John Conaway has lived in and around the town of Ridgecrest since before it was much of a town. In 1967, when he moved his young family to the remote Southern California community, Ridgecrest had been incorporated for only a few years. “It was all dirt roads,” he says. “No stop signs, no nothing.” Mostly, the town was there to support the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, an arms-testing base built nearby during World War II. The military contractor Grumman, which employed Conaway as an engineer, had given him a bonus to relocate from New York. Like many of his colleagues and their families, he and his lived on base.
A handful of years later, the Navy decided China Lake contractors would have to find their own housing. The Conaways bought 4 acres and built a house in the adjacent town of Inyokern, which like Ridgecrest is nestled in the Indian Wells Valley, a roughly 11,000-square-mile stretch of desert in the eastern Sierra Nevada about three hours north of Los Angeles. When Conaway learned there were tax incentives for farmers, he started planting. By the early 1980s he’d settled on pistachios as his crop of choice.