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Desert Companion

Desert Companion’s great big road trip in Search of the Soul of Nevada (and clean bathrooms)

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Road Trip
Photography by Christopher Smith

We confess. We used to think like a lot of locals do, imagining the rest of the Silver State beyond our city as little more than Las Vegas’ ramshackle and somewhat embarrassing backyard. But, seriously: What’s out there in the rest of the state? Where is the soul of Nevada?

We rented a big-ass RV to find out, and sent Editor Andrew Kiraly, Staff Writer Heidi Kyser and Art Director Christopher Smith on a tour of the state March 26-April 2, to explore the places and meet the people who live well beyond the amber halo of Las Vegas. Eight days and more than 1,700 miles later, here’s what we found.

March 26

 » Las Vegas

 » Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge

 » Ely

There’s something invigorating about driving an RV on the open road. Maybe it’s the inspiring Southwest mountain vistas. Maybe it’s the sense of leaving your cares behind. Maybe it’s because you have to grip the steering wheel in an arthritic viselike rictus thanks to shearing 40 mph crosswinds threatening to smash your shuddering rig onto the dirt shoulder like a carton of eggs. This was our first time driving an RV (two-thirds of us, anyway), so the whole steampunk hellhorse rattle-thrumming effect of the RV (flashes of Walter White in his methed-out Winnebago, Clark Griswold in his slapstick errant station wagon) that makes it feel like the doors, windows and various infrastructural access panels are about to flap and frisbee right off is, shall we say, something it took a little bit of getting used to.

Support comes from

(Slow-motion interlude moment on our initial launch up US 93: Watching Coyote Springs, that piece of golf-course suburban taxidermy sutured onto the desert off the highway, crawl by.)

Pahranagat visitors center

Pahranagat visitors center.  Photography by Christopher Smith

But the anxious, jumbling ride was worth it, if only because of the comparatively unreal serenity of our first stop: Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, 90 miles up the Great Basin Highway. With its springwater lakes, scrub meadows and cottonwood groves, the quiet is astounding, even in the wind — perhaps even because of the wind, which turns the valley’s cottonwoods into whispering instruments. They sway over a series of bulrush creeks where spring attracts birds such as the tiny willow flycatcher and the startling black-and-white bufflehead duck.

This small national wildlife refuge, one of four in Southern Nevada, is a vital rest stop for a veritable bird-o-pedia of migrating fowl, from Canada geese to Tundra swans. On this blustery day, we don’t get any bird-watching in, but the mysterious bush-rustlings and peeps and chirps reassure us that we’re not alone — and of course, there are Christine Belew and Sheila Mason, too, refuge volunteers and residents of nearby Alamo. They oversee a visitor’s center that’s a marvel in itself. Opened in January 2015, it’s a striking but respectfully scaled piece of site-conscious architecture that houses a remarkably intelligent and sensitive exhibit that has all the latest tactile gadgets (bird calls on telephones, buttons to bring up constellations) and also spotlights the previous presence of native peoples on the land. After the thrattle and zurm of the blustered highway, it’s a stop that stimulates the deeper self.

Alien research centerA half-hour later, at the junction of US 93 and State Route 375 — aka the Extraterrestrial Highway — we stop in Crystal Springs, where, alas, the Alien Research Center, a warehouse fronted by a colossal silver alien statue, is closed. (Ears to door: tantalizing sounds of intergalactic homunculoids shuffling within, but they don’t answer our knock. #notscaredatall) However, nearby E.T. Fresh Jerky is open. The building is muraled in images of insouciant cowboy pimp aliens celebrating, presumably, the taste of alien jerky. Because there are some freakishly avid jerky-consumers among us, we buy a crinkly gold bag of Teriyaki Time Travel jerky only to discover it tastes like furry chemical meat. The roasted and salted pumpkin seeds we also bought, however, were delicious (until a bump in the RV sent them spraying all over the cab in our first Griswold-worthy mishap).

