By Andrea Glover
Highway 225 is a windy, miserable road through canyons, farmland and old mining sites. It's a road most people know to avoid, with 200 miles of desolate country separating the few traces of civilization. Yet this is a road I love, a road I could travel even if I was blind and had only memories as a guide.
The sharp canyon gives way to a large winding curve as a "Reduced Speed Ahead" sign appears. My heart slows and I hold my breath, wondering how my hometown has changed as I slowly drive into Mountain City, Nev., a town I haven't seen in 10 years.
I grew up in what is now a ghost town close to the border of Idaho and Nevada. In the 1800s it was a sprawling mining town with a population of 1,000. By the time I lived there in the early 1990s, the population had dwindled to 80. Now, as I drive through, all I see are dilapidated buildings. Mountain City is a mere dot on a map, inhabited by the ghosts of better times.
The first curve in the road brings me to the old homestead ranch. Cattle chutes tower over the corral, both of which stand vacant. Once the corral was filled with cattle, their eyes wide with terror and their nostrils flaring. Cowboys were heard yelling to one another over the bellows of the animals, the branding rod searing red hot in the fire that wafts the smell of burning sage and cow pies through the air.
A field is all that separates the ranch from the jail, a square one-story building that stands separate from the rest of town. It's seen few visitors in recent years and, as one might expect of a jail, has held up better than many other buildings in town. The doors and windows are barred shut with large pieces of plywood and the roof is intact. Mountain City had little need for a jail and security on the inmates was lax. There were stories I heard of inmates sneaking out through the back window, walking the short distance to downtown and spending their night at the Steak House Casino or Miner's Club, before making their way back to the jail in the wee hours of the morning.
Downtown Mountain City consists of a casino, a grocery store, a club, a gas station and a number of houses, all abandoned. A lone telephone booth stands outside Tremewan's Store, the local grocery store that was run by family friends, where my Mom worked for many years. I often sat in the back by the butcher block with my dog Blue, while Mel would cut meat and throw little chunks for the dog to scarf up off the floor. Mel would take fish heads and teasingly chase me around the store. I'd squeal with revulsion at the slimy, scaly dead fish, and flee.
Off the main highway through town, a dirt road snakes along a narrow canyon to the east. Set back in the hills, the two-story building where I went to school stands deserted. A swing creaks in the wind while the old rusted slide groans, fighting to stay upright. Every Halloween when the school was still open, it would be transformed into a terrifying haunted house. I would walk through the dark, damp, musty basement in terror of the next corner. Walking along the pitch-black hallways, I'd place my hands through holes in the walls to grab "eyeballs" and "brains" in different containers. All the while, ghosts and ghouls swirled around me before whispering, "boo" in my ear, as I took off and ran up the stairs and latched onto my father's legs.
I continue deeper into town, more memories appearing, each resurrecting stories and faces that I always associate with coming home. I drive by what was once the house of my friend Nevada Kraft. Large chunks of white paint are peeling off the exterior and crumbling concrete gives way beneath my feet as I step into the empty doorway. Next to gaping holes that once held the glass of windows, an empty doorway welcome me in. The floor of the living room has collapsed. The roof leaks water, leaving dark trails defiling the walls. Nevada was the only other girl in town my age, and I spent many hours at this house, playing cards, drinking hot chocolate, laughing and exchanging stories.
On the outskirts of town to the south is a group of green and white buildings, the old Forest Service Ranger Station. This cluster of five buildings is a faded memory of what was in the past a vibrant and busy complex. Once the Ranger Station was at the heart of nearly every town gathering, as the Forest Service was Mountain City's biggest employer. Each year, around December 22, the annual Christmas party took place. The fire station opened its doors to the town and kids ran rampant, sliding down the fire pole, playing hide-and-seek throughout the house and climbing all over the fire truck. Cookies, sandwiches, cake and cider were devoured as people socialized and sang carols. Santa always made an appearance, handing each child a small toy.
Directly across from the Forest Service Ranger Station lies the housing compound where my family lived. I drive over a bridge and up a hill, the playground of my youth. I spent many winters sledding down the road, as slick as a sheet of ice. During summer I learned how to swim in the river underneath the bridge. After flailing about in the water, I'd haul myself out to dry on the sandy beach and build sandcastles, before making forts in the willows that adorn the riverbank.
I pull into the driveway of my old house. The grass, shrubs and trees that my mother so lovingly planted have all died and weeds are taking over. When I was 4, I married a boy under the once towering tree that shaded this yard. He was a beautiful boy with blonde hair and blue eyes and he was my best friend. In the years after our "marriage" we built a two-story clubhouse between our houses, a clubhouse that towered over us, complete with trap door and rope ladder. The clubhouse held many surprises, the worst of which caused Cody and me to abandon it for a summer, until the angry horde of wasps retreated for the winter.
I walk the shambles of the concrete path leading to my house. The weeds are struggling up through cracks, fighting the concrete for dominance. The screen door hangs haphazardly, but the main door is intact. I hold my breath while I put my key into the keyhole and turn. The floor creaks as I step forward. Light reflects through broken glass and tilted shutters, playing with shadows on the wall. The musty smell of mildew and mouse droppings fills the air. I walk through an empty doorway, look at a gaping hole in the wall of the empty room and smile. I'm home.