Diane and the Desert: Part 3 – Hawthorne and Ozymandias

This is the third and final part of a series of posts honoring my stepmother, Diane Duncan. The beginning of this series is called “Diane and the Desert: Part 1 – Impressions.” The previous post is “Diane and the Desert: Part 2 – Cool Shiny Stuff.”

Movie night, Las Vegas, 2013.

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with ElfQuest comics. I had picked up an issue of Wave Dancers at the comic book store in Yard Birds, and I never looked back. I diligently hunted down all the other issues, the back issues, the folk music CD, and even the board game – all in pre-Internet days, thank you very much. My first tattoo was the ElfQuest logo. Eventually, I came across the novelization of the original quest, and I read a line in the first book that stuck with me. The elves had lost everything and, with the prospect of losing much more ahead of them, were journeying across a desert into the unknown. The leader of the small pack of elves, Cutter, heard the words “Sorrow’s End” in his head, not knowing that they were actually headed towards an oasis called Sorrow’s End. An oasis that contained a very different tribe of elves along with a new and unexpected future. As Cutter mulled the meaning of the phrase, “Sorrow’s End,” he mused to himself, “Sorrow’s End. There was no such thing. The only end to sorrow is death – and only that of the dying one and not the pain of those who lived on and mourned.” It may not be an exact quote. I don’t have the book anymore. But it is close. And it left a profound impact on me. You could tell that it left a profound impact on me because I doodled the quote on my book covers and in my notebook with a purple pen. Being a teenager, being a sensitive and emotional teenager, with relatively limited experience in death, that quote really encompassed what I knew about death and loss in the small ways that I had experienced it.

The funny thing is, it’s still true now. Diane’s pain is gone. The cancer is gone. But my pain is still here. The pain of the people who loved her is still here. I guess that that eventually gets smaller. I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of experience with this. But I don’t think it goes away completely. And I don’t think the good memories go away either. I hope they don’t. If the pain is the burden you have to bear for the memories, I’ll take it. Pile it on. Because the memories make the pain bearable.

After everything was said and done, the trip home from Reno was much less urgent and much more lonely than the trip there. I was hoping to break up the drive for the kids, so I made a lot of stops. The first stop was in Hawthorne, and there was so much to see there.

Mineral County Museum, Hawthorne, NV

If you ever pass through Hawthorne, you absolutely have to stop at the Mineral County Museum across from the McDonald’s. It’s free (leave a donation – don’t be a douche)! It is absolutely the most ridiculous and wonderful museum I have visited in a long time. It’s like falling into a museum looking glass. The displays are random and rarely labelled. Most of the display cases aren’t even proper cases. It is like a warehouse filled wall to wall with… just stuff. You’ll be looking at a shadow box filled with a hundred unexplained keys, and then turn the corner to find lovely examples of early 20th century clothing. Then you will wander into a section of old office furniture and machines that looks like the 1920 Sears Catalog vomited in a corner. I’m pretty sure that they don’t have an archived collection in a temperature-controlled back room somewhere. It’s all out on display, folks. And it’s pretty fucking amazing.

Now, the Mineral County Museum was cool. And we saw a bunch of other cool things in Hawthorne too. I’m going to do a post soon about a couple of Art Deco schools, which are pretty fucking nifty. But none of these things were the coolest. By far, the coolest thing in Hawthorne is the town that isn’t there.

Back in 1933, as part of a New Deal project, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was built in Hawthorne, Nevada. A second camp was built in 1936, and these two camps combined to make up “Camp Jumbo.” The people who worked out of Camp Jumbo worked in cooperation with the forestry service, and the camp was maintained under the US Naval reservation there. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, the first peacetime draft in the history of the United States, the numbers of men volunteering for the CCC diminished as men were drafted into the US military instead. This signaled the beginning of the end for the CCC, which would continue to decline in numbers until the program was officially disbanded after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The camp in Hawthorne was disbanded in May 1941, and the Hawthorne Naval Ammunition Depot (NAD) later developed the land as housing for the influx of military members and civilian workers who relocated to Hawthorne to support operations for WWII. This new housing supplemented existing housing adjacent to the former Camp Jumbo land, which was built by the Hawthorne NAD in 1941 and was known as the town of Babbitt.

Map of Babbitt, NV.  Courtesy Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babbitt,_Nevada.

Reconstruction map of Babbitt, NV. Courtesy Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babbitt,_Nevada.

