Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Tonopah, Nevada

The 2500 or so people who call Tonopah, Nevada home would probably claim it is not a "ghost town." After all, it has a couple of gas stations and places to eat, two casinos, three or four motels, a small supermarket, and is the county seat of Nye County, Nevada with an impressive county courthouse. But Tonopah is clearly in a steep decline. It reminds me of places like Blacksburg, South Carolina; it's not dead, but it's terminally ill. I imagine it won't be much longer before the county seat is moved to Pahrump.

Tonopah is located in west-central Nevada at the junction of Highways 6 and 95, approximately midway between Reno and Las Vegas. Tonopah was founded in 1900 following discovery of silver in the hills surrounding the town site. It grew rapidly; in 1905, it had a population of 3000 and the county seat was moved there from nearby Belmont. In 1907, Tonopah was home to five banks, five newspapers, two churches, and 30 saloons. The Mizpah Hotel was built in that year. Billed as the grandest hotel between San Francisco and Denver, the Mizpah had electric lights, steam heat, ceiling fans in each room, an ornate dining room and bar room, and, of course, a full casino. To keep order in Tonopah, Wyatt Earp arrived from Tombstone and spent a couple of years in town before moving on to San Francisco. A mine operator named Tex Rickard was managing partner in the Mizpah, and in 1913 he noticed that a young bouncer he hired to eject troublemakers from the Mizpah's bar was handy with his fists. That young bouncer was named Jack Dempsey, and Rickard would later manage Dempsey during his time as heavyweight chamption. Although it's now closed, the Mizpah dominates downtown Tonopah:

Tonopah's silver mining output peaked around 1920 and then began a slow but steady decline over the next five decades. The population declined to about 2000, and soon the Nye County government and nearby Tonopah Test Range became the economic foundations of the town. About the only excitement in that period was on January 12, 1957, when reclusive/crazy billionaire Howard Hughes married Jean Peters in Tonopah. The ceremony was performed by a local justice of the peace at the motel shown below; the ceremony was conducted in the second story room immediately to the right of the "Enter" sign. Hughes and Peters flew in from California for the ceremony, and spent only about three hours in Tonopah. The reasons why Hughes decided to get married in Nevada instead of California are not clear; maybe Nevada's easy marriage laws made a spur-of-the-moment wedding possible. At any rate, the site of the Hughes/Peters wedding has seen better days:

But things began to change around 1979. For one thing, there was a massive expansion of activity at Tonopah Test Range. Even though almost everyone who worked there lived on base, they still came into Tonopah to buy booze, gamble, and seek what little entertainment is available in the area. (The new activity turned out to be the first flight tests of the F-117 Stealth fighter/bomber.) A second and bigger cause of Tonopah's reawakening was Anaconda's investment of $240 million in a molybedium mining operation near Tonopah; the skyrocketing price of silver (which hit $50 an ounce in late 1980) also stimulated production of old mines.

Tonopah's population boomed from 2500 to over 4000 in less than a year. The school system enrollment was 475 in June, 1980; when classes resumed the following September, over 700 students showed up. Tonopah's lone grocery store had to go to 24-hour operation to accomodate shoppers. The Mizpah re-opened and was refurbished; former bank buildings were converted into apartments. At one time, over 300 mine workers were forced to live in mobile homes, RVs, and even tents at the mining sites.

And it was all over less than a decade later. The collapse in gold and silver prices caused the mines to close again, and a similar implosion of molybedium prices caused Anaconda to close down its operations and write off its entire investment. The Mizpah closed again along with many other businesses. The result is a city with many abandoned and crumbling buildings, now subsisting on tourism and the county government for survival.

