Highway 58 east of the Mojave Preserve is a well-traveled and unremarkable stretch of road. Flat, open, no stores or gas stations, which caused me some anxiety until I hit Four Corners, a busy crossroads with at least three gas stations. Six miles farther, I pulled into Boron.
The weather was blowing cold and wet, and Maria at the little RV park in town said, “Oh, yes. We have a library about a block away, and it has Internet.”
I should have been more clear. There was indeed a library nearby. But it was only open two days a week, and it didn’t have wifi, which is what I need to do things like upload this blog. In fact, the only other place that had Internet of any sort (“But please don’t download anything”) was Haynes Hardware. Obama was right—there are places in America where high-speed Internet is a novelty.
The first thing you notice about Boron is the emptiness: empty houses, empty stores, vacant lots. What you also notice are the kids, adolescents mostly, who walk around in small groups. They don’t seem neglected or menacing—they’re just hanging out the way kids do. Boron doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment, but the kids seem to deal.
The next thing you notice about Boron is that, except for the four restaurants in town (no bars), any store that managed to survive—all two of them—contained an improbable variety of merchandise. Thus, Haynes Hardware was a well-stocked little hardware store of the old-timey variety, a movie rental place, an Internet café (sans coffee), and a Western Union wire service. “My business is geared toward the needs of the community,” says Lynda. “If customers request items regularly, we try to add them. That’s how we stocked the store.”
The place was buzzing. Lynda Haynes bustled around like a mother hen behind the large and cluttered counter.
“Honey, are you sure you know where you’re sending this money?” she asks a woman who seems confused about the recipient of her wire transfer. “I just don’t want you to lose your money.”
She continues in this vein, answering questions about wax rings for toilets with the same aplomb that she addresses Internet connection problems or figures out a new interface that Western Union suddenly threw at her.
Lynda came to Boron from San Diego in 1979, and now it’s home. “People are friendly and caring,” she says. “They help each other. Parents are very active and involved in the schools, sports, and the churches.”
I heard similar sentiments from Barbara Pratt, the chipmunk-spry 90-year-old caretaker of the Twenty Mule Team Museum. Barbara came to Boron in 1932 when her father got a job at the mine during the Depression. She’s lived here all her life, at one time driving the only taxi in town. She authored a book about the history of Boron, and acted as guide and interpreter for the Hollywood crew who came to Boron to film the movie “Erin Brockovich.”
Candid snapshots of Julia Roberts, often looking decidedly ordinary, fill one case in the museum. “They couldn’t film the movie in Hinkley, because no one lives there anymore because of the contamination, so they came here,” said Barbara. Clearly, this was Boron’s 15 minutes of fame.
The surprising thing about Boron is that, although it is less than three miles from the richest deposit of borates in the world, and although the mine, which is owned by Rio Tinto, a huge conglomerate, employs about 800 people, Boron could be in the middle of the Himalayas for all the good the mine seems to have done it. “The mine employs a lot of people from other towns who commute to work,” said a guide at the visitors’ center, tacitly acknowledging my comment.
“People on public assistance from other counties are told to come to Boron,” said Barbara. “They don’t work, and they don’t want to work.” I also heard that comment more than once.
Still, one would think the presence of a thriving mine would have some effect on the town beyond the pride locals like Barbara feel about its history. But I couldn’t see one.
The town seems content to make do with leftovers as people without choices often do. In an odd way, I enjoyed the few days I spent in Boron.