Further northwest, at the junction of the Extraterrestrial Highway and US 6, an unlikely ghost-town tableau: a herd of mountain goat/sheep-type creatures in a stone corral. We Instagram the hell out of some old dead buildings surrounded by looming dead trees and gnarled fencing and other moody accoutrements.

Farther up US 6, we nix plans to stop at Lunar Crater once we get a look at the “road” leading to it, which is more like a suggestive ripple of dirt, as though it’s some primitive Sarlacc-pit lure for RVs filled with soft, foolhardy humans. #nothanks #arrivealive

Ghost cafe

Ghost cafe. Photography by Christopher Smith

Early dusk, we reach Ely, our stop for the night. The mining-and-prison town, maybe oddly, or maybe not, immediately asserts its posture: clean and modest, but dignified, even, in its streets and businesses. Lots of shuttered storefronts, but everywhere else, they keep the lightbulbs changed, the historic murals free of graffiti; even the junker cars on the main drag are knolled at pleasing right angles. Dinner at the historic Hotel Nevada includes a deeply fulfilling Bobcat Burger (with fried egg and bacon), a plate of fried appetizers (including pickles and “cod bites” loopily rechristened “codpieces” by us), and beers that induce swift slumber at the RV park.

Ely

Town in country: A sleepy Saturday morning on the main drag in Ely.  Photography by Christopher Smith

 March 27

 » Ely

 » Elko

The Ely mural program depicts the history of rural Nevada.

The Ely mural program depicts the history of rural Nevada.  Photography by Christopher Smith

We spend a good portion of Easter morning on Ely’s main drag, Aultman Street, snapping pics of the murals. Some depict the town’s embrace of diversity, an oft-forgotten American value. Others evoke the town’s small but significant role in the history of telecommunication (Ely’s White Pine County hosted an important segment of the Pony Express). (See below)

Pony Express

Photography by Christopher Smith

Other murals honor the area’s ranching heritage. They’re all striking and, in some cases, beautiful. “The murals are about civic pride, so there’s not a big issue with graffiti,” Don Allison, an Ely resident and counselor at the state prison, explains to us. (Fun fact: Karl Schulz, the consultant who led the Ely mural program, also worked on Henderson’s mural project.) Some of the best among them aren’t just visually compelling, but they make a commentary, too. One mural of a group of children — white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American — is done in a realistic mode, but the American flag behind it, with its avid, off-kilter stars and stripes, looks as though the kids themselves painted it. Another is a stylized portrait of a shepherd who seems to have posed for the painting, gazing pointedly at the portraitist. (see below)

Shepard

Photography by Christopher Smith

(Also noted while we’re wandering around Ely, for those keeping count, the number of dogs in the backs of trucks seen so far this trip: 1,402.)

Of course, long before this town sprung up, the Shoshone lived and thrived in the region. We venture up Highway 50 outside town to a grove of 20- and 30-foot evergreens, the Shoshone Cedars, an area sacred to Ely Shoshone and their fellow Great Basin Shoshone. Tribal elder Delaine Spilsbury gives us a private, and very poignant, tour of the site. Before Europeans settled the area, Shoshone from the region would congregate here a few times a year to socialize, pick pinion nuts, hunt and fish. White people, however, misinterpreted the gatherings as war parties and attacked them, turning the bountiful grove into a cemetery of sorts. Today, the area faces a different threat: disappearance due to drought and proposed and existing water-pumping projects. “If the water went down, the trees would die, and with them, the spirits of our people who are there,” Spilsbury tells us. “All the people who were killed here, they’re in the trees. ... It’s not something I like to think about. That’s the reason it’s so important to us.”

