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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Old haunts

“Center of the known Universe,” Gerlach, Nevada. —
“Center of the known Universe,” Gerlach, Nevada. — Russell Wangersky/SaltWire Network

You know what worries me?

Old haunts.

I know that Tom Wolfe took 743 pages to explain in his posthumously-published 1940 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” just the way return trips can be a bad thing. And I’ve only got a handful of words here.

But here goes. There are many places I’ve been where I’d like to go again.

Dotty’s Casino in Sparks, Nev., is a tiny place, especially when compared to the massive Nugget Casino across the street. The Nugget has 1,380 guest rooms. Dotty’s has none. But Dotty’s does have customers drinking tall cold Corona beers for breakfast and, if you want to buy a bottle of bourbon, the staff will unlock the padlock on the metal cage the liquor’s kept in and sell you one. The whole place is dark and smoky and crammed full of stories. Part of the front façade is crumbling and there’s broken glass outside.

In Gerlach, the nearest Nevada town to the huge desert where the massive Burning Man Festival is normally held, there are two commercial establishments practically cheek by jowl. There’s Bruno’s Country Club, “Motel — Café — Casino — Saloon,” and two doors away, the much smaller raw-wood-fronted Miner’s Club. But if Bruno’s runs out of eggs for the breakfast rush — usually, not really all that much of a rush, given the size of the town — sometimes Lacey at the Miner’s will swap them eggs for butter. Lacey also sometimes works at Bruno’s, but at the Miner’s she makes a mean breakfast burrito while truckers hauling everything from steers to bees pull their rigs onto the shoulder of the road and come in.

Part of the front façade is crumbling and there’s broken glass outside.

In Beatty, Nev., Bill the bartender rides herd over the Sourdough Saloon, its pool tables and its 99 varieties of beer — literally, 99 bottles of beer on the wall. Bill’s a veteran of the Iraq war, with a thousand interesting stories about everything from potential smuggling of gold bars to the ownership of random shipping containers of German beer, coupled with a healthy distaste for some South American brews. You can write your name or a message on a dollar bill with a Sharpie, and Bill will stand on the bar and staple it to the ceiling with a thousand more signed bills.

So what is it about these three places, spread across just over 600 kilometres of Nevada desert highway?

Well, when this COVID thing finally ends, I hope to be able to travel again. But I’m also apprehensive, not only because travel seems so very strange just now, but because of what may have happened in places I know surprisingly well, and think of often.

I wonder about what’s happened to the places, and I wonder what’s happened to the people.

What’s different for the Sourdough, but what’s different for Bill at the Sourdough, too? What’s changed for Lacey at the Miner’s Club? Is there even a Dotty’s anymore? (I actually imagine there is. It didn’t seem like a high-cost operation or an expensive investment.)

I know memory is a strange thing, a storage crate of small, medium and large stones that you manage to polish into things that are sometimes much more than the real experience ever was. I also know, just as Thomas Wolfe pointed out, you can’t just step back into a world from the past, no matter how familiar it was to you; during your absence, the place has changed, and, while you might not want to admit it, you have changed as well.

It’s not only home you can’t go back to.

Favourite old haunts might just turn out to be haunted as well.

I know that they’ve changed. I’m afraid of how.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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