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A Night at the Atolia Tungsten Mine

Canadian night photographer, Larrie Thomson, and I circled the back roads in the “Barstow, Mojave, Ridgecrest triangle.” We jabbered and joked over walkie-talkies as we crisscrossed the high desert, driving nose to tail, searching out locations for that night’s photo-shoot.

It was getting near dark and we had yet to find the right creepy spot to set up the cameras and make our full moon time-exposures. We rolled north on 395. As we cruised into Red Mountain, the eastern shoulder of the highway sloped away to a series of ramshackle buildings barely visible from the road. An abandoned mine complex: we’d hit a photographic motherload!

Spinning a quick U, we hid our vehicles across the highway behind the tall creosote bushes. As the sun went down we gathered our gear and pretended not to see the “No Trespassing” signs while squeezing through the rusty barbed-wire fence.

The Atolia Tungsten Mine was established in 1905. By 1916 it was a full-fledged town boasting a modern school, four restaurants and even a newspaper. Between 1916 and 1918 it produced $10 million in ore. By World War II the mines had played out and the town folded up and blew away in the endless Mojave wind. Today the site contains about a dozen buildings, all in various states of disrepair. Some largely intact, others tattered and partially collapsed. Anything of value is long gone.

We split up, exploring and photographing opposite sides of the 25-acre site well into the evening, each absorbed in the lonely isolation of the desert night. Every few hours we’d cross paths, “Did you see that giant owl on the transformer?” “No, but check out the Acid House.”

“The Acid House” reeked of toxic chemicals spilled everywhere. Sinks and spray booths scorched with chemical burns, I couldn’t spend much time in there, my sinuses instantly burned and I felt my DNA begin to unscrew. Nice place to hide a body. Or dissolve one.

Around midnight, a bitterly cold late-winter storm blew through. Clouds bled ominously across the sky as the storm passed. The moon ducked behind the clouds pushing exposure times to the 20-minute mark. Even my Canadian companion got cold. Used to low-desert shooting at night in shorts and t-shirt and typically unprepared, I had to borrow an embarrassingly dorky stocking cap from the artic-explorer Larrie.

Later that night we could hear loud and raucous voices on the westerly wind. It was a group of kids across the highway partying, spinning donuts in their hand-me-down pick up trucks and drinking beer. A common encounter for night photographers, we saw them, but they never saw us. We ignored them until we started to hear the echo of gunshots off the hills followed by the unmistakable plink of corrugated metal buildings being hit with bullets. They were hitting all around us! We surprised them into silence with our hollering to “Stop Shooting!” but soon the firing began again. We decided it was probably best for us to move along to our campsite behind some even more remote abandoned buildings 20 more miles down the road. –Troy Paiva


Weird California


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