NOTE: To see all the documentary images for this trip, see the Techatticup Gallery. Abstract images are in the Metal and Glass portfolios.
As I stepped out of my car in the withering heat, I thought perhaps I had miscalculated. A month ago, I had seen some photos of old cars and trucks in the old mining town of Nelson, Nevada, and I was hooked. But now the reality hit me. It was 110 in the shade, and probably around 125 in the sun. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Would I really be able to get some decent photos in these conditions?
If you're a lover of peeling paint, blistered safety glass, and hues of rust, a treasure trove like Nelson is hard to find. Near my home, there's only one place - the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum, in Vista -- to find good specimens. Then, 90 minutes away, there is the Motor Transport Museum in Campo and the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris. Other than that, Southern California eliminates rusty things as quickly as possible.
Since I had been to all those places perhaps a dozen times, I was willing to make the 5 1/2 hour trek to Nelson, even in the middle of summer. The first 4 hours are on Interstates, so the time goes by quickly. Then you come to the turnoff to Nipton and Searchlight, and you begin to get a taste of the geography that formed Nelson and the mines that once made it famous.
The land between I-15 and Searchlight Nevada is almost completely flat and filled with Joshua Trees. You can be 15 miles away from Searchlight and think it's just a couple of miles down the road. As I drove in my comfortable air conditioned car, I couldn't help but think of the people who crossed this desert 100 years ago. What a tortuous journey.
South of Nelson, there's only place to stay, and that's Searchlight, the home town of Harry Reid, the one time majority leader of the Senate.
The 800 or so residents of Searchlight are mostly ranchers, retired people, business owners and few artists. This is not a place for McMansions. The trailers here are fairly typical. The people here don't live below the poverty line, but they're certainly not wealthy. Most of them have their homes, their air conditioning, their trucks and their land, and not a whole lot more.
Even though my motel was in Searchlight, I was anxious to get to Nelson. I drove north on 95 for about 25 miles, and came across one of the largest solar farms I've ever seen. This is the Desert Star Energy Center, owned by SDG&E. It was opened in 2012, and generates up to 490 megawatts, enough to power 300,000 homes. It's also a sign that the turnoff to Nelson is just ahead. That's good to know, since the speed limit here is 75, and there's only a small sign that says Nelson.
Once you turn off, the open desert starts to change into more mountainous territory. You almost feel the presence of the miners from over a century ago as you pass by the ribbons of multi colored ore. Ten miles in, and you come to a hill, and just over the top, you see the tiny town of Nelson Nevada.
Centuries ago, the Pueblo Indians and then the Paiutes and Mojave Indians lived here, only to have their lives disrupted by gold seeking Spaniards in 1775. They set up camp on the Colorado River, 5 miles from this point. Thinking they had struck it rich, they named the area El Dorado, but only found silver. [ I won't repeat all the history here, since there's an excellent and detailed write-up of it on the Legends of America site. ]
I drove around Nelson for a bit, thinking this is where all the old cars and trucks were. All I found were around 50 old trailer homes and a few permanent one. My guess is that there are around 100 permanent residents.
You still can see some of the old miners' homes in Nelson. They're pretty sad affairs, made of whatever scrap wood the residents could find. Without air conditioning, you can only imagine what these places must feel like during the summer nights.
A short two miles down the road was my goal, the Techatticup Mine, formed by miners in the 1850's after they discovered some of the richest veins of gold and silver in Nevada. It was a no-holds-barred area, full of deserters from the Civil War on both sides, men seeking riches by exploiting the miners as much as possible, and people who killed one another without hesitation. Still, the enterprise prospered, and for the next 70 years it formed the core of the most prosperous mining establishments in southern Nevada.
As soon as I drove by the buildings, I couldn't wait to get out of the car. Rust by itself doesn't particularly interest me. But rust, combined with different colors of paint, left to crack and peel for decades under a hot desert sun -- now that sparked my curiosity.
Still, you don't want to get too excited. Many people think that images come easy, that you just point your camera and suddenly you have a prize winning photo. In fact, I go on a lot of trips where I come back with nothing at all. Mentally, I started preparing myself for this being the case with the Techatticup Mine.
I checked my lenses, tripod, cameras, etc., and started toward the south side of the mine, where most of the buildings seemed to be. Conditions were far from ideal. For one thing, it was 110 degrees. My water bottle was already luke warm. For another, the sun was blasting down from almost straight overhead, with almost no shade anywhere. I would have to use my umbrella to create the conditions I needed for a decent photo.
Looking toward the top of the hill, I couldn't imagine how miners could work in this heat. After 5 minutes, I was sweating like a pig. This bus was the first vehicle that caught my eye. With a mix of yellows, blues, and reds, it promised to be a gold mine of images. I fumbled with my tripod and umbrella for 30 minutes, trying to get just the right shots, to no avail. In the end, I think I may have come away with a couple of good ones, but no more.
