Unfolding the Map
We turn onto the Loneliest Road in America with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) as he travels the bluest of the blue highways. In Ely, at least when he went through, we find that the loneliness pervades his perception of the town. My experience in Ely was of a quiet place, but not necessarily lonely. But, we'll examine loneliness through the prism of a Nevada industry - the oldest profession in the world. Click on the map thumbnail, to your right, and make Ely a little less lonely.
"Not everything that happens in Ely happens at the Hotel Nevada, but it could. The old place is ready for it. But that night the blackjack tables were empty, the slots nearly so, and the marbelized mirrors reflected the bartender's slump and a waitress swallowing a yawn...."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 5
"Tradition persists in Nevada. You can see it, for example, in the whorehouses of Ely. Prostitition is legal in White Pine County because miners, in order to work efficiently in the ground digging for this and that, traditionally require whores."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 6
So far along this virtual journey we have been taking with LHM, I have come across only a few places where his journey and my actual experience intersect. Ely, Nevada is one of them. In a previous post, I mentioned that I had persuaded my wife to drive to California to see my family. Our route took us through Utah and then into Nevada on US Highway 50 to Ely, where we got a motel room and spent the night. I'll include in this post some pictures we took there, including some of interesting public art murals that are sprinkled downtown.
It's interesting that LHM paints Ely as being so initially...unexciting...with his description of the Hotel Nevada and then turns around and writes about prostitution in Ely. Prostitution is prurient, and somewhat exciting to read about, right? However, I read this as a way of indicating the loneliness that is part of the Nevada experience. Okay, maybe that's not LHM's intention but that's what his description brings to my mind, which is really the point of this blog.
As you drive into Nevada on Highway 50, the signs unmistakably identify that road as the Loneliest Road in America. In addition, US Highway 6 joins Highway 50 near Ely, and my only other awareness of Highway 6 was in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, where way back in the state of New York Sal waits in the rain for a ride at the Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River, intending to hitchhike Highway 6 out west, and has to take a bus back to New York City berating himself for a fool. Standing at Bear Mountain Bridge in the rain, Sal feels a loneliness and, not being able to handle it, heads back to New York City to start his journey in another way.
I am also struck that prostitution, seemingly out of touch with a lonely hotel and the loneliest road in America, is an occupation that caters to the lonely and for the lonely, often by the lonely. Prostitution has been labeled the oldest occupation on Earth, and has been a symbol used throughout literature. We have a lot of archetypes of the prostitute, such as Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, or the whore with a heart of gold. However, I am often struck by the other side of what I read about prostitution - the difficult circumstances that lead people to turn to the world's oldest profession. Dysfunctional families, personality issues, emotional issues. Those gateways to the dark and lonely side of the human soul that I, who suffered family dysfunction and sexual abuse, know all too well. I'm not a prude - in fact I have a history of difficulties with sexual addiction (pornography) related to my history of sexual abuse - but it strikes me that my experience is probably similar to that many prostitutes in the commonality of loneliness.
I was reading a book recently called The Art of Racing in the Rain. It is a touching book about the loyalty of a dog named Enzo. Enzo, who is the narrator, reflects upon the difference between loneliness and being alone. Being alone is a reality. When one is the only person in a room, he or she is alone. However, loneliness, according to this book, is a state of mind. One can be lonely, despite the fact that he or she is not alone. One can be alone, yet not lonely. Being lonely is very difficult, and I've known people, including myself, that despite the presence of those who care for them and love them, remain lonely. People seek out aloneness at times. Nobody seeks loneliness and prolonged loneliness can lead people to desperate things. After all, we are all social and want human interconnection.
Miners, out in the wilderness around Ely, found themselves lonely for companionship. They might have wanted someone to talk with, be a companion, to love them even for a short while. Of course, that meant a business opportunity existed, one in which the providers could justify their actions as a type of public service. Giving up one's body in prostitution is an opportunistic business transaction performing an act that should be the complete antithesis of such transactions. The sexual act in a normal, healthy way involves putting much trust in one's partner. As a business transaction, such sex might be the extreme version of loneliness without being alone. Why? Because no matter how much is paid for sex, the sex act under such conditions cannot provide the loving human contact that most of us crave. It is simply business. At the end, the participants, if lonely, remain so because once the transaction is over, it's finished. There is no continuity, no promise of tomorrow unless there is payment, no chance of unconditionality because it is all about conditions.
That is probably why the websites of the two brothels that still exist in Ely strike me as strip clubs, where one can get extra benefits after the strip show and the lap dances are finished. It all seems very lonely to me, with the participation of a lot of lonely people. While Nevada regulates the prostitution industry, the exploitation of people's loneliness by appealing to their need for companionship through the most powerful feelings and instincts we have as humans seems to me to really touch on the most vulnerable parts of us and is ripe for the emergence of the dark and seamier sides of humanity.
I don't want to end this post on Ely with a downer. Ely has more merits than LHM gives it. It has some very nice attributes as a city, and is quiet and not at all completely driven by the prostitution industry. We especially liked the public art, in the form of murals, spread around the downtown. When a city makes efforts like this, it shows a pride in community and a real attempt to make a place appealing for residents and visitors alike. The photos I've peppered through this post show some of the artwork one can find around the town.
I was going to put, for the musical interlude, Patti Labelle's Lady Marmalade, to keep in the mood of this post. I forgot about an amazing Cole Porter song called Love for Sale. This version is sung by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald. Just listen to the lyrics rendered in Ella's wonderful voice - it captures the loneliness perfectly "If you want the thrill of love / I've been through the mill of love / Old love, new love / Every love but true love."
If you want to know more about Ely
Next up: Hickison Summit, Nevada