I met Rock Novak in September 2017, with photographer Myles Pritchard, while doing a story on American ghost towns.
In the wooden shack that’s the only public building in the ghost town of Ballarat, California, there are only three types of drink on offer: soda, beer or a 100-proof moonshine. “It don’t burn, and it don’t bite,” says Rock Novak, the ghost town’s 63-year-old caretaker, as he hands Myles and me a shot of his creation.
Rock’s lived here for 13 years, in a beaten-up old shack out back, but he’s been perfecting his moonshine for 20. “Each time I make it, I make it cleaner,” he says of his liquid, which is soaked in charcoal barrels for a month. Taking a sip, I am fully ready to grimace in horror – but it is indeed surprisingly clean and drinkable. “I swear, you won’t get a hangover off this stuff,” says Rock.
Ballarat, a collection of beaten-up wooden shacks, is a uniquely weird place. As you drive in, on a gravel track off the highway that leads to Death Valley, there’s a scratchy sign that’s a kind of punctuation-free manifesto for the ghost town, which is as liberal with its spelling as its values: “Take Any Kind of Photos You Want… Nobody Cares… Feel Free… Learn Nothen… Charle Mansons Truck… Fire A Gun.”
Ballarat has always had a hint of desert rat danger about it. When it was founded as a town in 1897, it was a place for prospectors and miners to relax when they weren’t working around the nearby mines. As the town grew to around 500 people and the local mine trade boomed, there were three hotels, seven saloons, four brothels, a jail and a morgue – but no church. By the time the post office closed its doors in 1917, effectively signalling the end of the town, it was established as “a place where you pretty much do what you want”, in Rock’s words.
As a decaying ghost town, Ballarat’s story only gets sketchier. In the late 1960s, Charles Manson and his Manson Family cult started camping out at the Barker Ranch in the hills above Ballarat, and would frequent the ghost town now and then. In 1969, police gathered at Ballarat with an arrest warrant for a group of suspects at the Barker Ranch, who’d been accused of vandalising a monument at the Death Valley National Park nearby. When they found Charles Manson hiding under the bathroom vanity, they initially had no idea that they’d caught America’s most infamous murderer.
When police found Charles Manson hiding under the bathroom vanity, they initially had no idea that they’d caught America’s most infamous murderer.
Today, you can still find traces of the Manson Family in Ballarat. There’s a decaying green Dodge truck, which Manson disciple Charles “Tex” Watson supposedly used to flee the police raid before it broke down. Above the Dodge nameplate, you can still see the Manson Family’s five-star insignia carved roughly onto the hood. And, in the old jailhouse and morgue, “Charles Manson Was Here” is carved roughly into one of the walls, and dated to some time in 1969 that I can’t make out.
It wasn’t just murderous cults that were drawn to this part of the desert. In 1971, 2,000 hippies came to Ballarat for a celebration. In a sign, perhaps, that the hippie dream was fading, 200 of them contracted Hepatitis A from contaminated drinking water.
Nowadays, it’s only a little more well-to-do. There are signs outside the main visitor’s entrance that read “Nude dancing” and “Next show at 9am”, which offer entirely false promise. Inside, there’s a strange visual cocktail of Wild West ephemera, religious figurines, NRA flags and sexy posters of pneumatic blondes. Beside the rusty fridge are lines of tinned food. Rock’s wifebeater vest looks like it has been on him for weeks.
Outside the shack that he calls home, Ballarat’s single resident shows us the so-called swimming pool he’s trying to clean up, which is currently a little rectangle of sludgy green, with his washing hanging on a string to one side. Near the shack, there’s a little convoy of beaten-up RVs, caravans and mobile homes, with discarded chairs and mattresses lying around the place.
With the searing heat around Death Valley, it doesn’t look like much of a lifestyle, but Rock says it’s the best job he’s ever had. Over the years, he’s “worked as a telephone lineman, in the mines and helped build houses, among other things”.
And things do happen out here, he says. People come to camp regularly, and around Easter Ballarat hosts the Freedom Days festival. Rock describes Freedom Days as “like a miniature Burning Man, where anything goes”. On the festival’s own Facebook page, they describe it as: “Off-roading, guns, nudity, booze, costumes, art, live music…and all-around good times!”
“We get a lot of dirt bikers and four-wheeled-drivers out here,” says Rock. “And the odd band who come out to make music and videos.” Every summer, according to Wikipedia, a woman called June moves into the jailhouse/morgue with her son.
Rock oversees it all in a literal sense, by just about maintaining the property, and by offering libations to thirsty tourists (when we visit, there’s a fantastically tedious Englishman who has drunk too many moonshines and started telling stories).
But, most of all, Rock oversees the philosophy of this place, which is cunningly easy to enforce. “It’s pretty simple, really,” he says. “Don’t do anything here that could harm anyone else. Otherwise, do whatever the Hell it is you want.”