If the sequins of Vegas ever induce a headache, head into the desert north of it. Highway 95 pushes through desolate and beautiful sweeping country dotted by brothel truck stops, alien conspiracy sites, and mining towns that refuse to be forgotten.
Jon and I spent a couple days in Beatty, NV recouperating after his Vegas to Reno race. We’ve spent a bunch of time there in recent years. In the aftermath of its mining boom at the turn of the century, it’s revived itself as the “Gateway to Death Valley,” and is indeed just eight miles or so from the park entrance.
The town itself is two stops signs and one left turn, but that’s alright. There are a couple of decent RV parks, a Mexican restaurant, a grocery store/video rental, and something like five bars but no apparent liquor store. We’ve stopped for chili (dogs, for Jon) at the famous Happy Burro Chili and Beer Bar. It’s got a single table for four and six or seven bar stools, plus outdoor seating. I love the vibe–a lot–but it’s so local that the bartender will forget about you because she’s s caught up ranting and raving with regulars about having to pay athletic fees at the public school her kids attend. For out-of-towners, the best bet is at the Sourdough Saloon next door.
The last time we were there, the entire group of derelicts (us included) sitting at the Happy Burro eventually migrated over to Sourdough. The woman working behind the counter was in her fifties but dressed like a high school tartlet and, to be quite frank, didn’t look half bad. Over the course of the afternoon, we learned that she’d once been a madame at a brothel a couple towns over. Go figure.
Anyway, it was from her that we decided to go to Rhyolite, a ghost town a few miles down the road that I’d heard about here and there but never bothered venturing out to. Even when Jon and I went to Death Valley two years ago, we drove right past the road to Rhyolite and never stopped.
Ghost towns and abandoned buildings in general have always interested me, but the longer I live outside of the West and live in and travel to places with longer architectural histories, even just here in the Ozarks, the less magical they seem in my imagination.
Still, we went, and I’m glad.
The townsite is a mile or so off the highway to Death Valley, and the road is marked and paved. Unlike a lot of ghost towns I’ve passed through, there are no gimmicks here. It’s a lonely stretch of paved road a couple gravel paths and buildings with walls holding nothing but sky. At one point, there were more than 10,000 residents but everything went bust when the gold veins dried out and everyone just, well, went away.
The first building you come to is called the Bottle House, which I’m guessing is probably the most photographed joint in town.
I’m a snoop and tried the doors immediately, but everything was locked tight. I think the land is somehow managed by the park service, but I’m not sure. At the bottle house, there’s a state park-like sign-in box with paper flyers that describe the buildings.
Lots of the buildings, including an old train depot and abandoned school, were completely inaccessible and surrounded by high caged fences, marring my photos. Here’s one tiny homestead that was on the edge of town.
This was one of the only wood buildings left standing in the town. Because wood is so rare in the desert, as people left Rhyolite at the turn of the century, they often tore down structures and carried the materials with them to start anew somewhere else.
At some point, everything was left open and unlocked, with left room for graffiti. I know stuff like this makes a lot of people really angry because of heritage and all that, but there are so many other things worth being upset for that seeing scratch marks and passing declarations of love on sun-faded paper walls really didn’t reduce the experience of the ghost town for me. I would much rather have access to the interiors of these buildings–to see and touch and smell them and hear the floor groan–than to have to stand at glass windows and peer in, like I did here.
It was a big strange walking through this town. A part of me felt a little disappointed that I didn’t feel more moved by it all. But I guess because everything was so spread out and many of the buildings were blocked off behind bars or fences, it just didn’t feel that romantic. It might also be because of today’s economy and where we now live in the Ozarks, buildings like this–empty rooms, abandoned storefronts–aren’t a rarity, and they’re not a tourist attraction.
They’re just sad.