As far as you can see, the desert is littered with broken dreams.
Way off to the southwest, broiling in a bruise-colored haze, are the Funeral Mountains; beyond them the Mojave and the valley named for death. Forty miles the other way are Yucca Flat and the Nevada Test Site. In between is some of the meanest country in America.
For centuries, man has tried and failed to tame the fearsome waste. But now a gay casino worker from Reno has turned this arid horseshoe basin on the back edge of nowhere into the most celebrated boom burg in Nevada. And created in the process, for many of the region's longtime residents, the Fastest Growing Nightmare in the West.
The nearby hamlet of Beatty has thrown a civic tantrum. ABC, NBC and CNN have sent film crews; The Sacramento Bee came; USA Today and People were expected, as were Time and the Times of London. Rubberneckers gawked. Threats, insults and a daily fusillade of snipes ricocheted around the rockscape and out to the remotest dun burrows of Nye County.
All because of Fred Schoonmaker's plan to convert a ruin-pocked ghost town called Rhyolite into the nation's first city expressly "oriented toward gay and lesbian life styles."
This in a place that is manifestly un-oriented to mammalian life itself, let alone styles. It's a two-day ride to the nearest canape'; the only phone is a coin-op job that works about as often as Prince Charles and doesn't even have a number; and you could count the light bulbs on the Venus de Milo's fingers. But the settlers didn't have much choice. "We concluded," Schoonmaker says, "that what we needed was a piece of land nobody else wanted, with a highly motivated seller." That's Rhyolite right down to the dirt.
At the turn of the century, this town (named for a volcanic form of granite) was a gelt-giddy metropolis of 12,000 souls, boasting three railroad lines, five newspapers, sundry banks and a battalion of hookers -- all supported by the greenish ore torn, pried and blasted from these stingy hills. Then the gold ran out. So did the people. And the town sank simultaneously into history and into the parched and splintered rubble that remains, along with wild burros, jackrabbits and a few thousand rattlesnakes.
Until mid-October, that is, when Schoonmaker showed up. His Reno corporation had signed a purchase contract with the town's owners and sk,2 sw,-2 was expecting 25 or more "pioneer" residents by mid-December, maybe 75 by spring, hoping eventually to house the uncloseted legions in a number of 225-square-foot cabins. Plenty for volleyball, maybe -- but a city? "Well, this minority covers everything from busboys to neurosurgeons. And if there really are between 24 and 30 million of us, it shouldn't be impossible. But you gotta find 'em, that's the problem."
In Downtown Rhyolite
So is finding the town. The highway marker for the turn to Rhyolite has been spray-painted black. A larger sign advertising the Bottle Shop Museum is aerosoled in bright red: "Save Our Children From AIDS." A road leads north along the curve of the hills, past the smaller ghost town of Bullfrog, past the broken carcasses of the old school, the bank, the jail, till it ends at a parking lot in the lee of the ridge.
To the left, a flat-tired pickup sits in front of the old red railroad caboose where Schoonmaker, 44, lives with his lover of 15 years, Alfred Parkinson, 37. To the right is the original train depot, well preserved and now called the Rhyolite Ghost Saloon. A black-faced "jockey boy" statue stands at the edge of the wide porch where four dogs of generously mixed pedigree doze in the warm desert sun.
Inside, Jim Spencer, Rhyolite's coowner and resident administrator, is standing behind the long mahogany bar, grumpily mixing drinks for the couple who just growled in on a full-dress Harley. He's giving it all the enthusiasm of a convict on his third day of work release. Carrying the highballs past the sumptuously mirrored and paneled backdrop, he manages to sink a finger in each drink. The decor is spare: a few tables, a wood stove, some period prints, a row of slot machines, one of which works. On the cash register is a sign reading: "Warning: Premises Protected by Giant Frogs." Next to the front door is a wooden box for contributions to the restoration fund.
Spencer returns, drops an elbow on the bar, exhales deeply and palms the back of his neck. The slicked-back hair is bleached yellow on top, brown underneath. He's been here four dusty years. An Indianapolis native fascinated since boyhood with the Gold Rush era, he moved west early, working as a reporter, publisher, preservationist and all-purpose drifter before striking pay dirt with Rhyolite. "I've always wanted to see one of these old towns restored," he says. "But we just ran into one snag after another." He stubs out a Players and scuttles off to dump the ashtray.
