Claire Vaye Watkins: How to Escape Your Hometown
Returning to the Desert, Meeting Your Teenage Self
This essay originally appeared in No Tokens Journal #3.
I first met my 17-year-old self over email. “Hello,” she wrote. “My name is Jo Longley and I am interested in signing up for the creative writing workshop. My full name is Jo Brooke Ann Longley, although that may be more information than necessary.”
The creative writing workshop she mentions is the Mojave School, a free program my fiancé Derek and I are putting on this week in my hometown, Pahrump, Nevada.
A bit about Pahrump: The word “Pahrump” comes from the language of the Southern Paiutes. Like many place names in the Mojave Desert it basically means, “There’s water here.” Specifically, “water from the rock,” meaning springs flowing up from an underground aquifer. But yes, we’re aware the word sounds like a bodily function.
Anyway, the town of Pahrump is about 35,000 people sprayed across a long hot valley with purple-black mountains all around it. The bottommost point of the valley is a crusty white dry lakebed, the scene of many car commercials and music videos wishing to convey freedom and/or desolation. Over the mountains to the east is Las Vegas, sixty miles away. On a clear night you can see the city lights over the range, our neon aurora borealis. To the west, over another mountain range is Death Valley. Pahrump is hot and dry as hell—over a hundred degrees the whole week we’re here for the Mojave School. At one point, a guy at the laundromat says, “It reminds me of the Persian Gulf.”
It’s a place where the boys become construction workers and the girls become cocktail waitresses. The sunsets are sublime.
A population of 35,000 sounds like a lot. But those 35,000 are scattered over more than 350 square miles, so Pahrump still feels pretty small. Plenty of residents would disagree with that, remembering 1980, when only 2,000 people lived here. Now, there are two stoplights, one public high school, and a lot of the roads are still dirt or gravel. Most of the houses are prefab mobile homes or straight up trailers. In this town, there is a difference. If you’re interested, the distinction between a mobile home and a trailer has to do with whether the home is on wheels and an apron of cinderblocks, or just wheels. (It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one when you grow up here, like the difference between free and reduced-fee lunch: free lunch means you’re a scrounge, and reduced lunch means you’re regular. No one here says “poor,” and they certainly do not say “working class,” “underserved,” “economic inequality,” or any of the other names for this place I learned in college.) There’s a third type of house, which we call “stick-built,” even though they’re mostly stucco.
Most homes are set on big, unlandscaped patches of desert. The house I grew up in, 1600 Lola Lane, was a mobile home on three-and-a-half acres shaped like Nevada with a beautiful big cottonwood tree shuddering at the tip. I was on reduced lunch. The lots seem empty but they rarely are. Most yards are clustered with cars, both running and not, or horse corrals, or a cache of building materials, or mounds of unspread gravel, or other trailers, or a pen of peacocks or ostriches or wolf dogs. Pahrump has no mayor, no sewer system, no alleys, hardly any sidewalks. Until the Sixties, there were no telephones. The main drag is strewn with billboards featuring blondes beckoning men to strip clubs and brothels.
After Lola Lane, my family moved to a stick-built house on the south side, near the town’s two brothels, the Chicken Ranch and Sheri’s Ranch. I learned to parallel park at Sheri’s. But before I could drive, my school bus passed the brothels every morning. It was a moment I waited for, a moment I loved, because of the Chicken Ranch. The Chicken Ranch is stick-built and painted pink and baby blue, with dormer windows and a white picket fence. As a girl, I’d never seen a house so beautiful. I wanted to live there.
* * * *
Growing up in Pahrump feels a little like growing up in Mike Judge’s show King of the Hill, except with a few episodes written by Cormac McCarthy. Graphic, haunting rumors swirl through the town like the sudden tornadoes of dirt we call dust devils. The actual news can be just as violent: in 2008 the little brother of the first boy I ever kissed was executed here. His body found at the end of Lola Lane, beneath that giant cottonwood. My college boyfriend was killed in a car crash three months after he moved back to Pahrump. Earlier this year, a man I did not know drove up Wheeler Pass Road, where my friends and I used to go shoot off fireworks or fool around. There, he dumped his neighbor’s body, hoping, he said, that it would be eaten by coyotes.
