Discoveries: Boron a bit more than a hole in the ground

01/27/2013 12:00 AM

01/26/2013 9:50 PM

BORON – Odd thoughts come to you on the road, the mind lulled by the deadly combo of mundanity and inertia into strange reveries as the broken white lines roll under your feet.

Finding myself recently on a vast, forsaken stretch of Highway 58 in the Mojave Desert, with the only thing to look forward to being a stop at a convenience store to gas up, I posed a challenge to myself.

To wit: Could I write about a visit to the Borax Visitor Center, a corporate tribute to the caustic hand soap and household cleaning solvent that spawned a 1950s TV show, in this one-horse – but 20 mule-team – town without inducing spontaneous narcolepsy in readers?

The task seemed enormous, big as the 700-foot-deep, mile-long hole in the ground that serves as Boron's raison d' etre. So many times over the decades, while driving to Las Vegas or taking the long way to San Diego, I had zoomed past the beckoning Borax billboard and left that Boron offramp in the dust, not feeling a whit of remorse for missing tales of heroic mules hauling rocks from pits.

This time, though, I flicked the blinker and headed toward an erector set of grim, gray buildings and snaking towers amid an ocher landscape. Already, I was questioning my judgment.

Writing about dirt? Has it come to that? I mean, really?

(Way to sell it, Sam. Readers probably have already flipped inside to the Travel Troubleshooter or Carolyn Hax's advice column.)

For those who've stuck around, permit me to give you what we in the journalism racket call a teaser to whet your reading interest.

In the next, oh, 500 words, you'll read about:

Your clueless narrator nearly getting nailed by a train

A kindly docent who may wind up getting fired in the wake of his honesty

Ronald Reagan's second-best acting performance

Souvenir calcimine rocks that look like something they cook and smoke on "Breaking Bad"

The existential ennui that comes from staring too long into an abyss.

Gosh, who knew exploring the site of the world's largest deposits of the fifth element on the periodic table could be so pulse-pounding?

The drive in off the freeway offers a peculiar pull. The industrial skyline, the only thing vertical within miles, seems close enough to touch. Yet, you keep moving and, miragelike, so does it.

Upon finally reaching the site of Rio Tinto (the British-Australian multinational that acquired Borax U.S. a few years back) you get a taste of the company's dry (make that arid) wit on a sign: "Maximum Speed: 37 1/2."

Full disclosure: I may have been pushing 37 7/8 in the turbo-charged company car. But I came to a complete stop at the railroad tracks just before the entrance.

A train, about eight box cars in length, inched along the tracks at about the same speed as my osteoporotic mother in-law ambles. Five minutes passed, almost 10, and the train still blocked the only path to the center.

Did I consider doing a U-turn and abandoning my assignment?

Yes, reader, I did.

But then the train, as if sensing my irritation, chuffed and clattered and started, excruciatingly slowly, to reverse itself. When it had almost cleared the intersection, I started the engine and hit the gas pedal. That's when the train jerked and started moving forward once more. I cleared its cow catcher with mere feet to spare.

Slightly shaken, I followed arrows to the visitor center up a man-made berm (sign: "Speed Uphill: 23").

According to Borax's website, 126,845 people have visited the center since 2011. All I saw was an empty parking lot with a replica of a 20-mule team wagon in front of a handsome, single-story building. That, and a portable toilet. No cars.

Inside, I saw lots of pretty, shiny rocks sheathed in glass displays as if the place was housing the Hope Diamond. A brass plaque told me it was "Ulexite."

"Here ya go!" a voice behind me barked.

I nearly tumbled into the precious Ulexite. Before me stood a kindly docent, an éminence grise wearing a nametag: Gene Van Horn.

He was holding out a laminated card affixed with four chunks of real, honest-to-goodness minerals mined at the plant: Borax, Colemanite, Kernite and the aforementioned Ulexite (NaCaB5O98H20, for those keeping score at home). On the flip side, a handy explanation with this self-congratulatory tidbit: "Borax ships approximately one million tons of refined borates to customers in nearly 100 countries."

I made small talk with Van Horn. We were the only two people in the center, after all. He said he worked in the plant for 55 years but now is retired. I asked if much had changed in his time.

Uh, oh

"A lot has changed," he said, sounding none too happy. "They changed owners and it's not the same. Different rules and regulations in the plant. You're not a person, you're a number."

As if remembering his PR job, Van Horn quickly recovered and pointed me toward exhibits showing all the household items that contain this special mineral: footballs, magnifying glasses, frying pans, hammocks and detergents ranging from Tide and Cheer to the classic Borax your grandmother used.

"It's used in about 3,000 things," Van Horn said. "There's hardly not anything you can't pick up that doesn't one way or the other have some (Boron) in it."

The docent was informative, but the 10-minute company film in a separate room featured our future pitchman-in-chief – Ronald Reagan. He hosted the 1950s TV show "Death Valley Days," a model for product placement. On YouTube, check out the Gipper rubbing axle grease on his palm and then using Boraxo Waterless Hand Cleaner to miraculously wipe it clean.

When the film ended, the curtains covering the floor-to-ceiling windows parted and visitors were treated to a sweeping view of the open pit. This machine-made concavity lacks the grandeur of, say, the Grand Canyon, but you can't help but entertain deep, meaningful thoughts as you peer into its vast depths.

Big hole, man. Big freakin' hole.

I then hopped in the car and made it to San Diego by nightfall.


14486 Borax Road, Boron

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Call: (760) 762-7588


Cost: $3 per car


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