Pioneering spirit lives on in rural Esmeralda County

Updated December 2, 2017 - 11:44 pm

ESMERALDA COUNTY — They’re the Thelma and Louise of Nevada’s unpeopled expanse.

Advanced EMTs Val Trucksa and Nancy Knighten race along lonely backroads to dispense what they call “medicine in a ditch,” responding to calls across 3,500 square miles in an isolated county with the nation’s second-lowest population density.

Each time they leave “the barn,” the two best friends begin another life-and-death mission rushing patients they know by first name to the nearest full-service hospital that’s not exactly around the bend.

Actually, it’s located 70 miles away — in California.

(Las Vegas Review-Journal)

In more than a decade, they’ve never lost a patient in their medical dashes across an area the size of Rhode Island, a county with a people-to-land ratio rivaling the Australian Outback. All that despite snake bites, people slamming into wandering cows and horses in the dead of night, and violent two-vehicle collisions.

“It’s a huge, huge territory,” Knighten says. “But we have a rule: Nobody dies inside our ambulance. Nobody has a baby, either.”

The aging volunteers — Trucksa is 69 and Knighten is 73 — wonder how long they can keep going. But in a county with a population density of one resident every 4 square miles — the second-lowest in the contiguous U.S. after Loving County, Texas — ready replacements are hard to find.

Lifestyle not for everyone

With 964 full-time residents scattered halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, Esmeralda County provides a snapshot into what demographers say is a fast-disappearing rural way of life in the American West.

Residents eke out an existence in a place with no incorporated communities, no high schools, no traffic signals and just a handful of stop signs. About 350 inhabitants live in the county seat of Goldfield, 150 in Silver Peak and another 350 in the westernmost Fish Lake Valley, a 45-mile-long oasis of greenery amid the desolate spread of high desert.

In tiny Dyer, the valley’s social hub and home base of the EMTs, there are no doctors and no medical facilities. The nearest hospital is across the state line in Bishop, the closest chain grocery store is 70 miles away, the jail 84 miles distant.

Esmeralda County has three times as many miles of dirt road (1,500) as it does paved highway (458). The Fish Lake Valley has two resident deputies who can drive hundreds of miles on a call.

“When you get into your patrol car on a call, you know you have a long ways to go,” Deputy Sheriff Ken Aldrich says.

The last homicide was in 2013, the next-previous killing 25 years before that. Still, residents are used to protecting themselves. Many carry concealed weapons, and a sign posted inside the Dyer general store bears two six-shooters and reads: “We Don’t Dial 911.”

Life in the slow lane

Paved roads and electricity didn’t reach the Fish Lake Valley until the early 1960s. Even today, when any of the 45 students graduate from the elementary/middle school, they face a four-hour round-trip bus ride to the nearest high school in Tonopah in adjacent Nye County.

There’s an easy-going, don’t-rush-me approach to life. But a sense of hardship lurks. Out here, houses are dirt-cheap, but home loans are a hassle because banks are skittish about the long distances to doctors, hospitals and fire stations. Some residents are retirees, others are farmers, still others are outsiders who have come here to restart or stay lost.

The shifting state economy has eroded the population. By 2035, census studies show, that 964-person population will drop 22 percent to just 753.

And Esmeralda County has plenty of company.

“A lot of these smaller rural counties across America are facing similar issues,” Nevada State Demographer Jeff Hardcastle says. “There are fewer people because of a smaller and not very diverse economic base.”

Those left in the agricultural Fish Lake Valley point to a lack of traffic, direct contact with nature, a proud sense of self-sufficiency and a code of conduct that makes people feel not like neighbors, but family.

Around here, if somebody gets sick, people go visit or pass the hat. If a vehicle breaks down, they stop and help. Reminded there are no stoplights, one quips: “We don’t need a stoplight.”

The place has a sense of humor. One of the valley’s two bars is called The Boonies. A T-shirt for sale in the general store reads “Where the hell is Dyer?” while another shows a road mileage sign that says “ End of the World: 9 mi. Dyer, Nev: 12 mi.”

Ralph Keyes, an alfalfa farmer and county commissioner, says the county isn’t rich. “There’s a trade-off here,” he says. “We don’t expect a lot from you, so don’t expect a lot from us.”

Country life requires common sense, he says. “You have to have a hardy pioneering spirit,” Keyes adds. “If you want street lights and curbs, stay in the city.”