Back in 1983, when the property became available following the death of one Fredrica Heisler, Spencer and Tom Beam, a major landowner and developer from Las Vegas, saw the glint of further profits in those hills. They formed a trust, bought about 400 acres outright at a court auction for $ 325,000 and started getting options on more. The plan was to restore the town as it had been in 1908 by finding investors to put in about $ 15 million. Tourism was brisk in nearby Death Valley. A substantial retirement population was contemplated. Never mind that it was raw desert. Hadn't the neon Babel of Vegas risen from the same barren stone-scrap?
Months passed. Bills rolled in. The trust recruited another partner. There were interim schemes for an RV park, for a 1,200-acre veterans' cemetery ("The architect said it would hold 7 million people," Spencer says), for state or federal funding. Dry holes all. And still no investors.
When nothing had panned out by this summer, Spencer, 43, says, "My partners said, 'Enough is enough.' " They would sell out. He mentioned the situation to Rob Schlegel, editor and publisher of the Bohemian Bugle, a gay newspaper serving Las Vegas and Reno. Schlegel knew a fella named Schoonmaker with a few bucks, a few recruits and big ideas. Finally Schoonmaker's consortium offered to buy the partners' property and assume their now-substantial debts. The total bill would come to $ 2.25 million, with the first installment due Dec. 15.
Spencer, not a man to look you straight in the eye these days, dumps the ashtray again. "I'd like to see one of these ghost towns put back right," he says. "There are so many bad ones, tourist traps. And who knows, they could make it work."
Dream and Nightmare
When the story broke in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Beatty -- a sleepy blue-collar town of 1,000 only 4 1/2 miles from Rhyolite -- was outraged. City fathers fumed: "I don't think [Spencer] can walk down this street safely," said Nye County Commissioner Bob Revert. Schoolchildren sniggered. "Yesterday they were calling Rhyolite 'Gayolite,' " said a local teacher. And for every voice like bartender David Kenney down at the Outpost ("Gays' money is as good as anybody's"), there was a louder one opposed.
Loudest of all were elected officials, chief among them Revert, the closest thing this unincorporated town has to a government official: "This is not San Francisco. This is redneck country. When they get to the Nye County line they cease being gays. They turn into queers."
Schoonmaker shot back, calling Revert and his supporters "bigots" and suggesting that "maybe they should all go to Florida and sell orange juice with Anita Bryant."
And then, just when Beatty least wished the attention, the press stampeded. Not all were equally conversant with the colorful ways of the old West. When a female reporter from a British magazine demanded to see the mayor of Beatty, she was dutifully directed to Al (Gooch) Bates, a toothless geezer yanking at the lever of a slot machine. In response to her earnest queries, His Honor made hideous rubbery faces, produced a few stentorian snorts and finally roared, "Woman, you are built like a donkey!"
"I suppose he actually is the mayor," says Bob Lowes, 55, editor-publisher of the weekly Death Valley Gateway Gazette. "But the way it works here is that every year there are jam jars placed around the stores and casinos. If you put in a quarter, you can vote for both 'mayor' and town ass. He was elected."
Two weeks after the initial press blitz, Revert is somewhat less exercised. A thick, red-faced man with a snap-button shirt and Wayne Newton moustache, he's sitting behind the cash register down at his cinder block MiniServ convenience store and Shell station.
Homosexuality, he says, "is totally unacceptable here. This is a mining town, a construction town. Quiet. People move here because they like the life style." What with the nuclear dump and atomic test site right next door, "our people have already done their fair share." He shakes his head at the plain damn unfairness of it. "We accept atomic waste. We don't accept the gay community."
"The town is very uptight about it," says Lowes. "I've tried to treat it with humor." Western-style, of course: When the deal was first announced, Lowes ran a full-page headline reading "Happy Gays Are Here Again."
"I love the irreverence of Twain" (once a mining-town journalist himself), says Lowes, a hearty, squint-wrinkled veteran of the Los Angeles Times and several other papers, founder of a now-defunct California sports magazine and owner of the Gazette for the past 4 1/2 years. Lowes, his wife Helaine, an assistant named Ginger Snapp and some part-timers write the stories, take the photos, edit the copy, make the plates and deliver the paper in his big sedan with the heavy-duty shocks. "I'm not making anywhere near the money I used to," Lowes says, grinning. "But on the other hand, I don't have to shave."
