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This issue of Desert Companion includes a travel guide to mountain towns — where to stay, eat, and play, and what to see in five high-elevation, low-stress destinations within a day’s drive (or less!) of Las Vegas. Bonus: an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.

The Desert Speaks

An acrobat balances on a circular structure in the middle of the desert near Nipton

Is the solitude that various settlers keep seeking in Nipton an illusion? Spiegelworld will be the next to find out

The trip begins just off Interstate 15, on exit 286 for Nipton Road. Past the Mojave National Preserve Ivanpah Road entrance, you will find a recently repainted sign reading “HISTORIC TOWN AHEAD.” The letters, a deep brown against the white wooden background, imitate vintage rodeo signs. In the distance, nestled between enormous eucalyptus trees, is the so-called magical town of Nipton, California.

Crossing train tracks on a Sunday afternoon, I arrive at the center of town. It’s a set of small buildings — a honey shop, a trailer park. Exiting the car, I turn into a tourist. I am now one of many souls curious to understand why Spiegelworld, a Las Vegas entertainment company, would choose to buy a town in the middle of the desert for $2.5 million.

Founded in New York City in 2006, Spiegelworld sells comedy to a specific audience, perhaps one that considers Cirque du Soleil a high-brow enterprise. Each of its shows on the Strip (Absinthe, Atomic Saloon Show, and OPM) combines crude jokes with incredible circus acts. Performers of all sorts — contortionists, sword swallowers, musicians — are woven together with a slight narrative touch.

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Nipton is only one part of Spiegelworld’s expansion. The company has been dreaming big for quite some time. This summer, it is going beyond the desert, opening a permanent residency in Atlantic City, New Jersey, alongside a second location of its Italian American psychedelic restaurant, Superfrico.

On a Zoom call, Scott Armstrong, president of Spiegelworld’s Las Vegas office, explains the vision behind the company’s Nipton endeavor. For a high-profile representative of an irreverent entertainment machine, he gives a surprising answer. Spiegelworld seeks the tranquility the town provides, with its 30 or so residents living in a narrow stretch of private property nestled between public lands. In a press release, the company explains Nipton will be a “living” town, where performers can “retreat to dream, create, and undertake unfettered artistic experimentation.”

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The myth of magical Nipton begins in 1905, when developers of the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad put a stop at a small miners camp called “Nippeno.” As a historical marker in town tells the story, rail traffic turned the previous wagon crossroad into a bustling hot spot, serving ranchers and miners.

In the mid ’80s, Californian Gerald Freeman purchased the town, and it thrived by catering to workers during the local gold boom. In a 2014 New York Times profile, Freeman, a miner himself, said he dreamed of creating a self-reliant, self-powered town, his fear of climate change driving him toward sustainability. His vision was real, his zest for the town contagious. The Times profile mentions some of Nipton’s then-residents who were attracted
to its “peace and solitude.”

In 2016, two years after the profile was published, Freeman died. His wife, Roxanne Lang, put the town up for sale.

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A year later, Phoenix-based American Green purchased it for $5 million. The company aspired to a similar dream as Freeman and Spiegelworld, hoping to establish an oasis — this one cannabis-themed. Despite Delta International Oil & Gas buying the town from American Green in 2018 for $7.7 million and giving American Green rein to continue developing its cannabis venture, it eventually failed. Lang foreclosed on the property after payments stopped coming in, according to the Wall Street Journal. From Nipton’s main road, some of the large-scale public art that American Green installed is still visible in the distance.

In 2019, Spiegelworld held its company retreat at Nipton. According to Armstrong, the company fell in love with the town’s charm, with the feeling of being out there. The idea comes up again: peaceful.

When Lang put the town up for sale yet again, Spiegelworld jumped at the opportunity to purchase the land. The company dreams of Nipton eventually becoming its headquarters.

The more I prod into Nipton’s future during my interview with Armstrong, the bigger the dreams get. He speaks of a resort with greater accommodation capacity, a way to transport visitors to and from Nipton, a restaurant, and immersive entertainment. This is what Spiegelworld hopes to create: an all-encompassing experience. Visitors would travel to Nipton in Spiegelworld transportation, spend the night at a Spiegelworld resort or hotel, dine in Spiegelworld eateries, and leave the town slightly changed.

If the company’s current ventures are any indication of what to expect down the road, visitors can look forward to a kitschy theme, an enthralling atmosphere, and pop-up performances. (Or, as the company puts it, the “all-the-way Spiegelworld experience.”) It’s all a dream, one Spiegelworld hopes to achieve in small installments, starting this fall.

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The Welcome to Magical Nipton California sign on the edge of the town
Scott Lien

Nipton’s calmness is manufactured. Not by circus or cannabis companies, or hoteliers or resource extraction outfits, but by the mechanisms and byproducts of centuries of colonization and land theft. Nipton is on the ancestral territory of the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), Nüwüwü (Chemehuevi), and Newe Sogobia (Western Shoshone).

In Nuwuvi and Newe (Shoshone peoples) epistemology, the landscape is alive, everything within it connected. “The trees and the rocks and the air, the water, they’re all our cousins, part of us, related to us,” tribal representatives write in a recent study exploring landscape and geography. The founding principle of interconnectivity says land should be cared for to support everything around us, to maintain a balance.

The peaceful nature people perceive out there is inherent to the land; our process of dreaming and changing it alters the balance. Perhaps this piece of now-private land would have remained permanently uninhabited if miners hadn’t settled there. Perhaps it was meant to be a natural oasis.

It’s hard to wrestle with the history of how these 80 acres came to be “private.” How a Las Vegas entertainment company came to own it, to impose its dream on it. During our call, Armstrong mentions the company is in conversations with the Bureau of Land Management to explore its land options for future Spiegelworld dreams in Nipton. The settler mission to expand remains.

In the press release announcing the latest purchase of Nipton, self-appointed mayor Jim Eslinger says, “You need to have respect for the Mojave, and the desert will tell you if it is happy or unhappy with what you’re doing.”

The town’s previous successes and failures may be a reminder that to dream in Nipton is to dream on stolen land. Only time will tell what the desert thinks of Spiegelworld’s vision to build something grand in this small town that only few call home.

Among Nipton’s current residents are two Spiegelworld project managers, working away during the week. The Sunday I venture out there, I hope to find them living a life, though it’s hard to imagine what that could mean.

The existing structures visible from the main road are utilitarian. An old bar or saloon in the middle of renovations. The hotel hidden behind a fence. Somewhere within the private property is a giant well, covered in tarp. There’s something there, but one can’t make out what.

Out in the land, touching it, I know everyone is looking, though no comes out of their living quarters to inquire why I am here. Maybe they are used to the Clown Town tourists, the motorcycle thrill seekers, the cars driving through in search of moving landscapes. There’s no place to hide.

I happen to park next to one resident. We exchange a polite “Hello there!” as he jumps into his bright blue truck. He has just exited a room in one of the main buildings off the road. After he drives off, I peek into the room. It’s Nipton Laundry, the sound of its washing machine the sole sign of life in this town.

At 1:20 p.m., a cargo train runs through, passing on the tracks at the edge of town. For a few minutes we have no way out. The churning of the washing machine is washed out, the train’s booming now the only noise for miles. The illusion of Nipton’s tranquility slips away.