The following is an excerpt from Maximum Sunlight, a book of reportage by writer Meagan Day and photographer Hannah Klein, available now from Wolfman Editions.
The edges of Tonopah are sharp. There are houses and trailers with yards full of trampolines and car parts, and then suddenly there is only earth and sky. Tonopah, Nevada, is an island of civilization in a vast humanless sea.
In the desert there is some confusion between up and down. After heavy rains, water pools between the blackbrush and mirrors the stratosphere. Just after sunset, the crisp horizon dissolves into a hazy bluish band. An inverted Fata Morgana will sometimes appear, actual mountains collapsing into an imaginary limit. Tough bald hills slope at impossible angles, as if molded under the heel of a giant. It’s easy to envision dinosaurs pounding this dry terrain with legs the size of refrigerators.
In Tonopah, I meet a man who warns me of the dangers of driving off-road in the desert at dawn and dusk. He crashed that way once, going 120 mph on his three-wheeler. “I broke my neck out in the dunes and ripped my face off,” he says. “I told them there was no way I was going to the hospital, to just give me a beer and wipe the sand out of my lips and my eyes.”
This man has just spent a night in jail for a DUI, and is sipping plain Coke through a straw. “I know where it sits now, the three-wheeler,” he says, “and every time I see it I just get flashbacks to when I was flying off it – sky, sand, sky, sand, sky, sand. And that’s why you don’t ride at twilight. At twilight, you can’t tell what a shadow entails.”
In the centuries since the arrival of Europeans, Nevada’s Great Basin has inspired scores of esoteric origin theories. In 1924, an article about the research of archaeologist Alain Le Baron made the front page of the San Francisco Examiner with the title, “Was the Garden of Eden Located in Nevada?” Le Baron claimed to have found petroglyphs not far from Tonopah that resembled Egyptian and Chinese characters, but predated both. He called the petroglyph site the Hill of a Thousand Tombs, and believed it was evidence of an alternative anthropological timeline. His theory held that a prehistoric society called the Cascadian Race originated in Nevada and proceeded from there to populate the rest of the world.
Earlier yet, in 1917, an amateur geologist named Albert E. Knapp claimed to have found a fossilized human footprint from the Triassic period – the imprint of a shoe made of stitched dinosaur hide. This led him to believe that humans and dinosaurs had coexisted in Nevada’s Great Basin two hundred million years ago.
The New York Times took Knapp’s finding somewhat seriously, as did Nobel Prize-winning Oxford scientist Frederick Soddy, who used it to support his pet theory of a superior race of prehistoric humans that destroyed itself after achieving scientific mastery over atomic energy. In Soddy’s account, the sophisticated civilization made a technical mistake that wiped them out, leaving us—their more primitive counterparts—behind to literally reinvent the wheel.
These theories share a design: desertion by superior progenitors, the Great Basin as the point of origin for a flourishing society that eventually evacuates the region. This motif of abandonment can be located, too, in less fringe mythologies of the Nevada desert. After all Nevada, like California, experienced a Gold Rush boom that produced enormous wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tonopah was known as a place where millionaires were minted. But the money made in Nevada boomtowns was soon taken elsewhere, mainly to California or back East in the pockets of savvy capitalists. Briefly, many of these towns were opulent. Now they are the residue of imperial advancement. Decade by decade their elegance fades.
“What do you think people in big American cities think about Tonopah?” I ask a woman in her fifties named Linda who’s smoking a Winston 100 inside a casino called the Tonopah Station. “Like on the East and West coast,” I explain, “places like L.A. and New York.”
She’s playing electronic keno, a game that has a reputation as a working-class diversion – it was once considered too blue-collar, even, for gambling houses on the Las Vegas strip. All around us colorful lights flash on gaming screens. The décor in the Tonopah Station is Western-fantasy, all wagon wheels and old saloon signage and antique tonic tins. The soundtrack is contemporary country, punctuated by bleeps from the gaming machines. The bar adjacent to the gaming room is doing decent business though it’s only one in the afternoon.
“Well aside from Vegas, I don’t think they think about us at all,” she says matter-of-factly, ashing into a tray provided by the house. “They probably don’t know what Tonopah is, though it used to be a big important town. But we’re out here.”
The first time I passed through Tonopah, I lost an hour wandering its complicated streets, wide-eyed and straining with curiosity. I was especially transfixed by the Clown Motel, a pair of shabby two-story blue buildings at the edge of town. A plywood cutout in the shape of a clown points to a hand-painted sign announcing that truckers are welcome. Directly adjacent to the motel is a Gold Rush-era graveyard, a few paces from the parking lot. I stared at the motel in amazement thinking Why does this exist? Who the hell lives here, works here? I had no frame of reference.
The route between Reno and Vegas is five hundred miles of America with essentially zero cultural profile. That’s roughly the distance between Boston and Washington D.C., a stretch that encompasses hundreds of hyper-distinct cultural enclaves. Even rural Nevadans themselves, like Linda at the casino, will admit that they are neither contradictions to nor embodiments of any particular social archetype. The nation draws a blank on rural Nevada.