I spent another 90 minutes on the south side, exploring every truck and bus there -- about 20 of them. For me, this was even better than Bodie, which has only a couple of rusty cars, and none of them with colored, peeling paint, either.
One of the sights often photographed on the south side is the plane used as a prop in the movie 3,000 Miles To Graceland, made in 2001 and starring Kurt Russel and Kevin Costner. It was a box office bomb, making less than $7 million in its opening week and garnering a 14% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The plane was part of a spectacular explosion filmed on site. This was undoubtedly the best part of the movie.
By 1 pm, I was toast. The 2 quarts of water I brought with me were the temperature of warm tea. The M&M's in my trail mix had melted into a gooey mess. I decided to check in to my motel in Searchlight and come back when it was cooler.
When I checked into the motel at Searchlight ($35 a night), I asked about restaurants. "There are two of them," the lady who took my card said. "The casino across the driveway, and the McDonald's down the road." So a quick lunch at the casino it was, followed by a nap in the air conditioned room. At 4, I was ready to venture out again. When I got to Techatticup it was cooler all right. The thermometer read a balmy 105 degrees. But at least the sun was lower in the horizon, and because of the high hills all around, I was starting to see some nice shadows. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the north side.
Techatticup has a feel about it that's missing from a lot of other sites. It's not as run down as ghost towns that have been allowed to rot unattended. It's not as touristy as places like Virginia City. It's not as manicured as Bodie. You can walk everywhere, except where there are No Trespassing signs posted. You can go inside the buses and some of the cars. You kind of feel like a time traveler.
You could be forgiven for trying to play this old piano next to the devilish cholla plants. The chollas, along with rattlesnakes, are the two things the people working at Techatticup warned me about when I paid my fee at the general store. Danny, the guy who checked me in, told me they had seen 14 rattlesnakes so far that summer. As for the cholla, I knew all about them. If you're not familiar, there's a rather hilarious video, along with some foul language. My policy: I give them no less than 2 feet of leeway. They don't call them "jumping" cholla for nothing.
By 6:30 or so, the heat had conquered me once again. I resolved to come back the next morning when it really would be cooler.
When I'm on the road alone, I really don't need anything fancy. Once, when my wife and I both had high paying jobs, we spent a week at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. Very few places could hold a candle to that place, so as long as the air conditioning works and the bed is clean and comfortable, I'm a happy camper. In this case, the El Rey Motel in Searchlight, at $35 a night, fit the bill nicely.
A little after the crack of dawn I had my breakfast at the casino next door and was on my way. I had made arrangements with Danny the night before to get there early, and paid in advance. (They charge $10 an hour, a fee I was happy to pay.) He just warned me to be very quiet, since the owners and the employees all lived there. Danny was waiting in front of his house, smoking a cigarette. It was a cool 90 degrees.
We talked for a while, and I began to understand why someone would want to live here. "Every morning I sit in front of my house and watch the sun come up. It's totally quiet. Peaceful. Not like living in the city at all." Danny has lived there 12 years, and enjoys it immensely. He's one of nine people who live around the mine, and seven of them work there -- giving tours, watching the general store, cleaning up etc.
I asked if he made the silver metallic art work on his wall. He laughed. "No, they used to bring stolen cars down here and burn them so they could claim the insurance money. That is actually a mag wheel that melted in the heat."
Fifty feet from his house were large tanks. Those were used to separate the gold from the quartz crystals. Cyanide was the main chemical here. In its heyday, Techatticup produced so much gold and silver that there was a port on the Colorado River, where they took the finished ore down stream to market.
Danny assured me that OSHA came in regularly to inspect things, since tourists were there every day.
It started to rain lightly, so I said goodbye and went back to my photography. There were some glass abstracts I wanted to capture before the rain really started coming down. And, of course, I sure didn't want to be caught in a flash flood. In 1974, there was a huge one, with a wall of water 40 feet high, that completely wiped out the remains of the port on the Colorado River.
Techatticup is so close to the river, it's worth spending a few minutes checking it out.
On the way there, I looked down and saw an old miner's shack near the entrance to a mine. Even though Techatticup was the main mine, the area around here was once populated with around 500 miners who cut into the hills wherever they could. This shack was probably wiped out in the '74 flood.
Two miles down the road from the mine is the Colorado River. Surrounded by multi-colored mountains, the blue river shines like a jewel in the desert. It was a fitting way to end my trip.
You can see all the documentary images for this trip, see the Techatticup Gallery. Abstract images are in the Metal and Glass portfolios.