Crumbling Dreams: Rhyolite, Nevada: Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert

Rhyolite's school building

A few miles east of Death Valley National Park there stand the ruins of a mining town that at its peak numbered more than 3,000 people.  In a span of two years, beginning in 1905, the people of Rhyolite erected a three-story bank, a hospital, an eight-room school, a railroad station, an opera house, and an assortment of other buildings intended to accommodate a vibrant community of miners and their families who had come from far and wide in hopes of striking gold in the parched deserts of Nevada and California.  Within a mere five years the boom ended, Rhyolite’s residents began to flee, and the town began to die.  By 1920, time and the elements had set to work dismantling what thousands of people had so carefully built.

All that remains of Rhyolite are crumbling buildings and the detritus of the people who inhabited them. Old, rusted beer cans lie strewn about on the ground.   Gusts of wind blow them around like autumn leaves.  Defunct mineshafts watch the town from the surrounding hills.  Rattlesnakes seek shelter from the heat of summer and the chill of winter in the rubble of collapsed walls.  Jackrabbits bound through desert shrubs clinging to existence.  The only sounds are the howl of the wind and the scraping of beer cans against hard white sand.

The ruins of Rhyolite speak to a million deliberate decisions, vestiges of thoughts and intentions and hopes and dreams.  “Here we’ll erect a two-story school house so that our kids can grow up in this town.  There, across the wide main street, we’ll build a bank so that we may deposit our earnings and draw on them in the future.  We’ll pipe water into town, build an electrical grid, lay railroad tracks, and construct a train station so that people can come and go.”  Everything about Rhyolite assumes a future, a sustained presence, the persistence of a way of life that we know came to an end but that the town’s inhabitants saw as everlasting.

The Cook Bank of Rhyolite

The ruins of recent history are more haunting than those of the deep past.  Machu Picchu is sublime.  To lay eyes on its green terraces, its crumbling stone walls, and the towering Andes Mountains that protected it from the destructive hands of the conquering Spaniards is to experience transcendence.  Machu Picchu is a celebration of human achievement and audacity.  It doesn’t matter that in the end the civilization that built it fell and nature reclaimed it.  What matters is that people dared to build the city in the first place.

Machu Picchu doesn’t haunt me because I can’t imagine having lived there.  I have no relationship to the people who built it.  Their traditions and way of life are foreign to me.  Rhyolite is different.  I can imagine my great grandparents having worked in its gold mines, sought medical care in its hospital, deposited money in its bank.  I belong to the civilization that built Rhyolite.  It is part of my story.

About a hundred years ago a critical mass of people chose to establish an autonomous town here in the driest, most desolate desert in North America where everything on the surface—the howling wind, the dust, the cracked ground, the snakes, and the relentless sun—warned them away.  All for something shiny that lay buried in the surrounding hills.  I like to think that the works of my time will endure where those of the past crumbled to the ground.  Rhyolite dispels this notion.  Nature makes no exceptions.

A piece of art placed on the outskirts of town in the 1980s.

The Cook Bank

Inside an old train car.

The school.

Teachers Are Lazy, Hard-Working, Stupid, Brilliant, Indifferent, Caring, Rich, Poor, Should Probably Be Fired and Also Given a Raise… (Where Did All the Teachers Go?)

Imagine that you’re standing at the center of a room so large that you can’t see the walls and that 180 school desks radiate out from you in concentric circles.  At each desk sits a teenager.  You’re a high school teacher, and the teenagers arrayed around you are your students.  Behind each student there stand two parents.  Behind each parent stand grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends of the family.  Behind them, as far as the eye can see, swells an army of journalists, bloggers, educational policy experts, politicians, school administrators, superintendents, business owners, university professors, police officers, prison wardens and prison guards.

