Sometimes, when your boss tells you that you have to take a road trip to sleep in a “Clown Motel,” you take a road trip to sleep in a Clown Motel.
Even if you’ve had a mean case of coulrophobia since your big sister made you watch It with her on VHS. Even if it’s been a decade since the last time you’ve driven a car. Even if said Clown Motel is directly adjacent to a late 19th century miner’s graveyard, and all of a sudden you’ve developed a slight fear of mining zombies rising from their dusty graves and appearing in the door frame of your isolated room in a Clown Motel (is there a medical term for that phobia?).
But, when the desert highway, and the dead miners, and the sinister faces of 700 smiling clowns, and your boss all direct you to Tonopah, Nevada, you go.
Tonopah (pronounced TOE-nuh-PAH) is located halfway between Las Vegas and Reno. You’ll know you’re going in the right direction if, on your way up from Vegas, you pass Rhyolite ghost town and an alien-themed truckstop. Stop and get a coffee at one, and get out and see some stars at the other. If you end up on the Extraterrestrial Highway, you’ve gone too far.
Tonopah history has it that in the spring of 1900, a man named Jim Butler discovered silver while searching for a rebellious burro that had wandered off in the night. Upon finding the beast, he picked up a rock to hurl it, but instead, just so happened to notice the rock’s abnormal heft. As these stories tend to go, Jim Butler went on to lay claim to one of the richest silver stakes in Nevada history.
What started out as a frontier town, where men were regularly put in the ground from gunshot wounds and women’s gravestones were marked with epitaphs like “life became a burden,” quickly boomed into the wealthiest region in the state. For a time, the Mizpah Hotel, a grand boarding house and saloon built in 1908, was —at five stories— the tallest building in Nevada.
A list of those who’ve visited the town reads like a Who’s Who of American West mythos. Wyatt Earp and his wife came through (“The sagebrush was rapidly giving way to streets and buildings” Josephine Earp wrote in her memoir). Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey was robbed in a bar there after a $100 prize fight. In the ’50s, Barbara Graham, “The Butcher of Burbank,” passed some time in local haunts before heading to LA and committing crimes later depicted in a Susan Heyward movie called I Want to Live. During his reclusive Desert Inn years, Howard Hughes (or one of his lackeys) bought stakes in nearby mines, but as with most of Hughes’ late-in-life ventures, nothing much came from them.
Today, Tonopah still holds on to its tumbleweed past, but as with lots of small towns in America, has evolved under the influence of economic shifts and tourism trends. Many residents have connections to the Air Force because the Tonopah Test Range served as top-secret operation grounds for F-117 stealth bomber research in the 1980s.
While you can quickly pass through Tonopah (especially if it’s your first time driving in ten years, and you’ve just gotten accustomed to barreling down Nevada’s barren highways), it’s delightfully easy to spend a day or two exploring the area. In fact, the town, with its antique saloons, historic sites, and extended landscapes, feels like it’s poised to start attracting off-the-beaten-path weekenders looking for their next Joshua Tree or Marfa.
The surreal pole at the center of Tonopah’s magnetic allure is the Clown Motel. The sign marking its entrance — a 30-ft. candy-striped beacon, grinning down at passing motorists — rises off the highway and invites them to rest their heads with a mix of whimsy and horror.
The scariest part of a night at the Clown (as it’s known locally) comes at check-in. The wood-panelled lobby, full of overstuffed 80’s rec-room furniture, is decorated with 700 clowns. Seven hundred. In about a hundred-square-foot space. Fast food clowns. Lego clowns. Porcelain clowns. Clowns playing the piano. Clowns with parachutes. A watercolor of a grease-painted hobo clown straddling the world…
The rest of the motel is pleasant, perhaps because the motif isn’t carried into the actual suites. The beds are firm, the shower is hot, and you can deadbolt the door against any perceived terrors.
Whether you’re staying in Tonopah for one night or thirty, here is is a short list of things you should check out in the area:
Breakfast at the Mizpah Hotel
The restaurant in this recently restored hotel serves a “Red Lady Bloody Mary”, named after the hotel’s resident ghost. Legend has it that said lady was a “companion” to local miners, who was murdered by one of her jealous lovers. To this day, she makes her presence known by strewing pearls from her broken necklace on guest’s pillows. Those who prefer ghosts to clowns can stay overnight in the suite near where she was killed in a hallway.
Hiking the Mizpah Mine
The best way to gain perspective (both historical and physical) on Tonopah is to head into the hills. The Tonopah Historic Mining Park offers a few miles of self-guided trails, and plenty of old facilities to explore. Staring down one of the open shafts, you’ll start to understand what these mines must have been like to work in during the heyday of their production, and why the nearby cemetery is full of its former employees.
Bear Break in Tonopah Station
Along the highway, you’ll see Tonopah Station, the area’s largest shopping/gambling complex. Stop in to grab a drink and meet a taxidermied bear named James. Once you’ve had your fill of stuffed animals and nickel slots, expand your explorations by driving away from Tonopah to the neighboring town of Goldfield.
The Many Cars and One Boat of Goldfield, NV
The best way to experience Nevada is by car–something made evident by the multitude of makeshift altars and abandoned car sanctuaries that dot the landscape. The most striking is the International Car Forest of the Last Church, but the area is full of rusted relics that will play to your Mad Max fantasies.
Downtown Goldfield also boasts a fleet of ornately decorated art cars that make a yearly sojourn up the Black Rock playa, as well as a few crumbling train cars that are worth a poke around.
There’s also a house with a boat in the front yard (despite no body of water anywhere in the region). If you happen to ask about it at the nearby Santa Fe Saloon (the second oldest running watering hole in the state), the bartender will holler, “You had to ask about my boat!” and then not answer your question…
A Glimpse at the Goldfield Hotel
The Goldfield Hotel, built in 1908 as one of the most lavish hotels in the West, has sat empty now for over three decades. It’s been faithfully looked after by an octogenarian named Virginia Ridgeway. Virginia, who is referred to locally as “the keeper of the keys,” used to give occasional tours of the hotel’s abandoned splendor, but retired in January of this year.
Though she’s given up her position as caretaker for now, she doesn’t plan to be gone for long. The Goldfield is notoriously haunted by a pantheon of ghosts, and Virginia plans to join them. ““I’m kind of excited; it’s gonna be fun,” she says. “When visitors come, I’m going to spray them with gardenia cologne. That’s how they’ll know I’m there.”
Stargazing in the Cemetery
Even if you’re getting out of Dodge (or Tonopah as the case may be), try to stay at least until nightfall. The sky here is huge and it takes ages for the sun to set, but when it does, wander into the Old Tonopah Cemetery. Even though the highway runs right past it, and small houses dot the surrounding hills, the cemetery, with its sunken graves and hand-made headstones, will transport you out of place and time. You’ll be so distracted by the myriad stars, that you might not even notice that the only other illumination is a 30-ft. neon clown sign, shining through the darkness.