BAKER, Calif. -- The world’s tallest thermometer is busted.
The 134-foot tall icon in the small desert town of Baker, Calif., just off of Interstate 15, quit working about three years ago. The degrees are off, with random numbers reflected against the sun. The gift shop is empty, scarred with graffiti.
The culprit? Blame it on the recession.
The thermometer’s owner claims he can’t afford its electricity bill—about $8,000 a month. But some community leaders are tired of hearing excuses. They say the broken thermometer is an eyesore and they want it taken down. There also are plans to remove the words “World’s Tallest Thermometer” from the Baker water tower.
“It’s just kind of an embarrassment,” said Le Hayes, general manager of Baker Community Services District, a state agency that provides water, sewer service and trash collection. Hayes said his office has received plenty of calls from tourists about the thermometer.
“People are curious about why we don’t fix it,” Hayes said. “The response to that is: we don’t own it.”
The thermometer marks the boom and bust of Baker’s economy, which has a population of about 700 people. In its heyday, millions of tourists would pull off Interstate 15 on their way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, to take photos with the thermometer. Over the last few years, Baker businesses say fewer people stop at the desert hamlet, the result of higher gas prices, more competing developments along the interstate and the broken thermometer.
The thermometer was erected in 1991, the brainchild of businessman Willis Herron to get more tourists to stop by Baker. It's 134 feet tall to commemorate the hottest temperature ever recorded in the world —134 degrees in Death Valley in 1913.
Willis spent $750,000 to build the thermometer, according to the Los Angeles Times, and it put Baker on the nation’s map of tourist attractions. The icon changed ownership over the years and eventually it ended up in Matt Pike’s hands. Pike owns several businesses in the area, including Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Baker.
Pike did not respond to KPCC’s interview requests, but told Nevada Public Radio in September that the recession caused him to turn off the thermometer, so he could focus on his other properties.
“If someone would like to help me with the electric bill, I have no problem with that,” Pike told the radio station.
Businesses in Baker say the busted thermometer makes the town’s sluggish economy even worse. At Country Store, sales are down 10 to 20 percent.
Tourists “used to take a lot of pictures in front of the thermometer, but now it seems like no one is taking it,” said Jin Yang, who helps run the convenience store. “I don’t think a lot of buses are coming either. They used to come a lot, but now it’s kind of slow.”
Baker is known as the gateway to the Mojave Preserve, but even tourism there has decreased. Last year, the Mojave National Preserve said it had 536,006 recreational visitors, down 11 percent from 2010.
Baker has become almost a ghost town. There are several empty storefronts and two hotels have closed down. Yang said his relatives closed the Bun Boy Motel because there weren’t enough customers. They still operate the Wills Fargo Motel down the street, but it’s up for sale.
Pike told Nevada Public Radio that he hopes to one day restart the thermometer, perhaps by the New Year, if the economy gets better. But locals expressed doubt that will happen.
Ira Kalb, who teaches marketing at USC, said he thinks Pike should get it working again soon.
“Maybe if he doesn’t want to fix the thermometer, someone should take his temperature with a real thermometer,” Kalb said. “It seems that it would be good for tourism and good for his business if he fixed it.”
Quirky roadside attractions, like a big thermometer, giant dinosaurs or a huge ball of twine, put small towns on the map. Kalb said they give tourists a reason to stop.
There’s not much happening at the thermometer these days. Every now and then, someone like Linda Kilpatrick from Manhattan Beach pulls off the highway. She didn’t know the thermometer was busted.
“It looked like a fun place to stop,” Kilpatrick said, who had planned to take photos with her Chinese nephew at the now defunct icon. “We were sorry it was broken.”
If the thermometer can’t get fixed, Baker needs another reason for drivers to stop in the middle of the desert.
How about a giant alien spaceship?
Luis Ramallo owns Alien Fresh Jerky, a Baker store that sells candy, nuts and of course, jerky, with an alien theme. Want to chew on Abducted Cow Teriyaki, Space Cowboy Pepper, or Galactic Garlic Rosemary jerky? Ramallo sells those flavors and 19 more. He came up with the idea about a decade ago.
“When a sheriff’s deputy asked me for my papers, I pulled out my green card and I saw that I was a resident alien, so Alien Fresh Jerky was born,” Ramallo said.
Ramallo believes in aliens—and apparently, so do a lot of tourists. Enough so that he plans to build a $12 million, three-story hotel shaped like a spaceship that will light up the interstate at night.
“The potential here is great!” Ramallo said. “That’s what we see.”
Linda Kilpatrick’s nephew, Harry Min from China, agrees. Even though the thermometer didn't work, he still enjoyed the brief stop in Baker thanks to Alien Fresh Jerky. Min liked the car of fake aliens in front of the store and the information on whether aliens really exist.
“It’s a very cool thing to visit this old small town, which I have never seen before except in movies,” Min said.