Photo of ghost town Rhyolite courtesy of © Shaun Astor

On the Fullness Found in Emptiness: The Mojave School in the Nevada Desert

To some, Pahrump, Nevada, is just a stop on the back roads to Death Valley. To Watkins, it's a fringe town within a fringe state -- a place where literature can take root.

Sometimes the teens… are unable to even name a college when asked.

Author Claire Vaye Watkins has made a habit of describing the hellish desolation of Nevada’s Mojave Desert, of taking an environment often described as a void and building scenes of physical tension and spiritual uncertainty within it. Consider her most recent book, Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead, 2015), where she wrote of the region’s sand dunes as a living, growing sea gradually ingesting every former community that its outwardly-spreading fringes come into contact with. She paints the desert Southwest as a post-apocalyptic environment that has severed a mortally drought-stricken California from the Midwestern region where water is plentiful but whose populations are resistant to the influx of refugee ‘Mojavs’. Watkins uses the harsh conditions of the ‘dune sea’ to illustrate an environment where arid reality portends a stark and primal horizon for a landscape dressed abundantly in golf courses and water parks where population numbers and developed areas are constantly growing.

Watkins has reason to be familiar with the Mojave she invokes in her writing, she grew up in Pahrump, Nevada, a desert town with a population in the mid-30,000’s separated by a 45-minute drive geographically and by light years culturally from the adjacent city of Las Vegas. (About the same distance in the opposite direction lies the vast desolate southern end of Death Valley National Park, where a few road signs and a quiet two-lane band of asphalt prone to wash outs are about the only things that mark the park at this far end.) “The weirdness just kind of speaks to me,” Watkins tells me of her old home. “I think it’s a really vivid place, really bizarre. It has a lot of juxtapositions, and I find that when I’m out here, I’m noticing things a lot more.” On this afternoon we sit in an air-conditioned room while the outside temperatures across Pahrump Valley hover around 117 degrees in the midst of a Summer heat wave.

The dry Mojave heat is a marked contrast to the Ann Arbor summers that Watkins and her husband, writer Derek Palacio, along with their three-year-old daughter, Esmé, have become accustomed to. Watkins and Palacio both teach at the University of Michigan, but each of the past four summers, the two have travelled to Pahrump to lead the Mojave School, a free, week-long creative writing workshop organized, funded, and taught by the two, for rural area teenagers. This year, over a dozen high school age students attend the daily classes.

Rebecca Fortes and student at the Mojave School (Photo: © Shaun Astor)

The idea for the Mojave School came from Watkins’ own experiences reflecting on a lack of creative outlets and options as a student at the town’s sole high school.

“I was thinking about Nevada anthologies that I had read as an undergrad, and how I never really saw people like me in them. No Pahrumpian would recognize themselves in a Nevada anthology,” Watkins explains. Though it lies near enough that some in Pahrump will commute to Las Vegas for work, in the town itself it can be a challenge to find a building over two-stories tall, and the lone Starbucks exists inside the Walmart that serves miners and mobile home-living retirees. The town itself only tends to see its name mentioned beyond its borders on the occasions when a former professional basketball player overdoses inside one of its nearby brothels (Nevada’s legal prostitution does not apply to Las Vegas’ Clark County, so Pahrump tends to see its own small flush of tourism traffic from those who cross county lines to visit one of Nye County’s ‘ranches’), or for being the home of paranormal- and conspiracy-infatuated radio host Art Bell’s compound of a recording studio.

“The place is marginal in a variety of ways,” Watkins goes on. “It’s not lush and beautiful, it’s not a destination. You can see the lights of Las Vegas at night over the mountains, and you know that that’s an important place, but not here. The people here are not really encouraged to tell their story.”

It’s the final day of the weeklong workshop – ‘workshop’ seems to suit the loosely-structured class environment better than ‘program’ or ‘course’ might imply — and Rebecca Fortes, a 26-year-old writing teacher also from the University of Michigan, sits with a few of the teens near the area of the floor cleared for a podium. We are in The Writer’s Block, an independent bookstore located on Las Vegas’s downtown Fremont Street. The shop has invited the class to use its location for everyone’s final presentations, where they’ll read a piece they’ve been working on in the class. The students run wild with their interpretation of the assignment. Some will read autobiographical poems while others will read from ongoing serial pieces of fictional fantasy that were underway well before the workshop even began.

Watkins remembers the impact that discovering the creative arts and writing in particular outside the confines of her town had on her in high school. “I had been talking to a friend about, as students here, attending the Utah Shakespearian Festival and how that was a pretty profound experience for me. To meet not just working writers, but other young people who wanted to be actors and playwrights.” She elaborates that there was not much push for area students to attend college after leaving high school while she was growing up. While Watkins attended the University of Nevada, Reno in the northern part of the state, (she graduated from UNR in 2006) she says in her experience in returning to Pahrump, sometimes the teens attending her workshop are unable to even name a college when asked.

“The first couple years I think we spent a lot of time worrying about, what are they getting out of it? Is it working?” Palacio describes of their approach to leading the workshop. “And I think, for me, it stopped being about goals and expectations, and is now more like, ‘they came back. They’re getting something out of it’.”