It takes little imagination to see what a grand city Tonopah once was. Here is the Nevada First National Bank Building, with a view of the floor tiles at its entrance. Note the curtains in the upper windows of the building. That's because it was converted to apartments during Tonopah's second boom in 1979. Now those apartments and all businesses in the building are abandoned:

Here's a side view of the bank building above. I suppose the apartments above the bank must've been the "Belvada Apartments," and I love the name of that bar-----the "Alibi Lounge"! I would've loved to have seen the inside of that bar on a Saturday night!!

Business is no better in the rest of Tonopah. The Tonopah Liquor Company is no more, the same is true of the Ace Club and Club House; in fact, all of the buildings below are empty and falling apart:

Newer buildings in Tonopah are also abandoned. The Tonopah Garage below was empty, but someone seemed to have abandoned a NASCAR sportsman division race car under its awning:

Tonopah has a city web site, which is blatantly dishonest and misleading. It even has a "convention center" that looks like a small junior high scool gymnasium and has to be a white elephant-----I wonder if there has ever been a paying convention held there?

But Tonopah is an interesting place to explore for a few hours. You have to drive through it if you drive from Reno to Las Vegas. If you ever make that trip, allocate a little time for Tonopah.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rediscovering H. L. Mencken

I've spent the past few days re-reading The Bathtub Hoax by H. L. Mencken. As a college freshman, I first encountered Mencken and read everything by him I could find. Mencken turned out to be the biggest influence upon me as a writer, and his political and social views-----he was a "libertarian" long before the termed was coined-----shaped, and continue to shape, my social and political views.

Mencken wrote vigorous yet elegant prose; his writing combined both power and delicacy. He was a keen observer of people and society, and never was hesitant to make his opinions and feelings clear. Mencken was a practitioner of what is today called "the conversational style" (although he would've surely disdained and mocked the term). For Mencken, writing was a one-to-one conversation between an author and the reader, an act of intensely personal communication. He never hid behind such formalisms as "your author" or "the reader," nor did he geld his writing with such timidities as the passive voice. Reading Mencken for the first time was like my first taste of undiluted vodka-----it was a shock to my system and left a burning sensation. And I futilely tried to model my own writing on Mencken's. I like to think I eventually developed my own style as I matured as a writer, but it's obvious "my own style" has many elements of Mencken in it. Some are purely stylistic, while others are attitudinal. As an example of the latter, it was from Mencken that I picked up the technique of deliberately provoking readers by directly challenging their beliefs and assumptions. Mencken did so for a worthwhile reason, namely to get readers to analyze why they believed certain things to be true or just, and I often do the same (although I usually try to soften the blow with some humor).

While re-reading The Bathtub Hoax, I was repeatedly astounded at how often Mencken's social and political observations, mostly made in the 1920s and 1930s, are still very relevant today----or perhaps even more so than when originally written. Take, for example, the following paragraphs from an essay titled "Notes on Government" which was published in 1926:

The light began to dawn, I believe, at the precise moment when the prohibitionists ceased arguing that prohibition would cure all the sorrows of the world, and began arguing that it ought to be submitted to because it was the law-----in other words, at the moment when they introduced the doctrine of law enforcement. That doctrine, it soon became obvious, had little foundation in logic; it was almost purely mystical. What it amounted to was a denial that the citizens of a free state had any natural or inalienable rights at all. If, by whatever chicanery, a law was passed ordering them to cut off their children's ears, then they were bound to obey. If, by the same chicanery, a law was passed prohibiting them to wash the same ears, then they were equally bound to obey. It needed little gift for ratiocination to penetrate to the absurdity of this doctrine. Or to grasp the fact of its extreme antiquity. Even a moron could see it was simply the ancient dogma of the king's divine right in a new false face. It could not be disentangled from the concept of the citizen as a mere subject. Above him stood an occult something called the government, a force distinct from the people and superior to them. Did the people, under democracy, create it and give it the breath of life? Then, once created, it was nevertheless distinct from them and superior to them. They were forbidden to resist it.

