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Darwin: The lonely desert oasis in the middle of nowhere, and that's how they like it | Bartell's Backroads

From silver mining town to artist community under the Death Valley sun.

DARWIN, Calif. — At the western most edge of Death Valley just before the National Park entrance, there’s a desert colony of sorts known as Darwin.

As you make your way into town, you are welcomed by a barrage of sun-burnt shacks and abandoned trailer homes. At first, it looks like a ghost town, but people do live here.

Larry the Lifeguard is one of about 40 people who live in Darwin and if you want to know why people call him Larry the Lifeguard, you’ll have to follow him to his house, which is a little hard to see.

“I have trouble finding it myself sometimes,” said Larry. It’s hard to find because, like a number of Larry’s neighbors, he lives underground.

Hidden under trees and several feet of dirt is Larry’s 2,000-square-foot desert oasis. According to Larry, his home is about 20-30 degrees cooler underground. It’s here the retiree invites visitors over to tell stories from his past.

“I was a lifeguard for 31 years on the beaches in Santa Monica and Venice,” said Larry.

He loves the ocean and the desert, so when he was younger, he bought some cheap land in Darwin and built a vacation home mostly made out of recycled materials.

“The beams in the roof, those are parts of the old Santa Monica pier,” said Larry.

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He admits he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of living underground in Darwin. Old silver miners dug holes in the hillside to escape the heat.

“In 1875, there were 4,000 people living around here and miners didn’t mind living underground in caves," said Larry.

Darwin was a silver mine named after Darwin French, a prospector who was originally in search of a mythical mine. 

“Darwin was looking for the lost Gun Sight Mine, but what he found was the waterfall and the area was named after him,” said Larry.

The waterfall he's talking about is Darwin Falls and it's one of the few water sources in Death Valley. The water supported all the mining operations in the town of Darwin.

“This was the second-largest silver strike in the area,” said Larry.

The old mine is still operational, but these days artists and retirees outnumber the miners. Drive around town and you’ll see a number of Jim Hunolt’s sculptures, along with other paintings and oddities.

If you’re wondering where the town gets food, stop by the Darwin Community Garden and talk to Tamara Myers. She retired from teaching in Santa Cruz to garden in the desert and get away from it all.

“I was just done with that life and wanted a big change,” said Hunolt.

Darwin may be hot, dry and desolate but that’s how the people here like it, and if you find yourself visiting Darwin, chances are you will like it too as long as get here before the heat of the day sets in.

HIT THE BACKROADS: California's state parks make for great road trips all year long. Don't miss John's list of the top five that you need to visit!

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