It's easy to miss Hinkley. Though this Mojave Desert town—or, more officially, ZIP Code Tabulation Area—is just off California's Highway 58 and only 10 miles outside of Barstow, the casual passerby isn't urged to notice it. A highway exit sign appears in one direction only, and not the way I happened to be traveling. When I got off the highway to seek out the place I reached Hodge—10 miles to the south, where Hinkley Road meets the National Old Trails Road—before I realized I must have gone the wrong way. By the time I turned myself around and reached Hinkley, dusk had fallen as heavily on the mostly deserted town as the hard luck that has plagued it for decades.
Hinkley wasn't supposed to end this way. You may remember the town's name from the film Erin Brockovich, which ended on a pretty darn happy note. But 20 years after legal secretary Brockovich helped 650 residents win a record $333 million class-action settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for disastrous environmental and medical consequences of decades of toxic waste dumping, Hinkley's chromium 6–laced doom has only worsened, with the polluted area quadrupling in size since that judgement. Now several miles wide and seven miles long, the underground toxic plume is estimated to be growing at a constant rate of 2.5 feet per day, creeping into the groundwater of one neighboring property lot after another, a macrocosm of the invasive cancers disproportionately diagnosed among Hinkley residents.
PG&E has tried to reverse the toxic tide in a number of ways—current methods include, on the high-tech side, injecting ethanol into the ground to convert highly carcinogenic chromium-6 into benign chromium-3, and on the low-tech side, digging plain old trenches in attempts to disrupt its relentless spread. Relief programs for property owners range from bottled-water delivery to home buyouts—the latter feasible only for those who can afford to take the devaluation hit and/or bear relocation costs. PG&E, now Hinkley's largest landholder, has bought hundreds of homes and even a large commercial dairy under the buyback program, demolishing structures almost as quickly as they're vacated. And with every demolition, the town becomes less tenable for those left behind. Hinkley's elementary school, established in 1902, closed in 2013. Its post office closed in 2015, a year that also saw the demise of the town's only gas station and its last retail business, a convenience mart that was known to extend credit to financially strapped residents. The owner of both had been struggling for years and finally agreed to sell his land—to PG&E.
It's a town stuck in a relentless, mundane spiral of decline. My fascination with ghost towns lies in the stories their ruins tell, what can be gleaned of the people who once thrived there. But Hinkley isn't a ghost town yet. To be sure, there are entire neighborhood blocks with only a few houses standing. Some are clearly vacant, most boarded up and marked for teardown, with an errant few allowed to chart their own course of slow dilapidation. Empty lots stretch between the structures, their stages of weed growth indicating the vintage of their abandonment. The odd house, however, shows signs of life inside: a faint light within, an operable car in the drive, children's toys scattered in the yard. Families still live here, complicating my feelings about tromping around their town to photograph the carnage of what had been. But Hinkley is actively and intentionally being wiped from memory; I expect to live long enough to see a day when it's no longer there at all, after the last homeowner has died or sold out and any remaining structures have been leveled after her. I can't think of another example where evidence of a town's human ecosystem is being so quickly and decisively eradicated, and I guess I want to give my own testimony to what was.
When I came upon the house above—abandoned, extant, and accessible—I didn't have to use much imagination to see that it had been quite a nice home once. Not too long ago, its people took pride in ownership and had not much more reason than most of us to think that their house would fall to such a fate. Spending time there underscored my basic belief that so many of our successes and failures lie just beyond our best efforts. These are the life circumstances that aren't about bad decisions or insufficient care—they're about luck and the dumb vagaries that visit riches on some and disaster on others, rarely in proportion to our efforts or lack thereof.
As dusk gave way to darkness I was still exploring the house and became startled by the near roar of an unmuffled truck. I stood behind a column as its headlights flashed past the doorless entryway, then I peered out a broken window to see a full-size pickup speed by, its open bed loaded with teenagers. If they cared that a strange car was parked outside, they didn't slow down to investigate. I'm sure they had better things to do than stop to harass yet another photographer gawking at the town crumbling around them. Still, it made me feel uncomfortable for all the reasons that it should: I'm a dark tourist at their apocalypse, and when I've had my fill of sadness I can leave.
We live in a beautiful house on a quiet cul de sac that overlooks the Chatsworth Nature Preserve, 1,325 magnificent acres of open space loaded with California oaks, hilly grasslands, and a reservoir that hosts hundreds of wildlife species. Owned by the Department of Water and Power, the land is closed to the public; we feel lucky to have a vista on this uncharacteristically large swath of protected wilderness right here in the L.A. city limit. We have some peace of mind knowing that it will never be developed, despite its enormous land value, but that certainty is parceled with the knowledge that the land is set aside largely because it's too close to ground- and surface-water sites contaminated by radioactive waste dumped in the 1950s by Santa Susana Field Lab and Rocketdyne, who contracted with the government for rocket and nuclear reactor testing. Could that icky truth ever come to haunt our groundwater and destroy our property value—or worse? I'll go on record to say that I've seen and heard too much to ever again truly trust powerful people—in business or politics—to do the right thing for the common benefit. So here's hoping my embarrassingly long streak of sheer dumb luck holds out. If not, I fully expect that someday someone like me will be creeping around our house, crunching through the debris of deterioration and things not worth carrying, taking pictures of the magnificent ruin, and I support their mission. I ask only that they pause to consider what once was: to feel the soul of the place, to visualize decorative flesh on its bones, to imagine the happy lives it hosted, and to appreciate how truly and quickly anything we ever take for granted can slip away.