When Mencken wrote the above, it was in reference to the Prohibitionists of the 1920s. Today, their ideological descendants are everywhere, hectoring us about too many "trans fats" (whatever the hell they are) in the foods we eat, not being sufficiently "green" and energy efficient, not using enough sunscreen, etc., etc. Mencken identified those ideological descendants as "wowsers," a word he first used in 1926 in an essay titled "Yet More Hints for Novelists":

Since the earliest days, as every one knows, American jurisprudence has been founded upon the axiom that it is the first duty of every citizen to police his neighbors. There is no such thing in this grand and puissant nation as privacy. The yokels out in Iowa, neglecting their horned cattle, have a right, it appears-----nay, a sacred duty!----to peek into my home in Baltimore and tell me what I may and may not drink with my meals. A Methodist preacher in Washington, inspired by God, determines what I may receive in the mails. I must not buy lottery tickets because it offends the moral sentiments of Kansas.

Such are the laws of the greatest free nation ever seen on earth. We are all governed by them. But a government of laws, of course, is a mere phantasm of political theories: the thing is always found, in inspection, to be really a government of men. In the United States, it seems to me, the tendency is for such men to come increasingly from the class of professional uplifters. It is not the bankers who run the ostensible heads of state, as the liberals believe, nor the so-called bosses, as the bosses themselves believe, but the wowsers. . . . . . Thus we are run by wowsers-----and wowser is an Australian word that I hereby formally nominate for inclusion in the American language. . . . . . What does it mean? It means precisely what you think of inevitably when you hear it. A wowser is a wowser. He bears a divine commission to regulate and improve the rest of us. He knows exactly what is best for us. He is what E. W. Howe calls a Good Man. So long as you and I are sinful he can't sleep. So long as we are happy he is after us.

And nothing has changed in the 62 years since Mencken wrote those words, except perhaps things are worse now. Wowsers now come from the left and right sides of the political spectrum and in all manner of guises. Those who are tormented by the idea of someone eating trans-fats are no different from those who are horrified by the notion of adults gambling with their own money in a casino; both are busybodies who can't stop sticking their noses into the private lives of persons engaging in peaceful activities they happen not to like. We are entirely too polite toward wowsers. We need to tell them to go to hell more often and, if that fails, we need to be more profane and threatening toward them. Instead of listening politely like Oprah and then thanking them for sharing their gibberish with us, maybe we should instead take them out back and bullwhip some sense into them.

Many called Mencken a cynic. He certainly did not take an optimistic view of the human condition, as the following illustrates:

What lies beneath all this is simply an ancient fact, noted long ago by William James, and before him by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and before him by the Greeks, and before the Greeks by the first human politicians. It is the fact that the race of men is divided sharply into two classes: those who are what James called tough minded, and demand overwhelming proofs before they will believe, and those who are what he called tender minded, and are willing to believe anything that seems to be pleasant. It is the tender minded who keep quacks of all sorts well fed and active, and hence vastly augment the charm of the world. They find it wholly impossible to distinguish between what is subjectively agreeable and what is objectively true.

Is that cynicism? No. Instead, it is a powerful, simple statement of an unfortunate truth. In the paragraph above, Mencken neatly explains why so much goes wrong in the world, why so many grand schemes crash and burn, and why so many people waste their money on miracle diet pills, no-money-down real estate investments, and psychic weekends in Sedona, Arizona. If such foolishness was confined to the private sphere-----if it went no further than some goobers really thinking they can make $5000 a day from home with their own internet business-----it wouldn't be a big deal. But unfortunately our social institutions (like schools) and government are now overrun by the tender minded, the sort who sincerely believe everyone can be above average with the proper instruction and that you have solved a problem by passing a law. Trying to engage the tender minded in a rational dialogue is like trying to teach your dog to conjugate irregular French verbs. You'll only get frustrated for your efforts, and if you persist too long you'll go insane.