Ward Charcol Ovens

Ward Charcol Ovens.  Photography by Christopher Smith

South of Ely are the Ward charcoal ovens. Yes, like you, when we heard “Ward charcoal ovens,” the prospect of a historic tourist stop gave us instant narcolepsy, but Chris was obsessed. The ovens, which burned wood to make charcoal, which in turn were used to smelt ore at the nearby mines in the late 1800s, are these beautifully otherworldly beehive pods, dotted with orange lichen. The fact that they were made by Italian craftsmen explains their pleasing shape, lasting construction and pizza-like flavor. #gladwewent

Is your dream job running a backyard microbrewery on your ranch at the foot of a gorgeous mountain where you often take your heart-crushingly photogenic family on skiing excursions? Us too. Steve Safford, president of Ruby Mountain Brewing Company (see p. 40), has that job. Farther up US 93 just south of Wells, we roll up to his ranch home, in the middle of his Easter family festivities, no less. But — testament to a true beer aficionado with his priorities straight — he totally drops the family and gives us a tour and tasting in his brewery/warehouse. While two of his punishingly energetic grandkids leap from increasing heights onto bags of malt, we sample his crisp Hefeweizen, rich ambers, and thick, malty porters. (Who’s driving? Not it not it not it!)

You were probably cruising around Las Vegas in flip-flops and cargo shorts the last week of March. Fine. Outside Elko on I-80, we hit snow. More accurately, we’re suddenly enwrapped in a whirling funnel of terrible freezing confetti. Andrew alternately cowers and stares in boyish wonder; Heidi is amused, philosophical; Chris valiantly pilots us through the storm. In the snowy dark, Elko seems like a collection of America’s favorite chains and big-box stores stitched together with offramps. We pop an antidepressant in the form of fajitas and beer at Dos Amigos restaurant, crawl to the RV park and sleep.

 

March 28

 » Elko

 » Winnemucca

Unglamorous behind-the-scenes moment: In the morning, we go to the Elko Walmart for supplies, dipping briefly into that placeless American slipstream of fluorescent lights, glaring linoleum, the bloodless clamor of retail. Stopping afterward for gas, we overhear a trucker in the jerky aisle, talking to his wife. “I’m just not driving anymore. I can’t see 10 damn feet in front of me!” #challengeaccepted On the drive to Winnemucca, the RV is battered by what we can only conclude is either sleet or uniformly exploded wet newspaper.

If, like most people, you imagine Nevada as a big upside-down triangle head, Winnemucca and Elko are its two eyes set in the bristly unibrow of I-80. But they’re hardly identical. Elko has an “ISIS hunting license” sticker on its bumper. Winnemucca’s bumper is just kind of serene and vaguely wistful.

The Martin

The Martin restaurant.  Photography by Christopher Smith

Starving, we pull up to The Martin, a historic Basque restaurant whose roots go back to 1878. We interview John Arant, who owns this longtime Winnemucca institution that serves as both a town social hub and a tribute to Basque culture and cuisine. (See p. 72.) But “interview” doesn’t capture the cynicism-melting warmth and good cheer that Arant exudes — all while plates are flying from the kitchen, loaded with American Basque classics, such as solomo (grilled pork and peppers), and lamb shank, both piled with that secret Basque ingredient: garlic. The iceberg salad is dressed in cottonseed oil and “prairie dust” (salt, pepper and garlic powder); then (bam!) you ladle baked beans and chorizo over it. It’s all washed down with seemingly self-refilling carafes of Carlo Rossi — or, better yet, a glass of Picon punch, known as “the Basque cocktail.” It’s made with Amer Picon (a French aperitif made with herbs and orange peel), grenadine and brandy. Two of these and you’re cross-eyed, but happy. At the bar, regulars Hoby Studebaker and Vic Christison grouse about national politics, the federal government, the BLM. We give them the mic and ask Vic: If you could tell Southern Nevadans one thing, what would it be? “They should secede,” he says, laughing heartily. “They should go to California, where they want to be.” After a long day in Nevada’s not-so-twin rural cities, we fall into a deep, wine-drugged sleep.

