For the past few years, I’ve had an unusual “bucket list destination”; one that, I’m quite sure, no other human has considered as a place they’ve “just gotta visit” before life is over. This most anonymous of dots on the map may seem a peculiar choice for one as well-traveled as I’ve been blessed to be, having lived on three continents, visited a couple dozen countries, and crisscrossed the United States countless times. Most have never heard of this place, fewer yet have been there, and history has afforded it only a very minor footnote. But, just last month, I made my long-intended pilgrimage, having little clue beforehand what I would find when I arrived. Converting, at last, an aging intention into physical action, I had entered the ghost town of Elgin, Nevada.
For decades I’d traveled a stretch of Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Southern Utah where there’s scant variation to the scenery in this monochrome corner of the Mohave Desert. The road tends to run in long, straight ribbons through this sparsely-populated territory where even the highway department acknowledges the typical traveler’s intent to “just get this over with” as the posted speed limit is set at 80 MPH.
Just a bit north of the Moapa River Indian Reservation, the highway climbs a steep grade to crest the southwestern lip of Mormon Mesa, a 100 square mile triangle of tableland bordered on the east by the Virgin River and on the west by the Muddy River. The mesa sits at 1,893 feet, with it’s skirts of badlands towering 500 feet above the river valleys below. To the north lie the Mormon Mountains, and the broad expanse of this mesa served as a fairly obstacle-free path for the Franciscan friars during the 16th century as they blazed the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico to California.
Approaching from the west, the Interstate charges in a 20-mile beeline east-northeast across the mesa where no human habitation of any kind can be seen; the only structure encountered being an unmanned aviation transponder station that can be spotted in the distance. Other than the highway itself and the travelers making the motorized dash across this stretch of sage and beige, the scene remains exactly as viewed by every sojourner to come this way for the past 300 years.
So when, at mile marker 100 there appears a sign announcing the exit for Carp and Elgin, the eyes are teased to gaze into the desert for signs of these two towns. To the south, the plateau runs across a mile of forsaken flatland, fit only for rattlesnake and jackrabbit, and terminates into a void where the earth falls away to the unseen Virgin below. To the north, only Joshua trees stand silent sentry in the miles of upland separating the Interstate from a range of barren mountains appearing as sharks teeth jutting into desert sky. Whether to the left of the highway or to the right, the terrain offers no more signs of habitation than the images from Mars.
Where is Carp? And what is a carp but a worthless beggar of a fish? I reasoned that such a town as Carp, if it ever was a town to begin with, would be found to the south below the rim of the mesa, probably near or within the waters of Lake Mead. Elgin, I imagined, would likely be found somewhere in those northern mountains where a chalky line of disturbed dirt marks the path, the trail, the road that goads the curiosity. This cactus causeway appears as a hemp rope drawn taut between the heedless highway and a barely-perceptible pass in the krags of the hills. Elgin is surely a mining camp – at most a ghost town – another of the Great Basin’s countless victims of the “bust” that echos endlessly after the “boom”.
For forty years I’d passed that sign.A hundred times the thoughts ricocheted off those hills. If only I had the time. If only that range weren’t so distant. If only I did’t have somewhere else I needed be. I bristled at the realization that I was so focused on a distant destination that I had no time for the here and now. After all, detours burn time and we grasp our precious hours in the choke-hold of a miser’s fist. And so Elgin, whether a true ghost town or no, came to haunt me as years wore on and I repeatedly rolled past the Elgin exit, a compulsion of heart doing battle with the guardrails of reason.
Driving alone on one such journey, my mind could not let loose of these thoughts and Elgin began to morph from being another yet-to-be explored site on a desert trail to become the icon for every missed opportunity in my life. Some of these opportunities were literally roads and destinations I’d intended to explore but had passed by. But this heightened awareness – this sense of regret – held for me an indictment far more tragic than missing out on jolly jaunts of sight-seeing. Elgin represented more than this; it was that acquaintance who never became a friend; that family excursion I didn’t make time for; and that teasing interest that was never worked into a talent – and in the hours between mile marker 100 and my taking the exit into Cedar City, I had composed the following poem:
I-15 is long and lean
And tracks the Spanish Trail;
In double queues we set our cruise
And roll as if on rails.
No left, no right, just hold on tight,
We warp to worlds afar;
Only knowing where we’re going,
Missing where we are.
For years untold I’ve ran this road,
Making time and running late;
Elsewhere bound with hammer down
Across the Silver State.
On a mesa lost, I’ve often crossed
The Elgin exit sign;
In a land so bare it seemed to dare
Me leave my plotted line
To take that trail that runs to scale
The distant hills of dust
Where devils swirled to paint the world
In creosote and rust.
The things I’d find all play in mind:
“Is Elgin town or camp?”
With mournful glance I pass the chance,
How I lament the years I’ve spent
With speed my focused goal;
And all the places, friends and faces
Lost within the toll.
