October 26, 2006
Filed under Travel
On Interstate 80, headed for Lovelock, I got sidetracked again. Curiosity, unrestrained, will cause that. But who could miss a place like Rolling Thunder Monument? It’s right next to the road. Although obscured by a stand of parched poplar trees, how could a person see it and not wonder? The monument appears to be a convoluted rock edifice hung with tattered arbors. My first thought — Hagrid’s stone hut where he lives with his pet dragon. Hagrid is the giant gamekeeper at Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school. I took the next exit and turned around. A cheerless place, the monument has statutes hovering around like ghosts. Everywhere is stuff that appears to have materialized here out of a dumpster behind a Home Depot, but not recently.
It looked to me like somebody with well-learned yet confused construction skills had a lot of time of his hands. Actually, a Creek Indian from Oklahoma named Rolling Mountain Thunder built it — or least started it — using desert flotsam and concrete. He was a World War II veteran, badly burned in a tank battle outside Leipzig, who came here in 1968 to establish a haven for Indian consciousness, so a sign read. By the mid-1970s, he had attracted a devoted collection of spiritually directed residents all building, gardening and otherwise expanding and maintaining what they considered a shrine. Well, this may be powerful, visionary art to some, and it may even conceal veiled, unguessable secrets. Whatever it is that I am supposed to take from it, it’s beyond my ability to figure out. The Rolling Thunder Monument is located near Imlay — once a town that came with the railroad in 1869.
Imlay exists now as a small crosshatch of dirt streets, shacks with sagging porches and wind-blown tattered roofs. Diesel locomotives still rush through, air-horns bellowing, to remind old Imlay of days long ago when the railroad was king. Now the Interstate rules the territory, and Imlay is little more than a sign on the side of it. Rolling Mountain Thunder is gone too, and so are the others. But their work is still here, mummified by the dry, Nevada desert. With spidery arches, antic figures ranging from doll-size to giant and ladders that go nowhere, I felt it an eerie place. But Rusty liked it. I suspect all dogs might. My curiosity satisfied, I got back on the Interstate.
Lovelock — population 2,800, 428 miles west of Salt Lake City, 95 miles east of Reno — is the seat of Pershing Country, which is twice the size of Connecticut. Entering town, I passed under Loveland’s traffic signal, dangling over Main Street. It’s said to be the last one on the road between San Francisco and New York — before the Interstate pulled the traffic off of it in 1983. And Lovelock took an abrupt and serious hit when the tourist traffic didn’t stop here any more, or even slow down. Back in its days as a mining town, about a hundred years ago, the same thing happened when the mining boom
busted. The city was so poor then, it got to turning off the streetlights on nights when the moon was bright. Lovelock is on the Humboldt River, an across-the-state waterway that ends just west of here. Like the Interstate, the old California Trail parallels it. That was the route of the ’49ers and others who were headed for California in the mid-1800s.
The pioneers made good use of the lush grass they found here and called this the “Banana Belt.” These ideal conditions of soil and climate now produce fine alfalfa. They tell me here that Lovelock is now world-famous for its alfalfa seed. With alfalfa and grain for livestock the primary crops, its economy now is largely agricultural. And it looks the part. Lovelock is a pleasant farming community with big houses and well-kept lawns — the kind of well-rooted, basic American town where kids can hardly wait to get out of when they are young, and can hardly wait to get back to when they are old. I came to see the courthouse; the locals call it their “architectural jewel.” And well they should: It’s round, one of only two round courthouses in the whole country.
The county library and the swimming pool are just a few steps from it, as is a park with picnic tables and a children’s playground. Rusty could hear the kids playing before I stopped. She jumped up on the motorhome’s couch, her nose against the window, her tail wagging her back half. We got out and the kids flocked around to pet Rusty. In the big city, where fear lurks in playgrounds, children wouldn’t do this. Here, kids can be kids. Rusty licked Popsicle drippings off some sticky fingers and wagged a lot — her canine version of, “thanks.” I left her on the grass by the motorhome and headed for the courthouse. The courtroom is in the center — round, of course. A circular hall surrounds it with open doors that showed rooms of matching file cabinets and shelves of books that all look the same.
The jury box — it’s a circle — is in the center of the truly elegant courtroom. The district attorney was with me. She demonstrated the room’s awesome acoustics. Sitting in the jury box, I could hear her speaking in a whisper from anywhere in the room. “The acoustics are really too good. During a rain storm the rain makes quite a racket. The dome over your head is tin,” she said. “If we are having a trial in here when it rains, we usually have to stop until it quits.” Justice, in Lovelock, adapts to the nature of things, just like the town.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]