In 1940, the Works Progress Administration published a guidebook to the state that betrays a kind of sour-grapes attitude toward Nevada’s abandonment in the broader American imagination: “Relatively few Americans are familiar with this land… There are various reasons for this vast ignorance about the sixth largest state in the Union, but the chief one has always been the reticence of Nevadans themselves. They have always known their State’s great beauty and are unusually sensitive to it, but humbled by long neglect on the part of the vast traveling public, it is only recently that they have begun to tell the world about Nevada.”
And yet, when it comes time to enumerate the specificities of Nevadan culture, all the writers can muster is that Nevadans like to eat at counters, a characteristic so trivial and generic as to be absurd. “It is doubtful whether there is a restaurant in the state without one; even the smartest places feature counters. Usually the board is high and the stools are mounted on a small platform. No Nevadan is quite sure why he likes ‘counter-eating’.”
Rural Texans have the stalwart cowboy, Iowans have the forthright yeoman, and Mainers have the hard-bitten seafarer with rubber boots up to his knees. Nevadans have the counter-eater. Evidently I am not the first to grasp at straws.
In recent years, perhaps libertarian icon Cliven Bundy’s high-profile standoff with the federal government has replaced the counter-eater of yore with the modern right-wing libertarian weapons stockpiler. But that still doesn’t explain what a clown-themed motel is doing next to a graveyard in the middle of the treeless wilderness.
“The people are still living on the history,” says Wilma, who works in the office of the Clown Motel. “Many of them are descendants of the original miners. And many are miners themselves. Out in Round Mountain or Silver Peak, mostly. There are generations of them who’ve lived here since the 1900s, and their attitude is pretty much still the same. Wild West.”
“What do you mean by that?” I ask her. She’s probably in her early fifties but has girlish face and round, earnest eyes. Her waist-length red hair is bound by a scrunchy at the nape of her neck. When she speaks, each r sound shades slightly into a w.
“The miners used to drink a lot,” Wilma replies. “That was their only other thing besides mining. They would sleep in the mines for like seven days, and they would come out and they didn’t have family to go to because they were single guys or their family was way back somewhere else, so the only thing they had was the alcohol. That’s staying, that kind of attitude.”
Wilma pauses to take a phone call, and my eyes scan the room. To my left are several shelves of clown figurines, over five hundred of them. A sign hanging in the middle reads:
FROM AROUND THE WORLD
NOT FOR SALE
Behind me are two life-sized clown dummies. One is an early iteration of Ronald McDonald, while the other is more of a Barnum & Bailey type.
“Don’t look into that one’s eyes,” says Wilma, placing the phone back on the receiver. She gestures toward the old-timey one clad in a rainbow jumpsuit. Several fingers are missing from its life-size hands. Wilma was afraid of clowns when she first came to work here, she tells me. She’s mostly gotten over it, but that one still strikes her as “a little off.”
The Clown Motel sits at the western edge of town. For the phobic, there’s no skirting the issue—there’s a clown on every door and clown paintings above every bed. Adding to the potential fear factor is the cemetery right next to the motel, visible from nearly every vantage point.
“Are people freaked out by this place?” I ask. The smaller clown figurines are cheerful portrayals with oversized shoes, accordions and juggling pins—vestiges of a time when clowns enjoyed more favor in the hearts of the masses. The whole history of clowns is on display: there are porcelain harlequins with cherubic faces and rosy cheeks, hobo clowns with patches on their pants and sympathetic frowns, and polka-dotted buffoons with frizzy orange hair poking out above their ears.
“Oh sure, people are scared,” she answers. “But we still get a lot of business. Some people actually come here to face their fear. I’ve seen ‘em faint and I’ve seen ‘em scream. It’s not uncommon to see somebody walk in and their face turn pure white.” She tells me she’s even met people who were sent here on the advice of their therapists.
“If you ask me the Clown is not nearly as scary as the cemetery next door,” she says. “There’s a lot of paranormal activity there. We get tons of researchers. Psychic people, sensitives, ghost hunters. They always find something.”
“What’s a sensitive?” I ask.
“People that are so sensitive they can feel the entities around them,” she explains. “Ghost hunters bring sensitives with them, and if the sensitives feel like something’s going on, that’s when they start their cameras. And sure enough, bam. There’s a lot of activity in this town, because there was a lot of death here. The mines were so dangerous. A lot of death.”
“Is this a violent place?” I ask. Night is falling and my car is parked closer to the center of town, so I’ll need to walk.
“Well there are bar fights,” she says laughing, “so try not to get into one of those.”
I thank her for her time. “Hey if you go to the cemetery,” she adds, “just watch your phone battery. The cemetery always drains phone batteries.”