You turn in a circle and gaze in wonder at the masses of people gathered around you, watching you, judging your every move.  About twenty of your students lean forward in their desks and look up at you with bright smiles.  These students will delight in anything you might say to them.  They love every one of your lessons and you can always count on them to raise their hands to answer and ask questions.  Others, say about fifty or so, stare at you with blank expressions.  They’re bored with your lesson, but they’re calm and polite.  Still other students, perhaps ninety of them, are doing whatever they can think of to distract themselves from the learning task at hand.  These students tap their pencils, pass notes, sneak peeks at their cell phones, whisper and chuckle at the boy who is launching spit wads at you when you aren’t looking.  They may be apathetic and distracted, but for the most part these students remain under control.  A group of perhaps twenty students bicker with each other, verbally spar, curse, wail about how much they hate school, hate your lesson, hate you.  Some of them become physically violent with each other.  A few may even threaten you with bodily harm.

Your students make up a representative sampling of America’s school children.  A few of them are rich and live in mansions.  About 130 of them fall somewhere in what society terms “the middle class,” though this designation encompasses such a broad range of economic and social circumstances that it is almost useless.  Students in this category may come from families who are one lost job, financial catastrophe or medical emergency away from descending into poverty.  Others are pushing up against the boundary that separates “upper-middle class” from “rich.”  About forty of your students come from abject poverty.  Many of them enter the doors of your school not having eaten breakfast.  For some, the only food they will eat on a given day is the meal they receive in the cafeteria lunch line.  Many of these students come from parts of the city that are infested with crime.  They fall asleep at night to the sound of gunshots.  They live in apartments and houses that are falling apart.  When they’re sick they may not see a doctor because their family can’t afford it, and a working parent forgoes a day’s pay to stay home and care for them.

Whatever their socioeconomic status, many of your students come from broken homes and tense, even dangerous, family situations.  They live in fear and they bring this baggage with them to your classroom.  Some of your students are depressed, lonely and insecure. In this group of 180 students some can read at an advanced college level, others are getting by at grade level and still others can’t read at all.  Each student has a particular set of learning needs, and your district, your principal and the entire education apparatus have told you that you must tailor every lesson to each student and that you must prepare the entire group for college.  These are worthy goals.

While you try to teach your students a lesson about, say, the quadratic formula, you notice that the volume level in the room is steadily rising.  The students are making noise, of course, but it is the adults thronging behind them who are the loudest.  Some of the parents and family members are applauding you and giving you a “thumbs up.” Others are shouting obscenities.  You can read the hatred on their faces.  Every few seconds a random comment drifts over to you: “Incompetent,” shouts someone.  “Stupid,” says another.  “Lazy,” “Failing our kids,” “Doesn’t care,” you hear over the din.  Mixed in with the invective are words of encouragement: “God bless you,” “Bravo,” “Inspiring.”  Behind the parents the reporters, experts, university professors, politicians and other members of the community shout their own views.  “Pay them more,” say some.  “Pay them less,” say others.  “Education is broken,” screams one expert.  “I know exactly how to fix it,” cries another.  “Fire them all,” says a politician.  “Protect them,” insists another.  Words and catch phrases rain down on you: vouchers, charter schools, accountability, standardized testing, performance pay, school choice, home schooling, private schooling, virtual classrooms, differentiation, learning styles, class size—the deluge never ends.  The quieter parents look around in confusion and distress over the chaos they see growing around them.  Meanwhile one police officer turns to another and says, “If this teacher can’t save these kids, we’re in trouble.”

On a normal day you teach your students for about six hours, thirty students per hour.  You spend three to four hours at school planning and preparing lessons, creating PowerPoint presentations, cutting out manipulatives, making copies, writing rubrics, rearranging desks, organizing papers and records, attending meetings with administrators and other teachers, responding to e-mails, contacting parents, supervising the halls before and after school. . . After nine to ten hours at work, you return home, grab something to eat, kiss your spouse and play with your kids.  Then, after about an hour of family time, you sit down and you grade papers for a couple of hours.  Since students benefit most from specific, constructive feedback, you write helpful notes in the margins of their papers.  You write a short paragraph at the end of each paper in which you explain the grade you’ve given and offer suggestions for improvement on the next assignment.  By the time you’ve finished grading papers for the night, you have concluded an eleven or twelve hour work day.