While he never attended college, Mencken was a believer in education. But it was "education" of a special sort, as he wrote in 1927:

The discovery of fraudulence, I believe, is one of the principal aims and achievements of true education, if not the first of them all. A man soundly fitted for life is not one who believes what he is told, as a schoolboy believes, but one trained in differentiating between the true and the false, and especially trained in weighing and estimating authority. If the young man at college learns nothing else save the fact that many of the bigwigs of the world are charlatans, and that positions and attainments do not necessarily go together, then he has learned something of the utmost value. The tragedy of the world is that the great majority of human beings never learn it.

I need to stop before I quote the entire text of The Bathtub Hoax. (The book's title comes from one of Mencken's essays, an entirely fictitious/satirical account of how the bathtub was invented in Cincinnati in 1842; despite its obvious ridiculousness, his essay was, to Mencken's delight/horror, taken as absolute fact by most readers.) If you want a definitive survey of his work, I recommend A Mencken Chrestomathy.

Mencken was kept well away from impressionable high schoolers when I attended four decades ago, and I suppose that is even more the case today. Indeed, America would be even more querulous, have many fewer people willing to quietly submit to established authority, and show much less empathy to those suffering from self-inflicted wounds if the majority of the population had some exposure to Mencken. You could make a strong case those would all be bad things.

On the other hand, we'd have fewer damn fools running loose if Mencken was part of our educational curricula, and that would be a very good thing. A very good thing indeed.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Talking About The Unspeakable

I belong to some e-mail lists and on-line discussion groups for cancer patients, and yesterday they were ablaze with links to a blog post made by Alan Sullivan, a terminal leukemia patient. Alan said some things a terminal cancer patient isn't supposed to say, or even think. Go read his comments before reading this post any further.

First off, I don't think Alan is serious about committing suicide before he gets any worse. I feel that way because he discusses using a drug overdose to end his life, and I have a pet theory that people who are genuinely serious about ending their lives do not use pills------there is always the possibility, and in many cases I think it is a hope or even expectation, of being found and revived before death occurs. No, people who are serious about killing themselves use a gun. If Alan is really looking for a swift, painless, and certain death, then he needs to buy a Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 magnum revolver (with four or six inch barrel), load it with 158 grain hollow-point rounds, insert the barrel in his mouth, pull the trigger, and. . . . . . . C'est tout pour maintenant; au revoir, le monde! Seriously, his life would be over in a nanosecond, and he would need no one to "assist" (that is, share responsibility for what happened) in his demise.

But Alan raises a very crucial issue: we have developed the ability to sustain life well past the point where the human body was designed to die, and often such sustained "life" means prolonging someone in a vegetative state or in great pain. At what point do we------as a society, as individuals------say "enough!" and admit that further efforts would be a waste of everyone's time, energy, and emotion?

I had to answer a form of that question upon getting the news last year that my situation was irreversible. I was offered the options of "doubling down" on my treatments-----more chemo! more radiation! too bad we can't remove more of your liver!------or going to palliative treatment of my symptoms as they arose. I opted for the latter, and my first oncologist's strident opposition to my choice is why I switched to a new oncologist. Since making that decision to end those grueling chemotherapy treatments I was getting every two weeks. . . . . . . . well, I've actually had a pretty good year, all things considered. I have felt much better than I did toward the end of the chemo regime, and don't miss the side effects like extremely low white blood cell counts, sudden nosebleeds, etc. In my case, "doing less" has made my life much better. But there are those in the medical community-----like my first oncologist-----who pressure patients (and their families) to undergo any and all treatments, no matter how unlikely they are to help. For doctors like that, keeping patients alive as long as possible mutates into a variation of Evel Knievel jumping 40 buses with his motorcycle; yes, it's an impressive stunt, but what is the practical value of it? Does professional ego and pride------"look how long I kept that patient alive!"-----sometimes take precedence over what is in the best interests of the patients? I genuinely believe that was the case with my first oncologist; I strongly felt he took my decision not to continue with the aggressive course of therapy he was advocating as a personal rebuke or insult.