These are only a few of the darker episodes in the town’s story. I bring them up not because they fueled my impulse to flee—as a kid, I thought things like this happened everywhere, every city and small town—but because I want you to see one of the most striking things about Pahrump: the frankness of the people here. They talk about dark stuff plainly. It’s almost like the town itself has a wicked sense of humor. Like my high school math teacher Mr. Carlin, who’d lost his leg when he was struck by a car, and walked with the help of a prosthetic. When Mr. Carlin got married, they held the ceremony on the Las Vegas Strip, specifically at Treasure Island, on the pirate ship.
Or take the nonprofit where we’re holding the Mojave School, Nye County Communities Coalition (NYECC), whose mission is to grow H.O.P.E.: Healthy Organizations, People and Environments. This they do by “joining together individuals, organizations, and agencies in a cooperative and collaborative effort to increase services and opportunities.” These services and opportunities range from a Substance Abuse Task Force to an Americorps outpost to a Kindergarten Round Up. Typical do-gooder nonprofit stuff, except when you consider their advertising. Two banners announcing the NYECC Jobs Center hang on either side of the campus. These banners say, in all caps, “Opportunity Is Now Here,” except there are no spaces between the words, like a web address, but it’s not a web address, just a mash of all caps with no spaces, and so it reads, on first glance, “Opportunity Is No Where.”
This is the perfect telling detail for someone like me, trying to encourage literacy in the community. A painfully hilarious mistake. Except it’s not a mistake. I talked to the folks at NYECC and they told me about this guy on their staff Tim Wigchers, who is the Jobs Developer and Communications Coordinator. Tim saw a similar banner at a conference in Minnesota and knew he had to have one for the Pahrump campus. Tim came back from Minnesota, printed off the all caps, no spaces graphic, and polled every staff member about what they saw. And apparently every single person read the would-be banner as saying, “Opportunity Is No Where.”
Look closer, Tim would say. And they did, admitting that it could also be read as, “Opportunity is Now Here.”
Exactly! said Tim, dismissing the few staffers who offered a third interpretation: “Opportunity I Snow Here.”
* * * *
Coming back to Pahrump as a visitor is weird. I don’t have any family here anymore, so Derek and I stay at a motel that used to be Army barracks. After that it was an hourly love motel in Las Vegas. Then the buildings were towed to Pahrump, and the love motel barracks became a Best Western. This narrative is proudly displayed in framed photos hanging in the lobby. Every morning before the workshop Derek and I eat our free continental breakfast in a Nascar-themed casino that reeks of smoke from the night before. We eat surrounded by confounded European tourists on their way to Death Valley or Zion. We eat as fast as we can, in silence. It’s the one truly depressing part of every day.
A lot of people think of Pahrump as a trap. More than a trap. They talk about it as if it has this mythic power to hold people here and drain them, like a succubus. My old friend Ashley married an out-of-towner, which doesn’t happen that much. He’s from Alaska and his name is Josh. One night we smoked cigarettes and played video poker together at the Saddle West, the casino where they met while Josh was a security guard and Ashley was a cocktail waitress. I don’t really know how to smoke cigarettes or how to play video poker, so instead I asked questions. Ashley told me how she wore two padded bras when she was waitressing, to make her look bustier, how it was worth it, even though it hurt like a mother. My grandmother used the same trick forty years earlier, working as a change girl at Caesar’s Palace.
Later, I asked Josh, “What brought you to Pahrump?”
“I hit a deer in Arizona,” he said, “and my car finally broke down here.”
Mr. Carlin, the pirate math teacher, was the speaker at my high school graduation ceremony in 2002. He was a fantastic teacher and has since left Pahrump, as everyone expected he would. I remember his speech being very funny, which would have been characteristic of him. But the only specific line I can recall was the last one, which he delivered with sudden severity: “You don’t have to go to college, but you can’t stay here.”