So I don’t care if nothing’s there,
Just know I can’t afford
To end my days with eyes a-glazed
And Elgin unexplored.
I resolved to one day take the time to make the journey to Elgin. I hoped that, perhaps, if I could do that, I could break the habits that have kept me from the rich alleyways and side roads where living more fully becomes life.
My resolve was deepened when this poem was selected for publication in the annual “Kolob Canyon Review”, an anthology of literary works deemed exemplary by the English Department of The University of Southern Utah and I found myself having to face the natural question, “So what did you find when you finally got to Elgin?” Until last month, my embarrassed reply revealed that my resolve still lacked the rigidity gained when a date is circled, a plan is set, and a wish becomes a commitment.
My son Trent is my frequent companion in adventure and, during my recent visit to Vegas, (I now live in Connecticut), I told him that I was determined to head out for Elgin. He was more than eager to join me and, since he was the man with a Jeep, I was pleased by his enthusiasm for the excursion.
An internet search for Carp and Elgin revealed that they were both situated beyond those northern mountains and they both had been train stops in ages past when gold mining was a going concern in this region. Active rails still passed by these mostly-abandoned settlements and they have become mere ghosts of what they once were. Both are more easily accessed from the town of Caliente to the north than they are from I-15 to the south but I was determined to explore Elgin from the very point that had piqued my interest – the exit at mile marker 100.
The dirt road from I-15 to Elgin was described in a few blog posts by off-roading enthusiasts but I could find nothing more recent than a 2012 article. It mentioned that the road was good at that time but it was known to wash out in flash floods. With no way of knowing the current condition of the road, Trent and I were nonetheless determined to give it a go and, early on a Saturday morning in January, we headed out, joined by our good friend Rick Wherley, a top-notch student of history (Civil War specialty) who was visiting from Pennsylvania.
Stopping on the side of the Interstate for a photo opp next to the Carp/Elgin sign probably had many of our fellow travelers wondering what could be significant about this exit marker and, hopefully, it caused one or two to question what these two remote places were all about. We got back in the Jeep and, for the first time in a hundred opportunities, the vehicle I was riding in pulled off of Interstate 15 at the Carp Elgin exit.
A single-lane tunnel passes below the highway and we honked our horn before entering despite being quite confident there was no need to warn oncoming traffic. We drove parallel to the interstate for a mile or so then turned north onto that dirt road I’d visually tracked so many times as it threaded into the hazy hills. We were surprised at how well-maintained the road was – wide, with no major ruts and almost no washboarding. We made good time as we passed through forests of Joshua trees, rugged mountain passes, and broad valleys seemingly untouched by human hand.
We only passed one other vehicle in the 31 miles we covered between the I-15 exit and Carp. This collection of abandoned trailers, broken-down equipment, and a few old homes stretched in a line along what appeared to have been, at one time, active farmland as attested to by the disjointed and rusting sprinkler pipe, its iron-spoked wheels now resting on their sides. Carp sits in a narrow valley through which the Meadow Valley Wash (barely a creek) flows. Train tracks run alongside the river and they were heavily trafficked the day we were there. We saw one home with signs of current occupancy, though no one was out and about. A field surrounded in barbed wire was posted with this warning: “Industrial Hemp R&D. No THC content. Not Marijuana – No Psychotropic Effect. STAY OUT!”
Elgin would be another 19 miles north on a dirt road skirting alongside the railway, often crossing under trestles or going around a mountain that the railroad had tunneled through. The burbling waters of the Meadow Valley Wash were also our constant companion on this leg of the trip and cottonwood trees shaded much of the journey to our primary destination and the namesake of my poem.
Rounding another of what seemed like an endless succession of bends in the road, Elgin came into view. It, too, was a virtual ghost town with abandoned and rusted equipment scattered across the narrow valley. The centerpiece of the town was a schoolhouse built in 1922 that was recently restored by the State of Nevada and is a designated historical site, though the grounds are now locked-up rear-round. An adjacent home appeared to be the only occupied structure in Elgin and it, too, seemed to be active in the “experimental” hemp business.
We took a few photographs, then found the paved road that winds north from Elgin through the breathtaking Rainbow Canyon, stopping to take in the box canyon of Kershaw-Ryan State Park. The road terminates at U.S. 93 near Caliente and we headed first west through spectacular rock formations then bent southward to pass through Alamo and the Pahranagat Valley on our way back to I-15 and then on to Las Vegas. As the lights of the city came into view I had to wonder; was the journey over or had it just begun?
I recalled how, as I stepped out of the Jeep and planted my foot on Elgin’s elusive soil, I felt as if a “Neil Armstrong moment” had occurred for me. An ambiguous “someday” had become a tangible “today”. A key “when I get around to it” had finally been “gotten around to” and, if I could continue to demand such things of myself – if I could maintain this commitment to pause and pursue the many side opportunities life offers, this destitute town from yesterday could be the launch of a much richer tomorrow – a tomorrow with far fewer “Elgins Unexplored”.