Keys to Freeze, Mile 3599: The Town Devoured by Dust

What happens to a town when its main water supply is diverted to a big nearby metropolis?

Keys to Freeze, Mile 3599: The Town Devoured by Dust

Keeler, California, rests in the flatlands between the western edge of Death Valley National Park and the eastern Sierra Mountains. As Keys to Freeze descends toward the town on a hot, dry day this spring, dust — “soda ash,” as it’s locally called — gusts around us. It settles onto our skin, our bikes. The all-consuming dust finds its way through the woven fabrics of our bags to inhabit the spaces between camera and lens, and it covers Keeler in a granulated blanket, moving in drifts from one building to the next. The battered sign reading Keeler, population 50 swings back and forth on its post in the wind as the soda ash billows about. The town seems deserted, quiet except for the whooshing wind. An original mining boomtown of the late 1800s, Keeler once boasted a population of 5,000. The dried-up Owens Lake off to the east is the source of the majority of the dust, driving off its surface in great gasps.

We are out of water. That morning we have climbed out of Death Valley in the heat of another desert day. Thirsty work for thirsty folk. Everything in this area looks needy. As four dehydrated cyclists, we are fitting right in with the scenery, the land surrounding Keeler a great expanse of hard, cracked earth.

Owens Lake, which in the early 1900s spanned twelve miles long and eight miles wide, was once fed by the Owens River. But in 1913 the river was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct to meet the growing city’s water demands. Thus, within a decade, the Owens Lake dried up, leaving behind only clay, sand and minerals. With the desiccation of Owens Lake came the withering of Keeler. The population dropped sharply as mines closed and the rail line leading to the city was discontinued.

Today, the only services in the town are completely provided by “the Rock Pile.”

It sits on Keeler’s north side, the last building before the town passes into the vast desert nothingness beyond. We are unsure if the Rock Pile is a gas station, a convenience store, or some eccentric’s home. The property does not seem to belong in the town. There are colors — painted windows and lawn fixtures. We walk up to the front door and knock. Suzan Heckethorn opens it, smiling. She welcomes us in, offers water and answers our questions about the town.

Our first is simple: “Where is everyone?”

“I don’t know where the fifty people are,” says Heckethorn. “I’ve only counted thirty or so…I wonder where the other twenty are?”

Heckethorn, in her sixties, is thin and weathered. She was raised in Keeler and returned home five years ago to help take care of her ailing father and mother. The town had changed. With the increasing frequency of the Owens Lake dust storms, the majority of remaining townsfolk had fled to more hospitable climates. Keeler had dried up with the lake.

Her five years since returning home have been hard. Heckethorn’s family passed away – her sister dying nineteen days before her father, her mother a year later. Heckethorn was left with the Keeler home and a collection of art projects begun by her mother and father.

Keeler is still her first home and, after years away, she decided to stay and work toward creating some community within the town. “I’ve never owned my own place, so now that I do I can be whoever I want to be. I’m showing people who I really am,” she says.

Heckthorn opened the Rock Pile, welcoming in travelers headed to and from Death Valley. What started as a roadside rock stand grew into a small convenience store servicing both travelers and the people of Keeler. Her artwork sits around the property, adding color to the gray town.

But still the winds blow their soda ash across Keeler. Owens Lake is considered one of the largest single sources of dust pollution in the United States. According to measurements taken during a 2001 dust storm, these high wind events can carry over 20,000 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter, which is 138 times over the federal standard of 150 micrograms per cubic meter — a hot wall of soda ash. Heckethorn remembers a day from her youth when the dust clouds were so thick she walked right into a telephone pole. “Me and my sister were walking, and then smack!”

This is how it feels to find Keeler. The town comes out of nowhere, and smack; we are hit hard. A town bent underneath the immeasurable weight of a manmade, inhospitable climate. Yet Heckethorn continues to live in the Rock Pile, making do with what she has or can create. Her art project will likely never end. It grows with the pride she takes in her home and her town. The yard, a sandy acre, stretches out her back door. There is a footpath winding through her property. It takes us by art she and her family created. One such installation I find overwhelmingly powerful; built by her father some years back, she expanded upon it after his passing. It is a wooden bridge over a waterless pond, leading the walker over nothing but dry and dusty rocks.

She calls it The Bridge to Nowhere.

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Read more Keys to Freeze adventures on Narratively as our daring cyclist friends make their way from the Florida Keys to Deadhorse, Alaska.