All to say, I think some of the students at the Mojave School are a little confused about why I’m back. Honestly, I’m a little confused, too. But perhaps no one is more confused than Jo Brooke Anne Longley.
“Pahrump’s a black hole,” Jo says. “Right now I’m just so tired of it I don’t understand why anyone would come back.”
* * * *
Jo Brooke Ann Longley says she’s getting out and I believe her. A chronic overachiever, Jo’s staggering ambition is exhausting even to relay: Jo skipped two grades. She started taking classes at the local community college when she was 13 years old. She is now a 17-year-old college senior, and stalking a Fulbright.
She’s always been like this. At five she wrote book reports for her kindergarten teacher. At six she was doing sixth grade math at her brother’s middle school. She’s volunteered at the library and participates in about half a dozen church groups. She’s worked as a barista, interned at the local electric company. She sometimes works nine or ten hours a day, four or five days a week. The other two days a week her mother drives her an hour and a half East, over the Spring Mountains to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and back again. She’s a full-time student at UNLV. She usually overloads, taking five classes a term. When I ask her why she takes so many classes, Jo says, “So I can graduate on time.”
By “on time” she means by age 18. She has the ticking clock mentality that most of us women have, plus the crystal clear vision of what this place does to women. She has, I know without asking, her own Ashley, her own change girl grandma. She must. Any girl with her eyes open notices those brothels and billboards.
When we meet she’s enrolled in the Mojave School and taking summer classes and works in the two jobs typical of girls not yet twenty-one: childcare and food service. At the daycare where she works she’s typically responsible for about a dozen toddlers. “Every teenager should have to work in a daycare,” she says. “It’s great birth control.” She also holds down the fort at Seemore’s, the two-story frozen yogurt stand shaped like a castle with a huge plaster dollop of cream on top, in a wide patch of desert astride one of Pahrump’s two highways.
One day, Derek, my stepdad Ron, and I went to visit her at Seemore’s. It was a hundred and two degrees. We met her friend Anthony who fed toffee soft serve to the bold and probably diabetic ground squirrels skittering between the benches. We all pretended not to notice two drunk bikers making out nearby. This was not easy. You might think there’s nothing grodier than two bikers sloppily making out, but that’s only until those drunk bikers have been eating ice cream, and whenever the wind dies down you are reminded of this fact, aurally.
Earlier that day, I’d asked Jo if she was bored at the Mojave School, which we set up for teenagers who’d never taken a creative writing class before, not college seniors majoring in it. “I feel like I do know a lot of what you guys are teaching,” she said. “But my goal was to come here and try to get a recommendation letter from you and Derek.”
This type of resume fluffing is perfectly expected from wide swaths of American teenagers, particularly affluent ones. But it doesn’t really happen in Pahrump. When I asked one class at the Mojave School whether they wanted to go to college, every single one of them said, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, “Yes!” But when I asked them where, their certainty crumbled. They said things like, What’s that one in Arizona, the Christian one? Or, Somewhere with a good ROTC. Two said the University of Washington and when I asked them why they said, Because it’s green up there. One girl told me, “I don’t even know any names of any colleges, except Princeton, and I think there’s one called Yale… And isn’t there an H one?”
And then there’s Jo, applying for a Fulbright and to graduate school in London. She says it’s okay that she’s bored at the Mojave School because she just wanted to meet me “and make contacts in the creative writing world.” That Jo’s engaging in the kind of savvy careerism you’d expect to find at a prep school is anomalous and, to me, beguiling. I guess that’s why I came to Seemore’s. There’s something else alluring about Jo: certain hallmarks of Nevada femininity are conspicuously absent from her envisioned future—no padded bras digging into her, no children.
Though I know it’s corny and probably self-aggrandizing, I start to think Jo and I are versions of each other. I left Pahrump 11 years ago, to go to one of the two universities in Nevada. Jo goes to the other. We got the same scholarship, from a fund created when the state of Nevada sued the tobacco companies on behalf of Nevada children like me and Jo, who’d been sucking in casino smoke all our lives. Jo’s an English major, like I was, and like me she has an emphasis in creative writing. We even look similar: short brunettes with heart-shaped faces, women you might call “cute” until we actually speak, a pair of deadpan cherubs. I am Jo plus ten years and some cooling of my hyper-achievement engine. Jo is me, minus the fooling around up on Wheeler Pass Road.
