The Town That Didn't Fail: Searchlight, Nevada is the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It's also debating—passionately—a plan to install wind turbines just outside of town. My personal favorite suggestion: "please camoflage with blue!!!" Get on it, guys (Photo: Tim Murphy).
Another Palm Springs: The Salton Sea is not for everyone (Photo: Tim Murphy).Bombay Beach, California—At the far corner of the Ski Inn on Avenue A, in the only juice joint in a town too small, even, for its own polling station, two-hundred and thirty-nine feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean—an elevation that's low enough for long enough that Navy pilots will from time to time buzz overhead just to tell their buddies they took a dip below sea level—George Cannon, 90, is talking about his fears.
"I'm glad I'm not a young person right now," he says, emphatically, looking up from a glass of Franzia. He'll say this many times over the course of a few hours. The reasons are myriad—there's the recession, no, depression, which he frets will take us years to get out of. There's China, which is just sitting there waiting to become the second wheel to a world war. And there's the Mayan apocalypse, which is slated to arrive sometime in 2012, by which point he will gladly be gone* and we'll be stuck dealing with whatever the heck it is that's even supposed to happen. Not that he isn't content with his life—"If I could go back, I'd like things to happen as they did; the good times outnumbered the bad." Just glad he's not my age is all.
George has a piece of shrapnel, picked up in Burma during the War, on the inside of his right bicep, visible to the eye as a brown dot. He went in for an MRI once ("those M things"), and was kept in the chamber for, by his estimate, 300 hours, because the doctor forgot to take that into account. It also sets off metal detectors, although he can usually escape detention. His darts game has hit a rough patch recently, but all told, he has taken his years well; the desert has a way of making everyone, 8 to 80, look 65.
Lead There be Light: Leonard Knight, 79, began building Salvation Mountain, outside Niland, California, in 1986. I'd hesitate to call anything made from gallons of paint "green" except in a strictly colorful sense, but Knight does get creative, constructing "trees" out of stacked tires, adobe, and large sticks. Mostly, though, the place is about getting the message out: God = Love. In recent years, Knight's legend has grown with appearances in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," and the John Waters-narrated documentary, "Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea" (Photo: Tim Murphy).
Taos, New Mexico—Before I can talk to Ariel Bui, I have to wait in line. A young woman, with a dusty blue scarf wrapped around her neck to keep still the flies, is inquiring about work. This isn't exactly the best time, and it's not exactly standard operating procedure, as far as job searches go, but she has a few good reasons not to take no for an answer: She just hitchhiked down from Colorado this morning and has nowhere to go from here—no place to stay, not even a contact—so this had better turn into something positive; and she has an idea: She's heard about the Earthships.
This, according to Ariel, is a pretty common occurence at the Earthship community. "I wouldn't say, like, every day, but maybe once every couple of weeks we'll get people who say 'I want to work.'"
"I think it's fascinating. It shows a different type of dedication when someone just wants to do it. There's stigma sometimes when interns do the work and don't get paid," she says. "But it really is a learning experience. You pay to go to college!"
For the uninitiated, Earthships are the brainchild of a rogue architect named Michael Reynolds, who's been building them since the 1970s. They rely heavily on a few core ingredients: Tires, packed with earth, form the thicker walls; glass bottles and tin cans (also filled with earth) help provide insulation, and depending on how creative you're feeling, an aesthetic touch. Mud and straw, concrete, and papercrete (recycled paper pulp mixed with cement) do most of the rest of the work. The windows are key, too, since a good earthship should also be naturally climate controlled.