The Woman of Shoshone
Most people never dream of owning their hometown, but for Susan Sorrells, the role is a desert birthright
Thu, Jun 21, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: Sam Morris
We’re cutting across an ancient lakebed on California State Route 178 with our tour guide Susan Sorrells. She’s the amiable and legendary-in-these-parts owner of nearby Shoshone, a small, unofficial, once-bustling mining town, whose cluster of historic buildings flanks two sides of a highway that slices through the Mojave on the way to Death Valley.
Sorrells spent the morning breakfasting at Shoshone’s Crowbar Cafe with seismologists studying the area’s fault lines—professors from Washington state who join the long list of writers and researchers dropping into this bio-diverse region. She seems happy enough to spend the day with us, two more outsiders who’ve come for a peek into her world, at this end-of-the-rainbow kind of place, filled with stories as rich as the prehistoric finds in this vast chunk of earth.
Driving along the desolate, two-lane highway about 85 miles from Las Vegas, Sorrells tells us about a 600,000-year-old mammoth femur recently discovered in the nearby hills. We pull over near a gash of obsidian to examine a fault line, before circling back “downtown,” where bikers and German tourists are filling the Crowbar, meandering the sites in 100-degree temperatures and studying the artifacts in Shoshone’s museum.
That this tiny roadside town, built along the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, is buzzing is a testament to the fourth-generation Shoshone resident who, along with her husband, Robert Haines, owns everything in town—the Crowbar, the inn, the gas station, the museum and the RV park—except for the Catholic church at the edge of town and the schools.
Running the town was an unlikely gig for the Smith College graduate who had spent time in Liberia with the Peace Corps, worked for California Sen. Thomas Kuchel in D.C. and lived four months in the Soviet Union during the Cold War while considering a career as a diplomat. But it is her birthright.
Her great-grandfather, the prospector and entrepreneur Ralph Jacobus “Dad” Fairbanks, founded the town in 1910 as a trading post, creating businesses and starting a pioneer family lineage that has spent generations working in the town. Charles Brown, Sorrells’ grandfather, was a California state senator whose name is all over town. State Route 178 doubles as the Charles Brown Highway. Her father Maury was president of the Association of California State Supervisors, representing government workers, and his private plane took the family to San Francisco and other cities. Relatives went off to prestigious schools.
When Sorrells was 17, her father died in a plane crash on the property, leaving her mother at the helm. Years later, Sorrells was living in Switzerland when she decided to return home to help run Shoshone.
Her stay was to be temporary, but when her mother became ill and died, the family town passed into the hands of the 20-something world traveler, whose brother was busy with a successful CPA practice in Las Vegas.
“Here I was an English major from Smith with a Russian minor and a Masters in African Studies from UCLA who didn’t know how to balance a checking account,” she says. “But I couldn’t sell it … There’s a wisdom that comes out of small towns.”
After all, these were her stomping grounds—from the wetlands where she rode horses as a child to the Crowbar, built in the 1920s, and the Sears modular kit home where her mother was raised.
There was also her childhood home—a mid-century modern structure designed and built specifically for her family in the ’50s by famed architect Richard Neutra, a close family friend who would continue to influence Sorrells, particularly with the ideas in his book Survival Through Design, about how man loses his humanity when he becomes detached from nature.
On her death bed, Sorrells’ mother made Susan promise she’d follow her dreams, telling her daughter that what made Shoshone special was its people and that someday they’d be gone. But things exist in these rural desert towns that can’t be found elsewhere on Earth. Stories and dreams linger; the cemetery is filled with familiar names.
Sorrells never moved away. Instead, she watched the world come to Shoshone, just as it had with her family, whose evening dinners often included geologists, politicians and Neutra, a regular visitor to the home, along with his wife.
Now in charge, Sorrells first needed first to revive Shoshone. The town was headed in the direction of other mining towns, abandoned and disappearing from the Western landscape. Multinational corporations had bought out nearby mines, and within three years the number of residents had dwindled to about 100. Moreover, floods had blocked the roads, locking visitors out and the town in.
