Welcome to Ballarat, California, population one. Located in the heart of the unforgiving Death Valley, the former mining supply town has been abandoned for nearly 100 years. Were it not for Rock Novak, the town’s only resident, Ballarat would belong to the vultures.
“I’m the caretaker, the mayor, the sheriff, the judge, and the undertaker [of Ballarat],” Novak says in Mickey Todiwala and Monika Delgado’s short documentary, The Mayor of Ballarat. “I like it out here. It’s peaceful, quiet…you do as you want.”
Unsurprisingly, Novak is a bit of an oddball and a misanthrope. In the film, he gives a tour of Ballarat, during which he muses about human nature and politics. “We were surprised to find that he had such an accurate portrayal of the world today despite being completely isolated and away from civilization,” Todiwala told The Atlantic.
Novak is the son of the legendary Panamint Valley prospector George Novak. Father and son moved to Ballarat in 2004 to serve as caretakers; when the elder Novak died, Rock remained. He now operates a barebones motel in the town and collects vintage items, such as a truck that belonged to a Charles Manson family member, taken from the infamous Barker Ranch nearby.
“Capturing the stillness of Rock’s lifestyle and environment without making a stale or tedious film was a challenge,” Todiwala said.
In 1899, Ballarat had nearly 500 residents as well as a Wells Fargo Station, post office, school, jail, hotels, and several saloons. It was abandoned in 1920, when the last of the nearby mines dried up. In 1969, a scene from Easy Rider was filmed in Ballarat.
“When I’m gone, I don’t know what they’re going to do with this place,” Novak says in the film. “Probably nothing.”