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Friday, March 18, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Tonopah

It's a "forced camp," scarcely 75 feet off Highway 6... twenty Godforsaken miles east of Tonopah, Nevada. Bobbie's one week and change into the Wally Virus, praying every morning that this will be the day she turns the proverbial "corner" back to wellness. This, from a woman who scoffs at colds and illness in general and gets at least 5 miles in. 

Bobbie follows along in my rearview mirror, good for a couple of hours before it's back to bed. I loosen the reigns on Goldie; 75 mph down a tedious, shoulder-less highway, so boring it requires a caffeine IV to stay awake. Nevada looms larger than West Texas, and just as ugly. Oh goody, a town!

There are places in Tonopah that look "third world." I'm reminded of El Paso, all the shanties across the river with colorful laundry waving in the breeze, or Nogales, perhaps, on the hovel terraced hills beyond steel walls and razor-wire. I wonder if I'm lucky or if "they" are unlucky. Whatever. It doesn't take long to make one realize that all men are not created equal.

"Tired and battered." That's my first and last impression of Tonopah... like a wino coming off a three-day bender, one who got his ass handed to him for petting the wrong painted granny. Like most mined-out towns in the west, Tonopah is beleaguered by hard times. Hell, if it wasn't for casinos and brothels money would hardly change hands, which only adds to the vibe of hopelessness... impoverished plebeians trapped like POWs without fences... too poor to leave and forced to work for peanuts.

Tonopah is perfect literal avatar for rust, decay and lives impaled on the sword of hard times. Buildings appear desperate, the surrounding landscape moody. It's as if I've stumbled onto the set of a "Spaghetti Western." It's also a target for downslope winds that roar off the Sierras, blowing tumbleweeds and the occasional "drifter" into town. I drive through an RV park behind a Casino, thinking Bobbie's had enough driving. I can tell by the flat tires, skirting, and toys littered about that these are not happy-go-lucky travelers plugging nickels into the slots. No, these are permanent residents whose luck ran out. My phone rings; it's Bobbie saying she just as soon keep going. Me too.

Tonopah is the prototypical western boom/bust town... busted far more than it ever boomed. Throw in games of "fat" chance, a brothel up the road, boredom, a little meth…  well, you get the picture. Hunter S. Thompson could'a written a script here; what a treasure trove of characters and plot lines. I saw a kid. Wonder how long it'll take him to hit bottom in such a place.

There's a limit to how many times towns like Tonopah can be resuscitated before it "shits the sheets" and slides headlong into its own open-pit grave. It appears to be on "life support" and damn close to "flat-lined." If Tonopah was a dying dog a decent person would go ahead and put it out of its misery.

I shouldn't pee on someone else's "garden," but only the most dire and unfortunate circumstance would I ever get stuck in such a place. But don't tell that to the kids, the ones born and raised here and don't know anything different. Don't tell that to the little six year old kid clad in grungy tighty whities. He stands on a pile of dirt in front of his bombed out trailer house, a salvage yard instead of lawn for a playground. Used tires tossed on its tin roof are a dead giveaway to winds that must howl like coyotes in the night such that, but for the tires, would rattle and strip away the aluminum foil and sail it off into the insipid desert. 

The kid in soiled underwear stares at me as I slowly drive by, waves a stick-sword like I'm the evil dragon he's on a mission to slay. God, the injustice. Shouldn't someone tell him a better world awaits beyond Tonopah, to start planning his breakout? 

No, don't tell him how bad he's got it, that he doesn't stand a chance in Tonopah, Nevada, a place where dreams surely go to die. Don't mess with his tender reality. Don't ruin his innocent childhood with the God-awful truth. What he doesn't know can't hurt him… not yet, anyway.  I wave. He shakes his stick sword. I hope I've got it all wrong, that it's not as bad as it seems, that I'm just a Colorado View Snob whose mood is easily plundered by desolation and heartbreak. Lord. Bear with. This is not the intended direction I had in mind for this post, but I'm bound to see it through. 

Perhaps Tonopah touched a nerve. It took me back to my own "trailer trash" roots and dirt-pile, way out in the middle of fucking Nowhere, Arizona. I guess I was 7ish when our family ended up on a high desert cattle ranch. It bordered on Old Meh-he-co, a three-strand barbed wire fence was all that separated "us" from "them," the "haves," from the "have nots." 

We were there because my Dad and Mom, in their unwavering attempt to follow God's Will, felt called to help build a Bible School for a noted tent revivalist, the Reverend A. A. Allen, a charismatic heal the sick, cast out demons, and speak in "tongues" kind of guy. We got stuck there, waiting and praying for God to reveal a new calling… to give us a sign, send a messenger, or however it is that The Almighty speaks to well intended, but sorely misguided followers. 

