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
Clark County Schools announce random searches
Clark County School District middle and high school students will be subject to random searches for weapons under a new initiative to combat the wave of guns found on campus. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss React to Dennis Hof's Death
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss speak about their friend and prominent brothel owner Dennis Hof's death at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof has died
Nevada brothel owner and Republican candidate for Nevada State Assembly District 36, Dennis Hof has died. He was 72. Nye County Sherriff's office confirmed. Hof owned Love Ranch brothel, located in Crystal, Nevada.
Las Vegas police investigate suspicious package at shopping center
Las Vegas police evacuated a southeast valley shopping center at Flamingo and Sandhill roads early Tuesday morning while they investigated reports of a suspicious package. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Las Vegas Metro hosts the K-9 Trials
The Las Vegas Metro K-9 Trials returns to the Orleans Arena to benefit the Friends For Las Vegas Police K-9 group.
Kingman residents love their little town
Residents of Kingman, Ariz. talk about how they ended up living in the Route 66 town, and what they love about their quiet community. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Service at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Twelve unclaimed veterans are honored at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in Oct. 9, 2018. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas house prices reach highest level in 11 years
Las Vegas house prices are rising But so is the amount of available homes on the market Still, properties priced below $300,000 are selling fast And September was the first time since June 2007 that the median house price reached the $300,000 mark Las Vegas home prices have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the country over the past year Recent data show the market is now less affordable than the national average
National Night Out
About 100 Summerlin residents gathered at Park Centre Dr. in Summerlin on Tuesday for National Night Out. Lt. Joshua Bitsko with Las Vegas Metro, played with 3-year-old David who was dressed as a police officer. Face painting, fire truck tours and more kept kids busy as parents roamed behind them. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rural homeless issue comes to a head in Pahrump
On Sept. 12, Pahrump sheriff deputies told residents of a homeless encampment on private property that they had 15 minutes to vacate and grab their belongings. That decision might face some legal consequences. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance blood drive on October 1
A blood drive was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center on the one year anniversary of the Oct. 1 shooting. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance Lights memorial unveiled at St. Rose hospital
A dedication ceremony was held at St. Rose to unveil a memorial and to read the names of those who died on October 1, a year ago. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive Remembrance Wall
(Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive
Vitalent hosts a blood drive at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shootings. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October sunrise remembrance ceremony in Las Vegas
Myanda Smith, sister of Las Vegas shooting victim Neysa Tonks, speaks at the sunrise remembrance ceremony at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
‪Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to crowd at Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬
‪Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Father of Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim talks about college scholarship in his daughter's memory
Chris Davis, father of a Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim, Neysa Tonks, talks about a college scholarship in his daughter's memory to assist the children of those who died in the shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Oct. 1 survivor Malinda Baldridge talks about life after the shooting
Malinda Baldridge of Reno attended the Route 91 Harvest festival with her daughter, Breanna, 17, and was shot twice in the leg when the gunman fired on the crowd.
Route 91 survivor talks about lack of progress in gun legislation
Heather Gooze, a Route 91 survivor, talks about lack of progress in gun legislation since the Oct 1. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas/Review-Journal) @reviewjournal
Review held in death of man after encounter with Las Vegas police
The mother of Tashii Brown, who died after an encounter with Las Vegas police on the Strip, not satisfied after public review of evidence. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County Museum opening "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials"
The Clark County Museum is opening an exhibit "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials" of items left to honor the victims killed in the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Memorial service for former RJ lawyer Mark Hinueber
Mark Hinueber, the Review-Journal's former lawyer and defender of the First Amendment, died in Las Vegas on Aug. 23. Hinueber, who was 66, worked at the RJ and other newspapers for 42 years. On Saturday, his friends and family gathered for a memorial service.
Army veteran honored in Henderson event
Army Sgt. Adam Poppenhouse was honored by fellow veterans in an event hosted by a One Hero at a Time at the Henderson Events Center.
