Once a sleepy stopover known for its hot springs, Tecopa is being remade as a creative oasis and culture-rich escape
Beneath a star-spackled sky, a singer slinks across the stage, belting out Concrete Blonde’s goth-rock dirge “Bloodletting.” A couple dances in the cooling desert air. Someone yells, “God is good. Life is great!”
This unlikely scene is happening in Tecopa, a rustic speck of a town situated on the cusp of Death Valley. And the performers? They’re part of the talent-studded cast running the local motels and campgrounds, many of whom formerly made their living as full-time musicians and artists.
Tecopa is best known for its selenium-spiked hot springs, but these days, creativity and cultural entrepreneurship are bubbling to the surface. A steadily growing collection of musicians and artists are pouring themselves into reviving this former mining town.
“The interaction with nature here when it comes to the water, sky and air — it’s the perfect way to unplug,” says Lara Murray, a resident and member of the Tecopa Hot Springs Conservancy.
Tecopa’s quiet renaissance has been long in the making. The town began luring a trickle of newcomers in the early 2000s, after artist Amy Noel launched a gallery there. Other transplants soon followed, some with an eye to breathing new life into some of the town’s disintegrating attractions, forming the Tecopa Hot Springs Conservancy in 2015. Wild West relics such as Marfa, Texas, and Rangely, Colorado, have repurposed themselves as artistic magnets, and now Tecopa stands on the cusp.
“The locals here are very colorful, very intelligent,” says Nancy Good, a musician, artist, and partner in the conservancy. “They’ve found a way to thrive in an area that is actively trying to kill you.”
The intense heat and isolation couldn’t kill the enthusiasm of Murray, who recalls the moment she became enraptured by the area in 2006. She was accompanying her husband, who organized dirt bike excursions nearby.
“The next day we were flying back to the East Coast, and I asked, ‘Why aren’t we here all the time?’” she recalls. “The space and the air is good for the soul.”
Their quest for permanent residency spanned eight years as they worked through the process of buying property. Today, her husband, Ryan Thomas, is the executive director of the Tecopa Hot Springs Conservancy. Aside from maintaining and upgrading the Tecopa Hot Springs Campground and Pools, he’s involved in all manner of life in the town, from responding to emergencies with the fire department to fixing Tecopa’s internet. “He’s the person the entire town calls,” Murray says.
Those calls fluctuate with the seasons. The population peaks during winter at 475 before shriveling in the summer swelter to roughly 100. However, the 24-hour hot springs and night sky remain a year-round draw, attracting an especially high number of tourists from Asia. Thomas points out that the volcanic springs in Tecopa are one of just two public selenium springs in the world; most others reek of sulfur.
“Selenium is good for the bones and skin,” Thomas says. “Geology students and professors have studied it, and the one thing they agree on is that the water is ancient — coming from a far-down underground river.”
This primordial water source has rippled through the region’s history, first luring Native Americans before resulting in perhaps some of the cleanest miners in the Old West. Longtime local Crystal Aldrich’s prospector father discovered gold, silver and talc mines in the area. When she wanted to take a dip in the springs, he would check the tin structure that formerly covered it, lantern in hand, searching for scorpions and snakes. “I learned to swim in there,” she recalls.
At one point, the springs and town were struggling to stay afloat. According to Thomas, the county ran the springs as a free public bath for years before a park concessionaire bought it, curtailing the hours and getting lax on cleanliness.
“It was almost a ghost town when I came back here in 2001,” Aldrich recalls. “Now they put the springs back to 24 hours, relying on volunteers. I’m so thrilled to see the crowds of people coming back in.” Aldrich herself is part of that renaissance, volunteering in Tecopa’s general store in addition to her daily dips.
“Some Cirque du Soleil members will come out and soak,” Murray says. “Some locals have health conditions and rely on it to walk.”