In the 1940’s Babbit was pretty much where it was happening. As you can see in the map, it covered a huge area of land. By 1943, it extended 40 blocks and contained almost six hundred 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom duplexes. Even more housing units were built during the Korean War. Babbitt boasted all of the amenities you would find in any small town (or any large military instillation) – schools, stores, gas stations, a library, a movie theater, restaurants, a bowling alley, a bank. It also had some not-so-awesome things, like segregation. The higher-numbered streets, near the east part of the town, was where the black families lived. There’s a really good interview of Carmen Head, a former black resident of Babbitt, on the Our Story, Inc. website. In the interview, she talks about growing up in Babbitt, segregation in Hawthorne, and how even small towns play a part in the larger narrative of black history. It’s a good read, if you have a couple minutes.

So what happened to Babbitt? Well, it’s not there anymore. Most of the houses were removed in the 1970’s and were shipped to new owners throughout Northern Nevada. Some are still in Hawthorne on different plots. Some have been spotted in Fallon and some even in Reno. If you want to see Babbitt today, you will turn into the Whiskey Flats RV park, just before Hawthorne (if you’re coming from Reno), and drive all the way through the park out the back gate. The roads are still there – pitted and cracked with weeds sprouting through the asphalt. But all that remains of the home sites are uneven layers of foundation, sprawled across the ground like giant headstones, concrete reminders of the lives lived there.

Babbitt home site, with walkway leading to concrete foundation.

Babbitt home site, with walkway leading to concrete foundation.

Concrete foundation.

Concrete foundation of former home site in Babbitt, NV.

The point I wanted to make about Babbitt is that people lived there. They really lived there. They slept and worked and went to school and fell in love and married and died there. The same things that you and I do. For a time, whether long or short, their lives were anchored in that one place. And even though that place doesn’t exist anymore, you can still see the remnants of what was left behind. And you can still feel the whispers of their lives in the air. Cities rise and fall, landscapes change, lives are born and crumble into dust, but the essence of all of that lives on. You can always see it if you look hard enough.

When I was a kid, probably early teens, I was really into the English Romantic poets, especially Byron and Shelley.  I could recite “When We Two Parted” by Byron from memory. Still can, and will gladly do so upon request, although I admit my oratory skills are lacking :p And of course, I loved “Ozymandias” by Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Who doesn’t love the story about Ramses II (a.k.a. Ozymandias), his pretensions to greatness, and the inevitable decline of his empire into nothingness. The lesson of the poem is that as great as you think you are – as great as you might be – eventually there will be nothing left. You ain’t hot shit after all. But, you see, when I was a kid I always got it all wrong. For me, the story behind “Ozymandias” wasn’t about how there was almost nothing left of this great huge empire. It was about how there was still something left of this great huge empire. Maybe it’s just the barest bones – the trunkless legs, shattered face, and plaque – and maybe the great empire has disintegrated into the lone and level sands. But something is still there. And the rest is waiting to be found.

Doodle and Diane; Beginnings and Endings.

Doodle and Diane; Beginnings and endings.

That’s what’s so comforting about history. Nothing ever really leaves us. We might come from stardust and return to it, but in the meantime everything that ever was is still there, just waiting to be uncovered.

Right now, my memories of Diane are buried by my grief. But those stories are sitting under the surface. And even though it’s hard to see them through the sadness, they are there – sometimes with mesmerizing sweetness and sometimes with painful eagerness – waiting to be held in the hands of our memory, waiting to be enjoyed and loved on and treasured again. And those stories are intertwined with the stories of my life. Stories that shaped the person I am, and stories that are still shaping who I become. And, if you knew her, those stories are intertwined with your lives. And although she’s gone, she can never really die. Not as long as her stories are a part of ours. Not as long as her love still comforts us. And not as long as her memories remain.

So I’m going to honor her the best way I know how. Not by telling her stories. Because these stories in this blog are for me, not for her. They are to help me sort through my grief, and maybe to help you if you find comfort here. No, I’m going to honor her by making my story the best it can be. Because her story is a part of my story, an important part of my story, and I have a responsibility to the part of her that is still with me. Because she was, at her most basic, a giant beacon of love wrapped up in human skin. And I think that’s what she would want for me. I think that’s what she would want for you. So I will remember her, and I will cherish those stories of her, and I will wrap myself tight in the memories of her, and then I will go out into the world filled with love and anticipation and I will write the best god-damned story I can write for my life. I hope you will too.

So, as the Eleventh Doctor once said, “We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”

Diane and the Desert: Part 2 – Goldfield and Cool Shiny Stuff

This is the second of a three-part post honoring my stepmother Diane Duncan. To read the first part, click this link Diane and the Desert: Part 1 – Impressions. The final installment is Diane and the Desert: Part 3 – Hawthorne and Ozymandias.

Diane and I – <3.

