Ghost Towns

There are 568 miles between Sacramento and Las Vegas. Google Maps tells me if I don’t hit any traffic, I can expect to make the trip in 9 hours and 3 minutes. I pack an overnight bag, throw my checkbook in, and yank the zipper up. I leave a dish of kibble for the cat. At the gas station where I fill my tank, I buy a large black coffee and a candy bar. It is one p.m., six hours since I received Sean’s call, when I head east on the 80.
            Katie-Pie, I’m in trouble.
            I’ve heard this opening line so many times over the years, it doesn’t faze me anymore. I used to feel sick to my stomach, used to clench my jaw and fists against whatever followed. Now, I try not to roll my eyes. Someday, a stranger’s number from Vegas or Reno or L.A. will pop up on my phone and the hello won’t be Sean’s. Then I’ll know the trouble’s real. I look at my bedside clock, which reads 5:27 a.m., and tell him to call me after 9.
            No, wait . . . don’t hang up! I only get one call.
            Sean, older than me by three years, is the black sheep I must tend personally and perpetually. An indentured Bo-Peep, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve rescued my brother. I love him, but it gets old. He knows I can’t refuse him. It’s my survivor’s guilt. While he is a profligate mess, I enjoy life as a useful and productive citizen. I have a Nespresso machine and clean sheets. My refrigerator is full of green vegetables and Greek yogurt. My bathtub smells mildly of bleach.
            For the first few hours into the trip, I don’t think of Sean at all. I drive, drink coffee, listen to zealots arguing on talk radio. I fantasize that I’m driving to Las Vegas for a thrilling, ill-conceived weekend rendezvous. I write this delicious story in my head, making up names, laying out imaginary lingerie, planning meals I might order—room service for two. I make it nearly all the way to Hawthorne, population 3,269, before I think about what Sean might have done. He’s been arrested in the past—drunk and disorderly, check fraud, possession—though never incarcerated. He’s charming and slippery, handsome and smart. Like every other time, I know this too will be someone else’s fault or spectacular bad luck or the fact that God simply hates him. Sean’s propensity for blame shifting is impressive, if predictable.
            I sit in the parking lot of the Hawthorne McDonald’s, where I’ve stopped to buy a Big Mac at the drive-through. Hawthorne, Nevada, is a munitions depot for the U.S. Army. Rows and rows of humped bunkers radiate outward from the center of town. There is a Safeway and a Family Dollar. Many businesses—the laundromat, a video-rental place, a veterinarian—are closed, but the McDonald’s bustles, and the El Capitan continues to offer an oasis of slot machines and six-dollar steaks.
            Across the street from McDonald’s, there’s a park where man-high flower sculptures have petals that spin like windmills. When the wind dies down for a moment, I see the petals are made of old bomb casings.
            Back on the road, there’s nothing to see but sand and scrub—the unrelieved vista of the high desert highway. Clouds drag their shadows over the stubbled hills. My radio receives nothing but static, so I switch it off.
            I approach Mina, population 155. A hand-lettered welcome sign informs me there are many hundreds of miles of ATV trails at my disposal. Driving through, I see a restaurant built into the side of a boat and a cocktail lounge with a string of Christmas lights hanging from the façade. The houses lining the road are so dilapidated, they seem beyond habitation, yet they don’t look abandoned. Curtains hang in windows that anywhere else would be stone-shattered. Farther back along barely visible side roads, motor homes are flanked by conspicuously late-model automobiles and satellite dishes.
            I don’t see a single person in Mina, nor in Soda Springs nor Coaldale. In the desert outside Coaldale, three burros stand placidly in a wash. Busy with the business of staying alive in this waterless waste, they ignore me as I blow past.
            Tonopah, population 2,478, has multiple gas stations. Shivering, I shove my hands into my armpits as I wait for the tank to fill. It’s twenty degrees colder than it was in Sacramento. On my way out of town, I pass an abandoned hotel with caution tape lacing the railings of collapsing stairs. Beside the road, a sign tells me there will be no gas for a hundred miles.
            I head south on the 95, the road unspooling in front of me like a strip of fat gray duct tape. I can see for miles; there are no mysteries on the 95. I pass signs for Silver Peak and Alkali. Dirt roads lead up into the brown hills. Who travels these desolate paths? Where do they work? Sleep? Drink beer on a Friday night?
