Days 187-193/ Sep 9th-15th – Wendover, UT to Elko, NV: A tale of two cities

‘It would be difficult to conceive of a more remote and cheerless state than Nevada.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

The Ruby Mountains near Elko, Nevada

Nevada. Magnificent. Who knew?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  In Wendover, Utah, it was mostly the worst of times.  A single street of cheap, empty motels and faded pastel trailers, it resembled a hundred other struggling small towns we’d seen in the West.  But Wendover lay directly on the border with Nevada, and though the state line was marked by nothing more than a flaking white stripe of paint across the road, it was impossible to miss the moment we stepped into West Wendover, its sister city.  All of eighteen inches into Nevada, the biscuit-coloured towers of the Wendover Nugget and the sleek neon ziggurat of the Montego Bay Casino rose over the twin towns, announcing that we’d left behind the world of Mormon moderation and entered a state of sin.

Inside the Montego Bay Casino in West Wendover, Nevada

The subtly understated interior of the Montego Bay Casino

On the morning we arrived, KENV News in Elko reported that 1 in 7 Nevadans were without a job – the worst unemployment rate in the country.  But that statistic conceals a sharp divide in the state.  The small towns in the north are enjoying a mining boom (almost 10% of the world’s gold comes from Nevada), while the gambling metropolises of Vegas and Reno further south are re-adjusting to an America that can no longer afford to drop a thousand dollars on hedonistic weekends on the Strip.

The Utah-Nevada border in Wendover

Stepping into a different world in Wendover

It’s scant consolation to its modern residents that Nevada was once a byword for wealth, a territory whose silver financed the Union side in the Civil War, and which was fast-tracked to statehood in 1864 by a Republican Party keen to use its votes to re-elect Lincoln.  After the Depression and the decline of the mining industry, Nevada hit on an ingenious strategy to revive its flagging fortunes, systematically introducing laws to permit behaviour forbidden in California – gambling, easy divorce, 24-hour drinking, prostitution – with the aim of luring a new wave of emigrants, this time from the west.

Or tourists, from the north.  Fleets of charter coaches were disgorging pasty Idaho pensioners into the Nugget and the Montego Bay in West Wendover, where oxygen cylinders jostled for space with mobility scooters under the neon-lit mirrored ceilings inside.  It may not have been everyone’s idea of the best of times, but it was good enough that Wendover, the poor relation across the border in Utah, had voted in 2002 to separate from its own state and merge with its brother in Nevada.  The proposal was eventually vetoed by Nevada senators, worried that Wendover might build its own casinos to compete with the ones already here.

West Wendover, Nevada

Bidding farewell to West Wendover

The stretch of I-80 west of the Wendovers was as pleasant as interstate walking can be.  There was a wide shoulder, traffic so scant that often a full minute elapsed between cars, and sweeping views across the bushy bowls of sagebrush over which the road rose and fell.  We entered the Pacific Time Zone just below Pilot Peak, Nevada’s answer to Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Doom, a 10,000-foot snow-dusted cone with trailing wisps of cloud tugging at its summit.  It had been a key landmark for the Donner Party as they crossed the desert on their ill-fated journey west in 1846, and so it was for us, dominating our views north for two full days of walking.

Pilot Peak in Nevada from I-80

Few cars + great views = pleasant interstate walking

Although we’d already crossed Nebraska and Wyoming, the scale of Nevada was still capable of taking us by surprise.  For the next four days, we walked across Elko County, a patch of arid scrub larger than Switzerland.  At an interstate exit at the top of the pass over the Pequop Mountains, a faintly threatening sign declared ‘Next Rest Area: 114 Miles’.  Mercifully, it was grand country to walk in.  The interstate twisted down through narrow canyons before climbing again to the next pass, and as we approached the town of Elko, it ran alongside the snowy peaks of the Ruby Mountains.  In the mornings, we inhaled lungfuls of cold sagebrush-scented air, which reminded us that autumn was on the way. 

Ghost town near Oasis, Nevada
A ghost town near Oasis, Nevada

The grandeur ended abruptly at Wells.  Bill Bryson had described it in his tour of small-town America as ‘the sorriest, seediest, most raggedy-assed town I’ve ever seen’.  He wasn’t wrong (though he had clearly never been to Wamsutter, Wyoming).  It was the most obviously dying town we had seen on the whole of our walk, an over-sized truck-stop spread across a vast patch of brushy waste ground spotted with decrepit liquor stores, diners and motels.

McDonald's sign by the Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Burgers, gas and gambling. Who cares about the view?

Sixth Street was lined with independent motels – the Shellcrest, the Sage, the Crossroads, El Rancho – whose perky signs proclaimed the optimism of the Fifties and Sixties.  But today it was hard to tell which ones were closed and which were still in business.  A turf war between the neighbouring Sharon and Lone Star Motels – both offering rooms for $33.99 a night – had netted precisely four customers between them.  At the Big Pillar Motel, half of the roof had collapsed, and sagebrush, which surrounded Wells like a patient army, had already begun to invade the yard.

Storefront and trailers in Wells, Nevada

An unusual business model in a shop in Wells, Nevada

If there was any town that really didn’t need to be hit by a severe earthquake, Wells was it, but it had been, only two years ago.  It had done for the El Rancho, whose roof was covered by a mournful black plastic sheet, and for the Ranch House Casino, where half of the enormous plastic orange letters from the sign above its entrance lay shattered on the concrete of its forecourt.

But even without the quake, the decline of Wells was apparent wherever we looked.  There was hardly a building that appeared to have been constructed after the Seventies, and roughly every other house in town had been boarded up and abandoned.  The nicest part of Wells was its cemetery, a pleasant sward of lush lawn well away from the squalor of the town, overlooked by the snowy ridges of the Rubies.  It was, perhaps, the only place in America where death would take you to the top of the property ladder.

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3 Responses to “Days 187-193/ Sep 9th-15th – Wendover, UT to Elko, NV: A tale of two cities”

  1. Taylor Says:

    Most of my family is from Elko, NV – I’ve spent many summers, vacations and a few months after college living there. Wells has more to offer than the eye can see at first glance. There are heavenly hot springs, concreted in, amongst a luscious valley. And every September one of the hardest half-marathons goes from Wells to Angel Lake (a most see high-altitude heaven) in the mountains. The secret to Nevada’s small towns is finding out their secrets!

    • walkoverstates Says:

      Hi Taylor,   Thanks for the mail.  We had a lot of time for the small towns of Nevada (quite literally!) and were bowled over by the friendliness there.  We read about the race to the lake, too – a shame our timing didn’t work, because we were definitely fit enough to have taken part.  But Wells… I don’t know.  That place has some severe problems that no amount of hot springs can solve.  Elko, on the other hand, was a blast.   We’re keen to go back – but with a car, this time!   Cheers Richard

  2. En este local se juega (pero sólo hasta la raya) « Fronteras Says:

    […] Vista de West Wendover desde Utah (fuente) […]

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