A brief encounter in Searchlight at the start of a long journey through Nevada
Editor’s note: In his new book, The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, Los Angeles author Tom Zoellner “takes to the highways and byways of a vast land in search of the soul of its people.” “Searchlight,” the longest chapter in the book, recounts his journey through Nevada. It takes him from the title burg (subject of this excerpt, courtesy of Counterpoint Press) through Las Vegas, Beatty, and points north, closing with a suspenseful account of his attempt to climb Pilot Peak. Along the way he digs into the state’s history, geography, ephemerality, and people.
The woman behind the bar hands me a piece of silver that she assayed herself — not perfect, as it bears a pimple of iron in the middle — but she got it for free, scavenged from a pile of mine waste and then cooked down into this blob of wealth.
“You put the rocks into the furnace and it goes into a kind of black sponge,” C.J. says. “Every now and then you can see a flash when it shows platinum. There’s rainbow colors, depending on what type of mineral you’ve got in there. It’s awesome.”
She’s tending the bar tonight at Terrible’s Roadhouse, one of two casinos in the town of Searchlight, which sits near the southernmost dagger-point of Nevada. The carpet bears a pattern of fleur-de-lis, faded and gummy with a thousand spilled drinks, and the stage in the corner — approximately the square-footage of an average hot tub — is empty. No green velvet table games available here, only forty-nine slot machines winking in obedient rows. C.J. pours me another whiskey and keeps talking.
“Now you get these people around here who use cyanide. I don’t f--- with that anymore. It killed my sister. My husband and I take walks all the time around here and look for gold and silver, picking up rocks as we go. You can tell by their weight if there might be something hiding in there.”
Searchlight’s motto is The Camp That Didn’t Fail. Like almost every surviving town in Nevada, Searchlight was built around a mineral craze. A group of investors hacked into a Miocene-era bluff in 1897, and one of them, Fred Colton, snorted: “There’s something here, boys, but it would take a searchlight to find it.” They kept digging. A vein of gold materialized, and with it, more people. For years, the town had a tennis court but no churches. A midcentury hustler named Willie Martello built a gambling den and cathouse called the El Rey Club and flew in big spenders for weekend fun. Now the El Rey is a rectangle of ruined walls bleaching in the sun, and the town is at a population of 539, which includes the bartender C.J., who lives in a single-wide trailer with a load of broken computers stacked outside that she melts down for the metallic guts.
“I’m going to die here,” she says. “This is the first land I’ve ever owned.” She can supplement the $8.50 an hour plus tips she earns at the bar with the gold that lies around her. The land is blasted and sere in all directions; nothing grows but weeds and yucca. But the land can yield coin if you look at it correctly. “Right place, right time,” C.J. told me. Money is nothing but labor stored in a little package.
I slept that night on a flat spot in the desert that I found in the dark and woke up to discover a green-and-red speckle of plastic shotgun shells around me, along with a mess of shattered clay pigeons and a pair of kitchen appliances that had been generously ventilated with gunfire — a makeshift shooting range on federal land, which is 84.9 percent of Nevada. For as much as the Western constitutionalist desert rat likes to rail against the heavy fist of Uncle Sam, out here you can pretty much do as you like: camp, fish, hunt, shoot your guns, ride your quad. Freedom’s banner flies high. The Battle Born State’s unwritten ethic is that you can have anything you want at any hour, as long as you pay for it yourself and don’t bother the other customers. I yawned, scratched, got a coffee at Terrible’s Roadhouse, and drove north. My aim, eventually, was the Idaho border.
The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, by Tom Zoellner, $26, Counterpoint Press