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Archive for the ‘Nevada’ Category

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This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

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Recently we picked up the 2000 book Something in the Soil by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick is leading historian of the “New West Movement”, a group who, in the 1990s, broke away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 paradigm that the frontier was closed (and so in essence, the West’s unique history had ended) to a much broader and more inclusive, as well as continuing, story. The New Western History presents a more nuanced vision based on different historical “truths”. Here are four.

275534The West, in fact, continued to be settled long after 1890. Western history was hardly complete if defined by white male pioneers from “back east” but needed to include the women and children who accompanied them as well as people moving north, west, and east—Mexicans, African Americans,  and Asians. [Author’s aside: as well as “back easterners” arriving by ships coming up the Pacific Coast as they did to my coastal Oregon town] And don’t forget the continued present of Native Americans. Western history should re-focus away from the romance evoked by the word “frontier” and its underlying implication of US exceptionalism and onto the global reality that taking over Western lands was no more than another example of conquest. Finally it’s necessary to abandon the myth of black hat/white hat style of clear-cut morality which permeates western lore to acknowledge that the West is populated by folks as human as everybody else. As Limerick suggests we’re really all “gray hats.”

Although this new Western history may sound fairly “old hat” in 2014 (ignoring race, ethnicity, environmental issues and that the “end of the frontier” hardly ended the conflicts that continue to play out in the West? Seriously?) it was received by many as cutting edge, unorthodox, and to some historians borderline heretical when it broke into the old “frontier” paradigm.

I have to admit as someone who grew up back east knowing the West only through John Ford movies like Stagecoach, and TV series like Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro (at least it’s a nod to Old Hispanic California) it rattles my mythos. And still living here, choosing to live here for most of my adult life, it can’t be denied there is something unique “out here.” While all the “out heres” seem so different—New Mexico, Montana, SoCal and the Oregon Coast hardly feel exactly alike to me—they are definitely more related  geographically and culturally to each other than they are to the backeast regions of New England, the South or the Midwest.

I was drawn to the title Something in the Soil. It felt, even vaguely smelled, somehow exactly descriptive of the West. As she explains, in fact, it was a (very negative) reaction of a Bostonian to Limerick’s new history paradigm. As she concludes: “Of course, the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material and substantial—’something in the soil,’a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.”

WHERE MY WEST CAME FROM

 

 

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Leaving Goldfield’s snow behind, we eat cheese and crackers in shirt sleeves at the turnoff to Death Valley Junction. By mid-afternoon we’re sailing past North Vegas’ overflowing suburbs and into Las Vegas itself. From the beltway we don’t see The Strip, but we do see buildings on that over-the-top scale Vegas is famous for.

Stan comments on his visit as a kid when it was a just a hardscrabble desert town of 25,000 people.

Las Vegas, 1952 © The Estate of RH Euston

Beyond Henderson (Harry Reid’s stomping ground) we leave US 95 and head toward Arizona across Hoover Dam.

The first and only other time we crossed Hoover Dam was in the early 1990s at the end of a too-long day heading back from Death Valley. It was darkest night as we slowly wound our way down US 93, a narrow road of switchbacks dropping almost 1000 feet into Black Canyon. Surreal spotlights illuminated our approach to the Dam and the curved pavement we inched across. To the northeast lay inky Lake Mead.

Crossing Hoover Dam was, quite possibly, the lowest point in my car travel career. The whole situation smacked of some eerie “Close Encounter”: weird lighting, middle-of-nowhere snails pace traffic and that descent into, well, who knew into what. Stan’s comment: “Gee, the water level sure looks high,” didn’t help either.

I vowed. Never again.

Still, here I am, 5:00 pm Friday, doing it again. This time too much is happening to be scared. The Dam is a carnival, people swarming over the pavement, taking pictures of the Dam and the equally amazing, almost completed, Colorado River Bridge, about a quarter mile downstream. Its two ends hang in midair, just feet apart. The 1900-foot-long suspension bridge is almost 1000 feet above the river. The suspension wires, which support the 1000 foot arch beneath, appear gossamer, weaving a draped web from two girdered towers, one in Nevada, the other in Arizona.

It is breathtaking.

The parking lots are full. We cannot stop to look more closely.

Painted Desert © SR Euston

We spend our last night in Williams, “Gateway to the Grand Canyon” and our final day at Painted Desert.

Four days, 1400 miles. From Oregon ocean to Albuquerque desert. Quite a trip.

Painted Desert © SR Euston

Mormon Tea © SR Euston

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On Friday morning we leave Tonopah and continue south on Highway 95. Joshua trees dot the landscape. Twenty five miles later we come to the edge of the tumbledown, almost ghost town of Goldfield.

Esmeralda County Courthouse © SR Euston

As 95 doglegs east we begin to see signs of life. A curio shop, a convenience store/gas station, a closed restaurant, an arrow pointing down a dirt street toward a motel. When we reach the center of town we see just west a massive, stone-pillared building, the Goldfield Hotel. Farther along are the decommissioned First Methodist Episcopal church, a tourist kiosk, the granite three story Courthouse, and an old fire station with the original bays for fire wagons and horses. Its trim is still a snappy red.

