Days 194-199/ Sep 16th-21st – Elko, NV to Winnemucca, NV: A scorpion in the slot machine

‘Nevada attracts people who have trouble fitting in anywhere else, and… the ones who have trouble fitting in in Nevada go to small towns like Battle Mountain.’ – Lorrie Baumann, editor, Battle Mountain Bugle

The desert outside Winnemucca, Nevada

The Nevada desert just outside Winnemucca

Long before you ever see the small towns of northern Nevada, you can tell where they are from the single white letters, a hundred feet high, painted onto the beige mountains that rear up above them.  As we walked across the desert collecting a full Scrabble rack of them – ‘E’ for Elko, ‘C’ for Carlin, ‘BM’ for Battle Mountain, ‘W’ for Winnemucca – it occurred to us that as well as expressing civic pride, the letters perform the useful function of helping visitors tell the towns apart.

Inez's brothel in Elko

Dancing and diddling at Inez's brothel

Most of them share a hard, utilitarian architecture, with all the charm of a remote Arctic research station (there are entire towns with, as far as we could tell, no stairs).  They share a similar history, too, getting their start with the construction of the Central Pacific railroad across Nevada in 1868, and relying since then on a combination of mining, ranching, casinos and brothels for survival.

And most of them seemed to be having a pretty good recession.  Elko, in particular, was a cheerful, bustling place, thronged on the evening we arrived with visitors to a hotrod convention and drunken revellers, all sporting glowing wristbands, leaving a music festival in the main square.  Tucked into a curl of the Ruby Mountains, it’s about as handsome as towns in northern Nevada get, and, halfway between Salt Lake City and Reno, it’s a popular interstate stop for truckers and long-distance drivers.

Pipeline workers at the Star in Elko, Nevada

Miners and pipeliners at The Star in Elko

But Elko’s current affluence isn’t down to truck-stops or music festivals.  Just west of town is one of the world’s largest gold-mining regions, the Carlin Trend, which to date has produced a scarcely comprehensible 2,000 tons of gold.  And as a map in the excellent Northeast Nevada Museum made clear, more or less every metal in the periodic table was mined in the hills surrounding Elko.  If you should ever go down to the shed and discover that you’ve run out of molybdenum, this is the place to come.

“The average wage for a mine job is $62,000,” explained Ted, a burly photographer on the local paper.  “Having them here really jacks the prices up.  But it’s hellish dangerous, especially down in the pit.  These young kids who go into mining usually only stick it for half a year.”

Nevada desert near Carlin, Nevada

The sagebrush and the mountains near Carlin

We met Ted during an interview about our walk with the Elko Daily Free Press, which led to another with a local radio station, KWNA in Winnemucca (‘Richard Ambrose and Sally Gould are joinin’ us; they’re walkin’ across America – and they’re almost there!’).  Together, they gave us a small measure of northern Nevadan notoriety.  Near Carlin, Mike, a contractor in Carhartt dungarees, pulled over in his pick-up to wish us well.

“I saw you guys in Salt Lake!  Like a week ago.  Then I passed you in Wells.  I saw you in the paper.  And here you are now!  I can’t believe it.”

And on the interstate twenty miles outside Battle Mountain, Rebecca, a young lawyer for a mining company in Elko, pulled over and ran along the shoulder to catch up with us.

“I know you’re gonna be walking through Reno,” she panted, “so I wanted to give you some restaurant recommendations.”

I-80 near Battle Mountain, Nevada

Unfortunately, this is a very typical stretch of Nevada interstate

We weren’t expecting much from Battle Mountain, and it didn’t disappoint.  Almost a decade ago, the town achieved national infamy when the Washington Post declared it ‘The Armpit of America’, and while we had no quarrel with its essential conclusion, we took a perverse pride in noting that we’d walked through at least two places – Wells and Wamsutter – that were much worse.  The town came into view from fifteen miles away, a hazy line of dark trees and pale water-towers, and we walked towards it along a desert service road for most of an irksomely hot day.  A billboard for the El Aguila Real Mexican restaurant promised ‘The Best Seafood in Town’, which seemed a flimsy boast given that we were at least 500 miles from the nearest body of water.

