Peter Shelton


Posted in Road Trips West, Watch columns by pshelton on August 16, 2012

The long drive back to Colorado last week on U.S. 6 & 50 seemed extra desolate because we had just deposited our daughter and grandson at their new digs in Bishop, Calif., 800 lonely miles from us at Boulder Rock.

Our reluctance to leave them manifested in unsubtle ways. Ellen “lost” her sunglasses, delaying our departure, and I threw my back out (I really did) – trying to dust some crumbs off a chair – making it “hard” for me to drive us away.

But drive we did, and our route across the Great Basin, through a string of familiar small towns, got us thinking about their fates. Why had some withered to semi-ghost towns while others seemed to be doing better? And why does one place in the middle of Utah appear as if from an episode from The Twilight Zone, or maybe Andy Griffith’s Mayberry?

Just shy of the Nevada border, in a sweeping alluvial basin at the base of Boundary Peak, Benton Station, née Benton Hot Springs, requires a slowdown to 45 mph, but there is hardly reason. The census says the population is 280. But there is nothing there save a few cottonwoods and an abandoned gas station. West of the intersection with Route 120 sits what’s left of the old gold and silver boomtown. We stopped in one time to check out the only occupied structure, a hot-springs B&B. Sprinklers were shooting hot water across the lawn. The proprietress was friendly, but it was the wrong time of day to take a room, and we were close enough to our destination not to need to.

Maybe that was part of Benton’s demise, we guessed: the railroad is gone; the highways are too good now, and cars too fast. What was once a logical stop between Bodie and Bishop is not even a quarter tank away from more obvious destinations.

Next came Tonopah, where we stopped for breakfast. Tonopah’s stated population is 2,478, down about 200 from a decade ago and down many thousands from its heyday as a silver camp in the early 1900s. The kid who was trying to work the cash register at Subway apologized: “Morning’s not my thing,” he said, groggy.

The whole town seems to be asleep atop its dirt-dry hill. Untreated mine tailings press in from all sides. The last big employer, the Department of Energy’s Tonopah Test Range, known as Area 52, where they used to test the reliability of aging nuclear warheads, is closed. Howard Hughes married Jean Peters in Tonopah, but that was a long time ago.

Another 150 miles along, Ely, Nev., is doing somewhat better. Our favorite restaurant, the Red Apple, was shuttered, for sale. And the Hotel Nevada, with its stuffed rattlesnakes in the lobby, its dusty prospector dioramas and singing slot machines and cigarette smoke, only seem more desperate in midday.

But Ely does have an operating gold mine nearby. Cyanide heap leach. Tailings piles a mile long. On the way west we had stopped for breakfast at the Silver State Café, and our neighbors in the turquoise vinyl booths drove new pickups and looked like they might be mine engineers.

Approaching Delta, Utah, an old pickup pulled out behind us. In the mirror I saw it was filled with teenage boys, three in the front, an undetermined number in back, at least one of them sitting up on the side rail. Bare, skinny arms. Short hair. Rambunctious smiles.

The gas was cheap, $3.39/gallon versus the $4.09 in California. Downtown was neat as a pin, the streets so wide (by Brigham Young’s order) you could turn an eight-horse wagon around without having to back up.

Delta is surrounded by corn eight feet tall and green as Ireland. They’re going to get good prices this year, we thought, given the shriveling heat wave in the Midwest.

Green River, population 973, is not green. Except for the melon patches down by the river. We stopped to get a couple of cantaloupes from Dunham’s stand, and for the juicy hamburgers at Ray’s Tavern, just about the only place open on a main street ravaged by abandonment. First the railroad abandoned them, in 1892, when they moved their operations up to Helper, Utah. Then the US Air Force came and went with its missile launch site that closed down in 1973. Then Interstate 70 bypassed the old downtown, inspiring truck stops at either off ramp, but little else. It now seems as if the melons and the river-running crowd are the only things keeping the place alive.

Nancy Dunham, 77, has hopes for a live-music series that could draw folks from Salt Lake City, the way bluegrass and jazz bring visitors to Telluride. But, standing in the wind and dust, it seems like a long shot.

Then there is the hope generated by plans for two nuclear reactors northwest of town. But they are by no means certain. And a long way off at any rate. For now, you’ve got your Melon Days in September and the crowning of the Melon Queen.

Ellen and I are going to get to know these places better in the coming years, as we crisscross “The Loneliest Road in America” to watch our grandchildren grow.