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A seasoned adventurer introduces a Lincoln County ghost town to his homebody Las Vegas buddy.
Photo: Anders Sorensen (Delamar)
“You’ve never been to Pahrump?”
“How is that even possible?”
I’m asking this of a 14-year Las Vegas resident whom I’ve known since he moved to town: He’s erudite, thoughtful, and pathologically complacent. Originally from the upper Midwest, Mitch and his wife take annual vacations in exactly one place—San Diego—and he’s never been sufficiently curious to venture so much as 60 miles west of his adopted hometown.
He confesses that excluding the Las Vegas Valley, the only parts of our eclectic state he’s visited are the scenic graded asphalt lanes of Interstate 15 south to Primm. We stare at each other for a few uncomfortable seconds, myself nonplussed and him underwhelmed by my reaction.
He knows of my lust for adventure in this state I’ll call home until I die, though he doesn’t understand it. It’s a lust tempered with love: Like any girl worth knowing, Nevada lured me with her physical gifts. But it’s her myriad nuances that keep me enchanted.
Whether it was my rhetorical brilliance or the complimentary Miller Lites that won him over, he finally agrees to my idea of a road trip. The conditions: I keep the destination to myself, and in exchange I promise he’ll be home to his ESPN2 and PlayStation3 by midnight. Got to start slowly—no one’s expecting him to camp in the Ruby Mountains and hunt chukar anytime soon.
The morning of, we head north on I-15 out of Las Vegas as the desolate Mojave Desert gives way to the even emptier Great Basin. Half an hour in, we approach the U.S. 93 northbound cutoff. It’s home to the only commercial enterprise for miles, a new truck stop that caters to southbound long-haulers who need sustenance and/or sleep before contending with the metropolis over the hill. As far as my passenger’s concerned, we’re already in territory as exotic as Uzbekistan.
“Is this a good time to ask where we’re going? Taking this highway seemed to narrow down our choices.”
Sure enough, he missed the middle syllable and heard it as Del Mar, the resort town and San Diego bedroom community that lies in the opposite direction. Del Mar and Delamar share a time zone, and not a lot else.
Situated in central Lincoln County, Delamar was yet another Nevada gold mining camp whose charm outlived its utility. But unlike the gold in Delamar’s more famous and more easily accessible sister camps, this particular strain sat under quartzite. Extracting the gold meant unleashing miniscule dust particles, which meant silicosis—a horrifying disease where every breath brings sharp, crystallized pain.
Doctors, who were scarce in these parts during Delamar’s heyday of a century ago, said you could feel death approaching whenever a victim inhaled. Or exhaled. Paris might be The City of Lights, but Delamar had a more colorful if ominous nickname: The Widowmaker.
With 1,500 residents at its zenith, Delamar boasted the same touchstones of status common to mining towns of the time—the opera house, the hospital, the saloons, the churches, and the school. In her case, you wonder how all those establishments found their way there. The buildings were constructed of native quartzite, but even today the roads challenge a late-model 4WD Ford Explorer.
The ruts are so profound and the path so narrow in places that every passing vehicle gets decorated with what’s euphemistically called “Nevada pinstriping.” If you gave your average modern passenger car a canvas top, wooden wheels, no shocks, and powered it with four thirsty horses instead of 179 figurative ones, Delamar’s already sparse visitorship would dwindle to zero.
An unobtrusive sign marks Turtle Walk Road, which leads to Delamar from the oases of Upper and Lower Pahranagat Lakes. One turn behind the first unprepossessing hill, and the desert soundtrack falls from barely audible to mute. Which makes the intermittent splotches of color along the way seem even more vibrant.
The Delamar Valley isn’t colorful merely by Nevada desert standards, i.e. ochre contrasted with burnt umber and suffused with ecru. The Delamar Valley is colorful by anyone’s standards, speckled with Hawaiian blue, marine insignia red, and sun-reflecting-off-Mandalay Bay yellow. There are few places more visually pleasing in which to get a flat tire…or spend 20 tentative minutes replacing it.
We trudge to Delamar proper with no remaining spare, but with sufficient food and water to last us 24 hours, along with the hope that if we should suffer another flat, we can rely on the kindness of passersby.
A quick buttonhook off the surprisingly straight Pole Line Road, and two steeply descending miles later sits the late Delamar, may she rest in peace. Like her surviving sibling Pioche, Delamar has the topography to make a modern city planner throw his blueprints up in despair.
It was a town of switchbacks and hairpin turns, punctuated by the occasional straightaway of a few yards. Mounds of tailings lie undisturbed in the town’s lower levels. The obligatory cemetery lists dates of demise as recent as 1916. If the name on the stone is a masculine one, chances are good that silicosis was the culprit. Most notably, the archway to the school sits almost perfectly preserved.
We beat a hasty retreat—it’s late afternoon, and we’re one tire puncture away from making the darkening Delamar Valley our home for the night. Mercifully, the Pole Line Road continues without incident nor sharp edges to U.S. 93, exiting 15 miles west of Caliente.
Together, we inhale a hearty dinner at a roadside diner in Alamo (a town that only does hearty). The tire pressure’s a little low, but the treads look healthy. We air up and head home.
“So…what’d you think?” I ask.
“Empty. Quiet. And beautiful,” Mitch says.
I wish he’d been around at the 1864 constitutional convention. That would have made quite the state motto.