After a long stretch of road, void of any services for almost 90 miles, across a barren, sage-bristled basin we pulled into the Border Inn at midnight. Or was it 11 pm? It was hard to say since this eclectic, home-grown inn bordered two time zones—Nevada’s and Utah’s.
You could sleep in Utah, use the public restrooms in Nevada, and take a booth seat at the Inn’s diner that bridged both. Initially, single-handedly run by a no-nonsense, single mother now grandmother for more than 38 years, the inn is the sum of its parts—RV park meets 50s-style motel rooms meets casino, meets diner, meets bar, meets convenience shop. It’s almost a mandatory stop for anyone who comes off of Highway 50—the “loneliest road in America”—fearing this may be their last drink, gas stop, or sign of human life before heading into a vast, flat landscape, known as the Great Basin.
In late August, it is a parched stretch of land defined more by the vast sky above then the seascape of sagebrush. “We call it The Big Empty,” says Nomi Sheppard, a transplant from Chicago who earned all her degrees, including her PhD, from Stanford. “It’s great because I can see someone approaching from miles away, and say ‘I can see you, I can see you, you’re getting closer.’ ”
Sheppard, a bi-racial mom, inter-racially married, presides as principal over the combined middle and high school in the town of Esk dale, drawing students from the surrounding towns of Snake Valley, sprinkled with some 200-300 folks.
She was the reason why the “what I thought I saw” Project, in collaboration with Rhythms of Life (www.Drumbus.com), were here in “The Big Empty.” Several bullying issues and a boy that recently came out as gay had prompted her to reach out to us.
Before I even arrived, my stereotypes of small-town folks and rural life were settled; they eased into certainty even more as we drove the long stretches of roads to the first school (a gig at the elementary school and a community night at the Border Inn would follow).
Who could live out here? What do people even do here? You’d have to be a recluse to thrive here. Being “different” would be scary, as in being gay, black, brown, liberal, intellectual, to name a few.
They combusted; my stereotypes, in this particular town, got blown to pieces.
Hints of Wolfgang Puck—Here?!
In Baker, Nevada, a no-stop light town, there’s an old general store turned café, the ElectroLux, that serves up Pizza every Friday night when some 60 to 90 people come out of the “Big Empty” and fill up the place including the main (only) street out front.
“It’s either feast or famine here” says Cheri, who is serving us breakfast the next morning; the place is empty except for she and her sister, Tabitha. Both of whom trained at the San Francisco Culinary School of the Arts before heading off to hone their skills in high-end foodie establishments on both coasts, including a stint with Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas.
The lifestyle and stress was too demanding and distorted, so both moved back to run the LetroLux café. The food and coffee match big-city quality; and with a culinary-trained chef on the premises (one of the sisters), pastry-satisfaction is guaranteed.
Val, an older woman who showed up at the community night event, and then who popped into the café to purchase a bottle of Cabernet while we were there, has plenty of time to talk. She lives on “The Farm”(Home Farm, headquarters for the School of the Natural Order) established in the 1950s and sits at the edge of Grand Basin National Park.
Before moving to this spiritual-oasis-meets-commune, she spent a year traveling the world in the 1960s traversing India and the Middle East, often the only white, American, woman present. “It was the best thing I ever did” says Val, who now focuses on bringing the world to youth in the area through a foundation she started, The Snake Valley Scholarship Fund—which helped bring us to the area.
Its first infusions of cash came from an annual family-friendly drag queen fundraiser for the local schools, kicked off by a gay couple who came upon the town and were amazed that they were welcomed and not run out of town. That’s the short story.
It Piqued David Letterman’s Interest—Here?!
One day Worldwide Pants, David Letterman’s production company, gave Denys—the owner of the Border Inn—a call. Biff Henderson from the David Letterman show wanted to come visit and do a spotlight on the town. While this fact seems to be not all that celebrated—I only found out listening to Deny talk while pouring drinks for patrons—what is more apparent is an impressive photo gallery depicting the who’s who of sheepherding dating back generations. Faces etched and characterized by the range.
High Quality Education, Including the Arts—Here?!
Finding a principal like Nomi in a place like this was surprising, to say the least. She nurtures a school where every middle and high-school student plays an instrument and/or sings; a group that competed nationally for the 1A championship. (Needless to say, the drum circle rocked!)
She created an environment where perhaps the areas first openly gay child felt safe enough to come out. And be accepted. It’s either myth, lore, or the census bureau, but I heard the area around these small towns has the highest educated population per capita in the country. Nomi doesn’t seem surprised, who has been able to hire exceptional teachers.
I’m always telling “what I thought I saw” participants to be open to all those what-I-saw-moments around them. Out in the “Big Empty,” we came across an entire what-I-thought-I-saw” town.