Still, he worries about preserving his conservative and independent way of life. Farming has its bad years, and that new lithium mine up in Silver Peak won’t boost the economy forever.

“Sooner or later, it’ll play out,” he says. “It’ll be gone.”

Every day he spends in the blissful middle-of-nowhere reminds him why he came here more than a decade ago.

“This morning, I was up at 4 a.m. I rode an open tractor and watched the sun rise. I smelled the hay and watched the coyotes trot out of the fields, with the cool air and sun on my face.”

He pauses, reliving the moment.

“Just being part of that keeps me here. The smells, the sights, the taste of dirt in your mouth.”

Roots run deep

The two Hudson brothers are taking a break from their chores, resting under the shade of an elm tree their father planted generations ago.

Rodney Hudson, now 74, remembers a time without electricity when you went to bed when the sun went down. The brothers left in the 1970s when jobs were hard to find. Now retired, they’re back in Nowheresville and loving every minute of it.

For years, Darrell Hudson, 69, lived in Las Vegas, where traffic throbbed 24 hours a day and people acted like they owned the road. He crosses his arms, leaning back on a parked ATV.

“I think our rush hour is going on right now,” he says. “We might have two or three cars an hour. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them go by.”

The brothers relish the fact their county is financially solvent, a place with so little bureaucracy there are no building or permit officials poking their noses into your business.

“You build a house out here, and if it falls on your head, well, that’s on you,” Darrell says. “You say, ‘I shouldn’t have done that. I won’t do it next time.’”

Not everyone fathoms their mindset. Darrell tells the story of a friend who visited from San Francisco many years ago. He shook hands with the brothers, looked around and said, “This is the boonies! This is ridiculous!”

Then he got back into his car and drove away.

“It was too wide open for him,” Rodney says matter-of-factly. “He couldn’t take the nothingness.”

The brothers share a laugh. “He’d still be freaked out, even today,” Darrell says. “Because not much has changed around here.”

General store owner Linda Williams moved to the valley as a girl in the late 1950s. At just under 5 feet tall, she’s a “spark plug” who fires a Type-A personality in a laid-back town.

A few years ago, at age 65, she finished off getting her law degree. Along with running the general store, she operates a local museum, is writing a history of the valley and also pens children’s books.

Decades ago, when her family sold property here, she stressed to newcomers how rough the living could be. “People would ask ‘Do you have city water? City sewer?” And I’d say, ‘No, we don’t even have a city.’”

Still, many have relocated here, moving into a small subdivision outside town. They eventually realized that at 5,000 feet of altitude, the air is thin, the winter hard and the wind often blows.

“If you can’t survive a power outage for two or three days, don’t know how to store food items or can’t light a kerosene lamp, you shouldn’t be here,” she said.

While Williams has put the general store up for sale and plans on living in Dyer only part-time, she knows she’ll miss the slow life — the kinship of neighbors and the fact she can roam the valley in a truck with a broken tail light and not get bothered by police.

She, too, worries about the future of the place. “There’s not enough around here to keep the young people from getting bored and the old people from dying,” she said.

In Dyer, life revolves around the picnic tables outside Williams’ general store. One afternoon, Phil Todd suddenly got talkative. Now 55, he moved here because of health issues. At first, the place scared him to death.

“I looked around and said, ‘Oh my God, what’s there to do?” he says. “Three months later, I realized there weren’t enough hours in the day. There’s the local hot springs, gold panning, rock hunting and old mines and ghost towns to explore.”

‘Never been happier’

Not many people owe the serenity of the Fish Lake Valley for saving their life. But Greg Dedera does.

A few years ago, while working in Colorado as an engineer for Lockheed Martin, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He figured his days were numbered, so he simplified his life.

“I had eight credit cards in my wallet, four bank accounts, two kids in school.” These days, he pays his taxes, cellphone and car insurance bills, and that’s it. He has no more credit cards.

He found the Fish Lake Valley on a fluke. Decades ago, he traveled the area on a backpacking trip and remembered its beauty and solitude. On the website Lands of America, he found a small cabin and 5 acres alongside a creek high in the White Mountains. All for $75,000.

Williams showed him the place. “It took me less than 20 minutes to ponder it,” he recalls.

Nowadays, he works a few freelance IT jobs around the valley, but he mostly cavorts with his sidekick, a coon hound named Lola. “This is the brokest I’ve been in my entire life. I made more money delivering newspapers as a kid. But I’ve never been happier.”

Dedera’s brain tumor is still there, inoperable. But after four years of the Fish Lake Valley life, he’s off all of his medications.

