“I never learned anything listening to myself talk.”
(Although I probably heard it from someone else).
A road trip is one of life’s simple pleasures. Get in the car with only a vague notion of where to go. Take it as it comes. See what happens and who you meet.
Over the recent holiday week I took a 2000-mile spin up from Phoenix around central Nevada and back, veering through Death Valley in hopes of shaking off the high plains chill. I had no explicit intention of feeling out Trumpist America. But I have an affinity for the truly unaffected, or at least the unconsciously unaffected, although that’s a bit of an oxymoron. Point being: Spend enough time around media and PR types and you develop an appreciation for people who say whatever is on their minds, cautious, delicate, socially-strategic parsing be damned.
Here are vignettes of a few characters of the new west.
Gene and friends. Manhattan Bar. Manhattan, Nevada.
You get to Manhattan by turning east off Nevada 376, a 120-mile long north-south parallel to the stunning Toiyabe Range, the longest range in the state. The winter snow made the range, arcing over the north horizon, look a couple thousand feet taller. Maybe seven miles up the hill you reach the town, such as it is, years past its brief prime in the silver business. Keep going further up the hill from Manhattan and you get to Belmont, which is literally off the grid. Generators provide all the juice. Another 20 miles up 376 is Round Mountain Mine, a truly gargantuan gold mining operation with tailings bulldozed up high as a 30-story building.
In the Manhattan Bar a tired old lab had staked out prime real estate on an oily piece of carpet remnant directly in front of the wood-burning stove, which was putting out an impressive blast of BTUs.
Gene, the guy in the white shirt in the photo, asked where I was from, then asked, “Why are you here?” “To see the Statue of Liberty”, I said, which made the rest of them laugh, even though I’m pretty sure they hear that a lot. Or at least whenever some rube wanders up the hill.
Gene told me he had just moved to town from Seattle. “My wife’s from here, and I caught on with the mine”, grading the giant pit he said.
“You liking it?”
“Yeah. It takes a little getting used to. Not a lot to do. But I like being outdoors, hiking and walking the mountains. And the money’s good. Nothing to spend it on, either, so it adds up.”
“So you a hunter? I ran into a bunch of kids back in Caliente all stocked up for a week up somewhere hunting elk.”
“Nah. Not my thing.”
I told him about a dead coyote I found while I was taking pictures of the abandoned bar at Warm Springs. The beast was feet from the steaming sulphur spring, making me wonder if it was so desperate it drank the water.
“Nah, somebody shot it. They shoot everything around here. I was up past Belmont a while ago and I came across a pile of coyotes, stacked by the road. Maybe 20 of them.”
“Twenty? What do they pay a bounty on ’em?”
“Nope. People just shoot ’em. I don’t get it.”
Gail and Victor. Owners of the International Serbian Bar. Austin, Nevada.
Austin is a forlorn mining town 7000 feet up in the Toiyabe Range on U.S. 50, a.k.a. “The Loneliest Road in America”. Appropriately, there was no one in the cafe or bar either the night I arrived in town or the morning I left. Just them and me. Even if there was another place open, the giant “Make America Great Again” banner hanging off the second floor porch and the “Silent Majority Stands with Trump” signs plastered everywhere the eyes settled told me I had to have a burger and beverage with whoever was responsible for all that.
Turns out it was mostly Gail. Her iPad is her constant companion and she bought the banner for god knows how much off some Trump website. When I said, “You know, Trump’s got plenty of money. He should have sent you one for free.” She said, “I don’t care. I wanted one now.”
She cooked a burger that Shake Shack back in Vegas would have charged me $12 for, after I stood in line for 45 minutes. I could tell Gail was stifling a torrent of opinions, but I wanted to get at least one beer in me before hearing how a buffoonish billionaire living high above Fifth Avenue way, way back in New York City was going to make her … great again.
“Damn cold, isn’t it?” said I. “The car thermometer showed 2 degrees coming over the pass.”
“Yeah, and some billionaire is making it that way.”
“Uh, what? Really? Who?”
She started tapping on the iPad. “He’s been doing stuff in the sky. I read it. Tests and rockets to change the weather, making it colder.” Tap tap.
“Really? Well, there are drones everywhere.”
“His name is … ” tap, swipe. “Bill … Gates.”
“He’s changing the weather? Bill Gates? From Microsoft?”
“Oh, is that who he is?”
“Well, I don’t know. Is that what it says there? What are you reading?”
“Just a thing I like. It’s got a lot of good information.”
