I believe it was in J.G. Ballard’s short story collection titled ‘Chronopolis’ where he concocted the tale of a company whose business it was to go into buildings and remove the sound embedded in the walls left there by past residents. Forget the looming, invisible omnipresence of Big Brother in all of his corporeal and technological iterations, in this version of a reality that we thought we knew and understood, all the surfaces of the inside of a once-inhabited space were now devices of record, capable of retaining sounds and conversations that were in need of purging before someone else could rest in peace while occupying that space. I do not remember what hypersensitivity evolution it was that allowed humans this super power of sorts- actually I don’t remember much else from this story, thirty plus years from having read it, but the idea of past sounds stuck in walls and surfaces has been an ongoing fascination ever since.
On my recent trek across these United States and back, the thoughts of imagining the experiences of Horace Greeley as he passed through the various spaces his route took me were constantly on my mind. Mostly, I was in a relatively constant state of incredulousness at how those guys back then even got through various areas. There was the terrain, the undergrowth, the rivers, the drought and the mobile hostile beings- both human and animal- who were not happy with the white invaders trespassing on what had previously been their private wilderness space. My first official stop on the trip was a visit at the High Desert Museum outside of Bend, OR with a stagecoach that had official documentation that Horace Greeley had ridden in it. Also known as a Concord mudwagon, this particular coach saw at least 70 years of service, with the most notable moments of that time being when legendary driver Hank Monk spirited Mr. Greeley from Genoa, NV to Placerville, CA at break neck speed so that Greeley would be there on time for a speaking engagement. This trip became one of the often told legends of the west and was immortalized in a chapter of Mark Twain’s book, ‘Roughing It”, a broad recounting of Twain’s own experiences in the west. There are many versions of this trip that have been recounted in many places- standing in front of the coach at the museum or having walked a good part of Hawley’s grade that had been cut into the hillside where the route supposedly took them, one can imagine that all of them could be true, while at the same time inventing equally fantastic fictions and fantasies about the ride, any one of which could have had a possibility of containing a grain of truth.
While Monk’s regular stagecoach route at this time (late 1850’s to late 1860’s) generally took him between Carson City, Nevada and Placerville, I have read in more than one place that Greeley may have solicited Monk’s driving services out of Genoa, NV. And so it was that I decided to visit Genoa- a town that is now just a blip on a small road south of Carson City, but was once the center of things in Nevada. As it turned out, the weekend I was there it was the time of their annual Candy Dance Faire, and just a year shy of the 100th anniversary of this event that raises funds for town operations. As it was, I wandered through the throngs of people on the temporarily car-free streets, taking in the craft and food booths as well as the exhibition of old but still operational steam engines. I worked my way in for a beer at the oldest saloon in Nevada, and then walked down the street to what used to be the Douglas County courthouse back when Genoa was the county seat. The courthouse is now a history museum. Walking in from the festival noise of the street, one was instantly bathed in a quiet that its brick walls and a curiously sparse attendance provided.
I made my way through a number of its rooms, learning about Snowshoe Johnson and Charlie Parkhurst, stories I won’t get into here. And then I happened upon the old jail in the back of the building. I did step into one of the two cells that remained and was instantly enveloped by both the sound of silence and perhaps the closest thing to what Mr. Ballard was getting at with his story about getting old noise out of walls. There was a bit of graffiti decorating all the scratchable surfaces inside, but even without invoking the presence of ghosts or spirits I could recognize an almost palpable sense of vocal stirring in there and decided that I had had enough of the enclosure and all the metaphysical baggage it claimed.
Later that day I went to visit the gravesite of Hank Monk back up in Carson City- it was much smaller than his legend. And the next day I headed further east to a suggested stop at Sand Springs where there is a ruin of a Pony Express station in the middle of relative nowhere. Standing amongst the tumbling stone walls of the station relic and looking north, one notes a large white sand ridge rising out of the desert floor and just about reaching the rim of a sharp rock escarpment on its north side. Beyond the light sound of wind blowing by, the muffled cacophony of gas powered engines could be heard across sagebrush and scrub. What one can see from there is Sand Mountain recreational area with an assortment of all terrain vehicles (ATV) racing about in no particular order. I was alone at the ruin, but all around the dune that was perhaps 300 feet high and maybe a quarter mile long there was a variety of motorhomes and camping canopied pickups with ATV trailers that were ringing the base of the dune like a modern day wagon train. I chose not to go over there and they all were having enough fun that I wasn’t concerned about having my way station reverie disturbed, except for maybe by a muffled engine rev at a safe and unobtrusive distance.
As this was mostly a journey of discovery I was allowing myself diversions and the random detour along the way. As I was crossing one of the flat desert plains between the mountain ridges of that region I noted a structure on an approaching hillside that made no sense in the context of its surroundings. As I drew closer to the hillside I decided that, no matter what, I was going to drive up there and see what it was. Heading into the broad ravine that contains the town of Austin, NV I noted a small sign next to a dirt road that said Stokes Castle with an arrow pointing to the right. It was a short drive on a winding dirt and gravel road up to a flat hillside perch with a commanding view of the flat valley to the west. Towards the edge of this space stood a three story stone structure that had seen better days. The six foot anchor fence topped with razor wire that surrounded it said do not enter in a way, combined with the “picked clean” appearance of the building, that included an or else clause. Reading from one of the informative metal placards, one could find that what we were looking at had been built by mine developer and railroad magnate Anson Phelps Stokes in 1897 as a summer house. It had only been used one season and then sporadically till it was abandoned. It was a part, and emblematic, of the ongoing conversation I was hearing along the way. I took an infrared picture that shows its white stones against the dark sky, then I continued east.