At school you look around at your colleagues and notice that every year a few don’t return and a fresh new crop of college grads shows up to eagerly take their place in the classroom.  You know that five years from now about half of the school’s faculty will have abandoned the teaching profession entirely, and you wonder what would happen if every five years half of all doctors hung up their white coats, or if half of all civil engineers decided to stop designing bridges.  What would American technology and industry look like if every five years half of the country’s engineers, software designers and scientists left their professions and never returned?  If any of these disasters were to occur, would we question the competence of the people leaving their respective professions, or would we wonder if something about the professions themselves drove them away?

The vast majority of teachers care about their students.  They take every kind of kid from every slice of society and work their butts off to give them a good education.  Clearly, most of them don’t last for long.  They love teaching, most of them make enough money to live comfortably, yet within five years about half of them leave the thing they love.  They need society’s help, not its scorn.

Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Travel as Distraction

I’m tired.  I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan.  In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX.  All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me.  I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling.  Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life?  How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?  

Millennium Park, Chicago

I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind.  When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family.  All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport.  Nothing matters except these trivialities. 

Chicago

When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not.  It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off.  More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen.  I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said.  Which makes sense.  If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison.  And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.

Millennium Park, Chicago

But I think there’s something more going on.  When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence.  He has seen me.  And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen. 

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Lounge, somewhere in Montana

 The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement.  I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days.  Yet I was also moving.  I was going somewhere.  The scenery outside the window was changing.  The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea.  I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light.  I was stationary yet I was also in motion.  The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey.  That was it.  Life was simple.  Stay on or get off. 

North Dakota

Montana, approaching the Rockies.

Columbia River Gorge

Ferry and Space Needle, Seattle

Seattle Ferry and Olympic Mountains

Brainbridge Island, across from Seattle in Puget Sound.

Seattle Skyline from ferry.

Union Station, Seattle (no longer used as a train station).

It does rain in Seattle, though, interestingly, it receives only about 37 in. of rain per year, compared with 33 inches in Austin, TX and and 50 inches for New York City. The difference? In Seattle it drizzles year round. According to the National Park Service, the west-facing valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle, receive 12 FEET of rain per year.

Useful information.

Puget Sound

Train Station in North Dakota on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route.

Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Minneapolis: City Within a City

Does Anyone Own a Smile? The Origins of Gestures

I get a sense that as I move through life certain character traits adhere to me and accrue over time while others flake away and lie strewn about the path I’ve left behind.  Where do new traits or pieces of identity come from and what happens to the old ones when they’ve fallen away?  I ask because when I’m at my most self-aware, I feel like certain personality tics and affectations–the way I raise my eyebrows when I’m happy, roll my eyes when I’m annoyed, sigh when I lose patience–don’t belong to me, but to someone else; and that if I set myself to it, I could trace them back to someone I once knew.  In whom do those raised eyebrows or that particular sigh originate?  Does anyone own a gesture?

My grandfather used to raise his eyebrows in moments of delight.  He would cock his head back so that he was looking at the ceiling, open his mouth wide, and explode with uproarious laughter.  He would spread his hands wide and then clap them together in slow motion while the joke he had heard coursed through his body like sound through a tuning fork.  Did these mannerisms belong to my grandfather?  Did I acquire any of my own mannerisms from him or my mother, who laughs in much the same way?  In a sense, do certain gestures exist apart from the people in whom they live, so that they’re like silent memes that spread through a civilization horizontally in the present and vertically from one generation to the next?  And if they don’t belong to anyone, but in a sense have a life all their own, why do we use them as markers of individuality.  Why do we say, “I love so-and-so’s laugh,” or, “she has the most beautiful smile,” when one person’s laugh and another person’s smile may have been repeated a thousand times throughout history?

Although none of these mannerisms may belong to any one person, maybe they are arranged differently in each of us.  My grandfather combined a multitude of common gestures in a way that was his own and marked him as an individual. I can imagine a man living two thousand years ago in ancient Rome cocking his head back the way my grandfather used to do when he would laugh.  I can picture some 19th century Russian peasant raising his eyebrows in delight just like my grandfather would do after hearing a good joke.  I can imagine a hundred other people throughout history adopting my grandfather’s mannerisms, but I can’t imagine all of their gestures coming together except in my grandfather.  It’s the symphony, not the instruments or individual notes, that gives rise to our individuality.

