To anyone with the inclination to see America by car, I would advise skipping the national parks and heading for the other public lands instead. I discovered this secret early on in my travels on the road, and I’ve followed this advice ever since.
In the national parks, I’ve found that nature comes with a premium. The price of admission is high, and once inside the gates, you encounter paved roads crammed with tour buses and Cruise America RVs, overpriced accommodations in the form of rustic wood-paneled resort hotels, and “luxury cabins” that look down upon the tents and pay-to-park campers. But beyond most national parks lies the soil that is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, a sector of our public lands that offers open wilderness and free camping.
BLM land provides an alternative to the usual tourist destinations, a window into a more unadulterated landscape, and something akin to the old phrase “the great outdoors.” It offers travelers an opportunity to discover the country for themselves in a sort of create-your own-adventure of roads and trails less-traveled. It was during a road trip of my own in the summer of 2017, while staying on America’s public lands, that a friend and I discovered a place called Ballarat — a mining town in the Death Valley region of California that was founded in the late 1890s but now remains eerily abandoned.
Among the ghosts of buildings and automobiles that inhabit Ballarat lives one last human being. His name is Rock Novak, and he lives in a motorhome parked outside the town’s general store, the last of the original Ballarat buildings still in use. Inside the shop, Rock sells cold drinks, advertised by handmade signs hung on the weathered columns and windows. A jar sits near the doorway with a recommended two-dollar-per-vehicle donation scrawled in thick, blue marker.
Being the sole resident of Ballarat is something of a family tradition when it comes to the Novaks, as Rock’s father was the caretaker and lone inhabitant of the town before him. The desert is in Rock’s blood, a fact that is transparent upon meeting him — his skin tanned and sun-baked, his eyes wide, his clothes washed-out and decorated with dirt.
Standing on the deck of the general store, Rock told us that we were welcome to camp in town or on the surrounding land. He then pointed to the rusted carcass of a truck near the campground and casually mentioned that it had once belonged to “Charlie” Manson. The way he referred to the famed criminal with the familiarity of an old playmate struck me. It was as if the Manson family, who had camped just south of Ballarat after fleeing Los Angeles in the 1960s, were once his neighbors and friends. But we soon learned that this association with the cult leader was not the only part Ballarat played in the saga of American counterculture movement. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper also made an appearance at the desert town in the classic of 1960s cinema “Easy Rider.” Though my friend and I had swapped motorcycles for a used sedan, we felt a kindred spirit among the filmed ruins, haunting as they were.
Regardless of the evocative atmosphere surrounding the town, we decided to camp near the base of the hills flanking Ballarat for the night. As we continued down the dusty back road, a feeling of true solitude sunk in. Rock Novak is the only person I’ve ever met who is truly off-the-grid. He might as well be the last man on Earth. In fact, I’m sure he wouldn’t know differently for some time if he was.
Driving in the desert evokes an alien feeling, as if you’re gliding across the surface of the moon. At night, there is nothing but darkness, not a glimmer from the streetlights or the lighted windows of civilization. We drove as far as the car would take us, the road growing more and more unnavigable. We parked and walked the rest of the way to explore the area surrounding this relic of the American West. In the hills, a small creek flowed beside the trail, wild donkeys stood in the shrubs nearby, and a former mining encampment towered above the trailhead. The quiet stretched for miles through the crease between the desert, Ballarat a tiny pin in between the rock faces.
On our way back down, I walked past the edge of a concrete mining structure and noticed some symbols scratched into the hard, gray surface. They were words, which read, “Rock Novak 4/25/89.” It was the autograph of the last man on Earth.
The next day, we stopped at the general store to bid farewell to Rock. We bought one of his “cold drinks,” which turned out to be lukewarm on account that his refrigerator was broken. We dropped a few extra dollars in the donation jar on our way out and shook Rock’s hand before saying a final goodbye to the last man.
He stood on the stoop of the general store as we pulled away with our tepid beverages in our cupholders, eager to see what else we would find in the public lands east of Ballarat.