Most of the wandering on my trip took place in Nevada, as nearly all the sites I wanted to hit on this go-round were in the desert. There were some great ghost towns and haunted spots from my start in Missouri, for sure, but those only popped up at the rate of about one a day.
Like Texola, OK, where the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl pushed residents out, and the nostalgic Route 66 tourism (the juice that keeps towns like Seligman on the map) didn’t bring enough in. I had a great time tromping around through obviously unsafe ruins and poking into doorways where I probably shouldn’t have been.
Another day was for Picher, OK, an old mining town that the EPA calls the most toxic place in America, where only a handful of people refused to take the federal buy-out. I poked around the Picher Mining Museum (now empty, except for a strange tiny photo of an antique clock on one wall), respected the signs that told me a building was still inhabited, and walked all through the others.
Not all the sites I headed for were ghostly. Visionary and outsider art has always been as much of a draw for me as the unknown and spooky, and this trip included a healthy dose of that as well. I’ve meant to hit up Slug Bug Ranch and Cadillac Ranch in Texas for years, and I finally had the opportunity. Carhenge was a highlight of my last trip; there’s just something about the idea of big ol’ road trip machines sticking out of the earth in odd ways and covered in colorful paint that calls to me. Especially if you get to leave your own mark on them. The best bit was watching a young punk couple spray their names onto a car in the middle of the row. Before leaving, the boy came up to me and grinned, and let me know that they’d collected all the cans with leftover paint in them, and that I should feel free to grab a couple and go nuts. They walked off hand-in-hand.
The next day’s site wasn’t ghostly either, just awesome: Cano’s Castle, in Antonito, CO. 30 years of junk collecting and building, and the result is a glittering, towering, pile of awesomeness. Dusted in snow when I saw it, it was freaking astounding. I’m both a bit sad and a bit relieved I didn’t run into Cano, the marijuana & Jesus-inspired builder. Sounds like he has some strange views about women, and food. Still. Next time, maybe. There’s a sweet little narrow gauge railroad that runs up the mountains from there in the summer, and a return trip might be called for.
I didn’t find any ghosts at the Weatherford Hotel, in Flagstaff the next night, though I wasn’t looking too hard. Actually, the St. James, a few nights earlier, was the only spot where I spooked myself to the point of almost seeing something. My room was sans bath and at the end of a long mirror-lined hallway, which meant I had to run down creaky floorboards and past doors open to empty poker rooms with antelope heads on the wall every time I had to pee. I also stood for long minutes outside the most haunted room, where other visitors left offerings in the morning, and almost convinced myself I heard something. And I ate green chile, both for dinner and breakfast the next day, that flat-out changed my life. My mouth is watering right now. The Bay Area might be awesome for international food, but it’s severely lacking in southwestern tastes.
That was the first five days, bringing me to the desert and Nevada. The next day was when I really went a bit nuts.
I spent that night at the Amargosa Opera House Hotel. It was a Thursday, which sadly meant that I missed the performance by one day. But I met the young dancer from Oakland who is carrying on the vision of the founder, a New York ballet star who renovated the little decrepit Death Valley theater and danced, regardless of whether she had an audience, every weekend. And I saw the wild horses that came up to her back door every night. And I met the hawk who spent his nights in the old barn, thanks to an introduction from a chihuahua-toting Modesto man who had been there for a week. If you think of this lovely old place as a historic hostel with private rooms, and you’re cool with that, you’ll love it.
I left at sunrise the next day to get to Rhyolite, where the old West ghost town wasn’t itself the attraction. Within the ruins lies the Goldwell Open Air Museum, where artists have scattered works here and there in the desert setting. The ghostly forms were, obviously, my favorite. They reminded me of my favorite building in San Francisco.
On to Scotty’s Castle… but I made one quick detour on the way. I was geocaching this whole time, and that lovely little sport/game led me to some fantastic spots. But none compared to the Hard Luck Castle. The second cache, about 4 miles down the dirt road after you turn at the big attention-grabbing Tourist Attraction! sign, was located at a fantastic roadside shrine – and I simply cannot resist a roadside shrine.
When I got to the end of the road and met the shrine’s creator, I learned that it was built from the bed of a truck that cracked an axle when he was hauling his first load up the road to begin his castle. Oh, his castle. It looks pretty nondescript from the road – just a big round green bunker, with a bit of a tower in the middle where you can watch the stars – but as soon as you get closer, you start to see the amazing bits. This is your classic lone-man-builds-a-dreamhouse-in-Nevada-to-escape-the-government type scenario, and the tour will blow your mind. The great doors open to a circular room, with arched doorways leading off in various directions, and an immaculately tiled labyrinth taking up the entirety of floor. With a jewel in the center.
The main living room has not one, but two pipe organs, one rescued from a condemned church, one from a theater. It also has a 5-foot wide latchhook wall hanging, made by the builder during a long Tahoe winter (part of the reason he chose Death Valley). As you go through the house, the details overwhelm you: the conjoined HL logo with a naked woman on each side (pretty sure I spotted a – classy – naked woman in each room of the castle); the commemorative bricks placed (first, last, and in honor of departed dogs); the central fountain-filled courtyard, open to the observatory above and joined by a circular metal staircase; and oh lord, the white and gold bathroom dominated by a gleaming tub and a huge window with an expansive view of the desert valley. Simply amazing.
So as I said, on to Scotty’s Castle – which, while part of a National Park and a Historic Place with an Entrance Fee and Picnicking Area and also Parking For Recreational Vehicles, was way less impressive. An engineering marvel, and a gorgeous deco building, but how can you compare a private tour that went into every room with a don’t-touch-anything, follow-the-guide, stay-in-your-pack-of-30-people tour? You can’t. I left early, and moved on to Goldfield, a town studded with geocaches, art cars, abandoned buildings, and historical markers. Perfection.
Still, I rushed through it, as sunset was coming and I had to get to my lodging that night: the Clown Motel in Tonopah. This was my last haunted hotel for the trip, and probably the one I was the most excited about. It’s like doubling-down on terror: not only do you have ghosts (well, maybe – the owner says any ghosts are just nearby, in the adjoining cemetery), but you also have clowns. Clowns. Lots, and lots of clowns. Over 500 of them in the motel’s lobby, a collection that went a bit mad. However, I actually found this one of the most peaceful nights of my trip. Aside from a clown holding my door number, and a tasteful pastel watercolor of a clown gentlewoman holding a parasol in an Edwardian dress above my bed, the clowns were mostly confined to the lobby. I slept like a log. No evil cackling or anything.
And that was my time in the desert. I spent one full day traveling a distance that you could make non-stop in about 2 hours. Bliss. The high point of my trip. I’ve always given Nevada a wide berth, calling it the one state within which I found nothing to love on my first road trip. I love the Arizona deserts of my ancestry, but the Nevada ones always felt truly empty to me, not conducive to living (or dead) souls. Man, was I wrong. You just have to go a little slower and be willing to off-road it a bit, and the uniquely-Nevadan spirits will show themselves.