I just spent a week in the southern deserts, humoring my 18-year-old daughter who requested that I pick her up in Vegas and take her around to some places, any places, where she can warm the hell up. It’s been a rough, nasty, cold winter in the Denver area, much like that frigid one we endured in the January of ‘05. I said, “Sure,” secretly delighted that she wasn’t going off to some Spring Break Hedonist Hell Hole to become part of the latest Girls Gone Wild video.
So that meant another trip down Highway 95 and another trip through Tonopah, a living ghost town well past its glory years, now reduced to providing gas, motel rooms, road maintenance and Red Bull. This place has always struck me as a mean-ass little burg, a judgment I admit may be tainted because of the two speeding tickets I’ve racked up there over the years. Tonopah is, if nothing else, a world-class speed trap, a town where 25 means 25, goddammit, and woe to the city slick who dares to streak on through at 27.
Still, there’s more than just speeding tickets to support the assertion of “mean-ass little burg.” There’s all that junk off the highway, all those chunks of torn-up cement with mangled rebar sproinging out in all directions. It’s a cosmetic touch that says to the weary traveler, “Welcome to Tonopah. And yes, it’s kind of a dump.” As for lodging, well, I’ve found that the best place in town is actually 13 miles out of town, at Miller’s rest stop. No wi-fi (not even a pay phone), but good trees and great water. Then there’s that damned Tonopah wind, which is in your face approximately 92 percent of the time. No matter which way you’re driving, that 15 to 25 is gonna be pushin’ on your grille, cutting your gas mileage in half. And finally, it’s usually colder than a welldigger’s ass up there at a nearly-Tahonian 6,000 feet, which works in concert with the wind to make T-pah the goose bump capital of Nevada.
But there’s one nice feature that must be mentioned in any fair discussion of Tonopah. If you’ve ever driven into town at night from the north, I’m sure you’ve noticed it. Once you get about 20 miles away, the lights of Tonopah stretch across its mountain perch to make … a necklace. A perfect, symmetrical, unmistakable necklace of light, twinkling away in the clear, dark sky, mostly golden but with a few ruby, diamond and emerald highlights. The closer you get to town, the more the necklace disappears. But from about 10 to 20 miles out, you can’t miss it. I’ve never seen a town look so much like a piece of jewelry, but there it is. Dusty, ramshackle Tonopah, as dainty as a miner’s fingernails, charmingly morphs into the bejeweled empress of the night for about 10 minutes on any non-cloudy evening.