I didn’t mean for it to be two weeks between posts. The thing is, I’m really bad at processing emotional shit and really good at compartmentalizing. And I had shoved all of this into a box in my brain and I just don’t want to open it. But, you know, I kind of have to.

I’m a big fan of public history, and one of the things that I think a lot about is how history gets told. How do we preserve memory? Which stories get told, and which stories don’t? Which items go on display and which ones stay archived? How much of our final narrative contains input from outside groups who might have their own unique perspectives, and how much of it is just raw data?  Yes, I know, I think about weird shit.

Those who know me won’t be surprised to learn that I asked myself the same questions while thinking about how to best memorialize Diane in this blog. My grief is my grief. It is different from my dad’s grief, or my sister’s grief, or anybody else’s. How do I tell this story in a way that will encompass what she means to each of us? Which stories should I tell? Which pictures best capture her spirit? I mean, for those of you that knew her, you’ll just get it. Because you know you were blessed to have known her. And you know that your life was richer for having her in it. But what about all the people who read this and didn’t know her? How do I make them see?

I don’t have the answer. Not yet. All I know is that I have to keep telling the story.

When we were driving to Reno the day Diane died, we were rushing to get there as fast as we could. Out first destination was Tonopah, where we planned to gas up and find something for dinner. About a half hour or so south of Tonopah, we came to the little town of Goldfield. The town immediately made me think of Diane. I mean pretty much everything on that trip made me think of her, as well as most everything since then. But this town really made me think of her.  For one thing, there was this:

Cool Shiny Stuff in Goldfield.

I mean, not only does it have handcrafted jewelry, but it also offers cool shiny stuff. You can’t go wrong with cool shiny stuff. I didn’t stop, but I know Diane would have approved. As we passed the store, I could feel her in the car with us, feel the nudge of her elbow on my side, and hear her say – the way that she had said countless other times in countless other strange little shops – “Dude, come look at this. Isn’t it cool?”

God, I miss her. With an incredible aching painfulness, I just miss her. 

We didn’t stop in Goldfield on the way to Reno. We didn’t have time. But we did stop on the way home. It is an incredible place. It’s not quite a ghost town because there are people living there. It’s not really a tourist trap, because there isn’t much to see. When you look at towns like Williamsburg, Virginia, you see that they have one foot planted firmly in the past and one stepping forward into the future. Goldfield is kind of like that, but kind of not. It doesn’t seem to have firm footing in either era. It’s got an incredibly rich past, but it’s still deciding what it wants to become.

I can relate.

The Goldfield of the past was a mining boom-town that popped up in 1903, a year after gold was found in the hills near Tonopah. At its peak, 20,000 people lived in the town, many of whom were gone by 1910 when the cost of mining became prohibitive. Although on a smaller scale, mining continued in the area until the 1940’s, and over the years Goldfield’s mines produced almost 2 billion dollars (in today’s prices) of silver and gold. In its heyday around 1907, the town boasted 49 saloons, 15 barber shops, 54 assayers, 27 restaurants, 21 grocers, and 22 hotels. Any amenities that could be found in larger cities could also be found in Goldfield. By contrast, Las Vegas had only just been founded in 1907 and had a population of well under a thousand. At the time, Las Vegas was advertised on postcards as the “Gateway to Goldfield.” Goldfield also played host to notable residents such as Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Wyatt Earp, and Virgil Earp, who died there. Fun fact: Virgil Earp died in Goldfield, NV, but is buried in Portland, Oregon. Sam Elliott, who played Virgil Earp in “Tombstone,” lived in Portland as a teenager and graduated from high school there – about ten miles from where Virgil Earp is buried.

You can read more about historic goldfield on the Goldfield Historical Society Website, on Death Valley Jim’s website (lots of old pictures), or on the In Old Las Vegas website.

A house. With signs. Goldfield, NV.

The Goldfield of today is a strange mixture of the quaint and the quirky. The past isn’t sectioned off in a neatly fenced historic district.  It sits cheek by jowl with the present day.  Houses covered in signs sit across the street from antique fire engines. Bustling businesses are just around the corner from ramshackle abandoned buildings. And amidst all of the history, the town still struggles to tell the story of what happened there.

