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Better Call Paul

Brent Holmes
Brent Holmes Photography

When things need fixing in Tecopa, there's one guy in town who can get it done

PAUL CARTER WAKES early and looks out the rear window at the southern mouth of the Amargosa Valley. The sun rises over Tecopa, California, a town of about 200 people, depending on the season. The view is dramatic and sweeping. The Nopah Range rises to the east, Death Valley to the north and west. Carter likes to eat heavy in the mornings, so he starts a pot of coffee and fries some bacon and eggs on an electric stove. The inside of his trailer is a chaotic mess, clothes piled here and there, stacks of dirty dishes beginning to lean. Yet Carter doesn’t have time to tidy up right now. He’s got a big day of work ahead of him, but first he will soak in his own personal spa fed by the area’s hot springs.

“People talk about Sedona, Arizona, having this energy,” Carter says. “I’ve been there, and I think it’s fake. But the energy here is real, because we’ve actually got hot mineral water coming up out of the ground.”

At 59 years old, Carter has bright blue eyes and an athlete’s build, a remnant from his days in the Marine Corps. He lives with his dog, Nylah, in a fifth wheel trailer next to a tall wooden shed filled with tools and machine gear. Since moving here in 2014, he has become the de facto town mechanic, which, in a place like Tecopa, is a position of utmost necessity. “Better call Paul” is a catchphrase around town, a reference to the Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. People call Carter for all sorts of things, whether to fix their car or to help patch their water well. “I’ll move trailers and motor homes for people,” he says. “I’ve been called twice to remove snakes from people’s houses. I’ll tow people who get stuck out in the desert. I fit in well here because I’m part of the safety net.”

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According to the National Rural Health Association, rural Americans typically have less income, older populations, worse access to information via the internet, and longer travel distances to healthcare facilites than their urban counterparts. In Tecopa, basic municipal services are sparce, sometimes absent. Well water runs through plumbing fixtures; sewage flows into septic tanks. The power goes out so often that most people supplement with solar. The sheriff’s office is 15 minutes away in Shoshone, as is the nearest gas station. The closest hospital, in Pahrump, is a 40-minute drive, and the Southern Inyo Fire Protection District, based in Tecopa, has a fire chief and part-time administrator but is staffed by volunteer responders — and covers 1,200 square miles. All this poses challenges for the people who live there, making residents such as Carter key figures in their communities.

After his morning soak, Carter warms up his truck to head over to the 57-foot motor home he keeps in the storage lot above the county pools. He’s planning on doing machine work today, and as the sun creeps higher on the horizon, it radiates some much-appreciated warmth. Carter calls his neighborhood the Hot Springs, which is just off Tecopa Hot Springs Road on the northwest side of town. The compound he lives in might look like a junkyard to an untrained eye, but for Carter, it’s the ultimate playground.

He’s got two Dodge Rams, two Toyota 4Runners in various states of repair, a sand rail, which is a souped-up type of dune-buggy, and his baby, a Frankenstein of a four-wheel drive he calls his “Toyota Tacombover.” This truck has been rolled twice by two separate owners, and since Carter acquired it, he’s removed most of the outer paneling, including the doors and bed, and replaced them with a combination of steel pipe and plywood. When he’s not fixing things in town, he can usually be found running this rig through the desert on one of the hundreds of dirt trails in the area.

Carter hops in the Tacombover and exits his neighborhood by turning right on Tecopa Hot Springs Road, glancing for a moment at the open desert. The vibe in Tecopa is a product of its geography. The town pops up at the southern curve of the Amargosa River before it winds back north and empties into Death Valley. The land is speckled white with salt, and every now and then, an emerald-colored palm grove juts into one of the bluest skies on earth. There are no hardware stores, no grocery marts or gas stations, so people make do with what they have. Most local dwellings are trailer homes, RVs, and campers, and they are inhabited by people enacting their version of rugged American individualism beneath a wide Mojave sky.

It’s a place a tourist might pass through and wonder why anyone would choose to live there voluntarily. For the day tripper, it’s a stop along the highway, but for those who live here, it’s a destination in itself, a place where the hippie vibe of the ’60s lives on, where “the weird turn pro,” as Hunter Thompson says.

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Brent Holmes
Brent Holmes Photography
Paul Carter waits for calls with a cup of coffee at Death Valley Brewing

A MAN LOCALS call Wandering Bill hobbles up the road with a walking stick in hand, using it to hail Carter as he passes on his way to his motor home. There’s no cell service out here, so flagging someone down or knocking on their door is still the primary means of getting hold of someone.

Wandering Bill is a weathered-looking man who wears a wide brimmed hat. Between breaths, he asks if Carter can help him replace a starter. Carter can’t help but chuckle. Whenever Wandering Bill appears, it’s an emergency, no matter how small the job. Carter asks if he can come over in an hour, claiming that it probably won’t take him long. Wandering Bill relents, hobbling back over the road toward home.

Tecopa is filled with such characters: “Ross the Miner” and “Sarah Jane the Wonderhussy.” They come from all walks of life and, for various reasons, call Tecopa home. Snowbirds come to soak their aching bodies in the natural 105-degree mineral water bubbling up from the earth. Others are warrant-dodgers on the run from the law. All of them, no matter where they come from or why, are searching for ways to live differently.