In the 1980s, Lockheed started building the F-117 Nighthawk at the Tonopah Test Range, also known as Area 52. It was America’s first stealth aircraft, designed to avoid radar detection in enemy airspace. The engineering of the F-117 was a highly classified black project and the Tonopah Test Range a black site. For years, thousands of personnel were flown to Tonopah on Mondays and back out to the Las Vegas area on Fridays. They slept in a dormitory called Mancamp, and were prohibited from telling their families where precisely they went all week.
The F-117 flew only in the dark, and its manuals were kept inside a hyper-secure vault. The pilots were called Bandits, and wore patches featuring scorpions, sphinxes, atomic symbols, grim reapers and eagles with lightning emanating from their talons. One patch featured an image of the plane and the embroidered words, “To those who hide at night, beware of those in the shadows.” Eventually, the Nighthawk was ready for war. In 1991, leaflets rained down on Iraqi villages showing the plane wreaking havoc. “Escape now and save yourselves,” the leaflets read.
While Tonopah’s Area 52 is not as ubiquitous in conspiracy theories as neighboring Area 51, the site’s combination of strict confidentiality and global impact lends itself to paranoid interpretations. Most residents know bits and pieces of what takes place in the desert outside their town, but nobody knows everything. Parts of the history are still classified, and secret projects are still underway.
“Do a lot of people believe in UFOs around here?” I ask Wilma at the Clown Motel.
“Oh yeah,” she says unreservedly, her eyes growing wide. “A lot of people have seen UFOs here. I’m one of them.”
I ask her to describe what she’s seen. “It was a couple years ago,” she says, “and I was walking home from work at the Clown. I saw this thing come flying in, no sound at all, right in the middle of town. There was no denying it was freaky. It did a little back and forth thing, a very intelligent type of movement, and then it went straight up into the universe. I mean, c’mon!”
“Why do you think people see so many UFOs here in this part of the country?” I ask.
“It could be the Indian Reservations,” she explains soberly. “That’s a huge possibility. The governments are not allowed to touch the UFOs or even try to go after them in the reservation areas. I know that for sure. And the Native Americans are firm believers in UFOs. It’s part of their whole thing.”
Mounted on the wall to her left is a placard that boasts a silhouette of the F-117 against a map of the Middle East, pockmarked with little cartoon explosions. It reads “TONOPAH STEALTH – 1st to Strike In The Gulf.”
I suspect that Wilma would believe in UFOs whether or not she lived near a secret government site. Throughout our conversation, she eagerly divulges theories about additional forms of paranormal activity (while she has not seen a ghost at the Clown, she has smelled one – it wafted in on a cold wind and “smelled like a very ancient perfume”). Other residents surprise me a bit more, like Clifford who works at the town bookshop.
A self-described computer nerd who moved here six years ago from Southern California, Clifford speaks matter-of-factly. “I help out in the bookstore,” he says, “but my skillset is more technical. Computer networks, information systems, business systems.”
He gets excited when I mention the Tonopah Test Range and the stealth bomber built there. “Oh man, it’s an awesome piece of war machinery,” he says. “It’s a killing machine. The designers were all told to design different parts – the wings, the cockpit. There was no collaboration whatsoever. That’s how they keep the secrecy of the design.” He relishes both the technical sophistication and the cloak-and-dagger gravity of the project.
“Somebody told me they’re building another secret plane out there,” I offer.
“That’s what I heard,” he affirms. “Man, the security measures that they have in place are serious. If you wander off the beaten path and end up on the test site, within minutes security will come out of nowhere and be all over you. It’s very tightly controlled.”
I ask him if the secrecy has any effect on people living in town, if it fosters theories about covert activity. Clifford strikes me as a rationalist, and I’m expecting to chuckle together about local kooks. Instead he says, “I mean, I don’t know. I’ve seen some pretty weird stuff myself that I have no explanation for here in Tonopah. I’ve seen flying objects that I couldn’t identify. The flight path and the flight pattern, the maneuverability, there’s nothing that we have that I’m aware of that can maneuver like that.”
He continues, “I’ve seen glowing orbs in the sky. They go one direction and then another and then they just disappear. Then they reappear somewhere else, and it makes no sense.”
I ask him if the flying objects could be military technology and not intelligent extraterrestrials. “Absolutely,” he says, relieved by my suggestion. “Here in Nevada, there’s so much open ground that it’s a lot easier to test aircraft without having to worry about communities getting an eyeball on it. They mostly fly out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes a camper or a hiker will see something, but they largely go undetected.” He lights a cigarette and leans back in his chair, taking a long first drag. “The stuff we see is just one fraction of what goes on out there.”
Later, I’m at a local bar conducting an interview when a man comes up to me and says quietly, “So you’re a reporter.”
I nod my head and he says, “I work for the government. Listen. If you go up into the hills, find the golf balls. And when you’ve found the golf balls, look southeast. There’s stuff out there that isn’t there, if you know what I mean. It isn’t there, but it is.”
I never learn his name, and I never find the golf balls.
All photographs copyright Hannah Klein.