Harry’s Hometown

Harry Reid invokes Searchlight so often it’s becoming an icon. You’ve probably driven through without stopping. We stopped.

Joshua Longobardy

There are no undertakers in Searchlight. The people of the quaint Nevada town bury their own dead.

There are no high-school teachers, either, for Searchlight does not have a secondary school in which to teach. And there are no police officers who patrol strictly within the town's intimate borders, as there is not much crime in Searchlight to police.

Nor are there many strangers. With one restaurant, one grocery store and one central road—Highway 95, which passes straight through the heart of town like a mile-long artery—the men and women of Searchlight, a Clark County settlement 3,470 feet above sea level and quite susceptible to the desert's high winds and hallucinatory heat, have become accustomed to the same names and faces and habitudes for as long as they can remember.

Although Searchlight is a world apart from Las Vegas, the humble town sits just down the road: south on US 95, over the Black Hill Mountains, through the Eldorado Valley as if you were headed toward the cusp of Southern Nevada, and past the Highland range—less than an hour away by car.

The small town begins in the parking lot of Searchlight Community Church, a Sunday staple for many residents, right off the 95, where a bulletin board reads, in large ineluctable letters: "Everybody Welcome."

Then downtown starts.

On the left of the highway, Jack Collins—a 76-year-old retired anthropologist whose memories of Searchlight date back to the '40s, when he used to accompany his father on dusty excursions to the Miner's Club, owned by his uncle, "Babe" Collins—sells Native American relics in a trading post that bears his name. In the five years he has observed the town from the cashier's desk of his establishment, Collins said little has changed.

"When I look outside the front window," he said, "I see the same things: dirt, dirt, and, well, more dirt."

Marilyn Carson, 66, an enthusiastic conversationalist—like most Searchlight citizens—works there too, even though she—like 60 percent of the town's static population (about 750)—is of retirement age. Yet neither work nor age prevents Carson and Collins from exhausting the town's nightlife scene.

"We like to go barhopping," Marilyn said. "We get two drinks; one at Terrible's and one at the Nugget—the only two bars in Searchlight."

The Searchlight Nugget Casino is next door to Jack's Trading Post—but in a small town like Searchlight, everyone is neighbors with each other; and even though the Nugget houses the only restaurant in town and thus immures much of the whispered gossip, in a small town like Searchlight everyone already knows everything. Nevertheless, both the single and married come to the Nugget with great frequency to enjoy meals that do not exceed $8 a plate and coffee that costs the same today as it did a quarter of a century ago, when the Nugget opened: 10 cents (with free refills, of course). Here the women update one another on children and grandchildren who have dispersed to other regions of Nevada and California; and the men, with persistent and inexhaustible evocations, resubmerge themselves into the trenches of Vietnam, Korea and World War II.

To the left and to the right of Highway 95 is the flesh and blood of Searchlight: solitary houses made of wood and tin, most of which are mobile homes (for Searchlight started as a mining camp and has yet to relinquish that ambience), all without an inch of superfluity; Harry Reid Elementary School, named after Searchlight's most celebrated citizen, the Senate Democratic leader who never misses an opportunity to invoke his small-town upbringing on the national stage; and the Searchlight Community Center, which also houses the town's library, museum and business conference rooms; several side roads—narrow, desolate and restless with loose gravel and inescapable dust—nearly all of which come to an abrupt dead-end; rugged and infertile desert land, though spotted now with green on account of the extraordinary rainfall this past year, and interminable desert rock of brown, red, amber and sandpaper hues, depending on the time of day; snakes, vermin, thrashers, pack rats, desert tortoises, rabbits, roadrunners, deer, bighorn sheep and even wild burros; and, naturally, endless cacti and Yuccas and Joshua trees, intermittent and unmoving, like a battalion of eternal, lonesome statues.

Less than a half mile down 95—its speed limit now reduced to 25 miles per hour, not so much as to encourage absorbance of the historic town's dilapidated spectacles but instead, to preserve the dormancy which dictates the way of life in Searchlight—stands another one of the town's most popular venues: the senior center.

And then, the lineage of history: Colton's General Store, owned and operated by Stanton Colton, former Nevada treasurer and great-grandson of George Frederick Colton, the nomadic miner who in 1897 hid in a pitch-black cranny in the Opal mountains to elude a nightmarish Piute Indian with a homicidal rancor for white men, and found gold when he lit a match to calm his fears in the tobacco smoke of his pipe. In the end, G.F. Colton found $2 million worth of gold in the surrounding mines, ignited the influx of gold diggers who would establish the mining camp that he himself named Searchlight after his match, and bequeathed a significant portion of the town's land to his descendents. The essence of the land has not changed much since the turn of the 19th century, save for the excavated gold and the new Terrible Herbst Casino across the street from Colton's General Store.

At the very end of town, less than two minute's drive from the beginning, Terrible's Casino—modern and urban—sticks out like a new bed on an old quiescent truck. It has been embraced by the townspeople, who not only overflow its parking lot on weekend nights but have shown astounding support for more development. Along Cottonwood Cove, Searchlight's placid avenue to the Cottonwood resort on Lake Mojave, a new tract of more than 60 homes has been scheduled to arise by the end of the year. Nearly 20 percent of the townspeople attended the hearing for the tract, and according to Christine Colton, vice chairwoman of the town board and Stan Colton's wife, the vast majority were in favor of the expansion.

"I would like to live long enough to see a little growing," Stan Colton, 66, said. "And I think others would too, just as long as we maintain our small-town flavor—because if we lose it, we'll lose what Searchlight is."

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