In the past, I’ve written about various abandoned places I’ve come upon in the desert, and readers of this blog have stepped up to fill me in on the history of those places — the abandoned brothel, an old silver mine I like to shoot at, and most recently the abandoned Royal Cement plant. Well, now I have a new mystery…and I’m hoping someone out there can help me solve it!
Earlier this year, a photographer friend turned me on to a fantastic new abandoned location. As a full-time art nude model, I’m always on the lookout for interesting new locations at which to shoot nudies — and deserted/abandoned ruins are especially prized, since guys seem to like photographing naked chicks against a busted backdrop of man-made decay. Abandoned ruins within an hour or so of Vegas are especially prized, since there really aren’t that many of them left after the rampant development which took place in Vegas in the 2000s.
This new location fit the bill in every respect: it’s picturesque — a collection of quaint, crumbling stone cabins hidden by a grove of tamarisk trees; it’s easily accessible — right off a NV state highway, with no 4WD needed; and it houses an astonishing collection of busted-up junk everywhere you look — from old cars to rusty oil barrels and a creepy, sun-baked old baby bassinet. Moreover, it’s just under one hour from Vegas — and always seemed to be deserted.
The first time my photographer friend took me there, I flipped out. I mean, this was as close to the perfect photo shoot location as you could get! Kinda like that lame-ass fake ghost town at Nelson….only better, since there were no rules — there weren’t even any “No Trespassing” signs posted! Just an eerily quiet little village of abandoned stone cabins in a grove of shady trees, in a beautiful valley overlooking the Virgin River, with a gorgeous mountain range towering in the distance. I spent a good amount of time just poking around in the various buildings, trying to figure out who had lived there and what kind of place it had been (I love doing stuff like that).
Altogether there are about 8 cabins, and it seems like it may have been some kind of artists’ or hippie commune. One of the cabins was pretty clearly an artist’s studio; the floor is littered with old art supplies, art books and magazines, shattered bits of pottery and sculptures, and a fabulous oil painting/decoupage of Jimmy Carter presides over the whole scene from its perch on one of the shelves. There’s an entire set of “CERAMIC INSULATOR COLLECTOR’S MONTHLY” pamphlets strewn about as well — who knew there were enough people devoted to collecting old ceramic insulators to sustain a monthly gazette devoted to the hobby?!?
The other cabins look to have been workshops and one-bedroom bungalows with tiny bathrooms, and kitchens in two of them. The refrigerator in one of the kitchen buildings is still full of canned foods dating from probably no more than 10 years ago, though the busted-up old stove and deep-freezer look to be much older. All of the cabins’ floors are covered in junk and rat shit, and the pall of Hantavirus hangs over everything in a grim miasma. Like I said – the perfect shooting location! (This was part of the reason I recently got a tetanus booster….climbing around these places naked is a real hazard, let me tell you!)
The cabins and outbuildings are all arranged in a sort of semi-circle around a little stone-walled courtyard, shaded by tamarisk trees. There’s a junkyard to the north, with all kinds of interesting rusty old bric-a-brac strewn about, and a couple of busted-up cars in the rear (east). Also in the rear is a giant, padlocked big rig trailer, with a bunch of old crap strewn about underneath it, including boxes full of old high school yearbooks from some town in Wyoming, plus the aforementioned supremely creepy faded white baby bassinet creaking in the breeze. You expect Miss Havisham to come around the corner at any minute!
What was this place?!?!
The grounds are very still, and very peaceful….but there’s a creepiness about the place, made ever more sinister by the sound of flapping American flags that hang all along the fence separating the property from the highway. The flapping of the flags sounds at times like approaching human footsteps, and freaked out more than one photographer that I brought down there to shoot.
Why all the flags? Well, adding to the creepy factor is the fact that these cabins are located just a mile or two down the road from the infamous Bundy ranch, where back in 2014 a bunch of irascible good ol’ boys engaged in a standoff against the U.S. Gov’ment — a standoff which soon devolved into a Tea Party circlejerk comprised of rifle-toting, camo-clad lard-asses, a sort of half-assed militia that had mustered to protest the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, the government agency that oversees all of the West’s vast public-use lands)’s insistence on collecting grazing fees from a local rancher.
