Maximum Sunlight by Meagan Day, with photographs by Hannah Klein (Wolfman Books, 2016)
“When Tonopah’s lights appear, I rejoice. I feel I’m alighting on Paris – the streetlamps and the Clown Motel’s flashing marquee bulbs seem astonishingly cosmopolitan. Tonopah is a shaggy little town, but coming in from the desert it looms large, an electric miracle in the annihilating dark.”
In college, I remember an afternoon when a professor of mine, an elegant retired ballerina with a degree in philosophy and a dancer’s walk, turned off all the lights and projected photos of cacti in Death Valley on all four walls of our conical lecture hall. The desert, she said, is a nowhere place. An in-between. It is defined not but what it contains but by what it does not. A desert is a place without. What was she trying to tell us? About inhabiting nothingness, sitting in the discomfort of being between? How many classic stories center around a trek through an endless desert on camelback? The desert is a test. We are taught to see it as a vast and uncharted vacantness, not suitable for human life.
And yet, the desert is not empty. In Maximum Sunlight, author Meagan Day and photographer Hannah Klein drive through the vast acres of federal desert between Reno and Las Vegas to find Tonopah, Nevada, a city in the middle. Tonopah is a mirage of a city, made compact by the restrictions of federal land use. If you drive too fast you might miss it. It’s home to the country’s only Clown Motel, a high-security military base, a series of strange characters who broke down and never left. But while the book does capture and embrace the city’s strangeness, its ultimate project is much softer and more human. Through candid interviews, observations, and photographic representations, Day and Klein capture a city that, despite its conflicts and peculiarities, feels familiar. Reading it, I found myself longing for the emptiness of a country road in a car at night, moving too fast, without any streetlights to guide me.
That familiarity is made all the more uncomfortable by Day’s subjects, who are often complicated people with troubling histories. The owner of a pawn shop, Zachary, was formerly part of the Aryan Nations:
“’Have you had those tattoos removed?’ I ask.
‘Oh no, they’re just old.’
‘What do they say?’
‘White power,’ he answers without missing a beat. He spreads his fingers so I can see better.”
In this scene, Day’s own discomfort is apparent; she writes, “My stomach lurches.” But Zachary is not just a small town pawn shop Nazi. Day gives him the space to explain his history, that he moved to Idaho when he was twelve to live on a compound called Hayden Lake, the former headquarters of the hate group. He talks about training skinheads at age fourteen. Day asks him why he left:
“’I just grew up,’ he says. ‘There’s too much stupid shit in the world to hate all the time.’”
Day plays with this stereotype of small town life – some characters are blatantly racist, but most have complicated opinions about race, immigration, hate groups, civil liberties. Some lean far to the left, others dip closer to center. Their reasons depend on their history, and their perspective. This is not a one size fits all portrait of small town life, or the complexity that comes with it. Day explores, too, drug and alcohol abuse from both perspectives – she interviews users and bartenders and one sober man who moved to Tonopah to start a chapter of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. The darker parts of life in Tonopah are not ignored by of all its inhabitants. Many embrace them. They use them to tell their own stories.
Like any successful portrait of a place, Maximum Sunlight is as complicated and as nuanced as Tonopah’s inhabitants. There are high school basketball games, and there are biker gangs. Men bet on the corpses of poisoned wild horses. But perhaps the most beautiful, and most striking part of the book was the sense of freedom that Tonopah’s residents felt out there in the wilderness, on an island of free land between swaths of federally owned desert. In many ways, for good and for bad, Tonopah remains untouched. Many of the characters talk about the release of riding fourwheelers out into the desert at night, no light to see by, moving through the scrubbrush in the empty dark. There is room to move here, space to be silent. Day writes:
“… the point is to crack the mind. Unobstructed sightlines, infinite clean air, throbbing silence, sand, wind, acid light or pitch black, veils and hazes, speed and birds and blood and thirst. If you go deep enough, the Great Basin desert can you that only it exists.”
The people we meet in Maximum Sunlight remind us that a place can be beloved precisely because it has been forgotten.