My quest to research the lesser-known fossil sites of the far west led me to Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park, in The Middle of Nowhere, Nevada.
“So this is where it ends,” I said to myself when I pulled up to the entrance. When, after fifty minutes I passed no one on godforsaken, rural highway 361—and then observed that I was the only visitor at the desolate campground—I fully expected to be ax murdered shortly after nightfall.
Imagine my relief to be greeted by jocular Ranger Robin, park docent, who bounced out of nowhere, suggested the best campsite, and offered to show me around once I was settled.
You’d think that the park service would assign their most weirdo loner to this remote park, but the opposite is true. (Robin shyly pointed out a framed certificate proclaiming him the winner of a significant NPS service and education award.) He spent the rest of the afternoon conducting a personal tour of the “fossil house” (stay tuned for the printed article, that place is crazy), and explained everything I needed to know (and then some) about ichthyosaurs and the era in which they lived and died. Clearly starved for an audience—stuck out there miles from civilization in February with snow on the ground and no field-tripping school children to entertain—he then bent my ear during an extended tour of the ancient and impressive Berlin mine.
That night the cold wind whistled, and the sky was black as pitch. I was alone as could be in the Airstream, with only a useless miniature dachshund and a can of wasp spray for protection. But I felt at ease knowing Robin was standing watch in his little house at the entrance to the park.
Next morning, aware of my desperate need for gasoline, Robin made me repeat directions to the diner in Gabbs, twenty-plus miles away and location of the area’s only filling station.
As an Airstreamer, I’m accustomed to the tiny-town drill: park on Main Street (sometimes called "First", or optimistically, "Broadway"), hit the diner, and ask around for the often hidden services like gas, the post office, or car repair. As a city girl, I’m bemused by the folks who choose to live in these whistle-stops, and enchanted by their patter.
As soon as I entered the R&H Cafe—where I was told the keymaster of the gas pump could be found—a voice sang out “good morning!” I turned to see seven grizzled guys seated together, all staring expectedly in my direction. “So, this is it? The nerve center of Gabbs?” I teased. Outgoing Ken laughed, offered me an empty chair, and introduced me to those seated at “the locals table” (retirees and workers at the mine across the road), to Wendy the waitress, and to Pandora, the cafe shitszu. I joined them for breakfast and got a heaping helping of local lore to go with my western omelet, as well as some essential intel including directions to Gold Point, my next destination, and where to find the nearby unmarked fossil digs.
Fun facts about Gabbs, Nevada
- Population: 200. Or more. Or less. 150? The locals weren’t quite sure.
- A tarantula migration takes place in the fall. “Used to be, the roads were slick black with them in September and October.” Ew.
- Related: The local high school mascot is, of course, the Tarantula. (Gabbs is so small, all the sports teams are co-ed. The day I visited there was much anticipation and esprit de corps surrounding that evening’s homecoming game between the Tarantulas and the Tonopah Muckers.)
- Gabbs—originally founded as the company town for a magnesium mine during WW2—remains the location of the oldest continually-operating mine in Nevada, which unearths minerals used for animal feed, pH regulation, and environmental clean up.
The moral of this story? Don’t just visit holes in the wall when you have to. That morning in Gabbs was one of the fondest memories of my Southwest trip. Next time you notice a sign that indicates a town you can barely see from the road with a population of less than 500, consider stopping for a cup of coffee or a beer with whoever (or whatever) might be sitting at the counter.