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Ghost Towns of Instagram

Inside a new California Gold Rush

Last summer, a handful of real estate investors bought a California ghost town for $1.4 million, with plans to transform it into “an outpost for travelers, artists, and dreamers of all kinds.” The town, Cerro Gordo, is nestled in the foothills of the Inyo Mountains on indigenous northern Paiute territory in east-central California. A four-hour drive from the city of Los Angeles and about 250 miles from the already Coachella-fied Joshua Tree, the ghost town is currently accessible only via an unpaved road (but rest assured, a Tesla can take it). Even so, since the purchase, its official Instagram account has already filled up with models in straw hats and even a visit from Jeff Goldblum.

Silver was first struck at Cerro Gordo in 1865 by a Mexican prospector named Pablo Flores. By 1868, word of the silver strike had traveled to San Francisco. Two city slicker investors, Victor Beaudry and Mortimer Belshaw, saw a business opportunity and filed for Cerro Gordo’s mining rights. After forming the Union Mining Company and buying out most of the original Mexican claim holders, Beaudry and Belshaw earned a joint nickname: “Kings of the Mountain.”

Brent Underwood and Jon Bier, the most visible and camera-ready investors of Cerro Gordo 2.0, aim to become the new Kings of the Mountain, positioning themselves firmly in the canon of Frontier-era capitalists. “Over the years Cerro Gordo has been passed from dreamer to dreamer,” Underwood wrote me in an email. From silver prospectors to big city opportunists and now to upstart millennials, the “dream” of Cerro Gordo has been a resolutely American one, where land is nothing but a blank page on which to write a new, lucrative history.

It’s a recycled trope of ghost town history books to compare the gleaming potential of boomtowns to the precious metals hidden within them, shining like silver in the hills. But in Cerro Gordo today, there’s only the glare from the tin roofs of ramshackle buildings reflecting in the sun. Reduced now to a handful of dilapidated but apparently sturdy structures, Cerro Gordo translates to “Fat Hill,” and the mountain range in which it rests was named for the Paiute word meaning “dwelling place of a great spirit.” The town peeks over Owens Lake, Los Angeles’ founding water source, stolen and dammed into submission by the civil engineer and mythic figure William Mulholland. As a development site, Cerro Gordo’s location has proven to be a paradox: its remoteness is a large part of the draw, as Underwood explains, because “the [future] programming will be to capture the imagination of folks wanting to experience the high desert of Central California the way silver miners from around the world might have experienced it in the late nineteenth century”—only now with luxury accommodations and without violent claim disputes. But being in the middle of nowhere makes daily purchases and ongoing construction a matter of driving fifty miles to the nearest city.

The “dream” of Cerro Gordo has been a resolutely American one, where land is nothing but a blank page on which to write a new, lucrative history.

So it wasn’t a surprise to see an Instagram post announcing Cerro Gordo’s collaboration with hotelier Bernt Kuhlmann, who helped to develop Amangiri, an ultra-exclusive desert resort near the Arizona-Utah border beloved by celebrities. The caption describes Kuhlmann’s methods of development, which resemble early frontier settlements crossed with glamping: to build Amangiri, he first pitched a $35,000 yurt in the desert and lived off the land for a year, “learning what the property needed” before erecting the resort that Forbes has described as a “billionaire enclave,” a neo-colonialist fantasy made possible by the luxury tourism model and George W. Bush’s willingness to sign away a hundred acres of government land. Cerro Gordo’s mining industry may have gone bust, but the young investors hoping to flip the town today are the spiritual successors to its early silver barons.

At least these men are cosplaying as their own antecedents, rather than appropriating Native American dress at nearby Coachella or, perhaps, some three hundred miles southeast, in Nipton, California. Another former mining camp and railroad depot, Nipton was purchased for $5 million in 2017 by American Green Inc., a cannabis company based in Phoenix, Arizona, whose stock is currently valued at $0.0001 per share. They had hoped to turn the community into a first-of-its-kind weed-friendly resort. After a year of floundering, AGI sold the town to their subsidiary, Delta International Oil and Gas, for $7.7 million, with the caveat that AGI will continue to develop the town for the next five to ten years. (Delta is now called the CannAwake Corporation.) The following month, American Green announced they would form a PAC and establish a research institute in Nipton, to study and promote both “the legalization of cannabis and cannabis bi-products like CBD for health and recreation” and “biodiversity in and around Nipton, the entire Ivanpah Valley, and the adjoining Mojave National Preserve,” naturally. All new major structures associated with the project, they claimed, would be made with eco-friendly concrete produced by joint-venture partner American GreenCrete.