Michelle Obama and Keegan-Michael Key urge Nevadans to vote
Former first lady Michelle Obama and comedian Keegan-Michael Key urged Nevadans to vote at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas Sunday, Sep. 23, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
1 dead, 1 wounded in North Las Vegas standoff
A woman was hospitalized with serious injuries on Thursday morning after being shot inside a North Las Vegas house. Police responded about 11 p.m. to a shooting at a home on the 5600 block of Tropic Breeze Street, near Ann Road and Bruce Street. The wounded woman, police believe, was shot by a man, who later barricaded himself inside the house. SWAT was called to assist, and when officers entered the house, they discovered the man dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Las Vegas Teen Makes Clothing Resale His Side Hustle
Las Vegas resident Reanu Elises, 18, started buying and selling streetwear online when he was a high school junior. Like many other young adults, the world of online resale applications like Depop and Mercari have made selling clothing online for a profit easy. Now, Elises spends his free time at thrift shops looking for rare and vintage clothing he can list on his on his shop. Now in his freshman year at UNLV as a business marketing major, Elises hopes to open a shop of his own one day and start his own clothing brand. He estimates that he's made about $1000 from just thrifted finds in the past year, which he'll use to buy more thrift clothing and help pay for expenses in college. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Fruition Vineyards Encourages Young Entrepreneurs to "Buy, Flip, Dream"
Once a month, young adults gather at Fruition Vineyards on South Maryland Parkway near UNLV to dig through a stack of rare, vintage and designer clothing that's marked down well below it's resale value. Shop founder Valerie Julian began the vent, dubbed "Fruition Vineyards" in August after running her streetwear shop since 2005. The event gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to "buy, flip, dream" according to Jean. Meaning that they're encouraged to buy the clothing for sale and find a way to resell it for a profit, then reinvest that into whatever dream they pursue: college, a hobby or their own resale business. Shoppers lined up starting an hour before noon on the last Saturday in April for the opportunity and spoke about what they hoped to do with their finds and profits. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Local man goes under cover searching for answers to homelessness
Licensed mental health therapist Sheldon Jacobs spent 48 hours under cover posing as a homeless man in an attempt to gain perspective on the complex issue.
Social Work UNLV Lecturer's Calling
Ivet Aldaba-Valera was the first person in her family to graduate from both high school and college. The 33-year-old UNLV lecturer is now pursuing her Ph. D in public policy at the school and has used her degree in social work to engage with the young Latino and Latina community of Las Vegas. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Local
Downtown Summerlin hosts its annual Festival of Arts
People crowd to Downtown Summerlin for the 23rd annual Summerlin Festival of Arts in Las Vegas, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County educators debate alternative grading systems
Spring Valley High School principal Tam Larnerd, Spring Valley High School IB coordinator Tony Gebbia and retired high school teacher Joyce O'Day discuss alternative grading systems. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Grandparents on the fire that killed three family members
Charles and Doris Smith talk about the night an apartment fire took the lives of three of their family members. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
New York artist Bobby Jacobs donated a sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden
Bobby Jacobs, an artist from upstate New York, has spent much of the past year creating a sculpture of two separate angel wings. He donated the sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Weather will cool slightly through the end of the week
The weather will cool slightly through the end of the week., but highs are still expected to be slightly above normal for this year. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Mayor announces new public-private partnership
Mayor Carolyn Goodman announced the creation of the Mayor’s Fund for Las Vegas LIFE, a public-private partnership that will allocate money to the city’s neediest.
Fremont9 opens downtown
Fremont9 apartment complex has opened in downtown Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Fall fairytale gets cozy at Bellagio Conservatory
Bellagio Conservatory introduces its fall-themed garden titled "Falling Asleep." (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
What the house that Ted Binion died in looks like today
Casino heir Ted Binion died in this Las Vegas home in 1998. Current home owner Jane Popple spent over $600,000 to restore and modernize the home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Rescue Mission employees terminated
Don James, a former employee for the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, talks about the day his team was terminated. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Raiders Cupcakes at Freed's Bakery
Freed's Bakery will have Raiders-themed cupcakes available in store and for order during football season. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s fans say goodbye to Cashman Field
Las Vegas 51s fans said goodbye to Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Monday September, 3, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s owner Don Logan's last weekend at Cashman Field
Don Logan, owner of the Las Vegas 51s, gives a tour of Cashman Field before the team's final weekend using the field. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Metro Asst. Sheriff Brett Zimmerman on Aug. 8 officer-involved shooting
Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman met with media Monday to discuss the details of the 14th officer-involved shooting of the year. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program
Matt Kelly Elementary School hosted its third annual Back-to-School Red Carpet Program where community and business leaders joined to welcome students back with an inspirational welcome. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Star Trek fans on show’s enduring popularity
Star Trek fans at the Star Trek Convention 2018 talk about why they think the show has stayed popular across the years Thursday, August 2, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like