Pilgrims in the Desert
By mid-November, Rhyolite was getting a couple hundred tourists a week. To see the ghost town -- or to stare at its would-be resurrectors? "Possibly both," sighs Schoonmaker, who sometimes wonders if he's quite getting the point across. "There was this nice couple, stopped here in their little camper. I'm standing out here talking with them, and the wife says, 'You're such a nice young man. What are you going to do when those people show up?' I tried to explain to her that I am those people." He shakes his head and ponders the floor as the chuckle subsides to a frown.
Meanwhile, the pilgrims were drifting in. "Wow!" says Tony Pflaum, 24, an improbable pioneer in his boyish shag mop of hair, blousy black shirt and baggy trousers. "There isn't really much to this place. But I have to keep a positive attitude."
For Pflaum, that's never been easy. "When I was younger, you know," he says, "I was an airhead. I didn't know how to be gay, what it was like." Confused, shunned by his California parents, estranged from his culture, he'd been living in Chicago with some relatives, working "as a maid." "I was beaten up several times," but "I'm not running away from my problems. I mean, I had straight As, no police record -- I'm a really nice kid. I just want to be able to walk down the street without having a brick hit me upside the head."
So when he got word of the Rhyolite experiment, he was excited. He hopped a bus, detoured into California and wound up in the desert. "I walked all the way from Beatty to here with about 100 pounds of luggage." He'll be spending the night on a sofa in the caboose. But so what? "This is where I'm going to be setting my roots for, you know, probably the rest of my life." He stares out at the roadside. Shreds of gust-borne litter, snagged in the sagebrush, twitch in the breeze. "I want to put in a tobacco shop," Pflaum says. "With a carved Indian out front."
It's an odd billet for utopia. Twenty yards down the hill from Pflaum, one is suddenly horrified to see what looks like a banshee chain gang marching toward the road. There on the sand-scabbed flats above Bullfrog stand 13 pallid, wraithlike shapes -- "ghost images," as Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski calls the components of his "Last Supper." The figures were made in 1984 by draping wet plaster sheets over live models, letting the forms dry and then covering the result with thick fiberglass. He had wanted to donate the piece to Death Valley -- which, as the lowest, hottest, driest place in the United States, resembles the Holy Land. But the Park Service demurred, and the icons wound up here beneath the rotting timbers of an old mine hole.
The figures substantially outnumber the immigrants, but Schoonmaker is pragmatic. "The gay community is probably not going to get behind us until we've been sitting here for six months or so. Or until somebody gets shot or the Klan marches up the road." Schoonmaker, bone-thin and flannel voiced, is no practiced activist. "Sometimes it takes you until after 40 to decide what you want to do when you grow up."
Understandably. "I was 5 years old when I really came to the realization that, maybe I was not gay, but definitely different." It was Christmas in Wellsburg, W. Va., a river town north of Wheeling and near the steel plant where his father worked. His uncle "was bringing his fiance'e home for everyone to meet. I was sitting over by the tree playing with the little truck. She had on a long dark green coat with a fur collar. I was rather unfriendly. In fact, I was rather hostile. I wanted him to pay attention to me." For months afterward, "I kept asking, 'What's different about me?' " At 9 he found out, with "the kid over the hill, a Seminole Indian. He was 11."
By the time he was 14, he was scrounging pop bottles for the $ 1.25 bus fare to Pittsburgh, where there was a gay bar. Somebody there would always pay his way back. "My goodness," he says, shaking his head, "I don't know where my parents thought I was going."
Westward, as it turned out. When his parents separated, his father took him to Reno and after high school he gravitated into the casino trades, working the slots and restaurants, dealing a little twenty-one, living with Parkinson, an oddly elusive man whom one always seems to see just disappearing around the edge of a building.
"You get tired of all the daily jokes, the humiliation. If you're not gay or lesbian, there's no way to put yourself in that position. I was never beat up or anything. But you don't have to be the victim of a fag-bashing every six weeks. Being a Virgo, it's the little things that get me nervous." Eventually, "I basically came to the agreement that this is the thing I am most disturbed about in my life. And if I can make it a little easier for someone coming up behind me, make alive something along the way ..."
So three years ago in Reno, he established a fund called Stonewall Park Inc. (named after the Greenwich Village bar where embattled gays fought back), solicited contributions, hustled funding through a newspaper called Gay Life Reno and tried to launch the National Association of Lesbians and Gays ("basically to back Stonewall Park financially"). He sent mailings to gay groups around the country asking for opinions about founding "a community that was exclusively gay or at least oriented to a gay and lesbian life style."
A national gay-rights representative in Washington, unwilling to comment for attribution about Schoonmaker's plan, said the group "hasn't appealed to any national organizations for help" and suggested that the venture has been viewed with considerable skepticism by mainstream gay activist groups.
"The idea came from conversations Alfred and I had about having an actual, socially accepted relationship, about being able to walk down the street holding hands."
Like San Francisco? "You move to a big city and you become anonymous. You're not making any statement, not providing an educational experience that everyone can participate in."
Sons of the Pioneers
He could have done worse than Rhyolite. The West condones, even thrives on, idiosyncrasy. In the frontier era, one had to tolerate his neighbor or have his complaint adjudicated by Colt Arms. Besides, no enemy was as treacherous as nature itself -- especially here on the desert floor.
So folks generally tend to abide each other's odd points. Listen, for example, to Evan Thompson III, 55, Beatty's garbage man and the gay enclave's closest neighbor. You'll find him out in the flats below the depot, where he lives with his wife and youngest children in a frame dwelling with the American flag painted on the roof.
Chickens scratch through mounds of car parts; a piebald cat creeps under the big dish antenna on which has been painted "Nuke Khadafi Now." And there past the sign that says "Nuclear Freezin' Is Russian Roulette," over on the porch of the Bottle House Museum (a squat cabin whose walls are made of beer bottles and mortar), Thompson is working at one of his hand-painted T-shirts, covering the fresh white BVD with a cartoon of a cretinous, one-toothed Soviet soldier. A couple of accidental paint spots have dripped near the face. He frowns down. "Hmm. Guess I'll turn 'em into flies." Stuck to the window over his head is a big picture of Ronald Reagan and a bumper sticker that reads: "God Said It, I Believe It, and That Settles It."
Thompson, in Oshkosh overalls and an inky fresco of tattoos up each arm, is a man of wide interests and firm opinions. He has a permit from the state to educate his kids at home -- where they can join him when the F15s scream by overhead and Thompson goes running out to wave the big American flag on the seven-foot pole. He has National Review and a heap of other magazines and C-Span off the big dish. He watches "Crossfire" and "60 Minutes" and "The 700 Club." He's not bothered by nuclear waste -- "I'm a garbage man, you pick up what people make. They like to make us conservatives out to be warmongers. I just don't like the other guy parking his tank in my yard."
As for the Gay Goshen, "I don't think it's gonna work. They like the finer things -- opera, cultured things. But this," sweeping a hand across the horizon, "this is pretty rough country. If you want theaters, grass, shade -- even a 7-Eleven store! -- they're just not here." Don't get him wrong, though: "I'm a fundamentalist Christian and I do not approve of that life style. But I'm against adultery and fornication, too. I can't stop it and it's none of my business. You can't run around going behind people's doors. We'd all have to get out our swastika suits."
So he's not about to pick on such local attractions as Fran's Star Ranch ("We May Doze, But Never Close") either. Prostitution is legal in Nye County. And to many residents, the homey little brothel with the private airstrip and extra-wide parking spaces for the 16-wheeler trade is regarded as a sort of essential community service. In fact, when Fran's place burned down a while back, the townspeople pitched in and raised $ 5,000 toward the new red-brick rambler a couple miles outside town.
You can't miss it, not with the wreck of that big twin-engine Beech that missed the runway still sitting there like an allegory of misguided lust, next to the big elevated sign. Fran York, a plumply cheery woman, swats away her cat Mojo and takes a seat in the parlor. "Gays? Wouldn't affect me at all. I've had some in here. I sell 'em T-shirts and jackets and caps. But they stay with their own." Still, "the AIDS scare has hurt business, ever since Rock Hudson." Now the health regulations call for monthly tests for AIDS in addition to weekly VD checkups. Fran, who worked Nebraska and Deadwood, S.D., before coming here in 1971, snorts in disgust. "They don't have to tell me what to do. I've been in the business since I was 15."