The business model had a major hitch from the beginning: as an unincorporated community in San Bernardino county, zero marijuana or cannabis products could be grown, sold, or bought there, making American Green’s initial investment and its attendant vision somewhat worthless. Now, Nipton’s future remains uncertain beyond its current inconsistent programming. Announcements via AGI’s website make enormous claims about “rapidly expanding,” but the town remains mostly uninhabited, the site of a trading outpost offering spiritual-ish retreats.

Rebranded as “Magical Nipton,” the town looks, at least on social media, like a road trip fantasy dreamed up by algorithmic bot: flossy-haired blondes lean against brand-new recreations of vintage VW vans, or drape themselves over monumental installation art. Nipton uses local models and imported hypebeasts to sell the experience and incentivizes micro-influencers to visit with free tickets. Generic looking tipis stripped of any identifying markings—the distinctive designs and materials that demarcate different indigenous nations—float in the background of many of their photos, a de rigueur detail for the kind of shallow mysticism and white-washed version of history that California desert attractions like Nipton traffic in. Despite their seemingly more optimistic financial situation, Cerro Gordo also relies heavily on social media to push its concept, the immaculately preserved gallon-hat fantasy to Nipton’s tie-dyed mash-up of Burner aesthetics, alien culture, and American history. Both are saturated with archival imagery, and both project visions of a utopian future swaddled in the aesthetics of the past. They follow a clear thread of Frontier-era practices updated for the twenty-first century: land acquisition, capitalist fantasies, and false narratives of “discovery.”    

Instagram tourism and the California Gold Rush have more than just geography in common: in addition to being ultimately short-lived booms destined to bust, both cause serious environmental stress to the areas they flood with new transplants. The nineteenth century mining boom wreaked havoc on the way Californios and vaqueros lived, and the indigenous populations that preceded them, not to mention the land. Between 1848 and 1855, some 300,000 newcomers poured into California. The first wave of ranchos were claim-jumped and ransacked by prospectors, but the indigenous population was hit hardest: by 1900, it was estimated that only 16,000 Native Californians had survived the diseases brought by Spanish missionaries, systematic massacres, and conflicts with local militias hired by the American government that accompanied the invasion of their homelands. According to Roger and Cecile Vargo, historians at Friends of Cerro Gordo, ghost towns, once their own force for destruction, are now beginning to disappear due to “increased recreational pressure, easier access, and more available documentation” via social media. “Unfortunately some folks never learned or embraced backroad ethics or grew up with Smokey the Bear,” Roger Vargo told me.

Rather than natural resources, today’s desert moguls extract images, for the benefit of a clientele seeking a distinctly modern kind of fortune: social cachet, free swag, and an increased follower count.

If the conditions of arrested decay in ghost towns are meant to allow visitors to imagine what life might have been like in the nineteenth century—influencer Andie Oliver remarked about visiting Nipton in an email, “I felt like I was back in time to the mining days, mixed with the modern contemporary art of Burning Man”—in reality the reenactment applies only to the period’s most privileged. These photogenic backdrops rely heavily on a romanticized image of a Wild West that wasn’t actually all that wild for its white inhabitants. The bloodiest of frontier violence occurred between settlers and Native Americans, and cowboys, contra the movies, were mostly people of color: when the Western frontier was officially “open,” between 1840 and 1890, about 25 percent of cowboys were black, and the majority were vaqueros or indigenous. But the shootout at the O.K. Corral is easier to glamorize than, say, the bloody reality of Wounded Knee, or a long legacy of forced assimilation, displacement, and femicide.

For twenty-first century visitors, ghost towns are exciting because of this sanitized fantasy—of an unknown or unguarded territory, a frontier all of one’s own. The thrill of the “undiscovered” finds new life in the aesthetics of abandonment and the illusion (or reality, depending on the price point) of exclusivity that attractions like Cerro Gordo and Nipton court. Ultimately, authenticity is less important than the mere suggestion of it. To take just one example, what looks like an aged, decrepit church in Cerro Gordo is actually a structure built in the 1990s, designed to blend in with its surroundings.

However ahistorical the visions of these new prospectors might be, it’s true that the Gold and Silver Rushes made California’s economy what it is today, enabling a deepening wealth disparity centered on land ownership where real estate moguls prioritize luxury developments while hundreds of thousands remain homeless or downwardly mobile. The new Gold Rush might not be about precious metals, but in the end it’s more of the same. Rather than natural resources, today’s desert moguls extract images, for the benefit of a clientele seeking a distinctly modern kind of fortune: social cachet, free swag, and an increased follower count. Rebranding a ghost town won’t vacate its ghosts, but if you’re an off-season Burner seeking Spirit in a sound bath lead by a dude in a man bun—well, you’ve come to the right place.