For years, the signal you-are-here Mojave Desert roadside attraction was the 13-story electrified thermometer hard by the I-15. It was the centerpiece of the dusty town of Baker, which most Californians otherwise know for gouging gas prices, fast food and the last place to take a leak before you hit the Nevada state line.
Several years ago, on my way from L.A. to Vegas, I welcomed the sight of the towering finger raised into the hot wind, but was disappointed to find it dark, and unable to take tall measure of the dry desert heat.
Good news! The lights are coming back on.
Even in the early 1990s, when The World's Tallest Thermometer first turned on the lights, hardly anybody was home in Baker, but at least they had weather-watching bragging rights.
Again last weekend I was in Baker, which I like to think of as a Death Valley suburb. Again, the only meteorological phenomenon of note was a wind so ferocious it blew the curl right out of my hair.
I thought about my trip here in 2009, and my attempts to find out then what had happened to the gloomy spire. While getting gouged at the Valero station, I had asked the clerk why TWTT was dark. He cocked his head. "What?" The thermometer? The Mojave's famous artificial landmark? Normally visible for miles in the night sky? Featured in all the guide books?
"I don't know what you're talking about."
There are 20-some retail establishments in Baker, all of which lie in the shadow of TWTT. About 650 people live in Baker. I had found the only one who never looks up.
TWTT was built at a foot height reflecting the hottest temperature -- 134 degrees -- ever recorded in Death Valley. In August 1995, TWTT recorded its personal best of 124.
You gotta be tough to live in Baker, you gotta have thermo-envy in Yermo to commute here for work at Valero or Denny's or the sketchy motel on Baker Boulevard. But you cannot have common cause with one web commentator: "There is absolutely nothing there except perhaps a gas station for those too stupid to gas up in Barstow or Las Vegas. There are no fancy hotels and no swimming pools that I am aware of. It may be a perfect spot for registered sex offenders to live out their lives in a trailer."
That day, I also called the Bun Boy Motel. The phone was answered by a young voice that said, "Country Store." I was confused. She explained that the Country Store counter is where people checked in to the adjacent Bun Boy Motel, which is adjacent to the Big Boy restaurant, which used to be the Bun Boy restaurant in whose parking lot TWTT was erected. Then she said that she was too busy to talk, and could I call later.
I could. A mature voice owned by Virginia answered. I told her of my disappointment that TWTT was offline during my visit. "It's on now," she said. "He had it shut down for a while cuz of the power bill. It was off for a couple weeks."
How hot was it? "Can't see. My view's blocked by the restaurant." Virginia didn't know how much the power bill was, but she told me that "he" was the owner, Matthew Pike, who also owned the Big Boy, but he wasn't there. He lived in Laguna Beach. I wanted to know how much it cost to illuminate TWTT, but she didn't know his number.
Virginia told me that Pike had purchased the thermometer from "the owner of the Bun Boy restaurant and Country Store and Bun Boy Motel and pretty much every business in Baker." He built TWTT, she said, "in 1990. It blew over in November that year. They put it back up, cemented it in better."
Close; Pike had bought TWTT in 2006 from the guy who had bought it in 2003 from the late Willis Herron, who erected TWTT in his Bun Boy parking lot in 1991 at a cost of $700,000, and whose family had always carried the paper. TWTT did blow down, but was fortified and resurrected. Promotional value notwithstanding, officially it's not a thermometer, it's a sign.
Pike owned the sign, but leased the restaurant whose name he changed to Big Boy because he had interests in that franchise. Guess he didn't he remember what happened when "Coke" changed its name to "New Coke."
Rodrigo answered the phone that day at Big Boy. I asked if the owner was there. He wasn't. He might be in Laguna Beach, and Rodrigo asked why I wanted that number.
It's my understanding that he owns TWTT, I said, "and that he turned it off recently because of the expense."
"That wasn't the reason," Rodrigo said. "It was broken. Something electrical." He said it was turned back on Monday. Maybe Sunday. Cost was never an issue. Pike owned Big Boys all over Southern California, he's a Big Man at Big Boy. He doesn't care how much it costs to run TWTT.
Except that, apparently, he did, telling some people that it cost as much as $8,000 a month to keep the thermometer illuminated. Apparently he couldn't afford that, or the sign payments or the rent. According to one former Bakerite who prefers to remain anonymous, earlier this year, Herron's family foreclosed on TWTT, and is spending about $150,000 to restore the decrepit landmark with LED lights and hopes of opening by summer. Or fall. You know. Whenever.
It's Baker, where the only certain things are wind, heat and high gas prices. Still, you have to love a place that's bereft of water but where life is fluid. Whose charm eluded one contributor to TripAdvisor because of the motel's "awful smell" and because it bore a room sign warning visitors "not to open the back door b/c of snakes."
A small price to pay to restore full health to The World's Tallest Thermometer. Now, can we get the Bun Boy back?
Photo courtesy worldstallestthermometer.com