Why Not The Worst?

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 2, 2001

My little puddle jumper begins its descent into Elko, a charmless city of 20,000 in the northern Nevada desert. Eighteen seats, all filled. This is not because Elko is a hot tourist attraction; it is because almost everyone else onboard belongs to a mariachi band. These guys have identical shiny blue suits and shiny blue shirts and shiny blue ties and shiny blue-black hair, like Rex Morgan in the comics, and they seem embarrassed to have accepted a gig in a place as tacky as Elko.

Compared with my final destination, Elko is Florence during the Italian Renaissance.

When I tell the Elko rental car agent where I am headed, she laughs. Elkonians, who proudly sponsor a yearly civic event called the "Man-Mule Race," consider their neighbor 70 miles west to be an absolute clodhoppy riot.

"Don't sneeze," snorts the rental car woman, "or you'll miss it."

Yeah, I know. I went to Battle Mountain five weeks before, to see if it was dreadful enough to be anointed, officially, "The Armpit of America." I was exorbitantly convinced.

That first visit was in late August. This second one is in early October. In the interim, Everything Changed. With the nation united in mourning and at war, with the Stars and Stripes aflutter in places large and small, slick and hicky, the idea of poking fun at any one part of us became a great deal less funny. The zeitgeist had shifted. Snide was out.

I had to go back, to rethink things.

The road to Battle Mountain is flatter than any cliche -- even pancakes have a certain doughy topology. On this route, there is nothing. No curves. No trees. It is desert, but it is lacking any desert-type beauty. No cacti. No tumbleweeds. None of those spooky cow skulls. The only flora consists of nondescript scrub that resembles acre upon acre of toilet brushes buried to the hilt.

You know you have arrived at Battle Mountain because the town has marked its identity on a nearby hill in enormous letters fashioned from whitewashed rock.

I have returned to this place to find in it not America's armpit, but America's heart. I am here to mine the good in it, to tell the world that Battle Mountain doesn't stink. That is my new challenge.

I hang a right off the highway at the base of the hill, which proudly proclaims, in giant letters:


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