See You in Six Months: She Left My Heart In Jarbidge

Joh Billman's searches for matrimonial bliss in Nevada's loneliest town.

Aug 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
Remote File: North America

Continent Size
9,789,600 square miles

Population Density
49 people per square mile

Claim to Fame
World's largest canyon: Grand Canyon (276 miles long; one mile deep)

Most Remote Region
Queen Elizabeth Islands, Canada

Required Reading
Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat
Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner
The Call of the Wild, Jack London

Home of the man-eating devil: Jarbidge Mountains, Nevada.

I COME FROM A FAMILY of elopers. My parents ran off to Deadwood, South Dakota, when Deadwood was the quintessential ghost town. Grocery clerk as a witness, then off to the Old No. 10 Saloon to dance and drink until my mom had to go out on Main Street and hurl. My half-brother, Coe, is a biker-blacksmith who has eloped a handful of times in a half-dozen Western states. No penguin suit. No white cake. No beer cans tied to the bumper, rice spraying your face like sleet. Eloping is the wedding and honeymoon all in a single rhinestone-spangled road trip.

I wanted to elope where the cartography gets fuzzy, and there are plenty of options within driving distance of my small Wyoming town. The wedding photos in my mind had a forty-niner daguerreotype quality to them, love prospectors in the hard country. My plan featured Nevada. The state smells like opportunity, I believed; driving through the basin-and-range country, UFO whack-jobs on late-night talk radio, it's nearly possible to get ahead of yourself, like outdriving your own headlights. I imagined my beloved and me somewhere downwind of Reno and Vegas; no Elvis Chapel, no casino reception. Specifically, we aimed for Jarbidge, which bills itself as the Most Remote Town in the Lower 48. A hundred miles north of Elko, half of that on dirt and gravel the size of baby heads, infamous for the Shovel Brigade—conspiracy-theory anti-gubment types who banded together to reopen a Forest Service road closed to protect the endangered bull trout.
Jarbidge. Just saying the name had begun to taste like champagne.

We tossed our backpacks and a cooler in the truck and drove toward Elko. I was palms-sweating nervous. Hilary had the paperwork in her lap as we drove, dotting i's, crossing t's.

No air-conditioning, windows down, we rambled north through the sublime overgrazed bombing-range sagebrush steppe into the cool mountain range we'd been chasing on the horizon and turned off on a dirt road toward baby-please-don't-quit-me. The little four-cylinder engine wound, wind scouring the west side of everything with sand.

In Jarbidge we pitched camp along Bear Creek, walking distance to downtown. The sound of the creek would be romantic, I figured, but it only succeeded in keeping us up most of the night. The eve of the nuptials we hiked to the Red Dog Saloon for Angel Creek Amber Ales. I asked the barmaid about churches, small talk, figuring I'd warm up to full-blown questions of marriage. "We've got Preacher Bob," she said. "He holds services over there." She pointed to an old board-and-batten whitewashed community hall straight out of Unforgiven; the last bona fide church had burned down years ago.

That night, Hilary dreamt she was walking around Jarbidge and none of the people had faces. She woke in a sour mood. I slipped away for a run up the canyon past abandoned gold mines and a lone rattlesnake and came back with endorphins enough to get married on. After bathing in icy Bear Creek, I put on my best snap-button Western shirt; Hilary in a sundress, we strolled to town. Jarbidge is one street running north-south splitting a steep canyon. As we walked hand in hand, Hilary noticed a historic marker informing visitors that "Jarbidge" is Shoshone for "bad or evil place."

Things went sort of downhill after that. The Nez Percé and Shoshones believed a man-eating devil lived in this canyon and steered clear, never mind holding weddings here. Preacher Bob was nowhere to be found and Hilary announced that she refused to get married in a bad or evil place.

A midday window of sunlight from the slot in the clouds: high noon.

"Let's go back to Wells," I said. "We'll get married in Wells."

We drove a hundred-mile horseshoe out of Jarbidge Canyon and into southern Idaho, then Jackpot at the border and U.S. 93 south to Wells. I flipped through the Yellow Pages under "churches" and called them all. Every preacher in Wells was out—took it as a sign. Tying the knot in Nevada wasn't meant to be. And buddy was it a quiet drive back to Wyoming, Buck Owens's "Cryin' Time" on the AM, Hilary as remote as Jarbidge.

Two months later we were married in Kemmerer, Wyoming, by a cowboy/hippy justice of the peace who peppered the ceremony with cheerful Shoshone legend. Hilary refuses to go anywhere near Nevada, but I'd like to go back and throw flies at the redband trout in Bear Creek, sit on the deck at the Red Dog, and sip a beer among the faceless residents. Pay homage to our first efforts at conjugation, punch the devil in the nose, and try the town again.

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