The rise, fall, and uncertain future of Desert Center

This story was published in cooperation with The Desert Sun, where Amanda Ulrich is a Report for America fellow. Photos by Amanda Ulrich and Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun.

Once, there was no need for locks at the Desert Center Cafe. 

The 1920s-era diner in the remote heart of California’s Colorado Desert was open 24 hours a day, drawing in customers with the tagline, “We lost our keys, we can’t close!” But that was a decade ago. Today the cafe is locked up tight, its brown leather booths turned grey by an even film of dust. Empty mugs are stacked in neat rows, waiting to be filled with coffee, and one wall clock has been perpetually stuck at 6:04, likely since the cafe closed its doors in 2012. 

“It was open all day, from the day that it opened. Until obviously it wasn’t,” said Brandy Nelson, who grew up in Desert Center in the 1980s. Nelson worked at many of the half-dozen local businesses that line the deserted main street. Every one, save for a lone post office, is now shuttered, slowly decaying into the sand. 

Across from the cafe, a small market has folded in on itself; its roof caved in more than five years ago, curving the walls of the building inward. The wreckage, complete with a superfluous “Sorry we’re closed” sign in the window, has stood, largely untouched, since then.

“I worked right there,” said Nelson, nodding at a disintegrating counter. “And I’d set up my homework at the desk up against the window.”

The unincorporated community of Desert Center marks an isolated halfway point between Los Angeles and Phoenix, an exit off Interstate 10 that some truck drivers and roadtrippers still take before realizing they’ll no longer find any gas or food there. Surrounded by desert on all sides, its population hovers around 100 to 200 people, depending on who you ask (Nelson estimates maybe 10, including her dad and uncle, live around the mostly abandoned main drag). 

Nelson’s great-grandparents, Stephen and Lydia Ragsdale, founded the tiny community one hundred years ago. This year, on its centennial, downtown Desert Center the cafe, market and all is being sold in a probate sale for more than $6 million, to a buyer who is not a member of the Ragsdale family. 

Though the Ragsdales have debated the town’s future for decades, it’s a “heartbreaking” and complicated conclusion for Nelson and her relatives, who feel their geographic heritage slipping away. The community is a faded shell of its former self after weathering family infighting, changing economics and unrelenting desert elements.  

“There’s nothing out here. So is there hope that (the new owner) can revitalize Desert Center? Yes,” Nelson said. “It’s just unfortunate that my family weren’t the ones that could get along to do it.”

In 1921, the nation was still reeling from the twin traumas of the first world war and the 1918 influenza pandemic, which had infected about 500 million people, nearly a third of the world’s population. 

Stephen “Desert Steve” Ragsdale.

That year, Stephen Ragsdale, thereafter known as “Desert Steve,” first set up shop in the middle of nowhere.

Previously a cotton rancher in the Palo Verde Valley, a stretch of land on the border between California and Arizona, Ragsdale had struggled to keep his farm afloat after the war. So he and Lydia headed west, where they built a small vehicle repair shop. At the time, driving the roughly 90 miles between the city of Blythe to the east and the unincorporated community of Mecca to the west could be treacherous. The road was made up of “two rather uncertain ruts” cutting across the wilderness and could take nine hours to cross, Desert Magazine warned in 1937. Running out of gas or breaking down could mean a night on the side of the road, or worse. 

A few years later, Ragsdale moved his little empire slightly south to meet the rerouted highway, where Desert Center currently sits. There, he and Lydia added the cafe, market, gas station, post office and other storefronts. 

Much was written about the desert outpost and its quirky founder. Ragsdale was strictly anti-alcohol, and mandated that beer, liquor and wine would never be sold in Desert Center a tradition that his descendants maintained until the cafe and market closed, his great-granddaughter Nelson said. He doggedly promoted the town, offering free room and board for every day the sun didn’t shine. Generally, he made a business out of helping people and towing drivers out of precarious places, said Steve Lech, an author who has written several books about the region. 

“Desert Steve was a unique guy,” Lech said. “He sort of had his own philosophy and his own way of doing things.” 

Towards the latter part of his life, Ragsdale built a cabin at the summit of a neighboring mountain, a vertical trip up through winding dirt roads that still takes almost two hours from the desert floor. Pine trees along the route are monuments to Desert Steve’s bombastic style of poetry, verses of which are written on the trunks in aging paint. 

