Nevada- Chatting With Ghosts

This is the first part of hike number 6 in my series of 50 hikes during my 50th year.

We all have places that tend to continually figure as mileposts in our lives. For me, somewhat surprisingly, its Nevada. There is a simple reason I suppose, and that is I have traveled through the state a number of times as I was moving to a new chapter in my life, be it in California or back in Colorado. This blog is largely about the act of walking, and that figures in here in a modest way. This post is also  about vehicles; and their successes and failures  in a state where one can drive 90 miles between towns with nothing in between. But mostly, its about ghosts and what to do with them. The next two short hikes (but long posts) explore this.

In 1985, traveling with grad school friends from Denver to an Architect’s Convention  in San Francisco, I  traveled through these lands for the first time and was mesmerized by Nevada and Utah. I had simply never imagined such endless space. We drove in my friend’s Ford Maverick (apt name!), over the basin and range. We broke down each way. The trip was extraordinary.

Three years later, I had been out of school almost two years, and the recession in Colorado was crippling, my first two jobs out of school each ended after 6 months, with both firms going under !  Having been so taken by  San Francisco 3 years earlier, I decided to move there and hope for better. Without a car myself, I procured a drive-away car, it owned by a member of the Air Force in Colorado Springs who was relocating to SF as well. I drove his Gran Torino with all my worldly possesions inside. There was room to spare. Back then , now in the same  wide open spaces, my excitement at what lay ahead for me was feverish. Despite another breakdown within site of the mighty Sierras , I eventually advanced to and thru the them, and dropped off the car on some cul-de-sac in  San Bruno. A new chapter had begun.

I finally had the first car of my  own 4 years later (a VW Golf), and a few months after that , then eager to drive everywhere , I drove my ex-girlfriend to Colorado (really), so she could start HER new life in Colorado (she would return 9 months later). We were still very good friends, but it was emotional. I was in the process of coming out, and I shall never forget that night we camped out under the Nevada stars. It all kind of unintentionally “came out”, and there we were; me, her, our dog Max, and the occasional fighter jet scorching over head near Gabbs,Nevada. Upon reflection, it seems that all couldn’t have happened anywhere else. We stayed up most of the night, even the dog was out of his mind with his own issues, that in the form of the endless desert sounds that were new to him. That night is seared in my brain, and it marked a milepost of letting go, finally, which needed to happen to embrace the future.

Fast forward 8 years to 2000. I had a new job with a firm, and I started  doing a project in Denver. The folks in Denver began to work on me, prodding me about coming back there. It was the early stage of the project, the honeymoon phase, when everyone gets along and I could do no wrong. Moving then seemed unimanageble, but it was the height of the dot-com boom, I lived in a tiny 400 sf apartment (but happily), rents were soaring, I was single, and I guess over the course of that year, moving back to Denver and its big affordable homes didn’t seem so crazy. Later that year , I agreed to move back. But almost as soon as I agreed to do it, things began to change. The honeymoon phase ended on the project, and storm clouds formed, it would get much worse the following year. More significantly, I met my now partner Juan, who lived in Los Angeles at the time.  I would now arrive in Denver already with one foot elsewhere, in a budding long-distance relationship.

But I packed up the same VW Golf and headed out one glorious mid October day to move back to Denver. I drove through Yosemite, which was magnificent, but as I descended the Eastern slope of the Sierras, my car began to act up, like it never had. The engine would sputter, cut out, then kick back in. I had planned to get to Tonopah in Central Nevada, but the shadows were already getting long. It got worse as my car slowed to a crawl to get over a pass entering the state of Nevada that was only half as high as Yosemite. I was in the middle of nowhere. Just then , I saw a roadside establishment, as there often is in Nevada at the state line (re:gambling casino). Stupidly, I decided to continue, but three miles down the road my car died. I managed, after an anguished hour, to get it started in the dark, and I returned to the pass. I would spend the night there and get it looked at the next day.

So there I sat at the lonely bar, just me and a couple of leathery desert rats pouring nickels into the slot machines. It was late, the grill had closed, but I had managed to scrounge up a stale cheese sandwich and a Schlitz. This was not what I had in mind, no this was not the new chapter I had imagined. And with the vibe already changing in Denver, I knew this couldn’t be a good omen of what lay ahead. And it wasn’t. I would return to San Francisco a few years later, and that was generally the last time I had traveled through Nevada, (my return from Colorado was via Arizona), until this journey.

I guess this is my long winded introduction to Nevada, a place that keeps its deserted past on full display, in arrested decay. And so, last week I found myself traveling up that very same road, en route to Tonopah and eventually Death Valley, and I knew I had to stop at that casino. All the mileposts passed in Nevada, good and bad,  seemed sewn up there. I needed to shed some ghosts, or so I thought, specifically the one that still vexed me, why I had ever gone back to Denver. I rounded that long curve, and there it was , or wasn’t.

This was what was left of the Montgomery Pass casino.  Turns out it burned down a number of years ago. I stayed here back then:

To say this all was creepy was an understatement.  I walked up to the casino bar and peered in, the bar a preserved charred hulk. There I sat with my Schlitz years ago, the exciting new chapter already frayed at the edges before I was halfway to Denver. I began to walk around all the deserted buildings, trailers, and assorted desert junk, going further off the road.  I had been walking about an hour, and thinking back to where I was 11+ years earlier. How much had changed, and despite the wickedness of the recession, how much was now extraordinary and beyond my imagination back then. I had thought somehow I needed to exorcise this ghost from my past, this detour I had made in my life that seemed nothing but a stupid cul-de-sac. But I realized that these remains stay with us, just as the experience itself had helped form who I was now. The often well-preserved  ghosts of Nevada , were, like it or not,  footprints of my life to date; the high, the low, and the crazy confused middle. They were fine the way they are.

I suddenly heard some animal baying, somewhere, a dog?, a coyote? It was getting dark and it was time get the hell out of here. I would make it to Tonopah this time, staying in the Mizpah Hotel, at one time the tallest building in Nevada. Itself a legacy of more ghosts, a much larger town during the silver boom, now an odd sentinel in this scraggly central Nevada town that sits on its own pass.

I had made it Tonopah, and this newly restored hotel came with a newly restored restaurant, so the cheese sandwich and Schlitz were replaced with a Steak and some really good wine, a true oasis. I had a nitecap at the bar before retiring, and a local mentioned the hotel was haunted. I told him that I would’ve been disappointed if it wasn’t, and I looked forward to meeting them. I slept great that night.

Hike 6 (Part 1): 1.5 miles

Total miles traversed so far: 35.0 miles