 

March 29

 » Winnemucca

 » Imlay

 » Gerlach

Gerlach

Gerlach.  Photography by Christopher Smith

Weather: Chilly but delightfully snow-free. On a gas stop on the I-80, we  ask the storeowner about the legendary Thunder Mountain Monument. He says, You mean that monstrosity by the freeway? I’ve never heard it called a monument. But you can’t miss it. That guy’s weird!

Thunder Mountain Monument

Thunder Mountain Monument.  Photography by Christopher Smith

From the freeway, Thunder Mountain Monument looks like some knuckly, bone-spiked Gormenghast, but up close, it’s even more strange — and the story much more sad. Created over many years by Frank Van Zant aka Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, it’s a twisted, tormented monument decrying white crimes against native Americans. Van Zant started the project after his car broke down here in 1967, and he continued on Thunder Mountain until his death in 1986. We talk to and tour the site with caretaker and curator Fred Lewis, a friend of the Van Zant family who, despite his affability and warmth, seems himself touched by the sadness of the place. The principal, handmade building is composed mainly of mortar and glass bottles, but objects as diverse as wagon wheels and typewriters, children’s tricycles and glass Jell-O molds are also worked into the walls. It’s the centerpiece of an acre that includes a few other structures — barns, lean-tos, an outhouse — all as ornate as the main attraction. Everywhere you look, there’s a sculpture protruding from a surface, an oddity embedded in a wall. Sculpted figures loom and leer, accusing with their very gazes. And yet, as we shuffle through the three-story sand-mortar building — now closed to the public due to safety concerns — here and there, the struggling sun illuminating a bottle wall, the pleasing placement of a doll or a saw blade, suggests there was, beneath Van Zant’s anger and bitterness, some whimsy at work.

From there, we carve a big V, southwest on the I-80 and then north up State Route 447 to Gerlach. It’s one of the most scenic drives of the trip, with the pretty desolation of the severe, snow-dusted Sahwave Mountains to the west. Gerlach — perhaps these days, best known as the doormat for Burning Man — is desolate, too, but not dead. After docking at Bruno’s RV Park, we sidle up to the bar at Bruno’s Country Club, which is right next door to Bruno’s Cafe. Bruno, Bruno, Bruno. Who is this guy? Bartender Lacey Halle and others explain that he’s sort of the benevolent godfather of Gerlach, a postwar Italian immigrant who parlayed a penchant for making killer ravioli into a small-town boardwalk empire. (There he is, now 93, dozing magisterially in the corner.) We drink a few rounds with the locals, who share crazy hunting stories (“I thought, ‘Who just threw a boulder in the stream in the dark? I realized it wasn’t a boulder — it was a bear fishing for salmon three feet in front of me!”) and thoughts about Burning Man (decidedly ambivalent: the increasingly self-contained commercial juggernaut seems to pass Gerlach by now, according to Lacey, but she still attends every year. “It’s inspiring.”) After a few rounds of drinks and lots of laughs and stories, we walk back through empty streets to the RV park. In the quiet and the dark, the expanse of the land containing Gerlach is such that you can feel yourself walking on the curvature of the earth. Or maybe that was the whiskey.

 

 March 30

 » Gerlach

 » Pyramid Lake

 » Virginia City

Planet X

Planet X Pottery.  Photography by Christopher Smith.

