Tonopah, Nevada.

I crawled out of my tent as soon as I heard Phil stirring in earnest.  It was close to six in the morning, just a little before sunrise.  We broke camp, and worked on getting everything stowed away back in the car.  Getting the tent, the sleeping bag, and the foam ground pad all packed away into my little suitcase was a daunting task.  It was the first time I packed them in, and I can only imagine that it was for whichever TSA agent took it upon themselves to “inspect” my luggage before the flight out of Bellingham.

While we were packing up the car, a white-haired man walked up to the back door of the diner.  The restaurant wouldn’t open for at least another hour.  A woman answered the back door.

The man asked her if she knew who was grazing cattle out on Coyote Mountain.   A calf had been hit by a car in the night, its back was broken, and it couldn’t stand.  The woman responded that she would contact the rancher in question.

Once we were sure that everything was packed away in the car, we headed a little ways back down the highway to what appeared to be a disused cattle farm.  There were wrecked cars filled with tumbleweeds, and a ruined building that looked like it might’ve been used for baling hay.  The ground was peppered with cow shit, each patty dried and bleached by the sun.  We approached the old broken cars, and Phil said to me, “did you see that?”

“What?” I asked.

“There’s some kind of an animal over there.”

We approached the cars, and even walked around them.  We saw several lizards, and piles of rabbit scat, but nothing like what Phil had seen.

“It looked like a deer or something,” he said. “I saw an ear move.  Where could it have gone?”

I didn’t know.  There wasn’t anywhere to look.  There were no trees, and no hills to speak of.  Just gently undulating ground and brushy plants, stretching all the way out to where the hills rose up.  On the ground all around the wrecked cars were sinuous paths in the hard packed earth, made by something with small, cloven hooves.

After a lingering breakfast and several greedy cups of coffee back at the Lil A’Le’Inn, we were only back on the highway for a few minutes before spotting a large, dark shape along the highway.

Under closer inspection, it turned out to be that calf.  Some merciful someone had come by and slit the animal’s throat, and now it was still… the pool of blood near its head darkening and curdling around the edges, but still brilliant crimson in the middle.  It was starting to skin over in the dry air.  All I could think looking at the pathetic thing, with its back arched and the splintered end of a bone showing all pinkish white out of the rear of its rear right ankle was how much it must’ve struggled before someone put it out of its misery.

“Do you think they’re just going to leave it here?” Phil asked.

“You wouldn’t want to eat it.”

“Well, yeah, but you’d think they’d have to pick it up…”

“I don’t think it will be a problem for very long.”

Unfortunately, being near Coyote Mountain meant that we had been heading east rather than west.  How long would we have driven in the wrong direction if it hadn’t been for that little bull calf?

Turned back around and driving west along 375, a couple of shapes crossed the highway ahead of the car,

“There, those are what I saw back at the cars!” Phil said.

“Oh!  Those are pronghorn!”

I had never seen pronghorn before, but as my family lived in Wyoming when I was born, I had heard stories about them.  Small, thrifty creatures, like a cross between a goat and a deer, with black and white stripes on their faces.  Compact and oddly graceful, they quickly vanished into a gully running alongside the highway.  Some of the last remnants of America’s tattered Serengeti.

Further on, we traded the Extraterrestrial Highway for Highway 6, passed the huge white and blue missile designed as part of a sign marking the Tonopah testing grounds, and then on to Tonopah itself.

Tonopah, Nevada is a ghost town that stirred from its grave.  It’s small, but apparently bustling, with real estate agencies and gambling halls.  We  were driving through town in search of a grocery store, but we pulled over for the cemetery.

The Tonopah Cemetery isn’t large, and it’s tucked away from the highway behind a gravel lot and next to a bizarrely painted clown-themed motel.  The wooden sign over the gate gave the dates 1901-1911.  Inside the cemetery, some of the grave markers had new name plates… some had no name plate at all.  Some were marble monuments, and still others were little more than a stick protruding from a small pile of stones.  The causes of death varied; typhoid, pneumonia, suicide.  Interestingly, all of the suicide markers that we saw seemed to belong to women.  Eleven or so graves bore a symbol of a crossed pick and shovel… these were all victims of the Belmont Mine Fire of 1911.

One of the markers belonged to William “Big Bill” Murphy, a man we would later find out ran the cage down into the depths of the mine three times evacuating other workers before he succumbed to the heat and the fumes and then fell to his death.  The graveyard seems to have been closed shortly after the fire, perhaps to serve as a monument to the miners that died in the fire.

One large marble marker, obviously not belonging to any mine worker, read: “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

Ever so.

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