GOLDFIELD — Randy Johnston’s crowning achievement sits upon a dusty mountaintop in desolate Esmeralda County, looking more like a castle than one man’s desire to poke a stick in the eye of every construction inspector who ever cramped his builder’s style.
It is a citadel of sorts — built to last 1,000 years, with block walls 16 inches thick, 7 tons of steel rebar on the same concrete foundation used in bomb shelters and not a stick of wood in the framework: all to outlast the worst vicissitudes the bone-dry high desert can dish out.
Johnston spent $3 million on his stylish, 8,000-square-foot mountain redoubt, well, because he could.
The consummate tinkerer spent three decades in Lake Tahoe, constantly harassed by local government inspectors who poked their noses into his every pet project, right down to a side-yard tool shed. Then, on a weekend off-roading adventure in the Nevada desert near Goldfield, 150 miles north of Las Vegas, he stumbled onto a place where a man with a little money, imagination and a two-by-four-strong sense of pluck can build whatever he damn well pleases.
“No fees, no inspections, no permits, no nothing,” he says. “Nobody to come out and say, ‘You can’t do that. Color’s not right. Dimensions are wrong.’ It was enough to drive a man crazy.”
And so in 1998, after receiving a sizable inheritance, Johnston chucked his overregulated California life and began work on his circular mountain masterpiece — with its 22 rooms, winding staircase, ornate tile work, two mammoth pipe organs and a rooftop observatory affording views of mountains and valleys that stretch into forever.
It’s one man’s quirky vision, a thumb-your-nose construction project built without blueprints, done one brick at a time, mostly with his own hands, (with the occasional help of local fellas named Denny, Doc and Kenny), heeding only to the dictates of his own imagination.
He calls it the Hard Luck Castle, named after the nearby abandoned 19th-century mine at the end of a dirt road 9 miles from the nearest pavement. For years, Johnston has offered tours to fellow desert wanderers and Death Valley tourists who want an inside look at the place that runs on a few generators, but mostly on solar and wind power.
Now, at age 69 with his passion project nearing completion, Johnston is throwing in the trowel. The place has been for sale for years, but now he feels the clock ticking. His health is beginning to teeter, he says, and doctors are scarce among the Joshua trees and howling coyotes in the Nevada outback. He’s also weary of the 250-mile round-trip to Pahrump for groceries and supplies.
The final insult came when a massive flood closed Highway 267, stopping the flow of visitors whose $10 tour donations helped keep him going after his inheritance ran out. In the past two months, not one traveler has crossed the flatlands into the Gold Mountains to see Johnston’s attraction, which includes 40 deeded acres and the old mine.
“The entire Hard Luck Mine and Castle estate is for sale,” his website reads. “Everything — and we mean everything — comes with the sale. All the owner wants to leave with is his truck, his trailer, and his dogs.”
He recently slashed the asking price from $3.2 million to $1.5 million. Still, no one with a checkbook has ventured to look at the place.
“I’ve had a few calls, but nothing more than that,” Johnston says. “And most of those people were asking about the mine.”
It’s enough to make a man think no one appreciates his personal vision.
Now he sits out in the desert, putting the last touches on his dreamscape, with his two dogs, Hunk and Molly, as his only company.
But Johnston isn’t feeling sorry for himself. He likes telling how his castle came to be — about the 1986 off-roading trip in a souped-up Volkswagen bus when he and his son discovered a cabin at the site, where they took shelter in a snowstorm.
He fell in love with the place and returned year after year. Finally, after countless lunches courting the reluctant owner, he bought the property for $17,000.
Disaster struck with the first load of gravel he hauled up the winding dirt road. A broken axle forced him to abandon his old trailer among the rocks and scrub brush, decorating it with Buddhist, Christian and hedonist figures to resemble a wacky altar to some mad new religion.
For Johnston, that religion is building whatever the hell you want.
He keeps tinkering, waiting to install the last bit of circuit board for his pair of 3,000-pipe organs. He wants to build a campground with a pyramid-shaped carport.
He’s also putting the finishing touches on an obelisk that defines his unique vision: On various sides he has listed the names and election dates of all the U.S. presidents. He plans to add historic footnotes, Egyptian hieroglyphics, words of wisdom and his personal collection of slang words.
“You know,” he says, “like ‘bitchin’, and ‘far out.'”
For now, the long winter months have become kind of lonely as he waits for a visitor, a would-be buyer, anyone really, to click on www.hardluckcastle.com and maybe venture out to appreciate his handiwork.
He has no regrets.
“Hell, no, I love this place,” he says. “But trying to sell it is a pain. Eventually, I’ll find someone who wants to come out here and keep the place going.”
When that happens, Johnston plans to pursue another dream that involves registering a 50-foot sailboat in Panama and disappearing on a new adventure.
And what if his sturdy mountain castle does stand for a millennium? How would he want future desert-dwellers to remember its creator?
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, scratching his head. “Maybe just as some idiot who built his dream house out in the middle of nowhere.”