December 26, 2011 32 Comments
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 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.