One reads, “Like war to u, fire to me, a tree, is death.” Another: “My (heart) is dead, nuff sed.”

“He was a down-to-earth poet. He wrote poetry about things rather than people,” said Harry Quinn, a local historian who spent years visiting the mountain cabin with his grandfather and Desert Steve. “He was an explorer. He was always going into new territory and trying to make something out of it.” 

The Desert Center Cafe closed in modern times.

When Suzanne Ragsdale thinks of Desert Center, she thinks first of wide, open space.

The one-road downtown sits in a barren expanse of sand and scrubby vegetation, ringed by distant mountains made blurry in the heat. Besides the main street, there’s not much else on the dusty patch of land off the highway: a handful of squat houses, a mobile home park, a crumbling schoolhouse and a few towing companies. The town’s post office, open on weekdays, now acts as a makeshift social hub for the few remaining residents.

In the 1950s, Suzanne’s Desert Center childhood was punctuated by rattlesnakes and scorpions, big dust storms rolling across the desert that would send her and her siblings running into the house.

Her father Stanley Ragsdale, Desert Steve’s son, embodied the second era of the town. He eventually became the owner of one gas station, and then the other main street businesses, still mainly afloat in the 1990s. 

Stanley and Riverside County officials often had different ideas about how to run the area. In response to concerns about Desert Center’s “blighted” appearance, Suzanne said, he went out and bought hundreds of date palms. Stanley then had cranes arrange the trees into three giant shapes: a triangle, a circle and one “secret” configuration, which could only be deciphered from the air. After decades of neglect, the trees are now either blackened and severed at their tops, or stacked on the ground in gruesome piles. 

“This was his joke, like ‘Okay, you want me to turn this into a palm desert? Alright, I’ll plant some palm trees,’” Suzanne said.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1990, Stanley summed it up: “People blame me for retarding progress. My question is, what’s progress?”

Decades before, progress was surgeon Sidney Garfield setting up a 12-bed hospital just a few miles from Desert Center during the Great Depression. Garfield later partnered with industrialist Henry Kaiser on other medical ventures, which led to the founding of health care giant Kaiser Permanente. The company credits Garfield’s Desert Center hospital as the basis for its creation. 

Kaiser powered another local economic engine in the 1940s by building an iron mine in Eagle Mountain, 13 miles north of town. It drew thousands of workers and their families to the area and to the satellite community of Lake Tamarisk, originally created for mine employees and technically part of the greater Desert Center area. Lake Tamarisk is still operational and has its own golf course, library and fire station. 

But the mine eventually shut down in 1982, causing a ripple effect for Desert Center’s downtown, Suzanne said. Teenagers from Eagle Mountain who had once staffed the town’s businesses were gone. The mine’s closure, coupled with modernization of the highway that passes Desert Center, were economic killers, she said. By then, the two-lane US Route 60 had become Interstate 10, which didn’t run directly through the town anymore. 

“People would just fly right by,” Suzanne said. “Trucks didn’t need to stop. There were faster cars at that point that could make it for 100 miles without boiling over.” 

Cars no longer broke down right in front of the gas station or service shop; people didn’t collapse, dehydrated and hungry, at the cafe’s front step. 

“That’s when things started going bad, business-wise,” she said. 

The Desert Center gas station is graffitied and stripped of much its wiring.

Things unraveled completely at the turn of the century. 

Stanley died in 1999, sparking division over Desert Center among the Ragsdale clan. A probate process began in 2000 to determine if Stanley had a valid will and how his estate would be administered. The court-supervised process has spanned the last 20 years. 

Throughout those decades, most Ragsdales have stayed quiet publicly, as nearly every business in Desert Center’s downtown blinked out, one by one.

Suzanne put in two years attempting to revive the main street, though inevitably she couldn’t manage it alone. Seeing all those ruined businesses, and Desert Center’s place of prominence in online lists of California “ghost towns,” just makes her “ashamed and embarrassed.” 

“There are a lot of differences between myself and my five brothers,” said Suzanne, who now lives in Northern California, and is generally wary of talking about the probate. “One person could not have continued this town, we had to do it together. And that’s where different resources and abilities come in. If we could have worked together, we could have done it.” 