He tells his sons about the peacefulness here and calls the hammock strung next to the creek “better than a Xanax.”

On a recent evening, he sat on his back porch, Lola by his side, with a commanding view of the Fish Lake Valley to the east. He’s named one distant peak Mount Marge because to him it resembles the wife in the Simpsons cartoons.

A lot of people might consider this place the end of the world.

Not Dedera.

“For me,” he says, “it’s spiritual.”

‘We’re not spring chickens’

Advanced EMT Nancy Knighten had a plan: She was going to give up her ambulance life, quit her volunteering and retire for good on her 73rd birthday.

Knighten has been here for decades, arriving back when the ambulance was a donated family station wagon. But time rushes on.

“We’re not spring chickens,” said partner Val Trucksa, who moved here from Beverly Hills, where she worked as a physician’s assistant. “Now we don’t bounce out of bed as readily.”

But Knighten didn’t retire, she says, because she can’t. In such an unpeopled place, volunteers are rare. Many young people have jobs and families.

Older residents who might have the time aren’t in good enough health.

It doesn’t help that the requirements for becoming a rural EMT have become more stringent.

There are difficult tests. The guidebook that once totaled 400 pages now has 1,500.

Even after the Fish Lake Valley got 911 service a decade ago, Trucksa and Knighten still receive more calls on their personal cellphones than through the county dispatcher.

Residents stop by with aches and pains and ask them to come to their homes to check their pets.

Yet despite their constant pleas for volunteers, nobody has stepped forward. The pair now looks at the future of emergency care in wild Nevada, and they worry.

“What will they do when we’re not here?” Trucksa asks. “And there will be a time, and soon, when we’re gone.”

Award-winning journalist John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com. Follow @jglionna on Twitter.

