AN AMERICAN PORTRAIT / Sept. 11 – Aug. 21 / Untouched by terror / Ely so deep in lonely Nevada desert, bin Laden probably couldn’t find it

Ely, Nevada

Ely, Nevada – Since Sept. 11, the nation has grappled with what it means to be an American in the wake of a historic tragedy.

Our staff is traveling across the U.S. and the spectrum of the American experience for American Portraits, which will appear through Sept. 11, 2002.

Dennis Danner is slowly bleeding a Budweiser dry at the Hotel Nevada with some pals, slot machines blinking all around. On disability since hurting his back operating a crane, the last thing on his mind is terrorism, let alone the specific terrorism of Sept. 11.

Danner wants a job, like a lot of folks in this tiny town at the edge of nowhere. Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are just names on the satellite TV news, and guffaws erupt at the very concept that they could have much relevance here.
Or pose a threat.

“They’d have to find us first, and that’d be some trick,” Danner says amid his buddies’ chuckles. “They’d probably crash into the desert or some mountain first.”

The back of beyond — that’s what people call this place on the long end of U.S. Highway 50, a road so little used and stunningly empty that animals crouch on its daytime warmth with impunity.

A few feet away from Danner, retired rancher George Bell feeds another handful of nickels into the Keno Plus slot machine and looks up for a moment, his face an impassive mass of leathery wrinkles.

“Nobody ever even mentions terrorists around here, and it beats the hell outta me why they would,” he grunts, turning back to the slot screen. “That’s just city stuff, right?”

That’s how it is in this historic mining outpost of about 4,000 souls nearly a year after four hijacked jetliners exploded America into a new era of war and fear. If there is one place in the nation so far away from anything that life carries on as normal, this is it.

With the last copper mine having shut down three years ago, Ely was already staggering economically by the time the World Trade Center became rubble.

The news from that terrible day had the town buzzing and worried, to be sure, and a few flags went up in windows — but by the end of the week, people were pretty much back to worrying about rattlesnakes, jobs and the teeth-rattling snowstorms set to hit, as usual, in October.


And how could it be any other way? locals ask. Like most American small towns, patriotism runs deep here, but when you live at least four hours’ drive from anything resembling a big city — Ely is 350 miles east of Reno — it’s hard to maintain a high level of panic for long. Or even for days.

There have been no National Guardsmen or cops on bridges here to remind them of what’s going on. No speeches from politicians pledging to defend against “evil-doers.” Nobody within a day’s drive who even knows anybody affected by the attacks in New York or Washington. There’s no military recruiting office.

It is fitting that a crater on Mars is named after this town. The high desert here — Ely is more than a mile above sea level — looks like a desolate planet, an impression driven home all the more when you look at a map and see that it is absolutely the most isolated outpost in the Western United States.

And folks like that just fine.

“As far as I’m concerned, they ought to glass everything from the Red Sea to Pakistan with nukes, but it’s really hard to grasp what it all means when you live this far out,” says Byron Collins, a Persian Gulf Navy veteran who runs a welding shop. “I’m very glad I live here. You feel safe. Away. Down to earth.”

Stand in the middle of Aultman Street, the main drag, on any afternoon and you can swivel your head 360 degrees and see craggy, sagebrush-studded hills or flat desert stretching into empty horizons so far away the skies seem to inhale them. Highway 50, dubbed “the loneliest road in America,” winds through on Aultman, but a lot of times the only thing blowing down the pavement is dust swirls.


Fun for the kids means deer hunting in the hills or cruising through the little downtown, which has all the requisites of remote American life: A J.C. Penney store, an old-timey drugstore, a dot of a City Hall and another dot of a courthouse, and — this being the Silver State — the Hotel Nevada casino and a whorehouse. Houses spread off for several blocks in all directions, mostly bungalows and a lot of dirt yards with abandoned ore buckets, bleached steer skulls and ranch tools as decoration.

Those who live here either were born to it with no choice or were attracted by its isolation. They’re not dumb hicks, they’ll tell you — there are pharmacists, engineers, people with college degrees among the unemployed miners and people tending the dozens of motels serving Highway 50 truckers.

They are just Americans who like to be left alone.

“Ely not only allows you to withdraw from everything — it allows you no choice,” says Frank Jameson, 60, who retired here after a lifetime up close with murderers and disasters as a psychologist on the Pasadena police force. “It’s not that people here aren’t concerned. Their concerns are very specific and local — school, jobs, medical services.

“I can walk around town, and I don’t have to hear about what President Bush is doing about the military, what the anthrax threat is, or any of that stuff, ” he says as the sun sinks over his restored Victorian-style home and kids bat baseballs in the park across the street. “My head is clear here in a way it could never be in Los Angeles.”

