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Locals speak

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Christopher Smith
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Christopher Smith

Virginia City to Ely, Gerlach to Beatty, small-town Nevadans share a love of their places — and some concerns

“The rurals.” It’s Greater Las Vegas shorthand for anything not-city. The places we pass through on the way to L.A., Reno, Salt Lake. On our Great Big Road Trip (see page 78), the Desert Companion RV crew didn’t spend as much time getting to know people in the towns we visited as we would have liked. But regardless of how long we stayed, in each town along the way we made a point of asking those we met about themselves. 

Their responses both surprised us and confirmed some of our suspicions. Most had strong opinions about current affairs and the issues confronting their communities, but almost all said they wouldn’t live anywhere else.

The peaceWith a population of 2.9 million, or 25 people per square mile, Nevada ranks 42nd in the U.S. by population density, according to estimated 2015 census data. But take the 2.1 million people living in Clark County out of the equation, and that density dwindles drastically. Lincoln County, for instance, holds 0.5 people per square mile.

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That’s exactly what Sheila Mason likes about living in Alamo, a spread-out farming community in Lincoln County. Sitting at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge visitor center, where she volunteers on weekends, Mason described what appeals to her about the area: “The fact that we’re here in the middle of this lovely valley, and there’s nobody around us.”

People around the state gave variations of this answer when asked what they liked about living where they do.

“You go into Reno, and it’s, like, busy-busy-busy-busy,” said Virginia City barista Amy Smith at the Roasting House coffee shop. But when she turns onto the road to Virginia Highlands and the home she and her husband recently bought, “It’s like your getaway, your retreat,” she says.

One benefit of isolation is that it makes those few residents more reliant on one another. Transplants to rural Nevada told us they were drawn there by the closeness and friendliness of the people.

One example was Ken House, who invited us to the biscuits and gravy breakfast he and his wife, Kathleen House, cook at the Gabbs Senior Center every other Friday morning.

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“Well, I couldn’t afford to live in the Bay Area, and I wanted to retire at 51,” House says. “I like the close-knit community. I’m actually elected onto our town advisory board.”

Bill Hally, a former California resident who’s lived in Ely since 2005, had a similar experience: “This is the smallest town I’ve lived in,” he said. “It has a good community center, a lot of volunteer organizations. I was president of the Great Basin Service Club for a period of time, and we put on the Fourth of July fireworks, the parade, that kind of stuff. …”

Most of the people we spoke to said they enjoyed some form of recreation on nearby lands, from hunting and fishing to hiking and mountain biking. Jeanette Hink, a clerk at R-Place convenience store in Ely, lit up when we asked what she does in her spare time: “Oh, you go out in the hills and just have fun with nature! I like to walk around, go four-wheeling, going and looking for deer and antelope and elk — I don’t hunt, I just go looking.”

Based on 2011 and 2012 surveys, the Outdoor Industries Association found that 57 percent of Nevadans participate in outdoor recreation each year, and that’s not including hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing. The industry annually generates $15 billion in consumer spending, 148,000 direct jobs, $4.8 billion in wages and salaries and $1 billion in state and local taxes, according to the OIA. That economic boost is critical to many of the towns we visited, judging from some of the concerns their residents shared.

The struggle“The economy here,” Hally said, giving his No. 1 concern. “We have only one business in town, actually two. One is the mine, and the other is the Ely state prison that employs, I think, about 300 people. The mine has 200 or 300. We have no heavy business here, none.”

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Semiretired, Hally works part-time repairing inmate phones in prisons around the state. That puts him among the so-called under-employed not counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics when calculating the unemployment rate, which is 7.1 percent in Nevada.

Most of the communities we visited were built on mining. Although the industry still thrives in some areas, it has faltered in others.

