Two Dollars out of Seven

After weeks of rain, high winds, and unseasonable cold, when the mercury in my outside thermometer pushed up to 55 f from 35 f, things began to look promising for a good, long ride. Tim Devantier and I decided to make the run up into the upper Mojave Desert to Calico Ghost Town, just outside of Barstow, California. Air temperatures in the 50s are a safe bet for riding, if one wears the proper winter riding gear. Good winter gear, that is, because one has to remember the wind chill factor when moving at 70-75 mph on a motorcycle.

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Neither of us had been to Calico before, but we knew it had been a silver mining boom town in the 1890s. It seemed likely that the town would have old buildings and mining equipment that would be worth photographing. I wanted to test a roll of Ilford Delta 400 film, which Mike Harmon had recommended after I complained about the heavy grain of Kentmere 400. Mike had also mentioned that Calico was a bit “touristy”, but I figured that I could shoot around the tourists in the same way that I had when I went to Bodie, another abandoned mining town on the edge of the Sierra Nevadas farther north. 

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The outside temperature dropped a bit as we rode through the upper reaches of the Cajon Pass. Given our winter riding gear, it was just on the edge of cold. Since I-15, the road to Las Vegas, runs a bit faster than most in Southern California, we averaged a easy 80 mph between the junction and Barstow.

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When we rode up to the entrance there were a handful of cars in front of us and we waited a few minutes to pay the entrance fee, which was $7 per adult ($7 per adult!!!!!). No motorcycle discount. No senior discount. But we’re here, I thought. We rode a hundred miles for this, so we might as well go inside and see what it is like.

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Calico was indeed, touristy. A great deal more so than Bodie, which can only be reached via a badly maintained dirt road. The $7 entrance fee entitled one to a very cheaply produced, single color brochure about the town (think quick and dirty printing quality). The town was apparently owned by Walter Knott, the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, and donated to the County of San Bernardino in 1966. Given it’s previous owner, it is no wonder that it was so touristy.

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It could easily be a Knott’s Berry Farm annex. The feel of the town was ruined by the addition of brightly-painted signs, asphalt streets, tourist junk shops, and a general fake “old west” patina that was obviously applied well after the period. If the town had been left alone in the original state of slow decay, it would have been considerably more satisfying to me.

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We wandered around the town for nearly forty minutes before leaving, which is not a long shoot. I was able to “shoot around” the tourists most of the time, capturing images of buildings, horses, and industrial age machinery. Sometimes having people in the frame was unavoidable. I shot the entire roll of Ilford Delta 400 and a few frames of 120 film. When we walked out of the town and returned to our Road Stars, we agreed that the entrance fee should have been $2, since that was about what we would willingly give to get in next time. But there will be no next time.

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Back on the highway the wind that had produced a slight choppiness on the way up from the Cajon Pass was now at our backs and the ride was smoother. We stopped at a chain burger joint to eat a late lunch.

Walking back out to the bikes in the parking lot, Tim turned toward me. “Now I consider that seven dollars to have been well-spent.” He said.

“Damn right.” I said. “Of course, we don’t ever have to go back there again.”