Watkins describes that planning as being a lot more fluid as the workshops evolve with experience each year. “We asked some kids in the first class, what do you want to learn? And one was like, ‘rap lyrics!’ So we try to make the curriculum flexible. In some ways their creative writing part is just about giving them space, I mean a lot of the writing prompts are just an invitation to write.”

Battleborn (Riverhead, 2012), Watkins’ first book, is a collection of stories spanning eras and geography, many permeated by a dark tone, though the unifying characteristic of each is that it’s set in Nevada. The collection won the Story Prize and tended to portray Nevada in a tragically conflicted light. Watkins explains how the scenes were conjured from memories fermenting with a sense of homesickness. She moved to Reno to escape the Mojave town — distance softens the edge. “When I was in college, my mom died, so I didn’t have any family in Pahrump anymore. Suddenly I had no obligation to come back. She died in April and I graduated from UNR in May. I went to Ohio State for grad school, and I was suddenly totally adrift. I was like, I could go anywhere, but I just want to go back to Nevada. So Battleborn was just about wanting to conjure up a home that was recognizable to me.”

Inside the Writer’s Block, the presentations begin with the workshop instructors taking the podium to share what they’ve written. It’s evening now, and outside the shop’s doors, tourists stumble down the sidewalks of the Fremont East Arts District, an ambitiously titled section of Fremont Street extending away from the city’s old downtown casino blocks, which still remains primarily a collection of bars. In the desert evening’s dry heat, tourists brave the heat fortified with three-foot tall plastic margarita cups in hand.

Ironically, Watkins is the only one of the three instructors without a background in teaching teenagers. Palacio’s first job was as a 6th grade English teacher and he emphasizes how he later had to make the adjustment to teaching at the university level. Fortes taught 8th grade Language Arts in Orlando before teaching creative writing at the University of Michigan as part of the terms of her fellowship. To Fortes, the methods of teaching creative writing at both levels are similar. “Honestly, leading creative writing with my 8th graders and leading creative writing when I got to Michigan, the only difference was changing my vocabulary. At Michigan, everything was ‘what do I need to do to get an A?’ A lot of the students just looked like they hadn’t been given permission to play around.”

As Watkins opens up about her family of history moving around some of the smaller towns in a region that even many Californians and Nevadans may be hard pressed to locate if asked — a history that includes a family home on possibly-squatted land and learning storytelling from a mother who may have fabricated the origin stories of many of the artifacts passing through the displays of the museum where she worked — her affection for the desert is apparent, explaining the drive to return each year and take on the task of organizing every aspect of the Mojave School. Of the initial idea that led to the creation of the workshop, Watkins says, “I just felt it was important to give back to a place, in a sense. So we just did it. We didn’t have any expertise or anything. The community center donates space. Money-wise the only cost is the notebooks.”

When I ask if their motivations as teachers have changed as they have led the workshops, both Watkins and Palacio express that the goals are not exclusively academic. Ultimately, the birth of their daughter has radically changed everything for she and Palacio, including their ambitions over the past four years for the workshop. “I think the more people you’ve met who have gone to college, the more likely you are to go to college. A little bit of exposure can go a long way. We just want to be a part of that influence.”

In a sense, Claire has come to create the resource that she wishes would have existed when she was a high school student amongst Pahrump’s off-the-grid trailer homes and unflashy casinos more akin to the slot machine nook of a Las Vegas gas station or grocery store. As the students finish their readings, Watkins and Palacio tell them that they are welcome to browse the book shop shelves and choose a book that looks interesting to them. It’s not so much a final assignment as a reward — an incentive to continue nourishing an ambitiousness in an environment that doesn’t necessarily encourage it.

Afterward, we walk out into the still-blazing evening heat, into the rental van to make the 45-minute drive back to Pahrump. The sprawl of southwest Las Vegas reaches farther into the desert than it did years ago when she lived in Pahrump, though that sprawl comes to an abrupt end and as the road bends over a hill and drops down the other side, the noise and spectacle of the city give way to the undeveloped desert again.

To someone unfamiliar with the desert, words like “empty” and “void” and “nothing” get thrown around. However, anyone familiar with its patterns and landscapes realizes that the desert is not empty but merely slower, removed from the frantic pace of modern urban living. Its complexities and interactions are subtle. To some, Pahrump is a stop on the back roads to Death Valley, or the hazy memory of a bachelor party and a trip to ‘the ranch’. To Claire Vaye Watkins, it’s another of the plentiful examples of Nevada’s inherent tension of a fringe town within a fringe state.

Up the highway — just past the mountainous sand dunes that inspired the dune sea wasteland in her book — lies the air force base constantly under threat to become a despository for the nation’s spent nuclear waste, and the newspaper here quips that the only time the town’s name is mentioned is in conjunction with bad news. But this is the Nevada that shaped and influenced Watkins, the Nevada that she in turn is encouraging its young people to realize that their stories are important and worth telling. This is the Nevada that all too often goes overlooked, evolving slowly — at a desert’s pace — subtly shaped by the confluence of elements and personalities that are hidden in the open — in the desert’s perceived ‘emptiness’.

Shaun Astor is a writer and photographer based out of Reno, Nevada. His work is influenced by the terra incognita of the maps and the trails that begin where the dirt roads end. More of his work can be seen at www.raisethestakeseditions.com.