Only a few kids get to college from Pahrump, and fewer graduate. Of everyone I went to school with, I only know of four of us who have gone on to graduate school. I’m the only girl. I have a theory that only two types of kids make it out: kids gunning for something, and kids running away. I find myself transfixed by Jo’s ambition. I want to know: is she a gunner or a runner?
One day after class, on the NYECC campus where opportunity may or may not be, I ask Jo why she works so much. She has a full-ride scholarship, after all. “I’ve just always been obsessed with making my resume top notch,” she says. “Just the more things I can do to be impressive—it just helps me feel better. I also just like staying busy. If I’m bored I find myself slowly eeking into depression.” I think of my grandmother, all those hours stalking the floor at Caesar’s, forty plus years of swing shifts, forty plus hours a week walking around wearing basically underwear. Years later, when my sister told my grandma she was going to have a baby, my grandmother hesitated and then said, “You know you don’t have to. Have one, I mean. I just wanted you to know that. No one ever told me.”
Why London, I wonder. Jo’s never been, but she knows it’s basically the exact cultural opposite of Pahrump: lots of people on a little bit of land, rainy, secular and artsy. She says, “Growing up in Pahrump I feel like I’ve sort of been denied access to a culture where if I wanted to I could just go out and see a play on the weekend… In London I know that there is not a weekend that I couldn’t do that.”
Another draw to London is YouTube. Jo’s a YouTuber. Username, TheLittleStar89. “There’re a lot of YouTubers based out of London,” she says. “And they actually have a YouTube headquarters in London where YouTubers can go and make videos and stuff like that, which is really interesting and cool.”
Another appealing thing about London, aside from YouTube and being the exact opposite of Pahrump: It’s fast. In the UK most Master’s programs only take a year or two.
What’s the rush? I ask.
“It might just be a pride thing,” she says. “I want to say, ‘Yeah, I’m 19 and I have my master’s and I’m going into my doctorate program. Ha.’”
In my notebook I write, gunner.
* * * *
After the last day of the workshop, Jo and Derek and I go to a sandwich shop in a strip mall. I tell her my volleyball team used to come here for lunch on game days, that it still smells like volleyball in here. She looks a little disappointed to learn I used to be something of a jock.
People Jo knows keep coming in and out. The sun is blazing. In this cheery bread- and volleyball-smelling place, I discover my 17-year-old self’s fear.
Between bites of a vegan avocado wrap, Jo says she feels like when we’re young, we’re fluid. We can change, try on new lives for ourselves. But at a certain point, we ossify, harden into adults and stay there. Like a game of musical chairs, except the music stops when you turn 30 and that’s where you sit for the rest of your life. If you’re not happy with that chair, too bad.
Intellectually, she knows that’s probably not how it really works, right?
“Nah,” I say, as though I didn’t have that exact same fear at 17. As though I don’t have it now, at 29. Still, she says, “It’s hard to convince what’s in my ribcage to believe what my head is telling it.”
So sprinting through her education is Jo’s way of buying herself time, hedging against the vise grip of adulthood, the claustrophobia of womanhood in a place like Pahrump. This way she can spend ten years trying to be a writer, getting a PhD in literature, looking for a job in publishing. And if that falls through she’ll still only be 24. She’ll still have time to start over in psychology, maybe become a counselor.
She says, “My ultimate goal isn’t to get so many doctorates. It’s to find what makes me happy and to cling to it, cling to it with all my might.” There’s no hint of warm fuzzy self-discovery in her voice when she says this. There’s urgency, and fear.
“Cling to it, cling to it with all my might.” Or else? I don’t have to ask, remembering what this place does to women.
* * * *
So fear’s driving Jo to London, but poetry, too.
She says, “Ever since Harry Potter it’s represented a kind of freedom to me. Because that’s where he goes when he gets his letter: Diagon Alley. So it’s just been built up in my mind. I just see a community where I have a part and will be able to express myself.”
