An hour’s drive east of Reno — and about five hours from San Francisco — is a vast stretch of arid, saline Nevada desert with unexpected signs of life.
The city of Fallon — one of several dusty outposts along U.S. Highway 50’s “loneliest road” that traces the path of early miners and settlers — is now probably best known for its fields of cantaloupe and alfalfa, ranchers and dairy farms, rodeos and drag races, and bars where bikers drink whiskey with pilots from the nearby naval base. This mostly rural community of some 8,500 residents in Churchill County sits in a landscape some might call the middle of nowhere.
You might be surprised, then, to come upon a huge wetland preserve that attracts hundreds of thousands of birds every year, and a community that is making strides in sustainable agriculture, winemaking and the now-familiar refrains of “locally sourced” and “farm-to-table” dining. The city also boasts art galleries among its early 20th century homes and hotels. And archaeologists are even digging up remnants of an ancient past that stretches back to when the land was submerged under prehistoric waters.
Most days at the 79,570-acre Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge just east of town, you can glimpse a snowy white egret leap out of the water into a sky framed by stark peaks in the hazy distance, or spot the familiar curved beak of an ibis amid emerald rushes.
The wetlands are considered an especially significant inland stopover for the spring and fall bird migrations up and down the Pacific coast. Nearly 300 species — bald eagles, great blue herons, pelicans and plovers, among others — have been seen in and around the preserve’s lakes, marshes, meadows, scrub brush, farmland and canals. You don’t have to be an avid birder to revel in the sight.
Giant Pleistocene lakes once spanned much of the Great Basin of northern Nevada, attracting early American Indians to their shores more than 10,000 years ago. Apart from the refuge, which is supported by Sierra Nevada mountains snowmelt, those waters are now mostly gone, leaving wide desert expanses, salt beds and sprawling mountain ranges. And if the past few years of drought conditions are any measure, it’s only getting drier, threatening Fallon’s status as an oasis in the desert and a breadbasket serving the region and beyond.
GOOD FOR SOME, BAD FOR OTHERS
Back in town, Rick Lattin of Lattin Farms, a grower of organic fruits and vegetables and an energetic grandfather of 11, worried about this year’s crops (by early last summer, water levels in Fallon reached less than half of normal years). Tending to a field of tomatoes in the midafternoon sun, Lattin explained that this year he abandoned his heavily watered crops like corn and adopted moisture conservation techniques such as drip irrigation.
As with many in the western states’ agriculture industry, it’s a combination of adjustments and hope.
At the countryside estate of Churchill Vineyards, however, owners Colby and Ashley Frey are enthusiastically expanding. At the forefront of Nevada’s wine industry, they noted that growing grapes instead of grains or hay allows for less water usage. They are already producing a variety of wines and brandy, and are now preparing to begin distilling vodka, gin and bourbon on site, hoping to use only ingredients grown on the property.
Some of this bountiful Fallon agriculture — fruits, vegetables, milk, wine and more — ends up in various forms on the tables of local restaurants. Other goods make it to surrounding areas and lands reportedly as far off as China. Local eateries, such as the popular Slanted Porch, proudly advertise their use of fresh, local and often organic ingredients in their increasingly sophisticated menus.
Attitudes and palates might be expanding, but the pace of life in Fallon remains refreshingly calm.
On a cool Saturday evening, as Fallon honored Nevada’s 150th anniversary, residents gathered at Oats Park, a cultural hub founded in 1909. A band from south Texas belted out Mexican conjunto, or ensemble, music under a pink and orange sky. A burly man with a graying ponytail and work boots, and a handgun holstered at his side, applauded from his lawn chair.
Across from the park, the Oats Park Art Center, a surprisingly modern venue with museum-style galleries and a theater, occupies an old brick building that was once an elementary school.
Just off Highway 50 a few miles outside the city, the desolation of Grimes Point maintains an archaeological record of a time when the area likely flourished in an entirely different way.