“It was a company town back then,” says Hazel Dunmar, describing the Gabbs of 1975, when she and her husband bought the local grocery store. The population was around 1,500, compared with fewer than 200 today. In the interim, the magnesium mine has gone through hard times. “The mine used to back us on stuff like that (the now-closed health care clinic),” Dunmar says. “It doesn’t anymore. That’s just the way it is.”

Some people, such as Winnemucca’s Hoby Studebaker and Vic Christison, blame the federal government for the faltering economy. A self-described libertarian, Studebaker said federal regulations are interfering with his ability to successfully run his small business. He pointed to Obamacare.

“Well, where I’m at now, I’m under 50 employees, so I don’t have to provide health insurance,” he said. “They all want it, but I can’t afford it. And they can’t either. They can’t afford their own insurance, so they’re paying the penalties.”

Sitting next to Studebaker at the Martin Hotel bar on a Monday evening, Christison chimed in, “The BLM is so oppressive right now, they’re ruining all the agriculture as far as the ranching industry in the state of Nevada.” Although he couldn’t give specific examples of offending regulations, he said he also feared that the region would lose what’s left of its gold-mining industry because the federal government is “just taxing us to death.”

Meanwhile, some Nevadans fear what would happen if the federal government lost control of the 84 percent of state land it manages. A proposal to transfer federal land to the state died in the 2015 Legislature, but the idea has been kept alive by supporters. This concerns Delaine Spilsbury, owner of Ms. Squaw Wholesale and a tribal elder of the Ely Paiutes.

“It would only be state (property) for a short while until they sell it,” Spilsbury said. “I don’t think people realize that when that property becomes state property, it will be sold, and there will be no outdoor life. For anybody.”

And when it came to Nevada’s current iteration of the Sagebrush Rebellion, even libertarian Christison agreed that occupying a wildlife refuge and pointing guns at federal law enforcers isn’t the right way to get what you want. “I’m not a Cliven Bundy fan by any means,” he said. “I mean, I’m on the opposite side of that — but still, they (the feds) are wrong.”

As for more local issues, some, like Tonopah Historic Mining Park curator Jeff Martin, echoed the concerns of Dunmar and House in Gabbs, which lost its health clinic several years ago.

“Our biggest issue right now in Tonopah is, our hospital closed down end of last year,” Martin said. “There’s nothing. The only thing Tonopah has for medical services are the life flights, and they’ve been a great help to the whole community.”

John Arant of Winnemucca

John Arant, owner of the Martin Hotel restaurant in Winnemucca, voiced another health concern shared by a few others: a rise in drug use. “Part of any rural community on the interstate is drugs,” he said. “I mean, they just roll in here.”

Those we talked to were eager for Las Vegans to understand these challenges. But they were far more eager for their urban counterparts to appreciate all the good their towns have to offer.

The good life What would you like our readers to know about the place where you live?

Tatsy Guild at Planet X outside Gerlach

“I guess how wonderful it is,” responded Tatsy Guild, caretaker of Planet X pottery studio and gallery, near Gerlach. Smiling broadly, Guild said, “I myself am not particularly drawn to big city life, nor the gambling or whatever, which is what Las Vegas is kind of known for. By reverse, I don’t know if people who are drawn to that would appreciate the resources here.” Guild captured the ambivalence inherent in many others’ answers. When people cherish what they have, they may fear losing it to those who don’t understand its value.

Rick Spilsbury, Delaine’s son, said, “I live in a beautiful place. … I find it to be a natural beauty that has been this way for the past 10,000 years for my ancestors, and I ... see that there are a lot of challenges to keep it that way”— for instance, plans to divert rural water to urban areas and to store toxic waste in remote areas.

Rick and Delaine Spilsbury of McGil

By the same token, many wanted Las Vegans to experience the rest of the state. Hink, of Ely, invited everyone to get out and “enjoy the country life.” And Smith said of Virginia City, “If you love nature, this is the place.”

Whatever they might worry about, the love that the people we met have for their home showed. It showed in the most common refrain of all: “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.