I was nothing short of that little boy with a stick-sword, standing his ground on a pile of dirt, only he was plagued by dragons and I was plagued with my parent's demons. As with him, what I didn't know didn't hurt me… not yet, anyway. No, the hurt comes later... after you grow up and begin to question the religiosity of your upbringing, the pulling up of "stakes," the new schools, the new "mission," things that still gnaw at your insides and curiosity. For me, growing up came too late; Dad and Mom and my sister Sally Jo were dead, and my brother Dan, ten years my senior, is of little help. He escaped most of the madness by running off to Oregon his sophomore year in high school.

Where was I? Oh yes, camped alongside the road at the northernmost border of a bombing/missile range amid a sea of scrub sage and skinny cows. No internet; no phone; no visible signs promise or hope, no redeeming ambiance or eye candy, Bobbie trying to catch some sleep in the rack. I take a walk into the nothingness, longing for Utah's friendly red rocks and praying for and end to the Wally Virus. Out of nowhere, so low I can hit it with a rock, a jet roars overhead. "WTF?"

Is it any wonder Govie confiscated nearly ten thousand square miles of this "nothingness" for "target practice?" What else is it good for? I just hope the missiles are well guided... you know, smart enough to tell the difference between an RV and whatever they use for targets. What’s it called when you are accidently killed by your own team, “friendly fire?” Oxymoron intended, I gather. 

On a positive note, perhaps there is hope on the horizon for Tonopah. We passed a vast solar array not far out of town, a good use for land where the sun doesn't merely shine so much as glares, like you are the proverbial ant under a magnifying glass. As it turns out, Govie financed a 1 billion dollar power generation project, now complete and on line as of September, 2015. If the Crescent Dunes Energy Project is successful, it could be the answer to energy problems when it comes to generating power for the "grid." No more coal. Hear that China? 

Over 10,300 mirrors are positioned to continuously focus (reflect) sunlight to the top of a 540 foot tower where salt is super heated to a molten state. This heat is in turn used to power generators via "steam" turbines. As it turns out, molten salt stays fluid once it's super heated and can be used to generate power through the night (up to 10 hours) before needing to be reheated by the sun. Another plus, you can reuse molten salt indefinitely. 

Imagine the possibilities. The tower top glowed white hot, nearly as bright as the sun. I had to squint in order to look directly at it… even with sun glasses. Now I doubt such a sophisticated, high tech plant employs too many blue collar types from Tonopah. Mostly engineers, I'm guessing. To bad. Sharp minds and college degrees and you get stuck in Tonopah. 

Play a little sumpin' on the jukebox, stranger.


  1. Nevada has got some pretty bleak towns, no doubt. You're mere feet away from another...Hawthorne. Although it's interesting in a military depot way. Really hope Bobby kicks this soon.


  2. Love the little boy image...so poignant for those of us who grew up in Small Town, USA.

  3. This, my friend, from a purely writing sense, is among your very best. Even if the topic is dismal at best. I'm glad you "made it out"... of Tonopah and elsewhere.

  4. Maybe the artists and hippies will take over Tonopah and make it cool like Bisbee and Jerome, AZ??????

  5. There are a lot worse towns in Nevada, and in the United States, than Tonopah. The problem that Tonopah has is that you must drive through it when crossing the state in any direction.

    I grew up near the "middle of fucking Nowhere, Arizona" and am now perhaps 30 miles from there. It is rather nice. If I ever come off the road I may end my days here.

  6. We drove through Tonopah a couple years ago. Had planned to spend the night in the casino parking lot but didn't like the looks of the place at all. Continued on to a nice rest area west of town where we felt much more comfortable. Maybe we just missed the "good" side of town.

  7. Great description of Tonopah !!

  8. We've stayed at the casino in Tonopah. It was just HORRIBLE. There was a biker lady who asked if she could park her bike next to us, so she would be able to see it from her room. That is such a bleak area. Is Bobbie any better? It just sucks to be that sick for so long.

  9. What a description of that place. I can feel the desperation of the people, the hopeless minds. And I understand that those folks would hail Trump as their Messiah as he lowers himself down to their language.

  10. That is one amazing solar system there.
    Hope Bobbie gets better soon.

  11. So sad, but so true. There is hope though. Some of us made it off that pile of dirt. Is the sword symbolic of his fight for his future?

  12. I just put a big red X on the map over Tonopah. Wonderfully written piece Mark. Hoping Bobbie is on the mend.

  13. I have to echo Allison's comments, that RV "park" behind the casino is one of the worst places we have ever stayed. What a god-forsaken place that is.......


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