The Ragsdales describe their familial conflict in broad strokes, rather than offering specific detail: The generation following Stanley couldn’t get along when it comes to Desert Center, so the town festered. Beyond those plot points, they keep most underlying tensions close to the vest. 

Brandy Nelson is one of the Ragsdale descendants who has tried to keep the town alive.

“This isn’t what any of us wanted,” Brandy Nelson, Suzanne’s niece, said. “But with how long the probate’s been going on, it obviously couldn’t go on too much longer.”

More than 1,000 acres of Desert Center were listed in a probate sale in 2019. This May, a court approved the sale of the area to Riverside resident Balwinder S. Wraich for $6.25 million. The property is currently in escrow. Wraich helps run a Fontana-based trucking company called Wraich Transport, a company called Wraich Investment, and other businesses alongside family members. 

Wraich said he envisions the area as a truck stop, with a few fast food restaurants, a gas station, a hotel. Many of the existing structures are damaged to a hazardous level, but he’s not opposed to saving a historical building or two if they’re deemed safe. 

“We will visit and see what we can save, what we’re not going to save,” he said over the phone. 

Graffiti on the closed Desert Center cafe.

Meanwhile, Lydia Ragsdale’s former house in the desert is spilling over with furniture and clothes, old newspaper clippings and oddities from the last century. Nothing has moved since she died in 1980. There’s a taxidermied bobcat lying on the floor, and threadbare curtains a century old still hanging in a window frame. Nelson once discovered a box of colorful geodes in the kitchen before realizing they were pieces of decades-old dried fruit. 

As Nelson drove up for a visit in June, the front door of the vacant house was ajar.

“Hello?” she called. No one answered. Like the rest of downtown Desert Center, looters have gone through the old house.

“People through the years have broken in,” Nelson said, gingerly stepping over a mountain of cardboard boxes and unidentifiable fabrics. “They’ve ransacked it, they’ve thrown stuff everywhere.” Occasionally videos will surface on YouTube of people picking through her great-grandmother’s belongings. 

But the Ragsdale family has a more pressing concern: saving and moving everything that has accumulated before the area goes under new ownership. Lydia Ragsdale’s house is surrounded by a small sea of rusted antique cars, trucks, RVs and one yellow school bus, sitting on its rims. 

Down an alleyway of sand, Nelson’s dad Jeffrey Ragsdale still lives in a compact home, similarly packed with possessions. Nelson was told she could not purchase or lease back the parcel of land where her dad lives, she said. They are currently looking for another spot in the desert for him to call home. And the clock is ticking; from the date escrow closes, Nelson said, the family has 120 days to pack up. 

“Until this happened, there was no reason to have to move everything,” Nelson said. “My dad always thought he was gonna die on that street.” 

Desert Center, seen from a nearby outcropping.

Fifty years ago, Desert Steve had a kindred final wish: to dig his own grave, positioned in a rocky outcrop across the highway, overlooking the same Desert Center streets. 

In the end, that didn’t happen. A team of people, including historian Quinn’s grandfather, dug the hole and hung a plaque on a slab of rock. Photos of the operation show four men pickaxing into the ground as Ragsdale looks on, a pipe in his mouth. 

Ragsdale had made an informal “gentleman’s agreement” for the Desert Center burial with a county health department official, but by the time he died in 1971, that official had retired. The next department head was not in support of a burial outside of a cemetery. 

Instead, Ragsdale, like thousands of others, is buried in a cemetery in the city of Coachella, less than two miles from where the world-renowned music festival of the same name is held every year. His plot is in the older section of the grounds, where some grave markers are bunched close together, and a few have aged past legibility.

But it’s clear, in this public cemetery more than 50 miles from the town where he once staked his claim, which grave is Desert Steve’s. Other stones nearby offer basic information about the people buried there — names, birth dates, “mother” or “brother” — while Ragsdale’s includes a full paragraph of text, one last screed from the desert pioneer. 

“Founded D.C. Sept. 21, 1921,” the grave marker reads. “Worked like hell to be an honest American citizen. Loved his fellow men and served them. Hated booze guzzling, hated war, hated dirty deal damn fool politicians. Hopes a guy named Ragsdale will ever serve humanity at Desert Center. He dug his own grave. Here are his bones. I put this damn thing up before I kicked off. Nuff said – Steve.”

Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells. Funded by supporters of the Sunday Long Read.