Ecotopia where the dream lives on

One rule of Nipton living is that you never try to outshout the train. The noise might not seem so deafening closer to civilization, but in this Mojave Desert town, 60 miles south of Las Vegas, silence holds dominion. On my first visit there last year, I sat for a long while and heard nothing at all—no car, no airplane, no leaf blower, no barking dog, not a single human voice. The vast wordless desert surrounded me in all directions.

I’d arrived on a weekday, my rental car pinged by a shower of pebbles and grit as I motored down Nipton Road, which runs between Interstate 15 and the town of Searchlight, Nevada.

There were no people roaming the sidewalks because there were no sidewalks—or people, for that matter. A faded settlement of about 20 permanent residents, the town consisted of an assortment of structures, some solid and occupied, some as vacant and splintered as an Old West movie set. Gamers might know Nipton for its cameo in Xbox 360’s Fallout: New Vegas, where it played a post-apocalyptic wasteland infested by giant mantises. But otherwise it was your typical drive-through desert community, fixed at the crossroads of Nowhere Special and Wherever You Were Going. There was one notable exception: Nipton, and everything in it, was for sale.

Two weeks earlier I’d telephoned the town’s owner, an 83-year-old former gold miner named Gerald Freeman, known to everyone as Jerry. He purchased Nipton’s 80 acres in 1984, then spent the next 30 years slowly turning it into a desert ecotopia, where he did everything from plant trees to convert to biofuel to erect an 80-kilowatt solar plant that pumps the town with nearly half its power.

A future buyer with enough cash and the right sense of mission would get the deed to the whole thing—a town, yes, but also Jerry’s vision. “Nipton was where I realized my dream,” he told me. But time was running out. When we spoke, he’d just spent four months in the hospital with congestive heart and renal failures, and he was still getting his nutrition from a feeding tube. He was looking for someone to continue his work. Before we hung up, he invited me to Nipton, to come see his sustainable community up close.