“People come here to get away from people,” says Paul Barnes, the concessionaire at the Tecopa Hot Springs Campground and Pools. “But at the same time, we are so dependent on each other. We have to learn how much to get into each other’s business and not get into each other’s business.” Barnes has been operating the campground for the past six years with his wife, Nancy, and in that time, he has seen Carter’s role grow from town mechanic to first responder. Tecopa is nestled in the southeast corner of Inyo County, which has a county seat in Independence, California, about a three-hour drive to the other side of Death Valley. “We’re a long way from any governmental agencies,” Barnes says, although the community center across the street does offer some basic county services. “Not that they don’t do what they can for us down here, but we are kind of the bastard stepchild of Inyo County.”

Last April, Barnes had just arrived home from playing music on the local stage at Tecopa Station when he saw an orange glow over China Ranch Date Farm, a local tourist attraction a few miles outside town on the southeast side of the area. “I knew right away there was a fire,” Barnes says. “Someone had lit fireworks off down there, and the whole place went up." Barnes remembers Carter and another man being first on the scene. Working alongside responders from SIFPD and several other agencies, Carter spent all night in the field helping to knock down the fire. "Paul is a hero in my mind," Barnes says.

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“There is no form of government here whatsoever,” Carter admits. “The closest thing we have to any government would be the fire department board of directors, of which I am a past member.”

The Tecopa Community Center, a ramshackle little building on the south side of the county campground, is the sole municipal building in town and the lifeline to Inyo County. This space is used to host board meetings and potlucks, and as a community health center, where residents can get vaccinations and flu shots. There’s even a few few books for rent, but like any small, rural community, public services are easily overstretched. Certain people will come to Tecopa for that very reason.

According to Carter, the town can be divided into three distinct parts. There’s the Hot Springs, where the resorts and campgrounds provide access to the thermal pools. There’s Old Tecopa, which is a remnant of the mining camp that flourished in the mid- to late-19th century. This part of town is being revitalized with new businesses, from Death Valley Brewing to the Kit Fox Café. Then there is the Heights, a place on the southeast side of town that no tourist will ever see. “Unfortunately, there’s drugs,” Carter says. “There are some really scruffy people out there. That’s a place where people sort of land.”

NOT EVEN FIVE minutes after Carter has started working on his motor home, a man drives up to notify him that a Ford F-150 is stuck by the mud pools. It was trying to turn around and got mired, and they need help getting out. Carter instinctively stops what he is doing, hops in his Tacombover and drives down to check it out.

Rescuing people is one of Carter’s specialties. Through the years, he’s seen tons of weird stuff, almost as if the desert brings out the wild side in people. One guy came from Pahrump with his girlfriend and a bag of drugs and proceeded to tear up half the desert doing doughnuts before finally breaking down. Another couple was driving to Baker, California, to buy lottery tickets when they ran out of gas on U.S. Route 127, and when they pulled off, they went nose first into a hidden drainage ditch. They were out walking through the desert when Carter finally picked them up.

When he gets to the mud pools, Carter sees the truck and travel trailer blocking the southbound lane, the right front tire completely submerged in mud. He meets the driver, a baby-faced kid in his early 20s down from Pahrump. Carter explains how tricky it can be turning around there. The ground can look dry on top, but underneath is seriously nasty stuff.

Carter hooks a rescue strap to the back of his Tacombover and puts the rig in four-wheel drive with the rear end locked. With the Ford sunk so deep, Carter has to get a running start to get the thing to budge, and on the fourth big pull, the suspension winds up and sends his rig jumping into the air. WHAM! — it plops back down, a grinding sound coming from his gearbox. Right away, Carter knows he’s got a big problem, so he unhooks his truck and limps it up to get his “Big Hoss” a red Dodge Ram 4500 that he uses to tow trailers across country. When he returns, a cruiser from the sheriff’s office has arrived. By now, Carter knows most of the deputies on a first-name basis.

“Policing that area comes with its own unique difficulties,” says Corporal Matt Graeff, of the Inyo County Sherriff’s Office. “We have about 5,000 square miles to cover out there, so we have to get creative with how we do things.” Graeff admits that people have a huge misconception of danger when traveling in places such as the Amargosa Valley. They break down out there and get heat stroke trying to walk for help, and in most situations, the $600-$900 towing fees are too much for the types of people who get stuck there.

“Paul will often tow people out or help them get their cars running, oftentimes for free, just so they can get to safety,” Graeff says. “He really cares about people and is willing to help, even if it’s somewhat of an inconvenience. He always takes the time to drop what he is doing to take a moment to look at a situation and help all he can.”

Eventually Carter hooks the Ford up to his Big Hoss, and after four or five good pulls, the F-150 rolls up onto the road again. It turns out that the driver has $87 on him, and Carter can’t help but smirk. He’s probably done $900 worth of damage to his gear box, but by now, he’s used to situations like these. No one comes out to the desert planning on getting stuck, after all.

“I’ve earned a lot of free beer,” Carter says. “Sometimes people will ask how they can pay me, and if the job is small enough, I just tell them to leave me a tab at the brewery. Most of the time it’s worth a beer or two, but sometimes they’ll leave a weeks’ worth.”

Indeed, Carter remembers he has a tab open from fixing a flat tire last week, and right when he’s about to head up to the bar to collect, Wandering Bill comes walking down the street again asking about his starter. Looks like happy hour will have to wait. Φ

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated on April 3, 2023, to reflect that the Southern Inyo Fire Protection District does have some paid part-time staff; that it is Ross the Miner (not “Russ,” as previously stated); that the Tecopa Community Center offers Inyo County services; and that multiple fire crews responded to the fire at the China Ranch Date Farm. Desert Companion regrets the errors.