I've had healthy people tell me that, if they ever develop cancer or any other life-threatening condition, they will have their doctors do everything and anything to keep them alive as long as possible. I used to feel that way too, but I discovered your perspective changes radically once you experience what it's like to be really, really sick. You understand there is a huge difference between "living" and "existing." The former is worth it; the latter isn't. If you have ever awakened in the ICU of a hospital, and tried to speak but couldn't because there was a breathing tube down your throat-----and I've had that experience------then you probably wouldn't want to spend your last days "existing."

Alan also raises another sensitive issue in care of the critically ill, and that's pain management. This is an area where our perpetually screwed-up "war on drugs" rears its head; the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has as much to say about how pain in terminal cancer patients is treated as do the patients' oncologists. For example, heroin is used in most of the rest of the world (such as Europe) to treat pain in cancer patients but medical use of heroin is prohibited in the United States. The "logic" behind that decision is something that only Congress could come up with: yeah, we know you're gonna be dead in three months, but we don't want you to get addicted to heroin, so instead you get to live in agony during those three months. Prescribed levels of various painkillers are monitored by the DEA, and a doctor or medical facility that is too "generous" in dosage levels for opiate-based painkillers will soon find itself under scrutiny by the DEA. To avoid such complications, doctors and facilities tend to prescribe lower levels of pain medications than many patients need. And that's because numerous politicians, in an effort to score cheap political points by showing how "tough" they are on drugs, restrict the availability of certain drugs to terminally ill patients.

When people like Alan Sullivan write about the "right to die," I get the feeling they are really writing about the right to live without excruciating pain. They want to be able to get as much as they need of any available pain relief medication. "Prolonging life" often really means "prolonging a painful life," and in many ways is not that much different from medieval tortures-----you're kept alive, but only to experience suffering. And that brings me right back to my previous point: there is a big difference between "living" and "existing."

Those of us fortunate enough to live near the border with Mexico have the option of seeking treatment in Mexican cancer clinics. These are widely ridiculed by the American medical community, and often with good reason------you really can't cure cancer with megadoses of vitamins, for example. But the reason why many Americans with terminal cancer visit such clinics has nothing to do with cures. Instead, it is because such clinics will give you as much pain medication as you need, as often as you need it, to be comfortable in your final days. And, in that respect at least, the Mexican medical community is far ahead of the American medical community and its "suffering is good for you" idiocy.

I pass no judgment on Alan Sullivan's remarks, other than to express thanks for him writing what I frankly didn't have the courage to write and for asking some unpleasant questions that needed to be raised. I think we are going to see a big growth in the number of patients with chronic long term illnesses in the years ahead-----people living in pain, and requiring daily care------and the questions about what we should do, or realistically can do, for such people will only grow. And you might find yourself having to go through some of the same thought processes I have had to go through in trying to figure out where to draw the line separating "living" from "existing." I have no idea if I've made the proper delineation between those two, and I wouldn't impose my choices on anyone else. But I've tried my best to reach an answer, and I feel comfortable with my decision.

Geez, what a heavy topic for a post! Maybe next time I should blog about selecting the proper tequila to fully enjoy the upcoming season of professional football from the Dallas Cowboys.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Ballarat, California

Ballarat, California is a long way from anywhere. It's wedged between the Panamint Mountains that form the western border of Death Valley and the eastern face of the Sierra Nevadas. It is located on Highway 178 between the small town of Trona and the junction of Highway 190 (the Panamint Springs entrance to Death Valley National Park). This is extremely isolated country; cell phones don't work out here and the nearest gasoline (or any other services) is over 30 miles away in either Trona.