One of the buildings that caught my eye as I was driving through the downtown area was the abandoned high school pictured below. It was opened in 1907 and was in use until 1953. The building, which cost $100,000 to construct, consisted of three stories and housed 12 classrooms that could seat 450 students. When I hear about old buildings, or houses, or towns, or whatever, the first thing I do is imagine all of the people who lived or worked or played there. Everyday people, just like you and me, living and learning and loving one another. Struggling with math or groaning over names and dates in history. Harboring crushes and nurturing romances. Hating certain teachers and being amazingly inspired by others. How many passions that blossomed into careers began in that schoolhouse? How many kids learned to think a little differently or were exposed to some grand new idea in one of those classrooms? How many kids were given opportunities for education that their parents never had? How many first-generation college students started their educations in one of those rooms? Because that is what really gets to me, you know? I mean, history is about movements – big movements, big wars, big people, big things. But it’s also about the minutiae, and the normal everyday people just going about their normal everyday routines, doing normal everyday things. They aren’t just drops in the bucket. They are important too.  We can’t forget them. We shouldn’t forget them.

Goldfield High School, NV.

Goldfield High School staircase, NV.

Due to decades of neglect, the school is crumbling today. The mortar between the bricks has been compromised, and one wall has already collapsed. The roof is caving in, which has exposed the inside of the building to the weather and has thus accelerated the damage. The Goldfield Historical Society is trying to save the building. They have secured some funds through grants and private donations. Their most immediate goals are stabilizing the building and erecting a temporary roof in order to prevent more damage. Some of the funds they were awarded have fallen through due to the economy. The sad, sad truth is that historical preservation is almost always on the chopping block when belts are tightened. It sucks. It sucks balls. But that’s the way it is. You can learn more about the plans for the high school restoration on their website here, and if you scroll to the bottom, there is also a button where you can donate to the project. It’s tax exempt. It’s for a good cause. It might not be a project that represents a big movement. It might not make a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things. But some things are worth preserving.

While planning out this blog post, I thought long and hard about what big story I wanted to tell about Diane.  And believe you me, there are some doozies. Some of them are heartwarming. Some of them are hilariously funny (especially the ones before she was sober). Some are deep and insightful and thought-provoking. But in the end, I think I’m going to go with this one…

A couple of months ago, I called Diane out of the blue because I just missed her so fucking hard. I missed her and I missed my dad, so I called and asked them to come see me. A couple weeks later, they did. We sat around the house and watched TV. We talked – a lot. We went to a history museum and a chocolate factory and down to Fremont Street to look at all the freaks (her kind of people). As always, the visit was too short and I was incredibly sad when they left.

It was the last time I saw her.

A couple weeks later, I got the call from my sister that it was cancer.  A couple days after that, I talked to her on the phone. Things were looking up.  A couple of days after that she was gone.

It was so fast.

The moral of the story, so to speak, is that she was always there when I needed her. Always. When I graduated college, she was there. When I had the baby and almost died, she was there. When I just missed her and needed to see her, she was there. Always. She was there. And it might not seem like a big story to you. I guess it doesn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.  But it was so big to me. If you could feel that love, you would know how big it is. It stands out, bright and beautiful, like cool shiny stuff. And it deserves to remembered. She deserves to be remembered.

What am I going to do now that she’s not here anymore?


That’s about all I can take, y’all. Back into the box it goes.  Next up is “Diane and the Desert: Part 3 – Hawthorne and Ozymandias.”

If you have a story about Diane, I would love to hear it. Please share in the comments. Let’s remember together.

Diane and the Desert: Part 1 – Impressions

My cousin Dawnie made this picture of my step-mother, Diane.

I’ve been in the desert – both literally and metaphorically. Almost two weeks ago, my stepmom, Diane, was diagnosed with cancer in her spine. She passed away last Sunday from complications of that cancer. It hit hard and fast. Cancer fucking sucks.

Diane and my dad have been together since I was a kid. It is hard to remember a time when she wasn’t a second mother to me. She was utterly and completely amazing. She was an eternal hippie – quirky and strange and friendly. She made friends with everybody she met. She never said an unkind word about anyone, ever. She loved tie-dye and frogs and dragons and rocks and crystals. I cannot even begin to do her justice because it’s all just raw emotion and unprocessed grief. But she taught me two great truths. The first is that you should never be afraid to be yourself. Even if that means being sixty and sleeping in a wrought iron spiderweb bed with crystals and frogs hanging from your ceiling. Or being a history nerd with a potty mouth and a blog. Because the first step to being happy is owning who you are. And the second truth is that it’s almost always better to be kind than to be right, better to be compassionate than to be smart, better to give a hug than an attitude. I still struggle with that one, but that’s OK because I’m a work in progress. And because of the first one. Because I’m happy with myself.

Graduation, 2012. She was so proud that I went to college.

When I found out that she was dying, like soon, I rushed home and threw everything in the car knowing that I wouldn’t make the sevenish hour drive to Reno in time. My dad called with the news that she had passed as I was pulling out of my driveway. I don’t know if he needed me, but I needed him. So the three kids and I made the long journey up through the desert.

