The road seemed the same as it had been in 1974 when this future desert wanderer began my sojourns to the Northern Mojave. A shortcut to “my desert,” it followed the old Randsburg stage road from Jawbone Canyon on Highway 14 and shortcuts to Highway 178 and the town of Trona.
The town was, and is, the last stop for supplies before climbing over the Slate Range Pass and dropping into the hostile environment of deep and desolate natural troughs named Panamint, Eureka, Saline and finally Death Valley. In most cases, the turn around the mountain into Trona and Searles Valley is preceded by the pungent smell like rotting eggs from sulfur and other chemicals.
Trona sits on the edge of the lake named for John Searles, who established mining around the dry lake in the 1870s. In the early 20th century the town began to flourish with the mining company building basic housing, a school, and a grocery store where only company-issued paper and coin money (“Trona money”) could be used.
Trona became a company town in 1913. The initial mining boom happened during World War I when, thanks to Germany’s embargo, Trona became the only reliable American source for potash, a very important element used in the making of gunpowder...