From ‘Pike’s’ to ‘Hawaiian’: Mojave Desert motel dreams

Architecture & Design

Ed. note: Guest writer Jeff Burbank shares words & photos from an intriguing, if spooky, desert discovery.

The ghost of Norman Bates would seem to be alive and well at a certain abandoned motel in forlorn Baker, California. This Mojave Desert hamlet still considers itself the Gateway to Death Valley, but, in reality, Baker serves mainly as a pit stop between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Most of Baker’s independently owned hostelries and cafes have been shuttered, overtaken by corporate-owned motels and fast-food chains. Even the iconic Bun Boy restaurant, notable for its strawberry pies and “world’s tallest thermometer” is defunct.

At the western edge of town lies the boarded-up remains of the incongruously christened Royal Hawaiian Motel. No spirit of aloha now pervades these boarded-up lodgings (if it ever did); and I discovered that the Royal Hawaiian originated in the 1940s as Pike’s El Rancho, after I realized that the image on an old linen postcard rattling around in my glovebox exactly matched the mummified motor court that stands unvisited along the main drag.

In a town where it would be too expensive to tear it down, why bother to demolish something that isn’t going to be replaced? So instead, it stands sentinel in the Mojave in a state of arrested decay, not unlike the funerary temples of the pharaohs in a desert much farther away.

Los Angeles writer Jeffrey Burbank has contributed to L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the recent author of  “The Technicolor Desert: Cinema and the Mojave.”

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