After a big rib-cementing breakfast at Bruno’s Cafe — omelet, a breakfast sandwich crammed with ham and egg, chicken-fried steak, good strong black coffee — we venture outside of town to ceramic gallery Planet X, where caretaker Tatsy Guild shows us around the grounds, comprising several crusty-quaint, dust-kissed, off-the-grid cottages where Planet X owners John and Rachel Bogard sell their gorgeous plates, cups, teapots and pitchers. Back down the 447, we hook a right to visit Pyramid Lake, located on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. Our own Lake Mead in Southern Nevada has something in common with theirs: a bathtub ring. Indeed, the Northern Nevadans of Pyramid Lake feel our pain, from as far back as 1905, when the construction of Derby Dam diverted the Truckee River away from Pyramid and its sister lake, Winnemucca. Winnemucca — and all but one of the other smaller water bodies that once composed the prehistoric Great Lahontan Lake system northeast of Reno — has since disappeared. Although Pyramid survived, its surface level dropped 80 feet immediately after the dam was built. And, at around 3,760 feet above sea level today, it continues to decline, for the same reasons Lake Mead does: climate change, drought, evaporation and a faster rate of depletion than replenishment. This has its owners, the nearly 2,700 members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, concerned. Descendants of the Northern Paiute people who have occupied large swaths of the Great Basin for millennia, the Pyramid Paiutes earn revenue from recreational permits for boating, fishing and swimming on the lake. These activities — particularly fishing — have been essential parts of their own culture, too, for many generations. But there’s another reason they’re disconcerted by their lake’s slow-motion disappearance, a less practical, tangible one. It defines them, literally. Billie Jean Guerrero, director of the Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitors Center, explains it.

Pyramid Lake

Water works: The "bathtub ring" isn't just a Lake Mead thing; drought and overuse is affecting Northern Nevada's Pyramid Lake as well.  Photography by Christopher Smith

“The level of the water in the lake is very concerning, because, basically, Pyramid Lake is our identity, being the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. So, if we no longer have a lake, it also influences out cultural identity and who we are as a people. It has an effect on our ways of life and our practices from a long time ago, because, as I was explaining to a group earlier this morning, our tribal elders fought very much so that our lake water could be maintained, and to us, water represents life.”

Back down State Route 447, avoiding the gravitational pull of Reno, we catch US 50 east to Virginia City. At the outskirts, we wend our way into a grid of suburban trailer estates in search of the legendary Republic of Molossia, a self-proclaimed “micronation” inside Nevada, complete with its own history, customs and calendar. Expecting a walled embassy lined with uniformed guards, we instead get a modest trailer home with some “Republic of Molossia” signs. Its official “tourist season” isn’t until April 15, but we knock anyway, hopefully anticipating rebuff by a stiff-lipped corporal in green cover. Instead, a slightly embarrassed twentysomething answers the door. Hey, uh, any chance we can check out Molossia? “Oh, that. My dad won’t be home until five, so maybe you can call back then.” #underwhelmed

The drive into Virginia City proper is a lovely backcountry roller coaster of gentle hills. This is pretty much where Nevada began, propelled to importance and ultimately statehood after the riches discovered in the 1859 Comstock Lode helped the Union win the Civil War. Today, Virginia City is a tourist town with a distressed granola finish, the telltale hipster lubricants of coffee and microbrew in plentiful supply on the old main boardwalk street.

Catholic Church

More money than God:  The ornate, richly furnished St. Mary's Catholic Church in Virginia City is a reminder of the city's boom times.  Photography by Christopher Smith

Towering over much of it is this cool old Catholic church. The grandeur of it feels misplaced, even faintly comic in the downsized Virginia City of today, like a flower in a prospector’s hair. In that sense, it’s a flashback to Virginia City’s more prosperous days. Priest Anton Sommer practically grabs us off the street and gives us a tour. “Virginia City is the heart of Nevada history,” he says, “and St. Mary’s is the heart of Virginia City.” Sommer says it’s the most-photographed church in Nevada and that, in 2014, U.S. Catholic magazine named it one of the 20 most beautiful churches in the country. It’s definitely worth seeing. Originally built in 1868, the church was rebuilt in 1875 following the great fire that destroyed much of the town. Determined to show their appreciation for America’s freedom of religion, the majority Irish congregation spared no expense in converting the Romanesque structure to the Gothic style, Sommer tells us. Paintings depicting the stations of the cross were commissioned by artists in Florence, Italy; a chandelier was imported from Prague, Czech Republic; stained-glass windows came from Belgium; redwood for columns, beams and pews, from California. These were made by the finest local craftsmen. St. Mary’s could afford such luxuries in those days. As the Comstock Lode lined miners’ pockets, donation baskets overflowed.