            When Sean was in high school, he wrecked our parents’ car by running it into a tree. An investigator estimated he was traveling too fast on a road treacherous with watery snow and dead leaves.
            Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to extract Sean from behind the steering wheel. He had surgery to repair things broken inside him and was unconscious for more than a day.
            When he woke up, he asked our mother where Cody was.
            “Cody?” she said.
            Police went back to the scene. Fifty yards from the tree with a great sap-bleeding scar, was Cody.
            While my brother’s slack and bleeding mouth fogged the webbed windshield cradling his face, Cody had opened the car door, let himself out into the sleet, and walked, disoriented and dying, into the woods. The officers followed a trail of discarded shoes and socks. He’d curled on his side, knees to chest, in the silty, waterlogged weeds beside the creek. His bare feet glowed white-blue in the November twilight.
            No one but Sean blamed Sean.
            Goldfield, population 268, is a series of distressed wooden buildings. There is not a single For Sale sign on these ramshackle wood-frame houses. Vehicle-owning denizens have no place to buy gas. Winding upward on the wide main thoroughfare, I drive past the empty Goldfield Hotel, a handsome stone structure fronted with dust-hazed plate glass. At the edge of town, there is a sign advertising “Goldfield Days” in August of this year, promising “Parades, Children’s Games, and BBQ.”
            Between Goldfield and Beatty, the weather turns. Ahead, rain hangs in silver-gray veils that remind me of the rotted mesh screens waving from windows in Schurz and Gemfield. As I pass through the rain sheets, droplets spatter my windshield but the road is dry. The rain evaporates before it hits the ground. I think, virga—the name for rain like this.
            Dusk falls in a surprisingly protracted process. The mountains go first, night melting purple-black over them until only their outlines and the flashing lights of repeaters at their summits remain. A band of slate-colored sky sits at the horizon for nearly an hour after the shoulders of the road disappear.
            By the time I reach Beatty, Gateway to Death Valley, population 1,010, my head buzzes from fatigue and my mouth tastes like there’s a quarter under my tongue. I’m hungry and bored but there’s nothing open after dark. I crawl through town at the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
            The rain picks up as I exit Beatty, continuing south. I roll the window down an inch and let the smells of creosote bush and mesquite fill the car. Now and then, I pass a semi-trailer heading north; our wipers flick water at each other, and I feel less lonely. A line of lights in the far distance to my right heralds the Amargosa Valley.
            Just past the Nevada Test Site, I pull off the road into the parking lot of a closed convenience store. The pump lights are off, but I can see a man inside sweeping. I stretch my kinked back and touch my toes to loosen my aching hips. I consider knocking on the window, but he looks so tired I leave him alone.
            Thirty more minutes and the lights of Las Vegas are a muddy orange haze in the sky. My phone, mute as a brick since Hawthorne, comes to sudden life. I see four missed calls from my brother’s cell phone. A blue light in the corner of the screen indicates there is a voice-mail message.
            I have become skilled at interpreting my brother’s vagaries. From the fact he has been calling me from his own phone, I deduce he is no longer in custody. Someone has bailed him out. I don’t wonder who; I don’t care. I pull the car to a stop on the narrow sandy shoulder, toggle the flashers on, and sit. What now? I contemplate turning the car around and driving back into the desert, but the long, empty darkness intimidates me. Flashers off, blinker on for no one, I pull back onto the road.
            I check in to a chain hotel on the far edge of the city. I feed a series of dollar bills into the vending machine in the lobby. I don’t take my phone out of my pocket until I’m all the way to the room, shoes off, lying on the bed.
            Hey, Katie-pie, it’s all good. No one’s pressing charges. Ha-ha. Hope I caught you before you got on the road. Hit me up the next time you’re in Vegas!
            I shut off my phone and switch off the light and go to sleep in my clothes. In the morning, I will follow a trail of ghost towns home.

Sandy Smith lives with her family in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has 25 years of experience as an editor of young adult fiction and is currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing at UCR/Palm Desert.

Photography by Fabrice Poussin and Thomas Gillaspy.