During former Senator Harry Reid’s eulogies, Hikmet Loe heard that Searchlight, Nevada, is a ghost town—which clashed with her experience of a land teeming with life.
LAS VEGAS, NV—While writing about Spirit of the Land for Southwest Contemporary—the three collaborative exhibitions devoted to southern Nevada’s landscapes set to open in late March 2022 in various statewide locations—former Nevada Senator Harry Reid passed away. Reid—renowned regionally and nationally—served in the United States Senate for thirty years, green lighting major legislation under President Barack Obama. Two weeks before his death on December 28, 2021, Las Vegas’s airport was renamed Harry Reid International Airport, just one indicator of his popularity in Nevada.
Locally, Reid achieved a lot for his home state, explains Checko Salgado, one of the Spirit of the Land curators.
“Harry Reid’s conservation legacy has been an inspiration for Nevadans and the nation. His influence and drive helped designate Tule Springs National Monument, the Basin and Range National Monument, and Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada,” says Salgado. “In addition, he inspired a movement that works to preserve Reid’s hometown of Searchlight, the surrounding area of Avi Kwa Ame.”
Reid was proud of his Nevadan roots, hailing from the area south of Las Vegas in the triangular tip of the state buffeted by California and Arizona. His memoir, Searchlight: The Camp That Didn’t Fail (University of Nevada Press, 1998), is a love letter to his hometown, detailing the boom and bust of mining and the expansion of the town’s population through legalized gambling and prostitution.
As I was writing about Spirit of the Land—one iteration of which will be held at the Searchlight Community Center—I watched the nationally televised memorial to Reid. Eulogies were sprinkled with commentary and updates. One reporter, discussing the impact of Searchlight on Reid, described the place as a ghost town.
That caught my attention and immediately prompted my response: no, it’s not.
Kim Garrison Means, another Spirit of the Land curator and current resident of Searchlight with generations of family roots in the area, informed me that the town—along with smaller satellite communities—boasts approximately 800 full-time residents, evidenced by the post office boxes that service the region. This number doesn’t include the Indigenous populations that consider the nearby Spirit Mountain—Avi Kwa Ame (Ah-VEE kwa-meh) is its Mojave name—sacred and of import to their creation and cosmology.
I understand how small towns, especially those far from East Coast metropolitan areas, could be relegated to the past. It’s easy to assume a tiny dot on the map created by colonization no longer exists. Yet, this was about Reid’s hometown, which includes a cemetery where he will be interred with other family members. He never lost sight of the town or the state that made him, working fluidly on local and national levels to achieve great things for the people he served.
It took me a few weeks to process my reaction to the ghost-town comment. Wry humor (“tell that to the hundreds of people who live there”) was followed by understanding. I was born and raised on the East Coast. I lived in New York City and laughed in collective solidarity at Saul Steinberg’s cover of The New Yorker magazine from March 29, 1976, View of the World from 9th Avenue. Not much mattered past the geography of the city in those years.
That worldview changed when I moved out west and began exploring the myriad cultural and geographic features of this seemingly spacious and complex country. Flying back and forth from the Southwest to NYC, I marveled at the emptiness of the uninhabited deserts below. What would it look like, I wondered, if those spaces were inhabited?
As we rightfully acknowledge we are living on Native lands, there were—and are—people inhabiting those spaces. And as European-American migration took place from east to west, small towns and expanded cities began dotting the landscape. All of these populations are part of the current fabric of the land.
It took a few more weeks—and a visit to Searchlight—to articulate my “no, it’s not” declaration. I don’t believe in the assumption of erasure through time’s progress. We generalize large cities as existing and smaller towns as inconsequential, nonexistent. While writing about Spirit of the Land, I was immersed with a group of people who love and want to protect all aspects of Searchlight and the surrounding landscape. It was an honor to learn of the hard and important work they are doing and listen to communities to understand their wants and needs—while also listening to the land to gain an equal understanding of its wants and needs.
The word “value” continues to reverberate with me. Blaming the reporter isn’t constructive: she most likely hasn’t been to Searchlight given the resource-strapped journalism industry. Instead, I’ve considered the value people place towards all their communities and look forward to listening deeply to the land and history of this region. That includes ghost towns; Searchlight just doesn’t happen to be one of them.
In mid-February 2022, I flew over the region that’s currently awaiting designation by the federal government as Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. There was the mining town of Nelson amid breathtaking landscapes; then Searchlight. In the distance, Laughlin and Cal-Nev-Ari.
Before boarding the plane, I asked Alisha Kerlin, executive director of the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, how she would characterize the appearance of these mountains. Would she use the word barren? “No,” she said, “not barren. They’re rugged. They may not look like it from here, but they’re teeming with life.”