Goldfield Fire House © SR Euston

Stan pulls over and, through melting snow, we tour the heart of town. In front of the county courthouse—Goldfield is Esmeralda’s county seat— a local man and woman stop to chat about the town’s history and preservation. She’s on the Historical Society Board. The Society has produced a hefty pamphlet on Goldfield, complete with map and photos. Almost 200 locations are numbered on the map—everything from the old High School to the original site of the Goldfield News. Most are empty desert, their structures long gone.

Next to the fire house (in use until 2002) is a house faced with glass bottles stuck into its stucco sides. On the corner is an understated Victorian, home of Tex Rickard, a boxing impresario who staged the longest fight on record, 42 rounds in 1906, which happened right here in Goldfield.

From 1903 to 1910, underwritten by huge gold and silver strikes, Goldfield was the largest city in Nevada, boasting a population of over 20,000. 2006 estimates put the population at 430,  1262 for the entire 3588 square mile County.

Back home, I’m impressed by the County’s high tech website. As I nose around I think I discover why. The proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste site is right next door in Nye County. Yucca Mountain has its very own link on the website, as well as a public information office in Goldfield. Ah ha.

A postscript: On March 5th, the very day we were in Goldfield, the Department of Energy withdrew its application to build and operate Yucca Mountain.

Goldfield History © SR Euston

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Dusk, Tonopah ©SR Euston

Today’s trip ends at dusk, in Tonopah, elevation 6030 feet, the piles of snow along very steep Main Street melting into what promises to become black ice tonight.

Tonopah’s original 1900 boom came as the result of silver strikes, some of the largest in Nevada history. For forty years, the “Queen of the Silver Camps” consistently produced gold and silver. But by the end of World War II, the mines were played out.

The grand old Mitzpah Hotel, its white-bulbed rooftop sign ablaze the last time we passed through in the early 1990s, is now shuttered, its sign unplugged in 2000.  Built in 1908 and named after one of the original six big mines, it’s five stories tall, complete with huge casino, two restaurants and two bars. On our first trip, even with our dog, we were offered a room at the Mitzpah. Only drawback? To reach it we’d have had to go through the casino. (This seems the case with any destination associated with a stop in Nevada, including finding the restrooms or the restaurant.)

These days the town is abuzz with the talk of last fall’s auction purchase of the Mitzpah and promised reopening. Nothing’s come of it yet. But a restored Mitzpah could be a real economic shot in the arm. There are just a few locally owned motels (no chains here) and Tonopah hosts many temporary workers for the enormous nearby Nellis Air Force Base and Test Range. Between the military, tourism, and jobs associated with being the county seat, Tonopah just barely manages to stay alive.

Old Mine, Tonopah © SR Euston

I pick up a copy of the Tonopah Times-Bonanza, the town’s original newspaper, founded in 1901, still printed weekly. There are 20 legal notices of Las Vegas water appropriation applications. Hum….

Tonopah does have one claim to fame: USA Today ranked Tonopah the #1 Stargazing Destination in the US. They do definitely have dark skies, especially now that the Mitzpah Hotel’s old timey rooftop sign no longer illuminates the night sky.

Still I hope the sign will be relit soon. It makes Tonopah feel like one of the last true wild west towns.

Next: On to Goldfield.

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Getting from Albuquerque to the Curry County coast is always a straight shot: across Arizona on I-40, CA-58 at Barstow to Bakersfield, up the San Joaquin valley on I-5, around the Bay Area to Clear Lake, and from there up US 101 to Nesika. It’s a long 1400 mile four day trip.

Coming back is a different story. We usually take a more leisurely alternate route, hugging the California coast. But this return we choose a different path, crossing the northern California mountains and into Nevada.

Receding Shoreline, Walker Lake ©SR Euston

Our second night’s destination is Tonopah, NV, an old mining town midway between Reno and Las Vegas. It is a lonesome day-long trip south on US 95 through basin and range country. Although signed as open range (the sign’s cartoon-like cow, unique to Nevada, reminds us of Ferdinand) we see no ranches, no corrals. We don’t even see cattle.

Besides ranching, gold and silver were once the economic mainstay of rural central Nevada. So its few towns have experienced the typical boom and bust, most of them busting for good in the early 20th century. Now it seems it’s the military that’s keeping what’s left alive.

North Approach to Walker Lake ©SR Euston

After lunch we come on Walker Lake, a 50 square mile surprise in this high Great Basin desert.  A dry mountain range topped by snow-covered Mt. Grant, elevation 11,239 feet, cups the southwest shore. Walker Lake is the terminus of the Sierra’s Walker River and, like Pyramid and Mono Lakes, is an Ice Age remnant of giant Lake Lahontan, which covered much of central and northern Nevada.

Because of upstream diversions and periodic drought, Walker Lake has receded dramatically and is now sufficiently saline to have killed off much of the original food chain, from zooplankton to fish.  A local group (www.walkerlake.org) is trying to protect and preserve what remains for its threatened fish and the large populations of migrating waterfowl which land in spring and fall.

We stop at Hawthorne, site of the world’s largest military ammunition plant, on the Lake’s far south side. There in the Safeway, I meet a remnant of central Nevada’s original money maker: A grizzled old prospector is loading up on beer and cheese before heading back into the hills.

Next: We head south toward Tonopah.

Basin and Range Granite ©SR Euston

Range West of Walker Lake ©SR Euston

11,000' Mt. Grant ©SR Euston

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