The grasshoppers pelting our minivan sound like plugs of tobacco hitting a spittoon, as we hurtle northeast through the brush country of northern Nevada. It’s hot and dry here, in late July. The towering, snow-streaked peaks of the Ruby Mountains off to the south suggest that things are not always this way. Still, I wonder what to make of these broad, sweeping plains between mountain ridges.
Were we crazy to come out here for a family vacation? The locals have asked us — repeatedly — “Why’d you come here?” They seem willing to believe that Ohioans might visit Elko on their way through to somewhere else. But a destination?!?
Back in 1910, developers bought up 40,000 acres of these Great Basin flatlands with a dream to make northern Nevada a destination. They intended to make farmland out of the region by damming up Bishop Creek and recruiting Mormon laborers to cultivate wheat and raise livestock. Their vision, their sense of destiny, was so strong that they built a theater, a post office, a school, a train station, a hotel… And get this: they called this new destination Metropolis. The Mother City.
Things seemed to be on track with Metropolis for a few years. Some seven hundred souls came to settle the area over the next decade. The wheat yields were better than expected, even after they lost the water rights to settlers further down the valley.
But then came the plagues. First, the settlers had problems with the coyotes poaching their livestock. Then, after they wiped out the coyotes, they had problems with the jackrabbits eating their crops. Even after the settlers wiped out the jackrabbits, later plagues of crickets and typhoid and drought started wiping out the settlers, forcing them to move on to greener pastures. Figuratively and literally.
By the early 1920s, Metropolis started hollowing out. The Mother City became an empty nest.
And now, a century later, it’s a bonafide ghost town. The only traffic that we have to deal with in our approach to Metropolis comes in the form of scattered herds of cattle loping across the road. When we arrive at the site, we can still make out the last vestiges of the hotel and the school, along with the footprints of a few houses. Rusted metal and cracked concrete are scattered here and there. One plaque describes the town’s demise, concluding with the verdict that “the town ultimately died of thirst.” Another plaque tries to put a more optimistic spin on things:
In memory of those valiant pioneers who settled and built a city here, giving so much to us all in their pursuit of happiness and security. Today, we enjoy the fruits of their efforts… Many who lived here aspired to become teachers, lawyers, civic leaders, church leaders, and best of all reared great families in homes where love and happiness filled their lives. May we always remember our Metropolis heritage and beginnings, and may our lives be fuller because of the Metropolis pioneers. May we also forever resolve within our hearts and minds to cherish the memories of the pioneers of Metropolis. Blessed be the name of Metropolis, Nevada throughout the eternities.
The true story of Metropolis is probably somewhere between the town that “died of thirst” and the “valiant pioneers… blessed… throughout the eternities.” Happy things happened in Metropolis, and sad things happened in Metropolis. But they’re all in the past. What remains is an empty shell, a ghost town. And somehow, this gets me thinking about my own mortality. I will not last forever, and neither will the things I build. Even as my own nest empties, the world will keep spinning. The days, months, and years will pass. The dust will gather. And others will pass their own judgment on what was.
So, in a way, northern Nevada is a destination. A picture of every person’s destiny. And there may be elements of that which feel uncomfortable. But if you look out at the plains and the mountains, it’s clear to see that there’s beauty in it, too.