But Sorrells and Haines held on, searching for another source of income. They found it in tourism. All she had to do was get the word out, convince people to “modify their traffic pattern.”
“We were hustling,” Sorrells says. “Our school had actually been closed for four years, so we had to.”
The change, however, came on too strong, and soon the town was threatened by developers eyeing the area and off-roaders ripping up top soil. So Sorrells shifted focus to ecotourism, knowing that the flora, fauna, paleo sites and geology had attracted international interest.
Forming the Amargosa Conservancy, the community was able to focus on preservation, eradicating invasive tamarisk trees (each of which sucks up 200 gallons of water a day) and removing 2,000 trees (so far) to enable the wetlands to return. The Conservancy got the Amargosa River declared a wild and scenic river, and Sorrells convinced her husband to hire a naturalist, who came in to identify and map bird nests and species, opening up the area to birding and hiking.
There’s a pup fish refugium now, and NASA has been through to study the Mars-like landscape. Additionally, the nonprofit program S.H.E.A.R. (Shoshone Education and Research Center) offers large-group accommodations for field trips and research visits to Death Valley—all of which creates a rotation of diverse visitors.
“While tending bar I had a diplomat from Austria sitting next to a racer, sitting next to a miner from Tecopa having a conversation about women’s rights,” Sorrells says. “That happens in the Crowbar. It’s a very stimulating place.”
Shoshone always has been. Dublin Gulch, a nearby prospectors community built into the caves by people who’d come to find fortune, included characters like Joe Vollmer, a German bootlegger who was on the school board and played Wagner on a Victrola in his cave (next to another cave that housed his still). British residents had high tea daily in their cave, and one lucky prospector spent his money not on a new home but on a truck that he parked in a garage he’d carved into the rock.
At the now-vacant caves, a museum-quality destination in their own right, front doors are still intact and smokestacks still jut from the top. Sorrells worries about vandalism in the historic district, but she doesn’t have the heart to close it off. It’s just not in her family history to do something like that, she says, though she plans to put up little gates around the cemetery.
Meanwhile, Sorrells and Haines remain focused on ecotourism and running the town, which they publicize as Shoshone Village. In addition to the Crowbar, the inn, the gas station, the RV park and other historic structures, there’s the post office, where Sorrells’ grandmother and mother served as postmistress, and the nearby pool, fed by a natural spring.
The museum, formerly a store, tells the story of the women of Shoshone, the miners, geologists, bootleggers and Sorrells’ family, through photos, documents, antiques, notebooks and mining and geology artifacts. In the back are prehistoric fossils, rocks and excavated mammoth and mastodon bones.
They’ve turned one home into a rental vacation bungalow, and another will become an artist residency. Her mother’s childhood home is now the headquarters of the Amargosa Conservancy. They also own Shoshone Propane in Pahrump, and Sorrells’ uncle owns the nearby China Ranch Date Farm with his wife, the current Shoshone postmistress.
Though Shoshone is not a city, the nonprofits have brought money into the community, helping to create the museum, the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Death Valley Health Center. Sorrells knew the Health Center was needed when Gypsy, a local resident, was injured and died when the van taking him to a clinic in Lone Pine broke down. Though it’s likely none of this would happen without Sorrells, she’s averse to taking credit, always citing the collaboration of the area towns, the community and the pro bono help from friends, including old Peace Corp pals and Smith alums, all of whom, she says, have made Shoshone what it is today.
We watch a ring-necked lizard crawl under a Western-looking performance stage near the horseshoe pits, located along what used to be the railroad. Behind us is a one-room sizzler house made of metal and so named for the temperatures it reaches in the middle of summer. Another group of tourists has arrived and heads toward the Crowbar.
“It used to be that in the middle of June you could shoot a cannon in the middle of the road and no one would notice,” Sorrells says. “As you can see, it’s the middle of June, and we’ve got people.”