Baker, CA

Yesterday, as I was driving home from Las Vegas, I decided to stop in the little town of Baker, California. (For those keeping track, yes, this was the second consecutive weekend that I traveled to Las Vegas. The first was for Juliette's birthday, the second for the annual get-together of my college friends during the NCAA basketball tournament.) This wasn't the first time I've ever stopped in Baker, but it was the first time that I stopped for the express purpose of looking around and trying to see what was really there.

For those of you who have never driven Interstate 15 between Southern California and Nevada, Baker is a tiny little town about halfway between Barstow and Vegas. I say "town," but in most ways it seems like more of an overgrown truck stop--the main "drag" is just a few miles long and mainly consists of gas stations, fast food, a couple of seedy-looking motels, and a few diners.

And, of course, the "world's tallest thermometer," which isn't actually a thermometer at all but rather a 134-foot-tall electric sign:

There's not much else. Lonely desert stretches out for miles in every direction, broken up by a few volcanic hills.

I had always assumed that Baker really was just a truck stop, and that the gas stations and diners were staffed mostly by seasonal temporary workers. It caught me off-guard, then, when the first thing to greet me at the end of the off-ramp was a bunch of teenagers waving a carwash sign that read "Support the Class of 2010." Suddenly, this little spot out in the middle of nowhere seemed to be hiding a real community, and I found myself extremely curious to know what life there was like.

It turns out--as I was able to find via a little Googling when I got home--that Baker has a small, but apparently close-knit permanent community. There's an entire school district serving just that town, with about 200 K-12 students. And a community services district that manages things like garbage collection and water, as well as a public park, swimming pool, and community center. I drove around a bit and, sure enough, I found a teeny little public park where five or six kids were kicking a soccer ball around. I found a fire station, a post office, a ramshackle little church, and a whole bunch of trailers and small, run-down houses.

As I drove up and down the cracked pavement of the side streets, questions kept running through my head. Like "What do the kids in this town do for fun?" and "What do people do after work?" "What else am I not seeing?" I wish I had been able to stop and get my car washed, just so I could have asked some of the students what it was like to grow up there. Unfortunately, where they were set up was before the end of the very long off-ramp, where the road was still one lane, and I would have had to backtrack at least ten or fifteen miles up the freeway to try to come back around.

So, I guess I'm stuck wondering, for now, what life in Baker is like for the locals. Maybe some day I'll have the chance to stop in again, with the time to look around more to see if I could get anyone to talk to me. It seems like such a depressing, isolated life, but something tells me there's a story there.

The rest of my photos from this week's set: