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Three more destinations you should visit before the next Nevada Day

David Colborne
David Colborne

Last week, I listed five locations in five of Nevada’s counties that speak to something unique and special about Nevada’s character and history. This week, I present to you three more destinations to consider visiting before the next Nevada Day passes you by — including the obligatory Basque restaurant recommendation all such lists inevitably provide.

Esmeralda County: Goldfield Days

Despite being Nevada’s least populated county, it’s hard to pick just one destination in Esmeralda County to visit.

You could visit Boundary Peak, Nevada’s tallest mountain. Doing so would put you in good company. Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) recently completed the climb, after all.

Be advised, however, that neither the trip nor the climb are for the faint of heart. Cell phone service is largely absent. The road to the trailhead is rough. The trail itself, especially towards the peak, becomes more of a compass direction through loose scree and less of a maintained path.

Hikers sometimes end up in the news, if not in the hospital or a morgue, after trying to ascend it.

If that sounds a little too intense, you could instead visit the only producing lithium mine in the United States. Though Thacker Pass, likely the world’s largest lithium deposit, gets all of the press, it won’t produce any ore for at least another year or two. Consequently, Nevada’s (and our country’s) only source of lithium remains the Abermarle Silver Peak Mine, which is located approximately 20 miles west of Goldfield. 

The evaporation ponds are not only striking when viewed from above, they also provide an otherworldly driving experience.

Boundary Peak and Silver Peak are both unique places and worth a visit. There is one place in Esmeralda County more special than either of them, though — especially during the first week of August.

The place is Goldfield.

Most ghost towns are emptied entirely, left to the elements to slowly but inevitably decay into dust and shrubs. A few ghost towns turn into kitschy tourist traps, filled with souvenir shops and spaghetti western-themed bars. 

Goldfield, by contrast, remains in a unique state of arrested decay. 

Unlike nearby Tonopah, home to both the Mizpah and Belvada hotels, there’s not quite enough left of the town to tastefully gentrify. Rebuilding the Goldfield Hotel, should that ever somehow happen, won’t change the fact that it’s surrounded by a few hundred hardy retirees, a handful of buildings lucky enough to survive the fires and floods that destroyed most of the town roughly a century ago, and little else. There’s still no gas station in Goldfield, though one’s been “under construction” in the southern outskirts of town for years. There are two bars, a restaurant, an old county courthouse and the International Car Forest.

If you visit the Santa Fe Saloon, by the way, bring cash — they don’t take credit cards.

If all of this doesn’t sound exciting, it’s because you’re not visiting at the right time.

Like a desert flower that only blooms for a few days, Goldfield comes alive each and every first weekend in August when it hosts Goldfield Days. For one weekend each year, downtown Goldfield fills with visitors and the doors of the old buildings in Goldfield open. Both the high school and the hotel host tours. If you park your car on either end of town, you can walk through a busy and alive county seat in the desert, watch a parade, and even watch a radio station produce its shows.

Then, after the land auction is done and the visitors go home, the town goes back to its quiet, unassuming self — well, unless you’re driving over the 25 mile per hour posted speed limit.

If you ever do take a moment to experience everything Goldfield Days has to offer, consider driving through Nevada’s only producing lithium mine and taking a closer look at Nevada’s tallest mountain after you’re done. If you’re already in the area, they’re absolutely worth the extra effort.

Eureka County: Diamond Valley

Going to Goldfield Days is about experiencing a uniquely Nevadan adventure.

Going to Diamond Valley is about doing your homework.

As The Nevada Independent previously reported, Diamond Valley is one of the most overtaxed groundwater basins in the state. The basin itself recharges approximately 30,000 acre-feet of water each year. Irrigators, however, have been removing at least twice as much groundwater each year for over four decades. The result has been drying springs, falling wells, and subsidence-caused cracks in the valley floor.

Behind all of this lies generations of systemic regulatory failure.

Imagine, for a moment, a stream with a constant flow of water running through it. Further imagine that you are the first person to choose to irrigate a plot of land using some of the water from this stream.

In an unregulated environment — for the libertarians who are particular about their definitions, by “unregulated,” I mean an environment where water rights aren’t legally or socially recognized — your plot of land will remain irrigated until someone upstream diverts the stream to their plot of land. Since Nevada is a desert and will never have enough water to support every conceivable demand people might make, it’s only a matter of time before someone with more money than you is able to buy out the parcel upstream of yours.

This doesn’t exactly instill the sense of permanence or security needed to encourage you to make long-term investments in your irrigation system, nor will it encourage you to take a long-term view towards your water supply. After all, you’re one backhoe upstream away from losing everything you have.

Now imagine if water were regulated such that, by being the first person to pull water from the stream, you now possess a legal right to pull the same amount of water from the stream into perpetuity. If someone diverts the stream entirely away from your property, you can go to court and make them tear down their diversions. However, if they leave enough water in the stream for you to continue to irrigate your plot, they could irrigate their plot as well — and, by doing so, enjoy the same legal right to water that you enjoy.

That said, if you ever stop irrigating your field or otherwise using the water assigned to you, you’ll lose your water right.

In this idealized example, enforcement of prior appropriation is intuitively straightforward — is there water upstream of your farm or not? If there isn’t, there’s something wrong and the legal system, which has defined your water right, now needs to be induced to go enforce it.

At the idealistically uncomplicated spherical cow level, this is how the doctrine of prior appropriation, which was explicitly designed to regulate scarce water resources, was supposed to work. It was designed to encourage long-term investment by guaranteeing certain access to water once it was used and prevent speculation by requiring users to continually exercise their rights each year.

In the real world, however, water supplies are never constant. Droughts and floods are common, as are routine seasonal variations. Consequently, it’s possible for the government to recognize a water right based on prior appropriation during a wet year and continue to recognize said water right through a decade of subsequent wet years. When an inevitable drought occurs, will the government accept its legal responsibility to cut off water supplies to someone who’s invested a decade of effort, tax dollars and votes into the community?

What if the drought is bad enough and long enough to require the government to cut off water entirely from the majority of the voters in the community, leaving only the first few senior water rights holders whole?

This is the question facing every source of water in the western United States. Is the doctrine of prior appropriation really strong enough to ensure that, for example, farmers in the Imperial Valley in California, who have some of the most senior water rights on the river, automatically gets water for its produce farms before Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix?

A possible answer to that question may be presenting itself in Diamond Valley, where the state recognized water rights well in excess of anything nature could sustainably provide for several decades and wells are beginning to run dry. Instead of shutting off the wells of every junior water rights holder, an alternative groundwater plan was developed that encourages every water rights holder to reduce their water use. This market-driven plan, if it’s successfully implemented, will allow everyone currently in the valley to continue living and farming, albeit at a significantly reduced scale.

Under the proposed plan, senior water rights holders receive more shares than junior water rights holders. They would not, however, receive enough shares to be made completely whole. To make up for that loss, water rights holders will be able to do something under the new plan that the doctrine of prior appropriation currently doesn’t allow — keep water in the ground without losing access to future water rights.

Will it work? With the Nevada Supreme Court’s recent blessing, we’re about to find out. 

It’s not very often you have the opportunity to witness a major paradigm shift in how water is allocated in real time. Even if you only drive through the valley on the way to somewhere else, take a good look around.

Humboldt County: The Martin Hotel

I don’t know if it’s legally allowable to write a list of must-see destinations in Nevada without including at least one Basque restaurant. To avoid pushing my luck, then, consider this an invitation to visit The Martin Hotel in Winnemucca.

Though The Martin Hotel is once again unique to Winnemucca now that its Carson City location is closed, Basque food more generally is not unique to Nevada, much less Winnemucca. There is, of course, Louis’ Basque Corner in Reno, Villa Basque Cafe in Carson City, J.T. Basque in Gardnerville, and also The Star, Toki Ona and Ogi Deli in Elko. There is also the Brass Rail in Alturas, California, nearly half a dozen Basque restaurants in Bakersfield, and Basque restaurants in both the Bay Area and Southern California.

The Martin Hotel, however, is considerably older than most of them. Originally established in 1913, The Martin Hotel has served Basque food in the same building ever since. It is also, geographically speaking, the closest one can get to eating at the original home of the Winnemucca coffee — the Winnemucca Hotel, which opened in 1863 and was demolished a few years ago.

There is a long-established hagiography of Basque food and Basque culture more generally in Nevada. As the story goes, Basque shepherds migrated to the western United States in significant numbers in the late 19th century and brought their cuisine with them. The Star in Elko and The Martin in Winnemucca are both products and remnants of that wave, as were former Nevada governor Paul Laxalt’s parents.

That, however, was over a century ago. Most of Nevada’s Basque restaurants are of a more recent vintage — Louis’ Basque Corner, for example, opened in 1967. What gives?

The answer, it may turn out, may have more to do with immigration policy following World War II. Sen. Pat McCarran, Nevada’s most notorious deceased senator, established a program to bring in additional Basque immigrants during the 1940s and 1950s to provide cheap labor for Nevada’s ranches. This likely brought fresh interest in native Basque culture and a renewed demand for Basque restaurants at a time when they otherwise might have disappeared.

All of that, of course, happened several decades ago as well. The demolition of the Winnemucca Hotel, as well as the closure of the Santa Fe Hotel in Reno, strikingly demonstrate that many of the seemingly timeless traditions and institutions we’re surrounded by are every bit as mortal as we are. With the end of large-scale Basque immigration behind us, it’s only a matter of time before many of the institutions Basque shepherds originally relied upon — either in the 19th century or after World War II — close for lack of interest or evolve into something else.

The Martin Hotel is among the last of a dying breed. Enjoy it while it’s still here.

After you do, consider driving the Winnemucca to the Sea Highway. If you’re the sort of person who gets agoraphobic thinking about Goldfield Days, this drive through some of the most remote parts of Nevada, Oregon and California will be right up your alley.

David Colborne ran for public office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Bluesky or email him at [email protected]


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