She can’t do that in Pahrump, she says.
“For a few years now London has sort of been my utopian destination where when I go there everything will be complete and beautiful and life will make sense.”
“I’ve seen everybody who’s left Pahrump and then they come back and they never quite get away again. And I’m so petrified that that’s gonna be me and I’m gonna be stuck in this place where I know I don’t belong.”
In Jo’s family, a recurring joke goes, “We care about our children’s education, so we moved to Pahrump!” Her dad tells stories about his own boyhood hijinks in another small town. He tells her, “That’s why we moved here.” But Jo says, “That’s not what I have.” In her dad’s version, growing up in rural America was the time of his life. Jo says, “If this is the time of my life, shoot me.”
Jo has no patience for nostalgia, her dad’s or mine.
“Before graduation, everyone knows it… If you don’t leave at once or if you come back, you’re never getting out.” And then, she says, “You slowly lose your teeth and your sense of manners.”
I remember that feeling, the town a succubus threatening to sap you bone dry by 19. Perhaps hearing the monster in her voice, Jo says, “It’s not bad or evil. It’s just not a place that I’ve ever felt welcome.”
“Me neither,” I say. In my mind I cross out gunner, and replace it with runner.
* * * *
We all want to be gunners. Gunners are admirable, driven, heroic. But runners make shit happen. I know, because I’m a runner, too.
And this is when I admit to Jo that I’ve started to think of us as a version of each other. It’s like I’m like you in 12 years, I say. Or you’re like me 12 years ago. I’m embarrassed, suddenly. I feel cheesy, like a stage mom, or a character in an after school special.
But Jo nods. “I’ve seen it, too.”
So I ask her what I’ve really been meaning to ask her all week: “Do you think that us leaving is a betrayal?”
She laughs. “To Pahrump? No.”
“Do you think it’s stupid that I feel that way?”
She says, politely, that she can see how I might look at it that way. But soon she says what she really thinks. “It’s a town. It’s not a person. It doesn’t have feelings.” She nods to the sandwich shop. “It’s not a team.”
I ask her if she thinks I’m just indulging in sentimental handwringing.
She says, without hesitation, “Yeah.” This is what happens when you get to ask your 17-year-old self questions: she gets real with you.
I don’t know why, but I confess to Jo that I feel like an outsider here, that I have all week. “Totally like I don’t belong here.”
She says, “Didn’t you feel that way when you were living here?”
I admit that yes, I did.
“But before I at least felt like I belonged in little tiny parts of it,” I say. “Like my friend Ryan’s swimming pool. Or in the living room with my mom, watching Star Trek. And now those places are gone.”
She asks, “Why do you want to feel like you belong here?”
I tell her I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t belong here. “That would mean I’ve betrayed or turned my back on the people here, become aloof or selfish, struck out on my own. And all that’s probably true.”
She shakes her head no. “You’re just not as good at pretending you belong here as you used to be.”
* * * *
That night, the Mojave School students give a reading at a local coffee shop to celebrate the end of the workshop. My two oldest friends drive out from Vegas to listen. Ryan and Jason are twin brothers. Ryan is, as far as I know, the only person from our class to get a PhD. He’s also the only person from Pahrump I’m still really genuinely close with. After the reading, I propose we go buy some beer from the grocery store. Jason doesn’t want to go because he works as a checker at another store in the same chain, in Vegas, and he hates it. But we go anyway. We have trouble finding our way around inside, even though it’s the same store we walked countless times with our mothers, the same store where we used to go fishing for booze, hanging around the parking lot with cash we’d earned at minimum wage, waiting for an adult shady enough to buy six bottles of Boone’s Farm for three teenagers. We never waited long.
We do find beers, and drink them beside the motel pool. The lights of the Nascar-themed casino are bright as a full moon, and we pretend there is one. We talk about the swimming pool at Ryan and Jason’s old house, the place I told Jo about. We talk about the juniper trees around the pool, which the new owners have cut down. We do not mention our mothers who both died here within a few months of each other, and in their dying left us with no reason to come back and every reason to keep running. We do not mention all the work we did to get out, all the distance we have traveled and want to travel still, except when Jason looks up at the would-be moon and says, “It’s hard to reach escape velocity.”