“Six to 10 billion dollars’ worth of silver was mined here, in today’s dollars,” Sommer tells us. “This was a wealthy community.”

After we do some laundry, we head to C Street, Virginia City’s main drag. We gorge on meat-piled pizza and salad at the Red Dog Saloon, a blues band caterwauling mightily on stage while we talk to Joe McCarthy, a community activist from nearby Silver City. While a lot of Nevada towns still rely on gold, copper, gypsum or magnesium mining, there are just as many that consider themselves “post-mining era communities,” which are reinventing themselves as off-the-map leisure destinations and big-sky retirement communities. But, many find, mining isn’t through with them. Case in point: McCarthy and his fellow residents are fighting the prospect of pit mining in their town by Comstock Mining Inc., which he says got the Lyon County master plan changed to get their foot in the door.

“It’ll destroy our town, no doubt about it,” McCarthy says. He says other examples of modern pit mining in the area suggest a grim future for Silver City if CMI gets it way. “This is some of the most beautiful land in Nevada. It’s got that Nevada vibe — rough and tumble. (Pit mining has) turned it into a moonscape. It’s hideous.”

The battle between the Comstock Residents Association and CMI shows that, even in these small towns with their boomtown history well behind them, mining is very much part of the present. Like the landscape of Virginia City, the day, filled with its stories of struggle and triumph, has been an up-and-down affair.

Golconda Summit

Golconda Summit.  Photography by Christopher Smith.

March 31

 » Virginia City

 » Fallon

 » Gabbs

After a morning souvenir jaunt on C Street — in other words, buying a bunch of gourmet taffy at one of the old-timey candy stores — we pack into the RV and head northeast up US 50 to Fallon, the town with the best food of the trip. Which is perfect, because, after the previous few days’ RV fare of nuts, fruit, jerky and microwave meals that resemble Nickelodeon slime (Trader Joe’s frozen palak paneer entrée, we’re looking at you!), our inner light is about to die. We don’t just need food. We need sustenance.

The Slanted Porch (see p. 76) comes to the rescue. It’s the kind of hip, low-key, locavore restaurant you might expect in a sleepy college town, the entire staff giving off pheromonic clouds of sparkle-eyed, thoughtful enthusiasm for their culinary craft. They believe in this food, and we believe in it too when we taste it, whether it’s the tender lamb burger with Havarti dill cheese and spicy mayo, or the Monet, a winningly simple open-face tomato-and-avocado sandwich drizzled in oil. “I love working in a place where we source most of our ingredients from local farmers and ranchers,” sous chef Kelli Kelly tells us. “We have high-grade ingredients, and I’ve learned how to treat them with respect. We honor them with a simple, straightforward, honest approach to food.” (Yes, her eyes sparkle when she says this.) Even our waitress, a being of cinematic, rippling hair and elegant bustle, is straight out of Mystic Pizza.

Not far away is Lattin Farms (see p. 77), a 400-acre spread that looks less like a farm than the set of a farm on Sesame Street, what with the hay-bale go-kart tracks, the boards where you put your head in the hole to take a photo as a sheep or a cow, and a platform contraption for enticing goats to climb around so you can, I dunno, laugh at them. There’s a reason for the kiddie angle. We wander around the grounds, scratching the goats, musing over the chickens, marveling at the grounds (the impossibly stately and wise-looking walnut tree is straight off a Hallmark card!) as owner Rick Lattin waxes explanatory.