ad-high_impact_4
News
Vegas Homeless Remembered
Las Vegas vigil remembers 179 homeless people who died over the past year in Clark County. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
A look inside Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory
Tesla's Gigafactory east of Reno produces the batteries that fuel the company's electric cars. Production has created more than 7,000 jobs, and the campus that includes one of the largest buildings in the world is expected to triple in size by the time it is completed. Tesla Vice President Chris Lister leads a tour of the facility. (Bill Dentzer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Garnet Interchange Ribbon Cutting
The Nevada Department of Transportation celebrated the completion of the $63 million I-15-US 93 Garnet Interchange project. The project includes a modified diverging diamond interchange and a 5-mile widening of US 93.
State Foresters Hunt for Record Trees
Urban foresters from the Nevada Division of Forestry hunt for record setting trees.
Rick Davidson directs NFR satellite feed
Rick Davidson directs the Wrangler NFR's live satellite feed from a production trailer outside the Thomas & Mack Center. (Patrick Everson)
Scott Boras, Bryce Harper's agent, speaks to media at baseball's winter meetings
Baseball agent Scott Boras updates media on the contract negotiations of his client Bryce Harper during baseball's winter meetings at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Dec. 12, 2018. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Achievement School District
The achievement district faced strong opposition from traditional schools back in its beginnings in 2016. But with schools like Nevada Rise and Nevada Prep, it's slowly and steadily growing. Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Fresno State QB on record-breaking receiver
Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion talks record-setting receiver KeeSean Johnson. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
The annual 'Shop with a Cop' event at Target
This year’s "Shop with a Cop" event gave about 40 children the chance to shop at Target alongside a North Las Vegas Police officers. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @Bizutesfaye
Melvin Dummar dead at 74
Melvin Dummar has died at 74. Dummar was famous for claiming to have saved Howard Hughes in a Nevada desert in 1967. Dummar claimed to have been left $156 million in Hughes’ will. The will mysteriously appeared after Hughes’ death in 1976. It was dismissed as a fake two years later. Dummar never saw a dime of the billionaire's fortune. Dummar died Saturday in Nye County.
Officer-involved shooting in Nye County
The Nye County Sheriff's Office gives information about a shooting in Pahrump on Thursday night after a man began firing shots outside of his home. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Law Enforcement Active Shooter Training Exercise
Multiple Las Vegas Valley law enforcement agencies held an active shooter drill at the Department of Public Safety’s Parole and Probation office on December 6, 2018. Officials set up the training exercise to include multiple active shooters, a barricaded suspect and multiple casualties. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Public memorial service for Jerry Herbst
Archiving effort hits milestone at Clark County Museum
The Clark County Museum catalogs the final item from the bulk of Route 91 Harvest festival artifacts. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pearl Harbor survivor Edward Hall talks about his memories of Dec. 7, 1941
U.S. Army Corps Edward Hall, a 95-year-old survivor of Pearl Harbor talks about his memories of that horrific day. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Final Route 91 Harvest festival remembrance objects catalogued at Clark County Museum
The last of the more than 17,000 items left at the makeshift memorial near the Las Vegas sign after the Oct. 1 shootings have been catalogued at the Clark County Museum in Las Vegas. The final item was a black-and-white bumper sticker bearing "#VEGASSTRONG. An additional 200 items currently on display at the museum will be catalogued when the exhibit comes down. (K.M. Cannon Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dozier execution timeline
Scott Dozier was set to be executed July 11, 2018, at the Ely State Prison. Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez delayed the execution.
Grand Jury Indicts Constable for theft
A Clark County grand jury indicted Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell. A Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation prompted the criminal probe. The newspaper found Mitchell wrote himself thousands in checks, took out cash at ATMs and traveled on county funds. He faces four felony counts of theft and a county of public misconduct. Mitchell and his attorney could not be reached for comment.
93-year-old WWII veteran arrested during visit to VA hospital
Dr. S. Jay Hazan, 93, a World War II veteran, talks about his arrest during his visit to VA hospital on Friday, Nov. 30. (Erik Verduzco Las Vegas Review-Journal @Erik_Verduzco_
Pearl Harbor survivor struggles in her senior years
Winifred Kamen, 77, survived the attack on Pearl Harbor as an infant, works a 100 percent commission telemarketing job to make ends meet. (K.M. Cannon Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Metropolitan Briefing 18th street gang
Las Vegas Metropolitan briefs the media on the recent arrests made regarding the 18th street gang.
Man shot in Las Vegas traffic stop had knife, police say
Police said the man fatally shot by an officer during a traffic stop in downtown Las Vegas had a “homemade knife.” Demontry Floytra Boyd, 43, died Saturday at University Medical Center from multiple gunshot wounds after officer Paul Bruning, 48, shot him during a traffic stop. Bruning pulled Boyd over on suspicion of driving recklessly at 7:41 a.m. near Sunrise Avenue and 18th Street.
Catahoula dogs rescued from home in Moapa Valley
Catahoula dogs were brought to The Animal Foundation after being rescued from home in Moapa Valley.
Intuitive Forager Kerry Clasby talks about losses in California wildfire
Intuitive Forager Kerry Clasby talks about losses she suffered in California's Woolsey Fire in Malibu in November. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Benefit dinner for Kerry Clasby, the Intuitive Forager
Sonia El-Nawal of Rooster Boy Cafe in Las Vegas talks about having a benefit for Kerry Clasby, known as the Intuitive Forager, who suffered losses on her farm in California’s Woolsey Fire in Malibu. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former President George H.W. Bush dies at 94
Former President George H.W. Bush has died at the age of 94. He died Friday night in Houston, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara.
Las Vegans Celebrate Big Snowfall
Las Vegans celebrate big snowfall at Lee Canyon.
