AUGUST 18, 2017
LIKE MOST of the people she interviewed for Maximum Sunlight, journalist Meagan Day first visited Tonopah, Nevada, by chance, just passing through on her way to somewhere else. She was intrigued by the town’s dramatic natural landscape and how human life seems anomalous next to it. “[T]he edges of Tonopah, Nevada are sharp. There are houses and trailers with yards full of trampolines and car parts,” she writes, “and then suddenly there is only earth and sky.” Midway between Reno and Las Vegas, Tonopah is just over 16 square miles, with a population of just under 2,500 people, 90 percent of whom are white. Almost entirely surrounded by public land, Tonopah doesn’t sprawl like many unconstrained towns of the American West. It’s a relatively dense concentration of human development in a vast desert.
Because of its isolation, the town hosts industries — a military test site (since abandoned), gold mines, solar mines — that require what Tonopah has in excess: space and sunlight. The town is also home to odd attractions that add to its singular atmosphere: a clown-themed motel, a graveyard known for paranormal activity, UFO sightings. Day understood all this from the start, and she was curious about what the locals’ lives were really like. “I came to Tonopah to write,” Day explains, “not because I wanted to answer a specific question, but because I had no idea what kinds of questions even applied.”
Maximum Sunlight is a long piece of investigative journalism and a short, intimate work of nonfiction. Day’s writing is observant and respectful, rooted in her personal experience. She moves, sometimes uncomfortably, in the proximity of strangers, revealing her thoughts in the moment and her reflections afterward. She shares doubts about her professionalism, analyzes her prejudices, confesses her fears. She never denies her assumptions, but she also doesn’t trust them. Her book is propelled by curiosity — about herself as much as others.
The book’s text is supplemented by a few dozen striking photographs by Hannah Klein. Interspersed throughout, Klein’s photos support Day’s reading of Tonopah as an anomaly: an arresting landscape with a peculiar mood. Klein captures the starkness of Tonopah’s vertiginous mountains, painfully bright blue sky, and almost-too-wide horizon. The boldness of the surrounding landscape throws into relief the confusing nature of human life in the town. In one picture, an old white man sits at a diner counter, wearing a button-down shirt with a Native American motif and a camouflage baseball cap. There is a two-page color spread of a bobcat cub, another of a house decorated with Nazi paraphernalia. Klein’s photos help Day draw the reader in as she pursues her strange attraction to Tonopah and her discomfort with this attraction.
“Tonopah is, in many ways, the apotheosis of rural rightwing Nevada,” she writes. “It’s an isolated town in an isolated and isolationist state […] a town fully surrounded by federal land in a state that feels besieged by the federal government.” Day’s conversations with locals reveal their conservative — or, at least, libertarian — politics. One citizen refers to his hometown as “the last bastion of free America,” explaining freedom as a condition where “you don’t have to answer to your neighbor for what you do. If you’re not up to anything, you can open carry down the street. You can dig a hole in your own back yard without a permit. And the best of all, any place out of this three-square mile area is the people’s land.”
Yet, as Day shows, the federal government — especially the Bureau of Land Management — is crucial in shaping Tonopah’s physical and psychological landscapes. According to Day, the BLM, as an institution and an idea, is a “battleground for opposing visions of the role of the federal government and the meaning of the term ‘public.’” Controversial since its founding in 1946, the BLM currently manages 258 million acres in the United States. The bureau was formed as a fusion of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service, both of which inherited their mandate from exploitative treaties with Native American tribes, leading up to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The BLM has been appearing frequently in national news stories since the 2014 Bundy Standoff and subsequent Malheur Occupation, events that fueled a second-wave Sagebrush Rebellion with its roots in the 1970s movement of the same name. The current movement, started by a populist rancher determined not to pay his overdue grazing fees, has declared its intention to wrest land away from the federal government and “return” it to “the people” (i.e., white settlers).