Battle Mountain was an unprepossessing place, a grid of prefab bungalows and trailers on the edge of a thousand square miles of brushy scrub, but, like Elko, it had dodged the economic angel of death that had passed over Nevada thanks to a gold-mining boom.  The motels were full, and so too, presumably, was Donna’s Ranch, a licensed brothel (‘Branches in Wells and Battle Mountain’) across the tracks at the edge of town.  The noticeboard outside the Owl Club Casino was crowded with eye-catching ads for local businesses: ‘Troy’s Tractor Service – Can Do Any Job You Need Done: Brush, Hog-Mowing of Sagebrush, Greasewood’ and ‘Horseshoer, 26 Years Experience – Now Accepting New Clients’.

“Are you guys the London walkers?” asked a Paiute woman, shyly, while we were perusing the board.  “I was stationed at Lakenheath for two years.”

The Humboldt River in Carlin Canyon, Nevada

The Humboldt River in Carlin Canyon

Everyone we spoke to in northern Nevada was unanimous about why they loved living there.

“The wide open spaces,” said Ross, a faraway look in his eyes.  “I can drive my truck eight hours north on a little two-rut road and not see anyone else.”

He wasn’t kidding.  We walked for days between towns on desert roads and tracks empty save for panicked, sprinting jack-rabbits and the occasional dry carcass of a dead coyote.  The stretch of I-80 through Eureka County carried signs announcing ‘Patrolled by Aircraft’, suggesting that the police on the ground had recognised the futility of patrolling somewhere so utterly remote.  There were no people in sight, but from time to time we could hear the pop and clack of gunfire echoing across the sagebrush and knew that there must be hunters nearby.

The isolation sometimes got to the local citizenry: during the 1870s in Palisade, a long-abandoned railroad town, the inhabitants used to perpetrate an elaborate hoax, apparently out of sheer boredom, staging city-wide gun-fights and bank robberies whenever a train arrived to persuade new arrivals that they had arrived in a town in a state of anarchy.

Nevada passports notice in Battle Mountain

Although probably not to illegal immigrants

A mock battle would have been a welcome distraction during the ten lonely, windy miles along a gravel track into Valmy, a village of trailers off the interstate.  A mile before we reached it, a fading sign in a field enumerated its charms: ‘Deli – Grill – Cafe – Bar – Ice – ATM – Groceries – Cold Beer – Laundromat – US Post Office – Slots – Fax’.  In the petrol station, the young girl behind the counter was emptying a slot machine of quarters when she jumped back in sudden alarm.

“Holy shit!” she exclaimed.

“What is it?” I asked.  “A mouse?”

“No,” she said.  “A scorpion.”  And she pointed to a tiny, yellowish, translucent creature, before sending it down the sink with a well-aimed blast from the washer hose.  “Darn ’em.  They’re always tryin’ ta find a cool place to rest.”

Elko Daily Free Press front cover

World-famous in Elko

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4 Responses to “Days 194-199/ Sep 16th-21st – Elko, NV to Winnemucca, NV: A scorpion in the slot machine”

  1. londonmum Says:

    Ha ha how awesome that you are featured in the local press. Plus the headline is priceless – like you had deliberately set out to walk from London to Elko!

  2. Asianzilla (@asianzilla) Says:

    Very nice round up about Elko. I always enjoyed visiting Inez’s place a lot.

  3. angelmassage Says:

    Your link to Donna’s Ranch is broken. I am not sure if they are still in business or not. It used to be a great, fun place for a nice massage.

  4. DeanBerryMinistries Says:

    WHY ARE MORMONS SO CORRUPT? IS THIS WHY THEY HIDE BEHIND THE FACADE OF CHRISTIANITY, SO PEOPLE WILL THINK THEY’RE GOD-FEARING AND TRUSTWORTHY?

    JOLENE SUPP – CITY MANAGER FOR WELLS, NEVADA – HAS BEEN UP ON CHARGES FOR CONFLICT OF INTEREST YET SHE’S NEVER BEEN INDICTED. IT’S BECAUSE ONLY MORMONS LIKE HER DECIDE THESE CASES.

    HOW BAD DOES IT HAVE TO GET BEFORE DECENT CITIZENS BEGIN SCREAMING FOR THE SAME KIND OF REFORMS OTHER AREAS HAVE UNDERGONE? ARE THERE ANY DECENT CITIZENS IN ELKO COUNTY, NEVADA?

    READ ABOUT SUPP HERE: http://ow.ly/q0TCS

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