Ballarat was named after the Australian gold mining town in Victoria. It was founded in 1896 as a supply point for the gold mines found in the Panamints that loom over the town site. By 1905, its population had grown to 500 and was supplemented by a larger transitory population of prospectors who "wintered over" in town before returning to the mountains in spring. Ballarat had several saloons, a Wells Fargo office, and a post office, but no church. The population began a slow decline as the mines played out, and the World War II ban on gold mining effectively turned Ballarat into a ghost town. Today, Ballarat is the permanent home to only a couple of people who serve as caretakers for the property and operate a small store selling soft drinks and snacks. However, the area has seen renewed mining activity, and the nearby Briggs Gold Mine is currently the largest producer of gold in California. However, its workers are transported in from Trona each day via bus.

Ballarat is reached via a graded dirt road from Highway 178 and the turn-off is clearly marked:

The elements have not been kind to Ballarat. Summer temperatures usually top 100, and winter lows can sink into the teens. The desert wind is merciless. The result is that almost all buildings in Ballarat are in a state of advanced decay; wood is splintering and collapsing while adobe structures and walls are dissolving away back to the dirt:

Here are two examples of how adobe structures are being worn away in Ballarat. The first shows an adobe wall being propped up, while the other shows all that remains of an adobe building. It won't be too much longer until the desert reclaims both of these and they will be no more:

The former general store below is the best preserved adobe building remaining in Ballarat:

The Ballarat cemetery is well preserved and maintained, although the wooden headstones atop many graves have collapsed or worn away:

Ballarat may not have the human population it once did, but its wild burro population is doing just fine. The fellows below descended from the burros used by prospectors over a century ago; they have adapted quite well to the desert:

In the late 1960s, Ballarat achieved a bit of fame (or infamy) because Charles Manson and his "family" were frequent visitors there. The Barker Ranch used by Manson and his followers is located in the hills above Ballarat and the Manson family had to travel through Ballarat on their way to and from the outside world. Ballarat was the staging area for the raid on the Barker Ranch conducted by the California Highway Patrol and Inyo County Sheriff's Department which resulted in Manson's arrest; Ballarat was the last place Manson saw as a free man. Before the raid, one of Manson's followers, Charles "Tex" Watson, fled Barker Ranch in a green Dodge truck that made it all the way to Ballarat before breaking down. You can see it in the background of the photo below. The Manson family carved their insignia, five stars, above the Dodge nameplate on the hood. The road to the Barker Ranch site has not been maintained for years and the site can only be reached by a hike of several miles. But Watson's getaway truck is still in Ballarat and can be easily visited, at least until it rusts away into the desert:

Friday, August 1, 2008

Beware The Ides Of August

Is there a certain day of the year on which significant events in your life always seem to take place? For me, the tectonic plates of my life have a habit of lurching violently on August 1.

An example was when I ended my first period of residency in Texas by flying out of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on this day for New York City, where I was to begin a job in two weeks as electronics books editor for McGraw-Hill. It's no exaggeration to say my life has never been the same since then; I can divide my life into pre-NYC and post-NYC eras, with very little overlap between them.

Recent years have been no different. On August 1, 2004, Di and I crossed into Texas at El Paso as part of our move from Las Vegas to the Austin area. And on August 1, 2005, Di and I closed on our purchase of the Bar Nothing Ranch near Smithville.

It was on August 1, 2006 that I entered St. Davids Hospital in Austin to have surgery to remove my original colorectal tumor-----and when I was released on August 13, I finally understood I was in deep, deep trouble. And it was one year ago today------August 1, 2007------that I got the news the metastasis to my liver had returned despite chemotherapy, and consequently my condition was now "irreversible," a polite euphemism for "terminal." (I like that term "irreversible." It sounds like the title of some cheesy action movie. . . . . . . I can hear the trailer for it now. . . . . . . "Bruce Willis is. . . . . . IRREVERSIBLE!!")

At any rate, I almost fear what today might bring. I think I'll just hide under the bed------the way our oldest dog, Bahrnee, does during a thunderstorm-----and wait until midnight when it might be safe to come out.