“In theory,” Day writes, “the people of Tonopah are not thrilled about the BLM […] but there would be no bobcat trapping or informal drag racing if the land were private.” The sheer expanse of the territory, and perhaps also the history of expropriation behind its current management, generates fear in the people who use it — an anxiety that space they feel entitled to might suddenly be taken away. For the progeny of white settlers, land in this part of the country represents both freedom and safety — freedom from other people and safety from anyone imagined to be threatening.
At one point in the narrative, Day is talking with a man named Zachary when she notices his fading knuckle tattoos. When she asks what they symbolized, he responds plainly: “White power.” Zachary explains that he used to be a skinhead, but he quit — the group got too violent for him. “When I was a skinhead,” he says, “it wasn’t about being a racist. It was more political. […] [Y]ou don’t just kill somebody because of their race.” Zachary tells Day that he recently discovered he’s part Native American. Day asks if this new knowledge has altered his views, but Zachary declares that he’s maintained his separatist politics. “In Tonopah,” he says, “you’re not welcome if you’re another race. There are some Hispanics and a few blacks here, but they’re just here to work. You don’t see them partying and all that other stuff.” Zachary takes this social segregation as a natural truth — an essential fact of life, rather than the effect of a long history of racial oppression. He sees his white privilege clearly, and hopes to maintain it.
There are very few Native Americans or Latin American immigrants in Maximum Sunlight, but Day does discuss a man named Stalking Cat, perhaps Tonopah’s most famous resident. Born of Lakota and Wyandot heritage, he held numerous world records for the number of tattoos and piercings he got to make himself look like a female tiger. Stalking Cat had been living in Tonopah for several years when he was found dead in his garage in 2012; while his death has been filed as a suicide, some locals suspect he was murdered. He seems to have been tolerated by most people and liked by some, at least in retrospect. But the brevity and opacity of Stalking Cat’s story is deeply disturbing: it speaks to an ignorance of how America’s history of genocide has shaped the present, and thus persists. The only Native American in the book is dead — except for Zachary, the ex-skinhead with his fresh Choctaw Pride tattoo.
In one incredible scene, Day asks a group of barflies to describe what they think they look like. There’s a heavy silence until one of them declares that he looks “scary.” When Day asks why he thinks this, the man replies dryly: “because I try.” The rest nod in accord. Do the angry white men of Tonopah share something with Stalking Cat — a need to stand out, to assert their role in a history they feel is indifferent to them? Perhaps their ancestors passed on a conviction that the only way to understand the past is to justify it — to defend their right to stolen land.
“I’m told that there are two forms of entertainment in Tonopah,” Day writes: “drinking and off-roading. […] [T]hese recreational proclivities spring from the same source: the desert, which functions as both the town’s playground and its quarantine.” Survival in the desert requires a kind of self-annihilation. Displays of broken bikes, empty whiskey bottles — Day finds evidence of the pride the locals take in the extreme ways they test their own limits. With few physical boundaries, you have to crash hard against the world — the road, the bottle — just to know where it ends and you begin.
By the end of Maximum Sunlight, Day hasn’t cleanly answered her questions about Tonopah. But as she warns her readers at the outset, illumination isn’t her goal. She has been looking for a place to begin. Day remains open, throughout her book, to exploring a place and its stories, without ever feigning assimilation or aggressively asserting her own presence. Maximum Sunlight reveals the complexities of its author’s relationship with one particular place, in the process teaching readers, as she herself is learning, about the complexities of place in general.
In one particularly striking scene, a man whom Day has just interviewed outs her as gay. Recently released from jail for a DUI, he confesses to Day that he’s dying of leukemia. Leaving the Mexican restaurant where they’ve been talking, he pauses and looks at her askance. Smiling, he all but shouts: “Hey, you’re a lesbian!” Then he tells her not to worry, that while he “doesn’t believe in it,” he won’t cause her any trouble. “Somehow,” Day writes, “it hadn’t occurred to me that in the act of looking I might be seen so clearly.”
Olivia Durif is a writer who lives and works on a conservation land trust in the south central Washington high desert. Her essays can be found at www.hypocritereader.com and in the Mexico City–based Cuaderno Fronteira.