Satellite hookups have brought an array of TV channels to Ely during the past decade, but the true conduit for news is still the little Ely Times weekly newspaper. It runs two Alley Oop cartoons in every issue and fills its front page with more practical matters than Afghanistan commando raids, things like Elks Club scholarship winners and when the mobile dental clinic will be in town next.


“We’re not totally cut off from the world — we just have to go out and find it when we need it,” says 85-year-old Dale Miller, whose family has for generations owned the Economy Drug and Old Fashioned Fountain, which isn’t really old-fashioned because it never went out of fashion here. “I’ve seen World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars all come and go, and at least then they needed our copper. Now there’s this, and I must say that even though people were shook up at 9/11 and word about that anthrax, it all passed very quickly.

“The worst thing is the younger generation leaving to get work because the mines closed,” Miller says. “But that’s just the economy. Here that doesn’t have anything to do with planes flying into buildings.”

Ely was incorporated in 1887 as a stagecoach stop — the Pony Express ran right by here, too — and a minuscule silver-mining community, but at the turn of the century it mushroomed to 5,000 people when a cluster of copper mines opened. Over the next 70 years, more than $1 billion in copper was dug from the rough hills, and in the boom times — cyclical with copper demand — luminaries from Gary Cooper to Wayne Newton came to the Hotel Nevada to party.

President Lyndon Johnson even visited once, an irony considering the most famous person born in Ely was PresidentRichard Nixon’s wife, Pat.

But as the mines played out, so did the town’s fortunes. In 1989, the state opened a maximum-security prison 10 miles away, tucked out of view behind a mountain, but the 350 jobs it brought made hardly a ripple in the local economy. Over the 1990s, every mine left in the area closed, erasing thousands of jobs, and since 1999 the population has plummeted 20 percent and the city has continually fought severe budget deficits.

Some folks joke that a terrorism adventure — like the arrest of pipe bomb suspect Luke Helder on the other side of the state in May — might even liven things up.

Fat chance.


Soda clerk Stephanie Hays, 18, allows as much as she whips up a batch of cherry fizzies at Miller’s Old Fashioned Fountain for a trio of high school girls. Dinah Shore croons “Love and Marriage” on the store speakers overhead.

“It sure would be exciting if something like terrorism happened here, but I’m glad it doesn’t,” Hays says, sighing. “We don’t have gangs or even much crime here, and if it wasn’t for TV we wouldn’t know anything about all that stuff.

“Anything bad happens, it’s back East or in California or some other place I’ve never been. And probably never will go to.”

Ely’s population is 90 percent white, and most of the rest are Native American. There’s a heavy Mormon presence in town and no mosques or synagogues to stoke debate over the violent happenings in Israel, a country that may be in everyone’s Bibles but otherwise seems far, far away.

“I’ve never been to a city or seen anyone who’s a Jew or an A-rab, so I couldn’t tell you what that’s like,” says Rosella Whistler, a retired nurse’s aide. She watches her dog, Suzie, rub against an old bathtub that serves as a planter in her front yard, then yanks on her chain when she sniffs too close to a prized steer skull.

“All I know about them in the city is the smog and traffic I see on TV, and I try not to watch too much of that because it depresses me with stuff that never happens here,” Whistler says. “Those terrorists would never come to Ely, so I don’t worry about them.”


If you are what you read, there is probably no better bellwether than Book Ends, the only bookstore in Ely. The best-seller there is still the same as it was before last September — the Audubon Society’s “Sibley Guide to Birds.” Tom Clancy and “Lord of the Rings” are also on the shelves, but there’s nothing resembling the terrorism or Middle East analyses that fill display tables in San Francisco and Berkeley.

“Nobody’s ever asked for any books about Osama-bin-whatsit or any of those other fellers here, so I never ordered any,” owner Faye Mullins says with a grin.

Across the street at the Hotel Nevada, retired prison guard Margaret Ferguson says that even if her neighbors knew every last detail about Al Qaeda’s next move, it wouldn’t make one whit of difference. In fact, soon enough nothing will make much difference because terrorism is just a tiny part of a big story, she says while she methodically jams nickels into the Winning Touch slot machine.

“Armageddon is coming, it says so in the Good Book, and this is as good a place to be as any,” Ferguson says. She’s the fourth person in the past three hours to voice the same fear in random conversations along Main Street, and when told that she nods sagely.

“Yep, we’re no fools here,” Ferguson murmurs, squinting up and taking a long pull off her cigarette. She turns back to her machine. “Armageddon. Mark my words.”