The rancher at the center of all this was Cliven Bundy, the Mormon patriarch of an area cattle outfit, whose herd roamed freely about the surrounding public lands, foraging in the sagebrush for whatever edible plants they could find, until he rounded them up to sell. In exchange for his cattle being allowed to graze on public land (and ostensibly destroy Mojave tortoise and sage grouse habitat), Bundy was supposed to pay an annual grazing fee to the gov’ment.
But Bundy felt that the gov’ment wasn’t holding up its half of the deal — they did a poor job maintaining the local roads, and apparently he and his family had made improvements to the local desert (building watering holes and cisterns and the like) that he never got any credit for. Maybe for this reason, or maybe for others, he stopped paying his grazing fees about 20 years ago…and thus racked up a great deal of tax debt which the BLM now decided it was time to collect.
Well, Bundy wasn’t paying — he’s one of those old-school independent types, a sovereign citizen who feels that the the federal government has too much power over We The People. So he mustered up a bunch of his allies to join him in a good old fashioned standoff — and before you know it, every anti-gov’ment nutter in the area had come to his aid (including many half-assed whack-job shit-stirrers from Vegas and points beyond). Before you know it, the standoff was international news — TV crews from all the major networks descended on the area, where rifle-toting militiamen in cowboy hats rode horses onto the highway to protest the overreach of the feds. It was a scene straight out of the Amurrican Apocalypse!
I may be overly facetious in my description of Bundy; I do feel that many of his views are nutty and antiquated, but I also feel like he got a bum rap for some of the things he said, which seem to have been taken out of context. From what I’ve heard and read, he was just a peaceful, hardworking Mormon stud with 14 children and 60 grandkids, trying to enjoy his Earthly kingdom in peace out in one of the most beautiful high deserts I’ve ever seen. His followers, however, mostly came off as laughable — a bunch of posturing white guys in cowboy costumes and camo onesies — “Send snacks,” etc. (the 2016 standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge was led by Cliven’s son Ammon Bundy).
Anyway, if you watch some of the footage of the Bundy ranch standoff, in the background you can make out a little gathering of dilapidated stone cabins — my new favorite shooting location. There they sit, huddled in that tamarisk grove, languishing anonymously in the background of untold hours of CNN B-roll…just waiting to be discovered by a meddlesome nude model 😀
The Bundy standoff fizzled to an end in April 2014, when the Feds backed down in the interest of avoiding an armed insurrection by the Sam’s Club Militia…and to my knowledge, the stone cabins have sat there quietly baking in the desert sun ever since. The highway up above them still bears witness to the standoff — there’s a towering, faded sign reading “We The People,” plus the aforementioned multitude of weatherbeaten American flags flapping tatteredly in the breeze, and a sun-blasted quote from Thomas Jefferson presiding creakily over the whole sorry scene. But no one really goes out there anymore — the militia nutters went back to Sam’s Club, Bundy himself is in jail (arrested en route to the Oregon Malheur standoff) and the rest of his family has apparently scattered to the winds; I’ve driven past the Bundy Ranch several times over the last six months, and have never seen any signs of habitation or activity.
And it was precisely because of this deserted vibe that I felt secure in shooting nudies at the cabins. Like I said before, there were no “No Trespassing” signs posted anywhere; the gate leading into the cabin area was padlocked, but the fence ended a couple feet to the right, and it was easy to just go around and disappear into the tamarisk grove, out of sight from the highway. Because of all the trees and the still-standing buildings, there was always plenty of shade to shoot in, no matter what time of day you were there; it really was close to being the perfect location. Even better, the land looked to be for sale — there’s an old, weatherbeaten realtor’s sign posted on the edge of the highway, marketing the acreage as prime land for a semi-rural housing development. For a while, I entertained the idea of buying the part of it where the cabins stood, for use as a private photography retreat; that is, if the seller was willing to subdivide.
But all my fantasies about the place came to an end one afternoon this past April. I had only taken 3 or 4 photographers out to the cabins to shoot since first being tipped off to their existence, and had never had a problem — we always kept a low profile, cleaned up after ourselves, and pretty much left things as we found them. But on this afternoon, my friend Photos By Frank and I had just arrived at the location, and had just hiked around the fence into the tamarisk trees, when we heard an angry voice.
“HEY! GET OUT OF THERE!!”
