.

The only modern pieces of Randsburg are dirtbikes, trucks, and perhaps a cooling system for the warmer months. The high seasons are fall through spring. Come summer, there's hardly any business. After all, Randsburg is located in the desert, and temperatures can reach the hundreds. Summer is approaching, and the town will be empty for some months. The bar and store owners will wait for the fall to come, when the customers come. In the summer, the living ghost town looks like it's dying.

Check out old photos of Randsburg from a YouTube user. The song "The Randsburg Solution" is by John Malcolm Penn.