She wouldn’t tell me what site she was getting this news about Bill Gates Controller of Weather from, but pretty obviously it was the same one that was telling her and husband Victor about Muslim terrorists’ plans to take over the country right after the government confiscates all the guns. I met Victor the next morning. He’s a wiry, taciturn guy in his mid-Sixties, or maybe mid-Fifties. His meaty leathery hands suggest he probably has restored the 1863 building all by himself and as a side job repairs refrigeration units around the sprawling county. We sat at the counter and he ordered the same breakfast I did: Two eggs over easy and toast.
While Gail seemed more the proselytizer of the two, Victor played the deeply suspicious, war-weary savant with a (very) dark cautionary tale for every topic you could suggest. Like for example getting Historical Preservation status for his building, with the ornate bar that he says was cut apart in England 150 years ago, floated around the horn to San Francisco, then disassembled again and trucked up into the mountains during Austin’s boom days.
“Then they own you. We’ve talked. But those [Historical Preservation] people get involved and it’s not yours anymore. You can’t do anything to it. Can’t paint. Can’t change a light bulb.” Somehow this soon led to a tale of being a 12 year-old kid back in the old country and sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking coffee with a relative when Communist troops showed up and started machine-gunning everyone in sight.
“He told me, ‘Open that manhole and jump in. Now!”
The message? Never trust any government and stay ready to shoot back.
Greg De La Posa. Middlegate Station. U.S. 50. Nevada.
Middlegate Station is on the old Pony Express route. We’ve milked a lot of tourist shtick out of an episode of history that barely lasted a year. Every stop along the route, which more or less follows U.S. 50, is chock full of Pony Express tchotchkes. But since I collect refrigerator magnets I was a happy chump.
Greg helps manage Middlegate in some way and the empty stool was next to him. He was on the phone ordering supplies from Fallon, over by Reno. At the other end of the bar, which featured a stripper doll on a miniature pole, were four twenty-somethings in heavy duty hunting gear. They were trying to impress the cute-enough bartender that they were so badassed they were going to need “two bottles of Jager” to do the serious shootin’ they had come to do. Oddly, the only other vehicle out front was a wimpy looking Chevy Equinox. They weren’t going up country in that thing.
Once we had semi-sorted out his “hired hand” role around the bar, Greg, who could be anywhere from 45 to 70, told me he was adopted Sicilian. “My folks came over from the hill country.”
“Tough crowd, the Sicilians,” I joked. “They love a good feud.”
“Damn right. Especially with other Sicilians.”
When I asked to take his picture, explaining it was just a thing I did with characters I met along the way, he stood up, walked behind the bar and pulled down a big, glossy coffee table book. It was in German. Underwritten by National Geographic, it was the photo essay of guy’s solo bicycle trip across America, including U.S. 50, Middlegate Station and Greg, looking 15 to 20 years younger.
“Long ways from anywhere out here,” I said, nursing my beverage.
“Yeah, I guess. But it’s one of those places interestin’ people pass through. Like to say they’ve been here.”
That might have been a compliment. Not sure.
Russ and Diane. Chili Burro Bar. Beatty, Nevada.
Beatty is barely a reason to stop if you’re driving from Vegas to Reno. Some cat pretty well owns the whole town as I was led to understand. In the summer, tech guys from Audi and BMW rent out garages in Beatty for next years’ models they test in the heat of Death Valley 30 miles west down Daylight Pass. They leave behind a lot of top quality tools for the local school’s shop classes rather than ship them home. And they drink a lot of beer at the Chili Burro.
Years ago I dropped the only quarter I’ve ever gambled into a slot machine at a ratty casino on the main intersection. It’s now a hardware store. The Big Dude, I forget his name, owned that place and has since thrown up the Stagecoach Hotel and Casino, where in what counted as a low moment of the trip I ate breakfast in a Denny’s.
The Chili Burro is something else. It’s about as big as the average suburban garage and, I was told, has made some BuzzFeed list of “America’s 12 Best Dive Bars”. In fact, it’s kind of cozy. A tall German kid and his stunning black girlfriend were huddled in a corner, maybe thankful they weren’t at the joint next door, where 30 or 40 bikers were throwing up a lot of noise and smoke.
“Sit over here with us,” said Diane, the better half of a friendly, happy hour-loving couple. In his 40s, Russ was part of the Iraq invasion in ’03, and then talked himself into six months at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Since all I know about the poles comes from movies I told him about a documentary I had seen where these guys had to sno-kat out from McMurdo to a weather station across the bay. In summer it’s a 10-minute jaunt. In winter it took six hours. He had been there.
Diane worked “for the government” for 35 years until the day someone explained just how much her annuity would pay her. “I quit on the spot,” she laughed, taking another swig of beer. The two of them, she says, “Use Beatty as a base. We have places up north of Austin we go to a lot and other places around the country.”
Pleasant “normal” folks. We joked with another patron in wall-to-wall squeaky clean camo about his hunting rig, a $60,000 pickup, tricked out for the back country, and what that worked out to per pound of elk, or coyote.
