It’s a loooong and lonely road from Las Vegas to Tahoe. Really it qualifies as barren wasteland, a place so unusable that the United States military saw fit to blow it to smithereens with nukes at the height of the Cold War…now they just blow it up with conventional weapons and fly alien spaceships. This isn’t a critique of the Mojave, or Nevada or even US 95…I love it out there. But, let’s just say, it would take a lot for any sort of organized society to sprout up in the midst of the desert: like maybe gold, or silver.
Along this road there was once a town called Rhyolite, I suppose it’s still there: albeit a shell of its former self. Today it’s one of a score of Silver State ghost towns, abandoned by man and preserved by the desert. It’s story, a familiar pre-internet meme: a glimmer of gold, a wealthy investor, a producing mine, a surge in population, a broader economic collapse, a loss of investment, a shuttered mine, a mass exodus.
At its height there were 5000 people in Rhyolite (some estimates put that at 10,000). That’s saying something considering how isolated it is today, much less 110 years ago. The town is named for the volcanic rock on which it’s built…and volcanism is important when it comes to gold. Charles Schwab would be the wealthy industrialist to bankroll the gold mine in this town. It was believed that there was an as yet untapped main vein of gold running north to south in these particular hills of Nevada…this would be the next great Gold Rush. And in 1904 a town was created.
There was gold, but not enough easily accessible to justify the investment. A great earthquake shook San Francisco, followed by a great fire that literally burned money. The economy of the West virtually collapsed. And the risk of investing in an as-yet-proven gold mine in the middle of nowhere became too high. The mine closed and by 1920…just over 15 years after the town came into existence…it was virtually no more. Banks and train stations and schools and houses and stores rotted under the merciless Nevada sun.
But someone saw beauty near Beatty. And a rather bizarre art exhibit was born. Rhyolite is now an off-the-beaten-path excursion, an attraction because of its dilapidation…and because of the Goldwell Open Air Museum. It’s most famous exhibit is The Last Supper. A creepy, ghastly depiction of Da Vinci’s famed painting. There’s also a random blonde girl apparently made of legos, and a brown beast of a miner picking at the invisible mine while his boy shaped like a penguin looks on. The place is made for peyote. Thank God Hunter S. Thompson never drove through.
But, beyond the shells of buildings (which are not pictured thanks to a quite embarrassing camera malfunction…I know it happens to every guy) and the random works of art, Rhyolite is itself a monument. Or rather a testament to the temporal nature of American culture. Perhaps these are not “ghost towns” because no one is left, but instead because they were so ephemeral. Merely an apparitional blip on the pages of history seen by few and interpreted by many.