Ring, ring, ring. A woman’s voice: “Nevada Southern University.”
Quick, what’s the most liberal department in a college? “Ah, Sociology Department, please.”
Ring, ring, ring. “Sociology Department.”
“I’d like to speak to a sociologist.”
Bruce Burger came to the telephone. “Hello.”
“You don’t know me, but…” I ran down current events, and Bruce invited us to his office.
We wound up staying six weeks in his apartment in Longacres, six doors down from the coffee, tea, or bouillon vending machine. Bruce got us into school and lined up a magnificent package of NDSL loans, Pell Grants, student loans, and work-study jobs. Soon Abby and I were pulling down more money as students than we’d ever made working in the hive.
We did a couple years at UNLV, née NSU. When the first checks arrived, Abby and I moved into a cabin on Mt. Charleston. Yup, they got a mountain there. We lived at 7200 feet, saw snow from November to March, watched elk strut through stands of aspen. We bought a lumbering, underpowered, post office step-van at auction, installed a lounge chair, bookcases, books, bed, and floor rugs. We carpeted the walls. We’d drive 38 miles and descend 5180 feet to sage brush and campus in the morning, then drive 38 miles and climb 5180 feet to ponderosa pine and snow in the late afternoon. This was our desert-avoidance phase.
Six months and three blown transmissions later, we moved into an apartment a few blocks from the Tropicana Casino, and then on to Arden, a ghost town I came upon while driving through the trackless wasteland 20 minutes south of Vegas.
If you’re coming in from L.A. on I-15, Arden can be seen from the last downhill grade into the Las Vegas Strip. Take the Blue Diamond exit, just past a sign that reads: “Don’t Bring Drugs Into Nevada. Life Imprisonment.” Drive three miles west and make a left turn onto a nameless dirt road.
Arden was built in 1905 next to the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad Line. It was a railroad siding, then a railroad siding with a post office, which bloomed into a railroad siding with a post office that was also home of the Arden Plaster Company. When the plaster company shut down in 1919, Arden resumed life as a respectable railroad siding.
On the Tuesday I arrived, downtown Arden consisted of a double-wide dirt street one block long. On the east side was a crumbling warehouse with an office in front. The office provided a huge partner desk, perfect except for one missing drawer. Across the street were two dilapidated one-story wooden buildings; I guessed they’d been offices, too. One had a crushed roof, the other had no roof. In the center of town were three four-room foremen’s shacks.
Abby and I moved into the best shack, the one in the middle. I tacked clear Visqueen over window frames, installed new hinges on doors, built an outhouse, bought kerosene lamps, and rescued a wood-burning stove from a relic of a cabin 50 miles and 50 years south.
Arden was ours. At sundown, I’d stroll Main Street wearing trainman’s gray-and-white-striped bib overalls, no shirt, and Frye boots, the ensemble accessorized by an authentic Searchlight, Nevada, sheriff’s badge pinned over my chest. I’d walk to where Main Street curved into a dirt trail and watch the sun set behind the Spring Mountain Range, then follow its shadow as it raced 28 miles across the valley floor to the base of Frenchman Mountain, there to work its way upward until the last pink of sunlight shining on mountain’s peak went dark. A riveting performance made boffo when accompanied by Ms. Pizer, who practiced Debussy or Chopin or Bach six days a week on a rented piano.
Our nearest neighbor was Ralph Robson, a black-haired prune-faced man in his 60s who lived one-half mile distant in a lumber-and-tin shanty that he’d built, one scavenged board at a time, from materials retrieved from the desert. It was a peculiar, personal-looking domicile. I enjoyed the Christian exhortations spray-painted on his roof and outside walls: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper.” “Ye Must Be Born Again.” “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
Our relationship was limited to a nod of the head as we drove past each other on the dirt road into Arden, and my shouts of praise when Ralph painted another burn-in-hell slogan. I’d say to Abby, “Baby, Ralph’s having himself a good day.”
So, I was surprised, on a particularly cold, windy morning in January, to see Ralph at my front door. I invited him into the kitchen and poured coffee. Ralph announced that his mother had died. I’d heard he lived with his mother.
“I’m sorry. Has it been difficult for you?”
“No, not too difficult.” Ralph explained that he’d been expecting his mother’s death and that she had passed quietly.
“Well, you must be comforted by your religious beliefs.” I studied the coffeepot and reflected on what a pompous, hack little sentence that was. “When did she die?”
“Ah, nighttime.” Spoken as if nighttime was the cause of death. “I suppose you sat by her bed and prayed.”
Ralph replied that the first thing he did after his mother died was to remove her dress and cut it into neat, three-inch squares.
One heartbeat. Two heartbeats, three. “Ralph, why did you cut your mother’s dress into squares?”
“I needed toilet tissue.”
And a damn fine bit of frugal homemaking that was. But — and again, here’s the point — I could never have achieved my bachelor of arts degree had I not hitchhiked for five years.
On a hot May morning in 1970, I set sail from Arden. I’d planned a hitchhike over to Berkeley to visit friends. I kissed Abby goodbye, accepted a sack lunch of two meat-loaf sandwiches, homemade coleslaw, paper napkins, and a dozen marijuana-laced oatmeal cookies. I swung the big green Kelty backpack over my shoulders and walked out the door. ■
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