Trudging up a nearby hill in the afternoon heat reveals centuries-old petroglyphs etched in dark boulders — lizards, snakes and other symbols open to present-day interpretations of who, what, when and why. Other rocks along the trail are coated in an umber moss. Caves farther uphill were used as shelters for hunter-gatherers in some dim prehistory. Their limestone-encrusted ceilings, like a bulbous floral overcoat, are believed to have been deposits left by undersea algae.
The last stop is a narrow cave entrance, which has been blocked with a metal door to protect ongoing archaeological excavations. Inside, there is a massive and acrid-smelling cavern hundreds of feet wide. In the darkness of the so-called Hidden Cave lie layers of earth 21,000 years old, when rising lake waters are believed to have carved it out. When human beings first arrived inside is still uncertain, but researchers estimate it was occupied at least 4,000 years ago.
Tools, weapons and other artifacts found here indicate the tantalizing possibility of an ancient lakeside settlement and contacts with people as far away as the Pacific Ocean. American Indians who consider these people to be their ancestors still live in and around Fallon.
This place is a historical treasure for them, and indeed for all who yearn to connect to the past, even on the briefest of trips to the middle of nowhere.
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com
If you go
Courtyard Cafe and Bakery: You can’t go wrong with the hearty, homemade breakfasts here. Biscuits and gravy, omelets with chorizo and avocado, and croissant French toast are just a few items on the menu. 55 E. Williams Ave. http://courtyardcafeandbakery.fallon-nv.com
Pizza Barn: Tasty, handmade pies with local ingredients and cold microbrews on tap (including some familiar California varieties) at this family-owned institution. 1981 W. Williams Ave.
The Slanted Porch: Some of the finest dining in Fallon. Upscale bistro-style fare with a changing menu to highlight the best ingredients from local farms. Highlights include burgers, mac-and-cheese, mushroom ravioli and quail. Works from local artists line the walls, and the front porch really does have the eponymous incline. 310 S. Taylor St. www.slantedporch.com
Overland Hotel Saloon: Colorful locals inhabit this definitely-not-touristy bar in the ground floor of a historic hotel built in 1908. Grab a drink and hit the pool table, or relax at a picnic table out back. You will likely hear a few interesting tales. 125 E. Center St. www.theoverlandhotel.com
Boomer’s: Friday and Saturday is karaoke night at this popular watering hole, where you will find bikers, Navy pilots and cowboys and cowgirls carousing and mixing it up on the dance floor, as someone unabashedly (and possibly unironically) croons hits from days of yore. 128 E. Williams Ave.
Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge: Spend a few hours birding, photographing or simply hiking and taking in the sights and sounds at a true oasis in the desert. The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset. From U.S. Highway 50 east in Fallon, take Highway 116-Stillwater Road for 12 miles to the main entrance. The refuge’s several dirt roads and trails include boardwalks, wildlife viewing areas and picnic areas. www.fws.gov/refuge/stillwater
Douglass House: A glimpse of old Fallon, preserved. This restored 1904 home of early Fallon heavyweight Robert Lee Douglass is on the national register of historic places and, of course, reputedly haunted. 10 S. Carson St.
Lattin Farms: A cornucopia of organic fruits and veggies sprout from the earth at the Lattin family estate. They also have a selection of homemade jams, pickles, preserves, salsa, honey, baked goods and fun activities for the kids. 1955 McLean Road. www.lattinfarms.com
Churchill Vineyards and Distillery: Yes, grapes can grow in the desert. The vineyards at this picturesque estate and farm produce riesling, gewurztraminer and semillon-chardonnay white wines. The winery also makes reds using California grapes and, in addition to a fine brandy, will soon be adding a variety of other spirits made with a towering new still on the property. Visits by appointment only. 1045 Dodge Lane. www.churchillvineyards.com
Churchill County Museum: This small but fascinating museum provides a look at the area’s past, from ancient artifacts to American Indian basketry, pioneer kitchen implements and 20th-century firearms. The museum also offers tours to Hidden Cave at Grimes Point, and recently premiered a documentary film on the site, available to view at http://hiddencave.wordpress.com
. 1050 S. Maine St. www.ccmuseum.org