Not everyone, however, is so sanguine. Take Bill Huffine, 62, a moon-faced former circus clown who manages the Lori Motel a block off the highway. He's got nothing against your exotic amusements, mind you: One of his rooms has a 9-foot 2-inch circular bed with the vibrator gizmo and mirrors on the ceiling. And nothing against gays, exactly. It just that "what the whole thing boils down to," he says, peering up with huge glassy eyes, "is the Dread Disease of AIDS." It comes out in one piece -- DreadiseaseofAIDS -- like one of those lumpy German compound nouns. Not to mention, he mentions delicately, the, um, zero-base birth rate. "This is a town they want? Well, you can't start a baby-sitting service there, can you? You can start a funeral home, a mortuary, if you see what I mean."
Huffine knows something about dreams. He and his wife Betty ("We're collectors") have turned the Lori -- 54 rooms made from old prefab housing units once used by the Air Force -- into a sort of snooze-time theme park. You can stay in the Gladys Knight Room, replete with four of the noted diva's gold records, a water bed set and a slew of Knight memorabilia. Or try the oriental chamber; it's got a rickshaw with a dummy in it. The Temptation Room has 1,000 pieces of junk jewelry hung from the walls by cup hooks. The Don't Give a Hoot Room features owls; the Bunny Room, Playboy centerfolds. And they're not finished: "Hey Buckaroo!" reads the Lori brochure. "We need old saddles and bridal gear for our 'Horsin' Around Room.' "
"But my real dream," says Huffine, eyes bright as glass doorknobs, "is something really outlandish." Namely, a set of time-share condos perched on the bleak rock ridge to the east, with a commanding view of downtown Beatty. "It could happen ..."
Yucca Flat and All That
And right now, it seems much more likely than the Rhyolite restoration. After weeks of strategic bickering, the purchase has been on and off three times, the price renegotiated repeatedly, the faith of both parties fractured. As of yesterday, the deal seemed dead again. Spencer says his group has "listed the property with a real estate firm," though "we've given Schoonmaker's people until the 15th." Schoonmaker says, "We just couldn't get together on price and water rights." Says engineer Bob Coache of the state Division of Water Resources, "There's a real water quantity and quality problem there."
A dollar quantity problem, too. Schoonmaker concedes that his group never raised more than $ 6,000 from outside sources, and he says they're now looking at a nice little 40-acre alfalfa spread east of Reno. Whatever happens, he wants to take his stand in Nevada, since it's "one of the most backward" cultures about gay rights. In addition, it "thrives on tourism." In another state, the town would have to have a mainstream economy, and "it's not likely that we could get American Can or Ford to build a plant."
Not, at least, under the original town plan approved by the Nevada legislature, under which the town would be meticulously restored to its original state, severely restricting merchants' options. Under those viselike stipulations, you don't exactly get burger barons or denim lords scratching for a piece of the action.
In fact, many real estate developers would find the whole region somewhat less than fully inviting. Leaving aside the limitations of Beatty, which has a half-dozen saloons but lacks such tenderfoot amenities as a supermarket (most folks drive 115 miles to shop in Vegas) or a full-time doctor, there's the matter of the Yucca Flat Nuclear Test Site as well as the nation's first high-level nuclear waste repository at nearby Yucca Mountain. And the antinuclear protesters that both facilities attract. (Actor Martin Sheen popped in to get busted at a Nov. 17 demonstration.)
Put it all together, and it's not exactly Coral Gables. But it is the mountain West -- still a psychic frontier if no longer a territorial one -- and there is something in these gaping skies and mesquite-riddled wastes that has drawn men toward their visions for 125 years and does so still.
Tony Pflaum's sneakers scuff up little puffs of dust. He's walking the long road up to the depot, head bent, hands shoved deep in his pockets. "Most of my life, I was always in fear that people would find out I was gay. Then when I heard about Rhyolite ..." He pauses. The thought is too big to fit in the words. "I mean, not to be promiscuous. But to be free, to be comfortable. With people who are just like me. It's a dream to me."