‘Nudity is the equalizer’
This water gushes from the springs at a rate of 3,000 to 4,000 gallons an hour, at a temperature ranging from 104 to 108 degrees. The voluminous water source also courses through the sinks, showers and toilets. Aside from a couples room (available by appointment) at the Tecopa Hot Springs Campground, bathers are separated by sex and are required to enter the water fully nude after showering. That policy stems from the springs’ high mineral content, which would leach chemicals from clothes and detract from the purity of the water. For locals, it’s a routine part of everyday life to see your neighbor naked. “Sometimes you don’t recognize people with clothes on,” Murray jokes.
“Nudity is the great equalizer,” says Good. “You’re not being judged on what you’re wearing or driving. There are people you would never ordinarily meet from the Middle East or Japan that you’re sitting next to.”
For Pahrump resident G.H. Nation, the springs are a link to his Native American ancestors. These sentiments were woven through the desert photos he recently exhibited at Tecopa’s art gallery, which evoked a boundless sense of time and space.
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“It was a spiritual vision that led me here in preparation for my passing over,” he says. “This is a tribute to returning to the home of my ancestors and returning to consciousness.”
Artists here are enthralled by the incongruity of abundant water in the otherwise desiccated landscape. These forces attracted art gallery owner Noel, who fled her Venice Beach home and job at L.A.’s J. Paul Getty Museum. She had worked for 20 years as a collections information manager when she was offered the opportunity for a sabbatical. Noel discovered the Tecopa hot springs in 1984, and jumped at the chance when she was offered a volunteer position at the nearby Shoshone Museum in 2000.
“I wanted to see if I could get sick of this place, if I could handle the heat and the cold,” she said. “I wanted 40 acres in the desert.”
She bought 160 of them, a spread encompassing a dormant resort, grocery and laundromat that had shuttered in the early 1990s. The property was first developed by a former sighting foreman for the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad in 1945 and expanded over the years. However, its fortunes sagged with the decline of the nearby mines, the last one closing in the late 1980s. Noel renovated the property, launching the business just before 9/11. Today, Tecopa Hot Springs Resort comprises 12 motel rooms with baths, cabins, RV hookups, a bathhouse and a labyrinth. The dramatic life change and the property’s drastic makeover stunned her parents.
“I showed (my mother), and she said, ‘Your dad and I never thought you’d pull this off,’” Noel says.
But Tecopa is bursting with such surprises. Ten residents are part of the artists guild, and they regularly volunteer with everything from answering phones to schlepping to the hardware store. “It gives you the opportunity to be what I call a ‘social recluse,’” Noel says.
That unique breed of desert dweller now includes the performers of Teatro El Grande, a seasonal circus of fine art that just took up residence on her property. Locals helped construct the backdrops and stage, where ballerina Jenna McClintock and others astound audiences who would never expect to find such talented performers near their campground. Noel had previously seen McClintock perform her one-woman show at the Amargosa Opera House, and she had heard McClintock would be willing to shift her creative energy to Tecopa.
“You plant a seed, and you make room for beauty to happen,” Noel says. “It’s been so fun to make space for people to experiment.”
Noel also seeks to inform people about the beauty of the natural area, and works on an advocacy project to designate the nearby Amargosa River as a scenic and wild river. She notes that many naturalists and scientists pass through, studying the local geology and the vestiges of the ancient Lake Tecopa. One close riparian remnant that any visitor should see is the China Ranch Date Farm, a lush oasis of date palm trees shrouded by brown mountains bereft of vegetation. The family farm was established by a Chinese pioneer, who raised fruits, vegetables and livestock to supply the local mining camps. According to legend, he was driven off the land at gunpoint by someone eager to claim the ranch for himself. Today, visitors can sample multiple varieties of dates as well as date cookies and the ranch’s famed date shakes. The Amargosa Canyon also features stunning scenery with trails pockmarked by old mining ruins and the railbed of the Tonopah & Tidewater, which traversed the area until 1939.
Noel spends much of her free time hiking and flower-hunting. Like the other transplants, she’s meshed with life in the desert, missing only sushi and the symphony, cravings she satisfies on excursions to Las Vegas.