“One thing that people haven’t stopped doing over the centuries is eating food,” he says. “But the farm model has been so revolutionized over the past 50 to 60 years, that kids have no idea where their food comes from.” In addition to educating children about food and agriculture, Lattin Farms also sells its goods on site — including its renowned Hearts of Gold cantaloupe — and at local farmers markets, but they’ve also adopted the community-supported agriculture model, selling subscriptions to weekly baskets from the farm.

An Elko Ranch

An Elko Ranch.  Photography by Christopher Smith

Then it’s east on the 50 to Gabbs. The landscape begins to hint at home on the eventual horizon: The slurry of Elko, the brisk air of Winnemucca, the almost beachy breeze of Fallon is behind us now, the land drying out as we start our pachinko drop south. Off the 50 is momentous evidence of this in the form of Sand Mountain Recreation Area. There’s a buzz and roar in the air as we approach and discover a veritable village of RVs arrayed like dropships, their sand-spuming quads and jeeps crawling over the body of the massive, snaking dune in the distance. The gritty wind, the buzz of engines, the sense of rogue energies being unleashed give it all a Mad Max vibe. The thing is, though, the dune doesn’t care. It just abides there in its majestic improbability, aloof to time, insistent in its mass, being beautiful and pure. In other words: selfies!

A Winnemucca Street

An Winnemucca street. Photography by Christopher Smith

Hints of a postlapsarian theme going on now, in the dryness, the restless air. The theme comes to full, dark bloom when we reach Gabbs — sad, gray, dying Gabbs, with its smoking, headless mountains being mined in the distance, its junk-strewn scrub acres, its sagging houses and milky, tenuous light. The one consolation, R&D’s Bar, is snatched from us when the bartender zooms off like a getaway driver into the gathering dusk, like she knows something we don’t.

Basically, the Amityville Horror voice is barking “Get out” directly in our faces. But, see, we need to bed down here for the night in order to visit the nearby Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in the morning. We inquire with resident Hazel about staying in her very basic motel. She’s delighted to inform us all the rooms are available, except one. “There’s a man who lives there, long-term.”

“He’s not a murderer, is he?” we ask. Everybody laughs, some nervously, some … knowingly? #dontwannathinkaboutit

In Heidi’s room, we discover a locked ominous black door that seemingly leads nowhere. Being the intrepid journalists we are, we decide the best course of action is to drink ourselves to sleep.

 

April 1

 » Gabbs

 » Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

 » Mina

 » Tonopah

Refreshingly, we don’t wake up in the motel in Gabbs with our throats cut. (Thanks, man who lives there long-term!) Our faith in humanity restored, we walk around the unutterably depressing town to discover some signs of life: Most promising amid the sun-bleached hulls of cars and shuttered businesses is the, hello, cheerful senior center where Gabbs residents Ken and Kathleen House volunteer serving biscuits and gravy to the town’s seniors every other Friday. Their genuine warmth dispels our previous horror-movie impressions of Gabbs and makes us feel, well, a little like easily frightened, judgmental jerks. “I like (that) it’s peaceful,” Ken says of Gabbs, where he moved to from the Bay Area. “There’s no traffic. I like the close community.” The last of our morning Gabbs activities involves watching a pile of junk on fire in the desert. Apparently it’s a thing.

Then, we travel 20 miles east, up 7,000 feet into the Shoshone Mountain Range, to visit Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, where the fossils of at least nine ichthyosaurs — monstrous fishlike reptiles with sawlike mouths that swam the oceanlike oceans here more than 200 million years ago — remain where they were discovered in a naturally eroded area in 1928, and then later excavated. If the word “fossils” makes you want to pre-emptively scream out of boredom, rest assured that the ones at Berlin-Ichthyosaur won’t have that effect: The darkly outlined fossils describe actual ichthyosaur-like shapes that inspire a bit of transportive, mind-bending, imaginative awe. #gofossils

Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

Them bones: Jeff Davis points out fossil features at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.  Photography by Christopher Smith

A stop on the way to Tonopah: Mina, a sort of lewd hint of a town known best for Socorro’s Burger Hut, which is a hut that serves burgers — hefty, juicy, messy meat-doorstops that don’t apologize. In what is perhaps an unconscious desire to test the limits of the RV’s septic system, we order: a grilled cheese with tater tots, an Ortega burger with grilled onions and roasted green peppers, a jalapeño burger, two orders of fries, three milkshakes and — the up-down-down-right-punch Mortal Kombat secret fatality move to our collective GI tract — a chili dog. The chili dog is more liquid than solid.

