Vegas outback

Take lonely U.S. 93 into Nevada's wild and historic heart

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PORTRAITS OF PIOCHE

For all its isolation, the U.S. 93 corridor has long been a major route. A branch of the Mormon Trail came through here, as did a spur of the Union Pacific Railroad between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Designed by noted Los Angeles architects John and Donald Parkinson and built in 1923, the impressive depot in Caliente speaks to the town's prominence in the steam-engine era.

During its silver boom in the 1870s, the mining town of Pioche had up to 10,000 residents ― and a reputation as one of the country's most lawless communities. It's said that more than 70 people were buried in the town's cemetery before anyone died of natural causes.

A cable with old mining buckets runs over the town's Boot Hill Cemetery, and the restored burial markers hint at the local mayhem: "Morgan Courtney/Feared By Some/Respected By Few/Detested By Others/Shot in Back 5 Times from Ambush."

Another remarkable record can be seen at the Million Dollar Courthouse (so named after cost overruns inflated its price from $16,400 to $26,400): watercolors of Pioche that were painted from 1887 to 1913 by Englishman R.G. Schofield. The paintings sat in the artist's former residence for decades before they were rediscovered and displayed at the courthouse. While in Pioche, Schofield worked as a sign painter, jeweler, and French tutor. His ad read, "will give instruction to a few young ladies and gentlemen desiring to acquire a pure Paris accent." No doubt a vital social skill on the Nevada frontier.

Museum staffer Louis Benezet told us Schofield's story during a visit to the courthouse; then he told us about himself. Benezet has lived in Pioche since 1980, after moving from San Francisco. His Nevada roots run deep. Benezet's grandfather was a mining engineer in Pioche, and his mother, who drew pictures of wild mustangs as a girl and later became an illustrator for Hearst Newspapers, grew up here.

Benezet remembers visiting Pioche as a boy in the 1950s, when the mines were prospering following a World War II-era boom. Active in local environmental issues, which range from wilderness management to nuclear-waste storage, Benezet most appreciates the area's open terrain and uncomplicated ways.

"You're not fenced in," he explains. "There's peace and quiet and no traffic. I've always been someone who didn't have to keep up with the latest gadget. My idea of a computer is a pencil with a good eraser. I prefer simple approaches. This is a good place to try them."

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