“When I go back to Venice and wave at people, they are like, ‘What do you want?’” she says. “Here, everyone waves. You just stop in the middle of the road and have a conversation.”
Those conversations often include Nancy Good, a singer whose winding musical journey began in Montana. There, she opened for bands like Blue Öyster Cult and Night Ranger before venturing to Vegas to work the covers circuit. Her onstage sidekick on guitar is also her husband, Paul Barnes, who initially introduced her to Tecopa before relocating there a few years ago. Good is also a photographer and mixed-media artist who takes inspiration from the landscape.
“It’s never the same,” she says. “Over time you grow a deeper relationship to what you’re looking at — the harsh lines, the softness.”
Those characteristics informed the most recent show Good hosted at the gallery alongside Murray. Murray has converted her bedroom into a studio; her photography explores the desert wind and Tecopa’s glittering night skies. It’s an irresistible subject: Here, the intense darkness reveals the cloud-like cluster at the heart of the Milky Way. “I remember coming back the third night I was here and opening my car door,” Murray says. “I was taken aback and almost startled. It’s breathtaking.”
The art of infrastructure
When not creating art, conservancy members are crafting the infrastructure of the town. Their desire to lure greater numbers of tourists is seen most prominently in the town’s lone year-round restaurant, The Bistro, which reopened in 2015. Barnes, who built nightclubs and restaurants in Vegas, typically supplies the food. Thomas initially did most of the cooking. In fact, he would scramble to prepare dishes in between performing songs on the nearby outdoor stage. “We just did what we had to do to keep it running,” Thomas says. Later, Thomas convinced his parents to uproot themselves from the East Coast to supervise the kitchen. His father is executive chef, and his mother is sous chef.
That spirit of cooperation is baked into the essence of the conservancy, Thomas says, noting that none of them are currently getting paid. Upon helming the conservancy, Thomas was determined to return the pools to their former 24-hour availability, in addition to upping standards of cleanliness.
“Everybody volunteers their time,” Thomas says. “The first step was to keep things from going away and then grow them in a sustainable way to keep the feel of the town.” Like the other conservancy members, Thomas has many talents. An accomplished drummer, he also directs an off-road adventure company called Kiltman Adventures, which has been subsumed by the responsibilities of running the campground and pools. When the conservancy took over, the property was in a serious state of disrepair. Dilapidated bathrooms had been screwed shut, and picnic tables were crumbling.
“The main improvement has been bringing the spirit of the place back,” Thomas says. “It’s still rustic but it’s a friendly, welcoming place.”
Now, the revamped resort even boasts two glamping (“glamorous camping”) cabins with a/c, electricity and a fire pit, and are just a short walk from the outdoor stage and The Bistro. On weekend nights, that area serves as the epicenter of social life here, as the old downtown, which housed a saloon, butcher and grocery store, vanished decades ago. “It’s just a natural place to hang out,” Thomas says. “The whole town comes together and enjoys the weekend.”
While the musicians are plugging in, visitors can relish the opportunity to do just the opposite. Cell phone service is virtually nonexistent, and the Internet is spotty. After all, the signal is transmitted from a Vegas hotel rooftop, crisscrossing multiple mountain peaks until finally reaching Tecopa. Serious cyber problems are not resolved with rebooting one’s router. In fact, they demand a crew of locals to hike a mountain just to re-jigger the receiver.
It’s a reminder that, while Tecopa is only an hour and a half from Vegas, the distance from the distractions of modern life is far greater. Murray experiences this separation often during her 36-mile commute to her nursing job in Pahrump.
“You’re two steps away from being off the grid,” she says. “We’ve simplified our life quite a bit. It’s a beautiful magic that’s kind of intangible.”
Tecopa Hot Springs, campground and pool
The Bistro restaurant
Tecopa Trading Post
Tecopa Hot Springs Resort and Art Gallery
860 Tecopa Hot Springs Road
Tecopa, CA 92389
China Ranch Date Farm
China Ranch Road, Tecopa, CA 92389