* * * *
Today, on the treadmill at the gym at the expensive university where I teach, I saw a tee shirt that could have been a poster on the wall at the NYECC. It said, “Effort Equals Success.” I’m home now, back East, and Jo is probably at Seemore’s with Anthony and the bikers and the ground squirrels. Seeing that tee shirt I thought, What’s it all for? UNLV. Kingston University. London. A job as an editor, or a counselor.
It occurs to me that Jo is working really, really hard for a life most of my female university students would consider Plan B.
* * * *
When Jo imagines herself in London, she’s not at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or YouTube headquarters, or in Diagon Alley. She’s at home, alone, in a tiny apartment. “It’s snug and bright and open,” she says. “It’s just me by myself in my apartment! …It’s almost a studio, but the bedroom area and the kitchen are separated by a back room, and the wall in the back is all glass, sliding doors leading into a cute little back yard. And it’s just all bright and open, and my own color palette that I get to choose.” Jo’s mom is a painter and so far she’s been picking the colors.
“There’s a cute little folding table,” she says, “that comes down and up. And the kitchen is stocked with weird vegan ingredients that I won’t feel weird having because it’s my apartment, gosh darn it, and I can have whatever I want.”
What color is it? I ask.
“It’s a tealish blue, a coralish pink, a very light yellow, a light lavender, white. White is the main color with the other colors as accents. And silver.”
A tealish blue, a coralish pink. They’re the same colors as the Chicken Ranch. The colors I used to hold my breath for as the school bus passed. “Sounds pretty,” I say.
Jo says, “It’s gorgeous in my head.”
* * * *
Effort Equals Success. Gosh, it’s a fantastic idea. One of the best. But it takes so much damn effort for someone like Jo to scrape and claw her way within grasp of even a modest version of success. Meanwhile someone else, from another town, another class, can just reach out and take it.
Is Jo hungry for London or running away from Pahrump?
Is there really a difference?
Jason was right. It’s hard to reach escape velocity. You need fuel. Dreams are fuel, sure. YouTube headquarters and Diagon Alley and Shakespeare. But if you’ve got a really long way to go, the best fuel is anger. If Jo had asked me how to get out, I might have said, Learn to hate the place you’re from. Get disgusted by the people who stay. Call them toothless. Call them speed freaks. Call them dirt farmers. Call them scrounge or townie or white trash. Learn how real college students talk, how they walk, what they read and what they eat. Learn what they do for a living and where they go on vacation. Learn to care about what they care about. Learn to laugh at what they laugh at. When they ask, say you’re from the middle of nowhere, or butt fuck Egypt, or Podunk, or Over the Hump in Pahrump the Dump. Or don’t say anything at all. Spend all the energy you have and more trying not to look like you come from here and then, one day, you won’t.
Tap the bricks on the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron and one day you’ll come back for a visit, and your stepdad will tell you over toffee ice cream how hurt he was to be the only white cab driver who didn’t cross the picket line last month, how sad it made him that the guys he thought were his friends were scabs, and you’ll struggle not to mention the Matrix of Domination or Audre Lorde or identity politics. You’ll genuinely struggle just to say, “That sucks. I’m sorry.”
One day you’ll come back, pass out stories to a group of kids who are and are not just like you and when you stretch across one you’ll say, “Pardon my reach.” And they will look at you like you are from another planet, because congratulations, you are.
But Jo didn’t ask me how to get out. She had a different question for her future self: “What was the hardest part of leaving?”
Like my grandma, I told her what no one told me, though I’m not sure that was a good idea. I told her, “I didn’t know how hard it would be to get back.” I told her that all those people behind you saying, go, go, go, well, if you listen, if you go, one day you turn around and they’re gone. I tell her that when they’re pushing you, they’re pushing you away, too. I say she might spend the rest of her life trying to get back across the chasm she’s leaping now. I don’t know if she listened. I hope she didn’t.