In Tonopah, we split up: Some of us sample a dizzying, 11-mug flight of beers at Tonopah Brewing Company, some of us take a tour of the Crescent Dunes solar thermal plant just outside Tonopah, comprising a blindingly white Eye of Sauron-like power tower filled with molten salt, heated by 10,000 mirrors in order to generate emissions-free energy. Both beer and solar tower make our heads spin.

If nothing else, Tonopah is a town of purported scares, with two main areas of terror activity: the reputedly haunted Mizpah Hotel, and, at the other end of the highway, the Clown Motel, which has the whole gibbering bulb-nosed/evil smile frightmare thing going, in addition to being situated next to a historic, corpse-rich miner’s cemetery. Heidi takes the Mizpah and discovers, much to her crushing disappointment, that the Mizpah has no ghosts, only a comfortable room, good service and nice furnishings. (This will be reflected in our Yelp review!) Meanwhile, at the Clown Motel (see p. 32), Andrew finds coulrophobic terror in the form of a dreary, Steinbeckian flop with peeling walls, ’70s carpet and a TV that smells like Chinese food (???), an experience leavened only by the friendly, cheerful clerks in the office (or is it actually secretly murderous fake-friendly cheerfulness?). They enthusiastically accept Andrew’s donation to the Clown Motel’s ad hoc clown museum: Clowny, the wooden clown-face puzzle that gave Andrew bed-sopping nightmares all through his childhood. Sure, Heidi gets a restful sleep in a cool historic hotel, but Andrew is finally able to dislodge from his soul a deep traumatic psychic splinter and become whole again. And it happened in Tonopah. In the morning, refreshingly unmolested by evil spirits, we pack up and depart for our last few stops.

Tonopah

Tonopah.  Photography by Christopher Smith

April 2

 » Tonopah

 » Beatty

 » Las Vegas

Goldfield was one of those boomtowns that boomed so hard you get the impression they thought it might last forever — amid tourist-curio photo ops and convenience stores, old stately brick and stone buildings remain, ghosts of their glory days when plutocrat players like George Wingfield parlayed mining rushes into full-on gold, banking and real estate empires. #baller

Goldwell Open Air Museum

Desert ghosts: Sculptures at the Goldwell Open Air Museum.  Photography by Christopher Smith.

In Beatty, we take a detour to its satellite ghost town Rhyolite to get an up-close-and-personal look at the Goldwell Open Air Museum, a set of outdoor sculptures that are variously whimsical, eerie and bizarre, from the giant cinder block nude Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada to The Last Supper, a series of shrouded figures recalling the famous biblical scene.

It’s when Chris is trying to line up a cool photo of The Last Supper that we finally realize we are due to go home. It’s nothing major or momentous. What happens is that while Chris is obviously in his serious-photographer posture, crouching down to get the perfect angle of the mysterious sculpture set against the mountains, a totally clueless Ameridork family opens up their van and disgorges their keening broodlets to climb all over the scene, wrecking the shot and probably not doing any favors to the sculpture.

It’s a symbolic nudge, an inner prompt delivered by that wise voice inside: It is indeed time for you to go home, to Las Vegas, where every day it is your duty to suffer with patience and grace the great Ameridork tourist hordes disgorging themselves on your shiny city.

Thank you, ancient spirit or whatever. With that, we pile into the RV and set a course for home.

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