Exploring old mines for denim jeans and other vintage items
Caden Gould of Genoa, Nev. talks about his experiences looking for vintage denim jeans and other items in old mines and other places areas across Nevada and the west.
Officers share photo of dead gunman after Las Vegas shooting
A little over an hour after SWAT officers entered Stephen Paddock's suite at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas police officers far from the scene were already sharing cell phone photos of the dead Oct. 1 gunman.
Local
NFR dirt is the most important part of the rodeo
NFR has bull riding, saddle bronc, barrel racing, tie down roping, steer wrestling, team roping, and bareback riding but one of the most important part of the rodeo according to construction maintenance manager Allen Rheinheimer is the dirt that they all take place in. Review-Journal sports writer Ed Graney chats with Rheinheimer and ground man John Jamison to get an inside look at the dirt in Thomas & Mack at the National Finals Rodeo.
North Las Vegas Pedestrian-cyclist Survey
North Las Vegas officials are seeking comments from residents in hopes of bettering their experience in the city. An online survey has been set up for citizens to share their opinions and give their suggestions.
NFR Day 8 Highlights
Highlights from round 8 of the 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo from the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas, Nevada. (CBS Sports Network/PRCA)
NFR - Wyatt Denny Talks About Representing Nevada
NFR Bareback Rider Wyatt Denny talks to host Cassie Soto about being the only Nevada representative in the NFR this year and his skiing talent.
Junior NFR Offers Breakaway Roping for Girls
Unlike the NFR at the Thomas and Mack Center, the Junior NFR at the Las Vegas Convention Center offers breakaway roping for girls 19-and under. This event allows the young women of rodeo one more event to participate in, aside from barrel racing.
North Las Vegas Pedestrian-Cyclist Survey
North Las Vegas officials are seeking comments from residents in hopes of bettering their experience in the city. An online survey has been set up for citizens to share their opinions and give their suggestions.
NFR Day 7 Highlights
Highlights from the 7th go-round of the 2018 National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (CBS Sports Network/PRCA)
NFR- Jessica Routier
NFR Barrel Racer Jessica Routier talks about being at her first NFR, her horses, and her family with Cassie Soto in front of Thomas & Mack before round 7 of the National Finals Rodeo.
The Nevada State Museum
The Nevada State Museum of Las Vegas, located at the Springs Preserve, covers all eras of the state, from prehistoric to today.
NFR Day 6 Highlights
Highlights from the 6th go-round of the 2018 National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (CBS Sports Network/PRCA)
Las Vegas Bowl Teams Talk Shop at Maverick Helicopters
Arizona State, Fresno State talk to the media at Maverick Helicopters.
NFR- Will Lowe
NFR Bareback Rider Will Lowe talks with Aaron Drawhorn about his 15 years at the NFR, starting to ride at age 7, and renewing his wedding vowels this year in Las Vegas before night 6 of the National Finals Rodeo.
Veterans Village
Veterans Village and Veterans Village II were created to assist homeless veterans get back on their feet. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Holiday party cocktails
Veterans Village II Unveils Model Container Home
Veteran's Village II unveiled a model container home. The organization will be building 10 of these container homes to house veterans of the village. Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal
NFR Day 5 Highlights
NFR Day 5 Highlights
NFR- Kory Koontz
NFR Team Roper Kory Koontz talks about his years at the event since 1992, his dynamic with a 23 year old partner Dustin Egusquiza, and how he contines to perform with diabetes with Aaron Drawhorn outside of Thomas & Mack before round 5 of the National Rodeo Finals.
Meet the woman behind the Las Vegas Bowl
Melissa Meacham-Grossman is the associate executive director for the Las Vegas Bowl. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NFR Highlights Day 4
NFR highlights day 4
NFR Introduces Golden Circle Of Champions
For the first time, the National Finals Rodeo has partnered with the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo to offer the Golden Circle of Champions. The event brings in 20 children and their families from around the country that have previously or are currently fighting life-threatening cancer.
NFR Time Lapse 2018
Watch Thomas & Mack Center transform from a basketball court to an arena fit for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Video courtesy of Las Vegas Events.
RJ's Mark Anderson on the UNLV loss
Review-Journal sports reporter Mark Anderson recaps UNLV's loss at Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Joel Ntambwe on performance against Illinois
UNLV forward Joel Ntambwe talks about the 18 points he scored against Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Amauri Hardy on loss at Illinois
UNLV guard Amauri Hardy talks about Saturday's loss at Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Marvin Menzies on loss at Illinois
UNLV basketball coach Marvin Menzies talks about Saturday's loss at Illinois. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Baby Roman's mother and his doctor talk about his medical condition
Baby Roman's mother and his doctor talk about his medical condition. Roman was born Dec. 13, 2017 and has been at Sunrise Children Hospital with a rare heart condition since. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
NFR 2018: Unique Gifts At Cowboy Christmas
Before you head over to the Thomas and Mack for NFR, be sure to check out some of the unique and one of a kind items at Cowboy Christmas!
NFR: Dale Brisby
Day two of the National Finals Rodeo has started and Premier Vegas Sports host Cassies Soto interviews social media influencer Super Puncher Dale Brisby.
103-year-old celebrates birthday at gym
Joe Rosa of Las Vegas celebrated his 103rd birthday celebration at 24 Hour Fitness in Summerlin Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. After being the victim of a hit-and-run crash, Rosa's medical team told him he would never walk again. Rosa credits physical therapy and a personal trainer at the club for his return to health. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson native Mason Clements finished second in NFR bareback go-round
Mason Clements discusses his second-place bareback ride on opening night of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Dec 6, 2018. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tony Sanchez wraps up the UNLV season
UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez wraps up the season. Video by Mark Anderson/Las Vegas Review-Journal
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like