I-15 way station frets train talk


We've all heard train fanatics screaming for a magnetic levitation system that would jet through the desert, delivering tourists from Anaheim to Las Vegas in 81 minutes. Then there are those pushing for the DesertXpress high-speed rail to Victorville, Calif.

Then there is Jake Hoodman, who sums up the thought of a high-speed train this way: "We're screwed."

Hoodman is 18 years old. He likes jerky, all types including ahi. He loves his job. He doesn't think it's strange that 12 students were in his graduating class. He embraces his quiet lifestyle. He simply can't imagine life without his hometown: Baker, Calif.

He despises the thought of a high-speed train that ferries tourists right past this dusty, sun-drenched community nearly 100 miles outside of Las Vegas.

"It's a very frightening thought. I don't think any of us would have our jobs," Hoodman said. "Everybody would want to take the train. This town wouldn't even exist anymore."

It was difficult to digest this concept, partly because my focus was derailed by a surge of questions that unexpectedly clogged my mind: You grew up in Baker? Can you even find a cow to tip in Baker? What do these people do, marvel at the world's largest thermometer? Climb it? Baker? Really? Wow.

"The thermometer doesn't even work anymore" was what Hoodman was saying when I tuned back in. "How embarrassing is that?"

Regardless of the working condition of the thermometer and Hoodman's contention that this is evidence the community is falling apart, Baker residents genuinely fear their town will dry up and tumble off into the desert if a high-speed train is built.

The main arterial guides motorists who exit Interstate 15 through Baker. Almost every business along the stretch caters to these drivers. You'll see a few restaurants, such as the popular Mad Greek, service stations with ridiculously priced gasoline and Hoodman's employer, the popular Alien Fresh Jerky store.

Locals have to drive 50 miles to Barstow for groceries; the only bar in town closed awhile back. The townspeople work in these service-oriented businesses and live a few tumbleweed-strewn blocks away where double-wides dot the desert. Dogs and chickens scurry about unchecked.

Residents live on streets such as Park Avenue, named such because there is a small patch of grass with a swing-set and slide, or Stadium Way, because that's where one would find the town playing field. Then there is Hillview Drive, Schoolhouse Lane; you get the picture.

Luis Arias, a server at Bob's Big Boy, recently moved from Baker to Las Vegas, but still commutes for his job. He estimates 98 percent of his customers are passing through.

"People here live off the people who travel. That's how they make a living," Arias said as he delivered breakfast to a Vegas-bound couple. "Everybody would be traveling on the train. It will hurt business."

Granted, many visitors will want to have their cars with them, so a train isn't going to eliminate those who travel by vehicle. Plenty of truckers also stop. But a bullet train sounds appealing to a lot of tourists, such as Marie Lowman, who has been driving to Las Vegas for 40 years.

"Going on Friday is the worst and I come back on Monday because I don't want to deal with Sunday traffic," Lowman said as she grabbed a bite at Bob's. "With all the road rage, it's scarier these days."

Brian Brown's grandfather, R.J. Fairbanks, founded Baker in 1929 and hit the jackpot when trucks began delivering materials from Newport, Calif., to Hoover Dam. They had to stop in Baker to refuel, eat and use the bathroom. In the mid-1930s, his father owned a garage and his mother a cafe. They kept both open 24 hours to help out motorists traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Baker has always been a service town, Brown said.

And it's had its scares before. When Interstate 15 was built in the early 1960s, the townspeople worried the trip would be shortened enough that fewer motorists would need to stop in Baker.

"Everybody in town was sure it would kill the town. It would dry up and blow away," Brown said. "It didn't happen. Baker businesses continued to thrive."

What about a train?

If it's the DesertXpress, Brown believes the town has little to worry about. Southern Californians would rather drive the entire way than head to Victorville to catch a train, he said. The maglev would be a "game-changer," but he still is confident that traffic would continue to flow steadily through Baker.

"It might cut down on Baker a little bit, but I don't think it would dry up the town," Brown said. "Baker has always been kind of a way station, and it probably always will be. If one (a train) does get built, I just don't think it would have much impact."

And Brown reiterated, that's a pretty big "if."

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