Friday, Aug. 19, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s note: Twenty-five years ago this summer, Life magazine named U.S. Highway 50, as it crosses Central Nevada, the loneliest road in America. A photo of a straight stretch of empty highway fixed it in the national imagination as a symbol of the state’s vast emptiness. To mark the anniversary of the Life photo, columnist J. Patrick Coolican and photographer Leila Navidi drove the length of U.S. 50 in Nevada to examine issues important in the rural communities along the highway, meet its people and explore loneliness in the hyper-connected age.
ELY — About as far away as anyplace you can possibly be and still be in the United States, but it’s right in the middle of everywhere.
That was the saying of a late friend of Ed Spear, executive director of the White Pine County Tourism & Recreation Board.
It sounds like a joke, like something out of a Christopher Guest movie-parody of a small Nevada town. I’m not even sure what “middle of everywhere” means, but somehow it feels charmingly true in Ely.
Ely ignores the assumption that our smallest communities are not just remote but dull, and, through hard work and vision and collaboration, the town of 4,000 strives for a little greatness.
I see it when Pat Rogers gives us a tour of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, which operates century-old steam locomotives — the “Ghost Train” that a couple dozen people paid $24 each on a recent Monday to ride the Keystone Route toward Ruth, a tiny town, through the old tunnel. The coal fire is just visible inside the black beast, and cinders settle on my notebook. The place has a few paid employees, but is sustained by volunteers.
In town, where an arts-and-crafts fair was being held, the buildings are covered in murals. A bit more than a decade ago, after the copper mine closed, the townspeople got together to do something about the disturbing new blight. They raised money and brought in artists, and Ely is now home to 26 murals, the theme of which is “Where the world met and became one.”
(Perhaps this mural idea could be used to dress up the half-finished Echelon on the Strip.)
One mural is called “United by our Children,” which depicts a big American flag with a multicultural array of children. As Spear explains, we all came here segregated by ethnicity and language, but our children went to the same public schools and we all became Americans.
Ely hosted the International Global Mural Conference.
The middle of everywhere.
Now, though, people in Ely fear they are about to be cut off from the world.
A federal program called Essential Air Service heavily subsidizes the one daily flight out of Ely Airport, and with budget cutting the in-thing these days, the subsidy would seem to be in jeopardy.
Great Lakes Airlines flew 52 passengers from Ely to Las Vegas in June and 64 in July, more than double the totals from last year, when the airline only flew to Denver.
The subsidy amounted to a whopping $3,700 per passenger last year. But Mike Coster, airport director, says that if you add passengers coming into Ely, and the increased passenger counts of recent months, the subsidy is more like $1,197.
Many of the passengers are mine engineers or workers on the new north-south transmission line, which is seen as key to the development of renewable energy in the state.
There’s no bus service to Ely, and it’s as far from a real airport as just about any place in the country, about 240 miles from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
The people here help each other, and they have to, as it’s easy to get stranded if your car breaks down, which is why the airport is so important.
“It’s our only link to the outside world,” Mayor Jon Hickman says.
So, should the rest of us subsidize Ely?
This is a classic case where the free market won’t provide something we’ve collectively deemed to be a social good — keeping little towns connected to the rest of the world — so we use our tax dollars to do it.
There are many other examples of this. An interesting parallel is the Rural Electric Administration, a New Deal program that brought thousands of rural communities — literally — out of the dark by providing electric service when it made no financial sense for private utilities to do so. This is just one example of federal largesse for rural communities, which have relied on federal support for roads, flood control, farm subsidies.
A more recent parallel is the transmission line outside Ely that I mentioned earlier, which wouldn’t be happening without federal loan guarantees.
(If you’re keeping score at home, what else has the federal government done in the past century or so that no one else could have done? Beat the Axis and won the Cold War; built the Interstate Highway System; ended racial apartheid in the American South; significantly curbed elderly poverty through Medicare and Social Security; put men on the moon; cleaned up — to some degree — the Great Lakes and a bunch of Superfund sites; and invented the Internet through the Defense Advanced Research Agency.)
The paradox here is that rural Nevada is ground zero for the state’s Tea Party movement, which rests on the principle of more or less dismantling the federal government. Sen. Harry Reid, who is Ely’s only shot at keeping air service and is more responsible than anyone for the transmission line, lost to Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle by more than 40 points in White Pine County.
If I were an ungracious sort, I might say it’s time that Ely drink the tea that it hath brewed.
Next stop: Eureka.