No room at the inn(s)

A day of contradictions capped in Tonopah


Matt Hufman

A site near the ghost town of Moores Station in Nye County has more than a dozen Energy Department signs, posted on concrete pillars, warning people not to dig or remove dirt. In the 1960s, the federal government planned to test a nuclear weapon here but never did. The photo was taken Sept. 16, 2013.

Finding Nevada: Day Two

A tall, silver alien statute stands guard at the Alien Research Center in Crystal Springs on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Well, we rolled into Tonopah tonight after a day without cellphone service and found … nothing. There are no hotel rooms to be found.

Reservations? Please. I have a few reservations about Tonopah, but none of the hotel kind. (No offense, my Tonopah friends.) We walked into one hotel, and the woman behind the reservation desk shook her head when I asked. Really, I asked, what’s going on here?

“Well,” she said with a school marm tone, the one you get when you’re a bonehead and failed a simple task like making a hotel reservation, “we have a test range.”

“Yes,” I said, “I know there’s a test range. But it’s going?”

“Well,” she sniffed, “they have people here. And there’s a solar plant being built. The first in the world. And there’s mining going on. And tourists.”

OK. Consider me educated. I should note that it’s not really the first solar plant in the world, but who was I to correct? I don’t make hotel reservations.

• • •

So, here we are in Tonopah, going over options. And eating in Burger King. Sigh. We’ve set out this trip to only eat in local restaurants, but this was all we could find that was open. I’m writing fast; the sidewalks are about to be rolled up.

So it goes. And it caps quite a day.

It has been a day of contradictions. We were in Rachel, which is a tiny high desert town with plenty of trailers. But inside, at Little A’Le’Inn, there are shot glasses celebrating the secret Area 51 and coffee mugs shaped into little green faces and information about classified supersonic airplanes supposedly being tested nearby. But as you turn back onto the Extraterrestrial Highway, there’s a sign warning you to watch out for cows because the land is open range. So much for warp speed and aliens.

Then, we went to a site in the Hot Creek Valley, which is northeast of the intersection of Highways 6 and 375. We went about 14 miles up the valley on a fairly good dirt road and found the site where the federal government detonated a nuclear weapon in 1968. It was buried 3,200 feet underground, and the project did not go as planned. We stood at the SGZ — surface ground zero — before we headed further off road.

We went up a rutted and rocky path to a site called Morey Canyon. It was a steep climb over a very rough road. Rain had eroded parts of the path, but Mike is a skillful off-road driver, and we made it with no problem, minus a few bumps. We found the remains of a few small buildings and the remnants of the mine, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the original miners did it. We drove with all of our gear in a massive vehicle; they would have hauled everything on their backs or gone by mule.

The trip must have been incredibly difficult — we went up more than 1,500 feet from the highway.

So we witnessed the old, the mining site created by hand, and the new, the nuclear test site and a beast of a 4x4. And there were more contradictions — on our way to Morey, we passed a field covered in stone markers. They were placed by the Energy Department warning people not to dig due to petroleum contamination. It was strange given the site we passed was originally designated as a nuclear test site but never used for that purpose. Yet there was a contaminated site, which looked like a cemetery for giants, and it was surrounded by the incredible natural beauty of the high desert.

Now, the final contradiction: Tonopah, the town that is supposedly economically depressed doesn’t have a hotel room on a Monday night.

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