How Writing Helps Us See (and Photos of Fall in Boston)

I’m in Boston now and the trees are changing colors.  I love fall colors, especially as someone who grew up in a place where the use of the words “colors” and “fall” in the same sentence usually referred to a spectrum of ephemeral yellow hues sprinkled among forests of green cedar trees and darker green live oaks.  When I was in New England this time two years ago I was dazzled by the reds and yellows and oranges, the hills aflame, and the leaves that danced in the air on cold winds from the north as I rode the commuter train into Boston.  But this time, I’ve hardly taken note.  Why?  Because I lost the habit.  It happens that quickly.  I wrote hardly a word for two months and I forgot how to see.  Writing puts me in the habit of looking for what stands out in this world, or striving to see what’s beautiful and unusual in the ordinary things that surround me.  When I don’t write, I forget to notice the details.

Sailing on the Charles River

Since I stopped blogging a couple of months ago, I’ve come to realize the ways in which blogging changes how I think, what I attend to, and how I decide what to write about.  Take my post on Monday, about pain.  I don’t think I would have written that after having blogged for a month, because by then I would have returned to my old habit of trying to lace my writing with optimism and hope.  I would be thinking about how others would receive my words and not just about how I felt, and it would occur to me that maybe nobody wants to hear about pain and other such matters that have no simple resolution.  Maybe I would be wrong to make such assumptions, but I fall easily into the habit of obsessing over what I think other people would want to read.

Boston Public Garden

Is it OK to think about “audience”?  I think so.  It’s import to think about what other people would want to read, how they’ll react, whether my writing will brighten their day or trouble them—because if I think that the people who read my writing want to be happy, then I’ll try to make them happy, and in the process I’ll lift my own spirits.  If I think that they want inspiration, I’ll try to inspire them and so inspire myself.  If I think that they want to contemplate, then I’ll have to contemplate, too.  So yes, audience matters.  Thinking about audience helps me focus my thoughts and senses, to winnow the chaos that sometimes besieges me.

Writing begins with the meticulous gathering and cataloging of the world’s oddities.  In this sense, all writers are collectors—of thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories.  Their function, more than to write, is to see what most of us don’t have time to see and to tell us about it.  Nothing helps me to see better than to think about the people with whom I want to share my tiny collection of oddities.

Boston Public Garden

The Old Trinity Church at Copley Square, Boston

Boston Public Garden

Along the Charles River, Boston

Along the Charles River, Boston. Who doesn't like ducks?

ALSO along the Charles River, Boston

*All pictures are from Fall 2009.

 

Is the Moon Lonely? Time to Start Blogging Again

I’m going to resume blogging, meaning that I’ll start posting again and I’ll go back to commenting on other people’s blogs.   Michelle at Steadily Skipping Stones pointed out that blogging makes us better people.  I’m sorry I turned my back on it.  I’ve missed it.  I don’t know what to post after that upbeat doozie I published yesterday about pain, but I’ll think of something.  I’d like to write something about hostels and the backpacking lifestyle, but that will have to wait until later in the week.  For now, here’s something I wrote months ago and never posted:

Late one night, when I was three or four, my family and I were driving in our Ford Escort.  I was sitting in the rear passenger seat behind my mom, to the right of my sister.  My dad was driving.  I sat staring through the window at the full moon and wondered why it followed us, why wherever we drove, however fast we went, the bright white disc stayed with us.  I paid close attention when my dad accelerated.  If we went fast enough, if we caught the moon off guard, might we edge ahead of it?

I asked my dad how it matched our movement so perfectly, and he gave me a practical, scientific explanation about relative distances that made perfect sense.  Rational understanding of the moon filled me with wonder, but I couldn’t quite rid myself of the urge to attribute motive and agency to the moon’s behavior.  I always wanted to pretend that it was watching over us, or that it followed us out of curiosity and wondered why we stared at it so, or that maybe it was lonely and was begging for our attention.  And there you have the duality that exists at my core: the desire to rationalize everything paired with the urge to project fanciful romance everywhere.

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