About then Russ mentioned in passing, and with a laugh, that “You know, Beatty may be the safest city the country.” At first I didn’t pay it any attention. But on second thought, “OK, I’ll bite. Why is that?”
“Well, I’ll tell you why. Because we’ve got 300 permanent residents here in town, 3000 registered guns and over two million rounds of ammunition.”
Eli. Furnace Creek Ranch. Death Valley.
Eli asked if he could sit next to me at counter of the 49er Restaurant. He works for the park concessionaire and was stopping in on his morning off to razz the waitresses and line cooks.
He played high school football back in Springfield, Mass. and was one of those (rare) guys you can have what seems like an intelligent conversation about … football with, if such a thing is ever possible. He had a pretty good breakdown of the NFL play-offs, including the part where the Vikings have, “too one-dimensional an offense. Bridgewater has talent. He’s calm. You can see he’s learning. But he isn’t there yet, and may never be a good passer. So right now it’s too much Peterson.”
After a while I told him the story of Beatty being “the safest city in America”. He shook his head. “It’s crazy man. But that’s what it’s like out here. That’s the way it is. That isn’t unusual. You been to Pahrump? [60 miles south]. It’s where you go to disappear.
“I tell you, last week I had to go over to North Vegas to a Kirby vacuum cleaner store to get some vacuum bags. Vacuum bags! I find the place in this strip mall and when I walk in I see this skinny little old lady. Couldn’t weigh more than 90 pounds, and she’s got not only a .45 in a holster on her hip, she’s got a damn Doberman on leash. Are you kidding me? In a vacuum cleaner store!”
Bob. Texas Spring Campground. Death Valley.
After a cruising some of my favorite haunts in the park, including a long walk out on the enormous salt pan, I rolled back to my campsite well past sunset. As I unpacked a few items from the car a shape emerged out of the darkness. I could make out an extended hand. “My name’s Bob, I’m camping over there”, pointing to a cobbled-together trailer with gear spilling out all over into a tamarisk-like tree. Clearly, he had been there a while. Nearly a month, it turned out. Built the trailer/camper himself. Drove down from Alaska. Had a dirt bike for day trips. (Had another stashed in Bulgaria waiting for him to ride it again next summer.) Heading to Tucson eventually and some relatives he wasn’t all that wild to see.
But before that, before he really said anything after, “My name’s Bob”, he launched into the story of the ex-EMT driver from British Columbia who had been camped where I was.
It seems that after a week the EMT guy came over and told Bob the reason why he was solo camping in the desert, 1200 miles from home.
“The guy’s on duty and he gets the call there’s a drug overdose or something at a local hotel. A guy is passed out. So he roars over there and goes charging in through the lobby with his equipment and everything. But this is a small town and the people at the desk know him. They yell something like, ‘Uh, Bill … Bill ...’ trying to get his attention. But he charges on by up to the room where the OD’d guy is laid out on the floor.
“What he finds is this dude in a Superman costume. Big ‘S’ on the chest, cape, boots, the whole thing, but with the crotch cut out of the tights and his dick hanging out. The guy’s out cold. It’s a drug deal. But then, out of the corner of his eye he sees his wife, spread-eagled naked and tied to the bed. And now she’s screaming at him, ‘Untie me you idiot! Untie me!’. Turns out she’d been boinking not only Superman, but every guy in the EMT unit. So that’s why he was out here in the desert.”
While the part where the hotel staff wouldn’t have untied the naked woman on the bed in the time it took the EMT guy to arrive didn’t compute, as introductory tales told by a dark figure in a desert night go, it was pretty damned funny. I opened a bottle of Pinot Noir. He cracked a bottle of whiskey, we drew up folding chairs and sat, in the 40-degree darkness, under a deep black sky and talked for another three hours, the Milky Way ablaze overhead.
“Up in Alaska there are three different Republican parties. I’m not shitting you, and each one is more motherfucking batshit than the last one,” was one of Bob’s many memorable lines.
The other was after I told him the story of Gail and Victor, the Trumpers up in Austin, the heavily-fortified folks in Beatty and a couple other tales of irrational fear and suspect wisdom I had come across in the past few days.
“Yeah, you know, there is no end of crazy out there, and I’m as guilty as anyone of getting pissed off at it. People tell me I’m too direct. My ex-wife told me that, too. But you know what? After a while, after you listen to all the crazy ass shit they say and what they believe, I still think most people are doing the best they can. Really. It’s the best they can do. Maybe they’re just not very smart. Maybe their parents were fuck-ups. Maybe they never had anyone in their life who pointed them at what was real and what mattered. They never learned any better. So they’re going through life … .”
“Playing with what they’ve got.”
“Yeah. They’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got.”