The Man Who Owns His Own Ghost Town

There is a place in the Nevada desert, far from the blazing lights of Las Vegas and the sprawling, traffic-clogged freeways and drama of Los Angeles that is peaceful.  Silent.  A place that time has forgotten, and where the remnants of history are scattered on the ground like an outdoor museum.

Cow. Copyright Merilee Mitchell-2

It’s a ghost town that is owned by two men.  The population is 8.

Mailboxes. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

A photographer friend of mine sent me a message during my last trip to Death Valley, telling me that I really should take a side trip to see this place.  So I veered off of my plans in Death Valley, packed up my car with water and my Nikon and headed out into the vast expanse of Nevada, in gale force winds, to find the ghost town.

Bent Grill. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

It’s down a long, lonely highway where the signs read “Open Range” and where I nearly ran into an elderly cow that stubbornly stood in the middle of the road, unwilling to yield to my Yukon.  As I approached the town I saw mailboxes and evidence of people who might be living there, a few cars and trucks, an American flag flying.  I saw no one, yet had the uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched.

Christmas Lights. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I quietly got out of my car with my camera and walked, looking, feeling the place and wondering why I saw no one at all.  I wanted to ask someone, anyone, if I had permission to take photos, as that is what you do.  You never trespass or do as you please while photographing.  It just isn’t done.  But since no one was around, I started taking photos of sites that seemed benign.

Esmeralda. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

There were several old fire trucks, cars and other vehicles that had disintegrating tires and interiors.  They had baked in the desert sun for too long.  All I could hear was the slap, slap, slapping of the American flag as it was being beaten in the wind.  No other sounds and no sign of people anywhere.  Yet I still felt I was being watched.

Ghost Car. Copyright Merilee Mitchell-2

As I rounded a corner of what was a saloon, the “knowing” that I was being monitored by unseen eyes made me uncomfortable, and as I shot a photo of a skull I decided it would be best to leave.  It’s not wise to be a lone woman in an abandoned town out in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t want to disappear into a void, as if I had been sucked up into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Skull. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

Just as I started to leave, an old car pulled up with a man inside.  He rolled down his window and said, “I’m gonna have to confiscate that camera, you know.”  I apologized for taking photos and asked if it was all right.  He laughed and said he was joking, but added that he had been watching me for some time.

Ghost Town Man. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

“I’ve been watching you, you know.  I always know when someone comes up that road.  No one comes up here, so when they do, I like to watch them.  See what they’re up to.  I was watching you taking photos.”  I told him that I could feel that.  I knew.

Ghost Town Man 3. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

He parked his car and invited me into the saloon where he sat down and told me the history of the town.  He owns it, along with a partner.  Sometimes it’s used for movies, and there are times of the year when the population goes up.  Snowbirds like staying there. But for the most part, the population is 8.

Saloon Girl. Copyright Merilee Mitchell-2

It’s an old mining town originally established in the 1880’s that has had an on again, off again history with silver and gold mining.  Now it’s just a ghost town, but with a handful of hardy people living there.  Far away from anything.

Schramm. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I asked him how he likes living in a place that is so detached from any metropolis, where the nearest grocery story might be over 50 miles or more away, no doctors, hospitals.  Nothing.  Just old buildings and antiquities in a place tucked way out in the Nevada desert, in a state of arrested decay.

Sodium Cyanide. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

He loves it.  He loves the feeling of freedom it gives him and the fact that he isn’t monitored by the government, isn’t bothered by the sheriff, where all residents are armed and able to take care of themselves if the need arises, which it doesn’t.  Because no one goes there.

Stop. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I sort of liked that.  Not that I want to live in a ghost town.  But I understand that need for freedom and the attraction to the wide open spaces of the desert, of Nevada.  A place where you can see for miles and miles and all you are surrounded by are sage brush and fluffy, white clouds, where the wind blows and you see no one else.

Dead Truck. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I thanked the man for allowing me to photograph his town, for telling me his story, for being kind and letting me have a glimpse of what it’s like to live in a place like that.  A place that’s free, wild and full of history.

Open Road. Copyright Merilee Mitchell-2

I headed back down the lone highway where I saw the elderly cow, still standing steadfast in the middle of the road, my windows down and the wind blowing, smelling the sage brush and thinking that I will never forget the man who owns his own ghost town, knowing that I will go back someday.  Because I like that feeling of freedom that only the desert can give you.  He understands.  And I love that.

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