With the DivaTeen and Middle Little plugged into electronics, and Doodle-Dude sleeping most of the way, I had plenty of time to think as I was driving. When you’re grieving, when it is still raw and fresh and festering, that’s maybe not the best thing. Especially with the long stretches of nothing but unending desert and unyielding sun. I’ll spare you the details, but it went something like this: drive forever – oh look, a cactus – drive a little more – pull over and cry – continue driving – that whorehouse sells hot sauce – drive until you’re pretty sure you’re halfway to hell – cry some more. And so on, ad infinitum.  And as I drove, I thought about all the things we had done together, and I replayed all of the stories (like the time I mistook her for a Sasquatch), until somehow those stories, and the desert, and she and I and everything became linked.

And it made perfect sense. Because she was like that, you know? A breath of fresh air. Like the world’s biggest firecracker or roadside stand that sells desert honey and gemstones. You’d be going on in your normal everyday life and she’d show up in a flash of tie-dye with a smile and mismatched earrings and constantly open arms, without judgement or expectations. And then she would leave, and it was back to the desert, but with a smile on your face and an excitement and anticipation for whatever might come your way next. She was just like that. And I’m never going to make that drive again without thinking of her.

Only seven and a half hours, but this trip was too big – she was too big – for the story to be told in just one post. So I’m going to do it in three.

Diane and the Desert: Part 1 – Impressions

Diane and the Desert: Part 2 – Goldfield and Cool Shiny Stuff

Diane and the Desert: Part 3 – Hawthorne and Ozymandias

I will link the other posts when I get them up. Give me some time. It’s a process. For now, I’m going to leave you with some impressions of random things that I saw that reminded me of her because they flashed across my dashboard and made me smile. In no particular order, and sometimes for no reason at all. I know it’s not a proper memorial, but idgaf. I hope you enjoy.

This is the Area 51 Alien Center souvenir shop. It is right next to the Area 51 Alien Cathouse and is located about an hour and a half from my house. Last time my parents went through the area, they stopped here for some trinkets. They were offered a free tour through the brothel. My dad said that they weren’t giving free samples, so he turned down the tour. I didn’t ask what he thought free samples from a brothel would be like. Because he is my dad and that’s icky. While this place is not really close to Area 51, it does border the Nevada Test and Training Range (so does most of southern Nevada), so I’m sure there’s probably Super-Secret Military Stuff and Other Things ™ going on nearby.

Next to the Alien Travel Center and Brothel is the “World’s Largest Firecracker” Because why the hell not?

Fallon, Nevada is a smallish town about an hour Southeast of Reno, which houses a Naval base. Now, that might seem a bit strange considering, you know, it’s in the middle of the freaking desert. However, Naval Air Station Fallon is home to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center a.k.a. TOPGUN. And also a lot of meth, if the sign above is any indication. I know it’s a bit blurry, but it reads: “METH has become a Nevada Epidemic. Don’t let this POISON destroy your life!” It’s a far cry from 160 years ago when clean clothing, not meth, infiltrated the area. Informally called “Ragtown” for the laundry scattered along the banks of the Carson River drying in the sun, this was the first water stop for wagon trains after crossing the 40 Mile Desert to the North. If they made it to Ragtown they were home free. Well, except for that little mountain range to the West and a little thing called Donner Pass. But that’s nothing to worry about, right?

Tonopah was a lovely place, I’m sure. We didn’t stay for very long. But if you’re ever in the area, maybe you could get a room at this Clown Motel. It looks like they have great rates. The nightmares are free.

Tonopah was also home to Stalking Cat (birth name Dennis Avner) who lived there from 2007 until his death in 2012.

Not far East of Hawthorne, NV is a teeny tiny little town called Mina. At first glance, Mina seems to be a ghost town, but there are actually 197 people who live there. Some of them, I assume, work at this place…
You can tell that the Wild Cat Brothel is a classy place because of the Greek columns set up around the perimeter of the double-wide. Now, I didn’t take this picture because I didn’t want to explain to my kids why I stopped at a brothel. So I got this from their website www.wildcatbrothel.com. Go ahead and click the link. You know you want to. And don’t let the double-wide and chintzy twinkle lights fool you. That shit ain’t cheap.

I have so much more to show you and so many more memories to share. But I don’t think I can handle any more right now. I hope to post part two in a couple of days. Until then, take care of yourselves. Hug someone you love. Embrace your weirdness. That’s what she would have wanted.

To go to the second part of this series, click here Diane and the Desert: Part 2 – Goldfield and Cool Shiny Stuff.