Desert Companion

Field Notes: Nipton in the Bud


Photography by Mike Weatherford

Can marijuana revive this sleepy desert burg?

Let’s check out some of your Canadian roll, bro!” Stephen Shearin says to Theron, a visitor who walks up with a joint and a ballcap advertising his fondness for Kush. “I got fire. And I got more weed if you need it.” The joint passes across the pathway of a rock garden in Nipton, California, the ceremonious start of a stockholders’ meeting — or at least a meeting with a stockholder.

Theron and his wife, Yasmin, are from Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting this desert outpost that grabbed headlines with last year’s sale to an Arizona company that plans to convert this historic, near-ghost of a mining town into a hub of “cannabis tourism.”

“The whole concept of it was intriguing,” says Theron, who does indeed own shares of the penny stock American Green, which paid $5 million for 80 acres on Highway 164, aka Nipton Road, between Searchlight and Interstate 15. Their tour is being led by Shearin, American Green’s project manager. A ruddy, weather-beaten 50-something, Shearin has lived everywhere from Tonopah to South Africa, and declares Nipton “the greatest thing that ever happened to me. My spiritual home I just hadn’t run into.”

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All Roads Lead to NiptonYou’d have to be a frequent visitor to notice much change to the general store, café, and five-room hotel that all date back to 1905. Trains still rattle along the railroad tracks that gave rise to the hamlet, periodically blocking the two-lane road and prompting drivers from the Searchlight side to pull over for a pit stop. Jim Eslinger rings up sodas as he has for nine years, and says he no longer even hears the train that created his short line of customers.

But the trading post now displays bongs in the glass case topped by a model locomotive, and head-shop paraphernalia, such as “anti-stink” stash envelopes, is sold alongside the coffee and lottery tickets. So far, Nipton — previously owned by the same couple for 30 years — has been mostly a clean-up project for its new owners. “We kept finding things to fix,” Shearin says. Oblivious to the chilly March wind, he’s talking a mile a minute about topics as diverse as Nelson Mandela, the outmoded concept of the 40-hour work week, and Montmorillonite clay, which he says will keep the town pond clean without chemicals.

But the cannabis connection? It’s complicated.

Nipton’s sale came with green-rush talk of yoga retreats, cannabis-infused bottled water, marijuana vending machines, and a concert amphitheater to nudge the town down a Burning Man path. But San Bernardino County officials, Shearin says, jumped to the alarming assumption of “acres and acres” of a new desert bloom amid the Joshua trees in the Mojave National Preserve. So the situation cross-fades into a mutual head-scratcher for both the new owner and government regulators. Nipton sits just a couple of miles over the California side of the border, and the state’s young recreational marijuana laws are still unsettled.

“You don’t smoke over there. That’s public property,” Shearin says, pointing to the general store. “Why is it public? Because we have a lottery and a liquor license. California law. No consumption in public areas.” But here, in the rock garden not 20 yards away? “Over here is private. If you want to consume cannabis as the state law allows, step over here.”

Shearing even brought in Paul Coffey, a veteran of Colorado’s dispensary industry, as a compliance consultant — and a total buzz-kill when he points out things like, if they someday allow hotel guests to spark one in the cozy little lobby, then the carpet and curtains are fire hazards and will have to go. 

The trading post isn’t yet allowed a dispensary. And distributing more marijuana than the state’s six-plant personal-grow limit is dubious in a location surrounded by federal land.

So Nipton has a new business plan: flip this town.

On the very day that Shearin plays tour guide, a press release announces the $7.73 million sale of American Green’s Nipton holdings to Delta International Oil & Gas, a fully-reporting Arizona company that will assume $3.73 million of the historically low-performing American Green’s debt, and let it continue managing the town for up to 10 years.

“Delta will probably change its name to Canawake,” Shearin says. “Through cannabis we awake small economies by buying half-megawatt towns … implementing a successful solar system, fixing the water, and sparking the economy.

“We take a small percentage off of what you earn as a town,” he explains, then eventually sell the town after raising the value through upgrades such as off-the-grid solar power and converting trash into “post-consumer product.”

“It’s only one town, but we’re going to go do another one and another one,” Shearin says. Buying a ghost town is good for a quirky headline. “But you have to breathe some life back into that town.”

The publicity — and maybe the new billboards pointing the way to “Magical Nipton” — at least drives new customers to the remodeled cafe, which serves up high-end burgers deserving of the munchies, including a “breakfast burger” topped with a fried egg and a thick slice of gourmet bacon.

And Shearin says the little town that’s mostly a mobile-home community has “a housing crisis” on its hands, expanding from eight to about 40 since the sale. He’d like to see it grow to maybe 2,000, but “we can only support so many people. We’re not going to build condos.”

We stand on the hotel’s battered porch. Shearin notes that Clara Bow, the silent film star and one-time neighbor at the Walking Box Ranch, once stood here, as well. “You can’t pour concrete that looks like this,” he says. “It has to live for a hundred years to look like this. You can’t tear that out. If there’s a story here, it’s that American Green is keeping Nipton Nipton, while showing that a cannabis-driven city can succeed.”

Theron gets it. “We see a clear vision,” he says. “We see more here than just what you actually see.” His words give Shearin something worth more than a joint: respect, a word that has come up over and over. It sounds like Shearin has been waiting for some. A penny-stock company with negative cash flow in an industry facing both skepticism and well-funded start-ups will bring you stress, long hours, even death threats, he says. Still, “We worked our asses off believing there was a better future.” Now, maybe he has found it.

“We ask for respect, and we give you a safe place to come,” he says. “Please come here and enjoy your life the way you want to. If you can take that sense home, tell your neighbors, and we roll it forward, maybe we’ll have the world we want. At least we tried.”

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