Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the desert? I’ve been fascinated by and curious about people who choose to live somewhere with blistering hot temperatures, very little water, unpredictable weather, and in remote areas with little access to goods and services. I often thought about trying it out, but never had the guts. When I tuned in to what my soul needed as a way to recalibrate after the past two years of major transitioning, I envisioned wide open skies, views of vast alluvial plains and distant majestic mountains, and a separation from the distractions and allure of my former life. I wanted something that really marked the changes I was going through on the inside with a major change on the outside.
Wildest of the Wild West
Darwin used to be the last place to get a room before entering Death Valley on the old toll road. When the new highway, offering free access to the park, bypassed Darwin, the town’s source of income vanished. Now there isn’t a single store, hotel, bar, gas station, or any business except a couple of houses that offer air bnb—oh, and the Post Office. The Post Office comes alive at 11 am each day except Sundays and holidays. Residents sit in plastic molded chairs lined up outdoors along the southwest-facing wall to check in with other community members while waiting for the mail to get sorted and put in the old-fashioned brass boxes by Dai, the only employed person in Darwin (besides a waitress who commutes to a restaurant in Panamint Springs). Sometimes there are more dogs than people, and they all happily wrestle and play and greet each new person and dog that approaches. One morning, when it was a bit warmer a couple of weeks ago, a third of the town’s population was sitting in front of the Post Office—12 all at once! Darwin’s full time population is 37, but several houses are vacant most of the time, unless the owners are here for a vacation or special event. Though it was once a rowdy, sometimes lawless and violent town—known as the wildest of the wild west—now Darwin is home to many artists and retirees. The median age is 63.5. There are no children, though grandchildren do visit.
One quote said out of the 124 graves in Darwin’s cemetery, only two died a natural death; the rest were a result of violence. The exaggeration indicates Darwin’s reputation of being a town of violence during its mining heyday. This tombstone is the most prominent and the first one you see when entering the cemetery. Nancy Williams was a beloved “retired” madame who was brutally murdered, probably for her money. The murderer was never prosecuted.
A Bit of History…
Settled in 1874 after silver was discovered in the area (and later lead, zinc, and copper), the Darwin district once served almost 60 mines in production with a thriving population of around 4000. There is a large discrepancy in this number because Indians, convicts, Mexicans, women, and Chinese were not allowed to vote and so were not counted in census data, nor were men who lived the nomadic life of many miners. However, it is said the population in Darwin was the same as LA at the time, and it was considered as a potential capital of California until the bust period followed a few years later. The population has dwindled ever since. The last mine closed in 1970.
So why do people choose to live here? I’m sure the low cost of buying property is part of it—you can get an acre of land without a habitable dwelling for less than $20,000, and ones with a home can be found for less than $75,000. But it seems to me that mostly people are drawn to Darwin because of the possibility to create whatever you want, to live without a lot of regulations, and where people accept you for who you are. The result is a very creative group of independent people who have learned how to make do with—and appreciate—what they’ve got. Several talented artists call Darwin home, including sculptors, painters, jewelers, quilters, musicians, and at least one author and one filmmaker. Houses are made from cargo containers, trailers, RVs, rammed earth, old miner’s cabins, and Max’s house (which used to be a tavern) is adobe. There’s also a great love for being integrated with nature, a deep appreciation of weather patterns, and a lot of excitement when flowers bloom in the spring. Two springs ago Max and I and a few friends drove for over two hours to find the rare Panamint daisy. When we came across just a couple of small bushes with their huge pale yellow sunburst flowers the mood was celebratory enough to have a round of cold beers.
Darwin is also a sweet and caring community. I’ve been invited to more potlucks and celebrations in the past 3 weeks of being here than in the past 3 months in Santa Cruz. When Max needs something fixed on his house he calls Aaron, who is usually available within a day, and though it’s a 40 minute drive to the closest hardware store, there’s a good chance that someone in town will have just what you need. The talk around the Post Office lately has been about Hal, a longtime Darwinian. He’s had some health issues and has been in a convalescent home for a few months. He wants to return to the creative underground house he built on the edge of town with an incredible view of the Coso Mountain range and his beloved burro watering hole, but since he’s almost blind, has leukemia, and will return with a new walker, he will need extensive care. People are figuring out how to coordinate taking him to doctor’s visits, bringing firewood to his home, helping with food, etc. That’s what I call community!
Serenity and Recalibration
Watching the beautiful sunsets each evening, checking out the state of the moon and the glorious night sky, and taking off from the house on a different hike each day are some of the simple pleasures I appreciate in Darwin. Instead of lamenting the sounds of sirens each night, I now revel in the yips and howls of coyotes. Instead of being on edge about a slow-walking man illuminated by street lights when I’m walking the dogs late at night, I now get surprised at an indignant wild burro huffing and snorting at us in the totally black night. Instead of the constant roar of the nearby freeway, and planning my day to avoid stop-and-go traffic, I now am astounded if more than two or three cars pass by in an hour or two on our street that has the only stop sign in town (and no traffic lights!). The main thing I notice is silence. Lots of it! Sometimes there’s the sound of wind in the distance, and I know things may change soon as a new weather system makes its way over a distant pass. Sometimes there’s the ear-piercing sound of fighter jets venturing out from a desert military base (there are a few nearby, but the closest is the China Lake Naval Base, which I can see if I hike for about 10 minutes from the house). Sometimes I hear the abrupt braying of a burro, which gets Riley super excited. But those sounds are a startling exception to the norm. With the silence I gradually hear more of my own voice, one that is so ready to create an entirely new lifestyle that uses less resources and values connection over separation. One that veers strongly away from consumerism and being so busy that I ignore the parts of life that are most sacred. One that strives to be actively involved in finding ways to create a more sustainable and awake human presence on earth.
Although I love Darwin, I notice that I sometimes want easier access to social interaction—like the possibility of doing some partner dancing or ecstatic dance without driving for 40+ minutes. Or a qigong or yoga class. Or a swimming pool to get the exercise I’m used to. Or going out for an occasional dinner. Or a coffee shop I can disappear in and write for an hour or two. And I miss the farmer’s markets I got so used to in Santa Cruz—now I drive for an hour and 40 minutes to get to a Von’s that actually has quite a bit of organic produce, but I’ve been ordering foods I can’t find there from Amazon. I wouldn’t mind that so much, except for all the packaging I then have to take to the Lone Pine landfill’s recycling station, which is a 45 minute drive…. So those are some of the prices I pay for living in this peaceful paradise of a community. I am more than grateful for this sweet place to land, for now…
And what’s next? This weekend I’m going to Port Townsend to attend a community meeting and be interviewed as a next step in becoming a member of the Port Townsend Ecovillage. If I am approved, I will build my own tiny house on a lot I will share with two other women that are close to my age. I am so excited about living in that kind of intentional community, even though I’m nervous about the personal freedoms I will give up. I see it as an opportunity for me to step up to my potential, to learn leadership and communication skills for living in community, and to create as simple, sustainable, and ingenious a tiny abode as I can. This feels like IT for me! Like what I’ve been seeking for all these past 20 or 30 years, or maybe even my whole life. And maybe I’ll have enough money left over that I can also create a little winter retreat in Darwin…. Life is fantasticly surprising when I listen to my inner guides!!
For a richer taste of some of Darwin’s characters, check out this short video, called Darwin Dreamin’, by Kim Stringfellow, who created the Mojave Project: https://vimeo.com/167201732 or http://mojaveproject.org/dispatches-item/darwin-dreamin/