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Dispatches from the present

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Deserted

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One weekend in February, my girlfriend and I decided to “get out” of Vegas and drive a couple hours to a place called Rhyolite. Gold rush town, only operational for a few years before closing in the early 1900s, now an actual ghost town. This was the farthest we had traveled from home in months, and while our last trip was to connect with loved ones, this one was mainly in the interest of avoiding other people.

When those here and in Southern California started getting restless, the desert became attractive again as a getaway. This time it was abundantly clear that, more than any sentiment of expansive freedom normally associated with the capital-W West, people were using their forced leisure to try to reconnect with nature. That this nature was only about fifteen minutes away from the suburbs, steadily encroached upon by even more developments that had bulldozed the native wildlife, and easily overcrowded on the weekends seemed more than a little ironic.

By contrast, Rhyolite hides off a particularly straight section of Nevada State Route 374, ten minutes from Death Valley National Park, down a short dirt road. There are no major settlements for a hundred miles. We arrived with a plan to watch the sun set over the town, but also to see a series of sculptures called “The Last Supper.” The artwork, by Albert Szukalski, was installed in Rhyolite in 1984. Each of the thirteen figures in “The Last Supper” is hooded, their bodies hollow, so that only a silhouette of white Fiberglas remains. Szukalski shadows Da Vinci’s painting, only with figures that look more like death shrouds. There are no plates, no cups, no table. In the absence of any body or object, what’s left looks like a collective scene of mourning, each cloak bent over, arms outstretched and floating. Szukalski reportedly didn’t believe “The Last Supper” would last more than a couple of years in the unforgiving desert climate.

When we arrived, wind strong enough to knock trees over had howled through the city for several nights before—we had hoped that this would deter other tourists from visiting. Which is another way of saying that any vision of an empty desert within a few hundred miles of civilization will always fail. Cars crowded the open-air museum where the sculptures now live, raised on a wooden platform. Families posed beneath them, walked their dogs on the side of the road. Almost a year had gone, but beyond the occasional mask tucked under someone’s chin, strangers loomed close, absentmindedly wandering around, normal behavior on a good day.

After businesses in Vegas closed and houses were abandoned by fair-weather residents, “ghost town” seemed like an easy metaphor to reach for. The image fit, but we were still around, just out of sight. More unhoused people appeared on the street. The valley grew quieter. Some mourned the loss of closeness. Others treated isolation like preparation for the Rapture, no one and nowhere safe, the thinking being that a pandemic was just another facet of the climate disaster, that in the desert, you could make it on your own, unbothered. And then there were those who basked in the mandated loneliness, who romanticized the desert, as they always do, as a place of stark beauty and harsh inspiration.

Our collective lack of imagination, even for seasoned locals, when it comes to finding places to go, places we hope will be devoid of other people, signals not only how little we know of the places we inhabit, but also how wary we are of each other. How little we consider our actions because we believe them to be unique and unlikely to be replicated. Even in a ghost town like Rhyolite, dreams of isolation, of tranquility in the presence of nature, began to seem narcissistic, condescending and also physically impossible. People are everywhere, something the creator of “The Last Supper” tried to ignore.

Szukalski claimed his inspiration for the sculpture came from similarities he saw between the Mojave and the Middle East. The desert was possibility incarnate, unclaimed, ever-fruitful, a holy place where a Biblical tableau made more sense against the stark valley than in a gallery. The defunct town and railway station just behind amounted to a historical anecdote, not a warning. He didn’t believe what I’ve come to in my years living in Nevada: that nothing belongs to anyone for long, that, even in the vastness of the desert, no matter how far you travel, the world still manages to find you. That idea might be comforting, especially if you, like me, fret most about being forgotten. For Szukalski, it was likely a nuisance.

After three of the sculptures were vandalized, he bought several acres of land just beyond Rhyolite to preserve them. That old tension between observing art and wanting to become part of it, of revering that which looks so enticing, also means indulging in paradox. In the desert, it’s not unusual to find evidence of strangers’ errant creativity. Stacked stones, graffiti in the underground sewers, destroyed appliances that sit off in the distance far from any road, intentional ephemera that capture their own kind of beauty. There is also nothing precious about them, and their vitality is maintained by their evidence of life nearby. Like the mysterious silver monolith that popped up in Utah during quarantine, “The Last Supper” stands in the middle of nowhere but begs to be seen for its very existence as something that, one day, simply appeared. No makers, only observers.

If isolation is the supposed purview of meditation, prayer and centering of the self, there is still something sacred to be found in company, in a sense of community more developed than simple neighborly affection. As we start thinking again about returning to social life, I keep (mentally) coming back to Rhyolite—longing for silence and solitude, thankful for the inevitable presence of others.