Like I said, it’s already a spooky, eerie place — so hearing an angry voice shouting out of the stillness came as a real shock. Fortunately, since we had just arrived I was still fully clothed — wearing a cowboy hat, no less — so with no little sense of trepidation I made my way back around the corner to see who was yelling at us.
It was a man who looked to be straight out of a time warp and/or an episode of the Twilight Zone circa 1959 — horn-rimmed black plastic glasses, khakis and polyester button-down shirt…buttoned to the very top. “YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED IN THERE,” he yelled. “GET OUT!”
I tried to play it off: “Sorry! I see that this land is for sale….I was interested in looking at it. Do you know anything about it?”
“I’M NOT A REAL ESTATE AGENT! I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT!” he shouted, angrier than ever. “GET OUT! YOU CAN’T BE IN THERE!”
I had no choice but to agree to his demands: “OK, we’re sorry! We’ll leave! We’re sorry!” Because of the twisted history of the area, I was half afraid he’d ride his horse down to WalMart and come back with every AR-15 in stock (actually WalMart had stopped carrying AR-15s about 6 months previously, but I didn’t know that)…and I wasn’t taking any chances.
The irate guy walked back across the highway, got in his truck and left….and for a minute, the photographer I was with actually proposed continuing on with our shoot there! Thoroughly spooked, I nixed the idea, suggesting we continue on to a dry lake bed instead…and I’m glad I insisted on leaving, as shortly after we hit the highway, the Sheriff passed us — probably headed toward the cabins to investigate the Twilight Zone guy’s complaints of meddlesome trespassers. If we’d still been there, we’d have been in a world of trouble!! (Despite all my outdoor nude modeling, I still have a 100% safety record of no arrests or injuries….fingers crossed!)
Anyway, that was pretty much the last time I shot at those cabins. I did go back one other time, with another photographer and another model — this time, we parked across the highway down a little dirt road, where the truck was hidden and no one would know we were there, and hiked into the cabins on foot, under the overpass down by the river. But the sound of the flapping flags and the history of what had happened to me there proved too spooky for this new photographer to stomach, and after snapping a few shots he insisted we leave, and head for Buffington Pockets instead. OK, boss — whatever you say!
That was last April, and I haven’t been back to those cabins since. It’s a real source of frustration for me, since like I said they were a perfect photo location — but what are ya gonna do?! This is the Wild West, and the Sheriff says No Women of Ill Repute Allowed. D’oh!
But now, I’m really curious. What is the history of those cabins? I’ve talked to others who have shot there, and they also experienced a creepy vibe at the spot — like there’s some kind of sinister history there, other than just the Bundy standoff. Did a cult live there? Was someone murdered? Or was it just a peaceful artists’ commune? I may never know!
All I know for sure is, the cabins look to be pretty old — but not 1800s-old; maybe 1950s or ’60s-ish. Most of the old magazines and papers in the buildings date from the 1970s or ’80s, and in one of the cabins I found a distinctly 1990s-2000s stash of drug paraphernalia. One of the busted-up cars down there is a 2000s model, with CDs littered in the backseat…so I know people have been there fairly recently.
Another photographer I know drove by the spot recently, and said the some of the cabins were cordoned off with caution tape, and it looked like someone was digging for relics in the area. Hmmmm!
The crazy thing about all this is, all these tumultuous events went down in a place of astonishing beauty and peace! The road past Bundy’s ranch leads out to Gold Butte, Whitney Pockets and Little Finland — an amazingly beautiful landscape comprised of staggeringly picturesque rock formations and Joshua tree forests, with the northernmost reaches of Lake Mead visible in the background. It’s easy to see how someone could see this as “God’s Country” — and be willing to raise arms over it. Like I said, I can’t completely bash Cliven Bundy; I do feel for him.
After all, Bundy and I do share a few things in common: a love of the desert, a love of personal freedoms…and a checkered history of run-ins with the Man. You could call us compatriots of a sort; one of the faded old American flags that hung on the fence outside the cabins now rests on the dashboard of my truck, a reminder of all that was lost when that creepy fucker ran me off.
And since we do have so much in common…I’m sure Bundy wouldn’t mind me moving in next door — buying the land down by the river, cleaning up those cabins and turning the whole place into a private nude photography retreat. Nakey Acres — on the shores of the Virgin River! Why not?
I mean….freedom is freedom. RIGHT?