On Saturday, November 10, my wife, Laura, and I load up our dog Aspen for a day trip to Pioche. Google Maps tells you it’ll take about three hours, but with the roadwork along the way, and 18-wheelers clogging both lanes of U.S. 93, it takes us closer to four. Most of that time you’re surrounded by open desert (1); the few towns mostly seem like first drafts that never got a revision. As with the generations of miners who’ve come through here, you feel an urge to extract something from this bleak (some say austerely beautiful) landscape — a deep meaning or metaphor, perhaps, or some Ozymandias riff as you zoom past the elaborate façade of doomed Coyote Springs, or maybe just a moody, desert-gothic vibe that complements the zeitgeist in some way. I mean, this is Lincoln County, about which the rest of the world is snarking for electing a dead pimp to the state Senate (he got just under 79 percent of the vote here). Existential nitty-gritty should be splatting on my windshield like bugs. But each time I’m about to grok The Meaning of It All, Aspen licks my ear, and it’s gone. Dogs, they ground you in the real. We pull into a rest stop near Pahranagat to let her stretch her legs. A few minutes later, as Laura becomes the first person in the history of this rest stop to clean up after a pet, I wander to a fenced-off area, where I have my brush with meaning, in the form of baffling graffiti (2) on an outback trash can. I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something, and maybe that’s all you can ask from 2018.
We’ve come to quaint and lovely Pioche to visit Laura’s sister, Michelle, and her husband, Ron Orr, whose family roots in Pioche go way back. They recently bought Pioche’s long-defunct movie house, the Gem, and Michelle (3) is determined to restore it as a theater. (Fortunately for them, the building appears to be structurally sound.) That’ll be a long, long process involving nonprofit status, grants for historic preservation and rural entrepreneurship, and a whole lotta junk-removal. Thankfully, that’s not why we’re here. Michelle is giving us a tour of the derelict old building — Laura, in particular, adores ruined old places. Inside, it’s like a museum after an earthquake: amazing stuff everywhere. Random piles of marquee letters in the lobby (4), movie posters on the floor (5), equipment squatting in the projection room, ready to roll. “Be careful, it’s haunted,” Michelle jokes at one point. As I look out over the ghostly theater (6), the empty seats arrayed before a blank screen, 20 years and counting between shows, it seems that if there aren’t actual spirits here, the Gem does meet the definition of “haunted” proposed by late cultural critic Marc Fisher: “a staining of place with particularly intense moments of time” — though perhaps “intense” isn’t the best word to apply to people watching The Beautician and the Beast 21 years ago. Imagining the spirit of Fran Drescher still trapped in that film is scarier than anything haunting these walls.
Up the stairs, a right turn at the crying room (into which parents could take their wailing infants and still watch the movie), and we’re in the Gem’s dusty, strewn projection booth. What a marvel! There’s nothing digital, of course; the two big projectors (7) — powered, improbably, by welding rods — aim through small windows like cannons on a steampunk airship. There’s a dumbwaiter of no obvious use. Ribbons of film and old invoices, slices of preserved ephemera, are everywhere (8). Some of the equipment will eventually be restored to working order — Michelle wants to keep as much of the project as period-appropriate as possible, to offer Pioche a sense of historical continuity — but a lot of what Laura and I are oohing over is just junk Michelle and Ron will have to haul away. But that’s for later (they don’t yet have a renovation timetable). For now there’s a gleeful immersion into a different time of a different place, questions to ponder — why didn’t they empty the popcorn before closing the theater for good? — and a long, satisfied drive home (9). Google Maps says it will take about three hours, but Google Maps doesn’t believe I’ll actually go 92 most of the way.