Cultural Life Flourishes in This 'Almost' Ghost Town Near Death Valley

Most people treasure the solitude of Darwin. You have to if you’re going to survive. The town’s internet service is still dial-up. Cellphone connectivity is sketchy at best, and the nearest big grocery store is a 75-mile round trip. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

Chances are some of the three dozen or so people who live in the almost ghost town of Darwin on the edge of Death Valley will see you coming way before you see them.

Your tires will kick up 5 miles of dust along the single washboard road that drops into town from the highway.

“There’s a stop sign at an intersection where paved road seems to end. I have a feeling there's a bunch of eyes peeking at me from behind the curtains of the old falling-down houses,” says artist and writer Kathy Goss, reading from her new book, "Darwoon Dyreez."

Cultural Life Flourishes in This 'Almost' Ghost Town Near Death Valley

Cultural Life Flourishes in This 'Almost' Ghost Town Near Death Valley

“So I turn around, drive back out of town, and that's the end of my first visit to Darwoon,” reads Goss.


The 75-year-old Goss now lives in that little house at the intersection she describes in "Darwoon Dyreez." The book is part desert noir, part semi-fictional memoir written in Darwoonish, a desert patois she invented.

“I wanted to create a feeling of a desert rat kind of lingo,” said Goss. “It sort of shows the way the narrator in the book , who bears a strong resemblance to me, has become countrified.”

Goss arrived from San Francisco about 25 years ago following a personal tragedy and tightening finances.

“And I ended up buying the house I’m now living in for $18,500,” said Goss.

Since her days living in San Francisco’s North Beach at the tail end of the Beat poetry scene, Goss has always dabbled in painting, poetry and music, while juggling jobs as a book editor.

Darwin-based artist and writer Kathy Goss spins colorful desert yarns in her new semi-fictional memoir. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

Outside near a flowering cactus, there are all kinds of creative debris, including a refrigerator that might turn into an art installation and a pile of sun-bleached animal bones.

Next to the house, there's an old school building that dates back to Darwin’s mining days. There’s also a more recent structure: a large geocentric dome hand-assembled by Goss and friends that functions as a meeting and performance space. She also transformed a storage container into a functioning recording studio.

Kathy Goss' home is overflowing with creative detritus, including a pile of sun-bleached animal bones found in the desert. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

Goss treasures the solitude in Darwin. You have to if you’re going to survive in such an isolated place. The town’s internet service is still dial-up. Cellphone connectivity is sketchy at best. The nearest big grocery store is a 70-mile round trip.

Some people prefer to stay off the radar. When the occasional reporter or film crew barrels into town, they draw the shades down farther.  There was a short film made not too long ago that raked over the lurid details of a few characters in town. It didn’t go over well.

Goss' book is a little more buoyant, shot through with humor and lovable eccentrics. But she doesn't skip over the shadows in Darwin’s past. There have been plenty since its days as a booming mineral mining town.

“Everybody's pretty much poverty line, or if they got more they don't go bragging around about it,” reads Goss from "Darwoon Dyreez."

“Some do drugs or drunk their selves to death. Some are civic-minded, always doing good deeds. Paradise or something else, you can go ahead and decide for yourself.”

A short walk from Goss’ home is one of the few places open to strangers, some of the time. There's a note on the front door welcoming people to town.

A note welcomes visitors to one of the few places in Darwin open to the public. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

“Space and beauty with the room to be who you are. Ahhh…,”

“Hit the gong and I will come out,” it says.

“Or my dog Finnegan will bark.”

It’s the home of sculptor Jim Hunolt and his partner, Rose. They also operate a little folk art store on the property.

A few of Jim’s sleek, abstract sculptures are scattered outside. Some of his pieces fetch tens of thousands of dollars at a gallery on the coast.

A James Hunolt sculpture in Darwin, California. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

Rose says the reason the couple is here is simple.

“Freedom. Just to do what you want,” she says. “There's what, 35 people that live here now? So you kind of find your kindred spirits amidst that.”

Another sculptor, Gordon Newell, moved to Darwin in the early 1970s to escape the crowds in Monterey's Cannery Row, where he had a studio. His presence is still felt 20 years after his death. His son, Hal, built a multilevel home that’s partially embedded into the earth to help keep it cool in the sweltering summer months.

Gordon Newell sculptures on view in Darwin at the outdoor pavilion created by his son, Hal. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

“There’s a lot more of the sculptures up here,” Newell said, as he makes the short hike up a slope above the house.

He moves toward what looks like a giant rusty umbrella suspended in midair.  It is the corrugated steel covering of a sculpture garden he created as a tribute to his father. The shell is kept aloft with thick steel rods sunk deep into massive hunks of black dolomite.

Gordon Newell sculptures on view in Darwin at the outdoor pavilion created by his son, Hal. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

“There are 12 of them, one for each month set up in a circle 48 feet in diameter,” said Newell, standing in the shade of the steel canopy.

Along the outer edges of the space are a series of Gordon Newell sculptures in marble, black granite and bronze. In any traditional museum space it would be a stunning sight. Set on a hill in the open desert, it is otherworldly. Locals ribbed Newell by nicknaming  it Halhenge, a take off the legendary Stonehenge.

“It's a nice pleasant space to be in. You wander around up here and you can look at all the different sculptures through the different openings in between the rocks," said Newell.

Kathy Goss and Hal Newell at the Gordon Newell sculpture garden/pavilion created by Hal. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

Newell doesn’t advertise this place. It’s not really the kind of thing one does in Darwin. But word’s gotten around.

“One lady (who visited) was very puzzled. She couldn't figure out why I built this thing way out here in the middle of nowhere,” he laughed.

“I told her: ‘Well, this is where I live. I can't just go and build it anywhere!' She was really confounded!”

One of Newell's latest jobs is a massive granite tablet. Across the surface spelled out in big black letters: DARWIN. It’s a road marker. Kathy Goss said Newell worked on it with an Eagle Scout for a community service project.

“So Hal used pneumatic tools to chip away the rock. The Eagle Scout and his scoutmaster worked on it executing the actual lettering,” she said.

The new Darwin road sign created by Hal Newell and an area Eagle Scout.

The marker will be installed on Highway 190, right where that unmarked road drops into town. It is causing some mixed feelings. It means people will find Darwin easier -- and not everyone wants to be found so easily.

So don't be too surprised if it feels like a real ghost town when you finally get to "where paved road ends." It’s nothing personal. Just means you’ve finally arrived in Darwoon.

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