Time moves slowly when driving in the desert, down those long straight roads that seem to disappear only at the horizon—just like you see on TV. We had long ago left behind the green forests of northern California, and it seemed like every time the road curved we were presented with another endless strip of pavement. Although the scenery was monumental, we were eager to get to our destination for the day: a sleepy little mining town named Tonopah.
Tonopah, Nevada boomed at the turn of the 20th century thanks to the silver rush, but since then its population has gradually ebbed to the 2,500 people who still call this patch of desert home. It now serves mostly as a stopping point for truckers and tourists on their way out to Yosemite or Vegas, as well as the closest town to one of the government’s stealth bomber testing ranges.
For visitors, there’s not much now except for the Tonopah Historic Mining Park (“Where mining history comes alive!“) and a clown-themed motel.
A clown-themed motel? Excellent! Who wouldn’t want to spend the night in a clown motel in the middle of the desert? Okay, so maybe a clown motel isn’t in and of itself that interesting. But in good ol’ Nevada the ante is upped: The Tonopah clown motel is right next to a 100-year-old cemetery full of people who reportedly died of a plague.
A 100-year-old cemetery full of people who reportedly died of a plague??! Nice.
As you would expect, lots of people on the internet tend to think that this motel is scary and perhaps haunted. We weren’t exactly passing through, but had to make a detour to check out this clown motel that is right next to an old creepy cemetery. I’m not particularly afraid of clowns, but the little corner of my brain that is irrationally superstitious definitely believes in ghosts. Time to spend the night in… A HAUNTED CLOWN MOTEL.
The sun was still relatively high when we rambled into Tonopah’s western edge, and amongst the shuttered businesses and old petrol stations the Clown Motel was easy to spot.
There were enough vehicles in the parking lot for the place to be considered relatively busy. From the outside it didn’t really look that weird, except for the signs with clowns all over them. There was a lingering smell of cat piss in the parking lot near the office, and a troupe of six or seven small felines peeked at us from beneath a truck. I don’t really like clowns, but I do really love cats; it was a better start than we had imagined.
Inside the office was where the Clown Motel’s creepy level began to escalate. It was a free-for-all clown bonanza in there, with the likes of Ronald and Bozo being well-represented alongside possibly hundreds of other painted faces, beaming down from the walls.
I dinged the bell at the counter and was met by a cheerful old man who sold us a room for the very reasonable price of $46 and some change. There was no mention whatsoever of clowns, cats, cemeteries or plagues. He gave us the wifi password and went back to his TV-watching chair.
From the outside the rooms looked a bit ominous, with each door decorated by a painted wooden cutout of a deviously cheerful-looking clown. What could he and his doppelgängers be plotting? Their eyes gazed down and down, as if they were grinning straight into the depths of hell itself. Come nightfall, would the grins turn into sneers as they leapt off the doors and slipped beneath, coming to terrorise us with their evil laughter?
Our room was on the second floor. The clown decorating our door was grinning the same but his paint job was a bit shoddy, because I guess it gets boring painting 30 or 40 identical wooden clowns. The key slid easily into the lock and the door swung open to an enormous, dark room. We carefully set our stuff down and examined the spooky vibes.
Actually, there weren’t really any spooky vibes. The place was gaudily decorated, somehow reminiscent of Circus Circus in Las Vegas but with that classic cheap motel vibe that seeps out from the basic wooden furniture and fake brass light fixtures. It was clean and the two big beds were pretty comfortable, though, and to our surprise the only clown decoration was one faded pencil and watercolour portrait on the back wall.
After a short rest, we went to hunt for real spooky vibes in the place most likely to offer them up: The old Tonopah Cemetery.
Tonopah’s first cemetery was opened in 1901 and served as the resting place for local residents until 1911, when the town outgrew the small plot and a new cemetery was opened west of town. Those buried in the old cemetery include the victims of a mysterious plague that claimed the lives of over 30 townspeople in the winter of 1901-1902, the cause of which has never been identified. There are also victims of various mining accidents, and those that succumbed to the hardships of frontier life.
The cemetery was literally right next to the motel parking lot. Inside were a couple hundred graves, laid out in rough rows with each plot marked out by old iron fences or large rocks. Many of the grave markers were made of wood with epitaph plates made of hammered metal. One-hundred years isn’t old by any means, but the rough frontier had left its weathered mark on the graves. A lot of the epitaphs listed cause of death, and many of the graves belonged to people in their twenties and thirties. Some had come from as far away as Italy, seeking their fortune in the New World’s silver-rush desert land. Visiting a cemetery can often be an occasion for reflection, but the Tonopah time capsule was also an interesting peek back into American history.
Suddenly, it was beer o’clock. Because if you’re going to spend a night in a haunted clown motel, you might as well get pissed first. Tonopah doesn’t offer a lot of food and drink options, but thankfully they do have a brewery with a taproom. So we walked the one kilometre down the town’s lonely main street to the Tonopah Brewing Company and tried every single beer they had on offer—including a beer made with bhut jolokia, also known as motherfucking ghost peppers, the hottest chili pepper in the world. Aptly named Ghost Miner, it was painful.
Even more painful than the beer, at the taproom I dropped my camera and broke my beloved ultra wide-angle lens. Here are three of the last pictures it took.
After beers we went for Mexican food, because it was pretty much the only other thing open. And then, after one of the least-inspiring taco salads I’ve ever had, it was time to go back to the Clown Motel.
The next-to-an-old-cemetery, supposedly haunted, Clown Motel.
THE CLOWN MOTEL.
In the end I have no idea if the motel was actually haunted or not. Shortly after arriving back, Mook switched on the TV, I faffed around on Facebook for a couple of minutes, then we fell asleep until morning. I guess the long drive took its toll and the beer worked its magic.
So there were no evil clowns or plague-ridden ghost miners terrorising us while we huddled in bed. No weird voices or thumps in the middle of the night—at least, not any that woke us up. We got up feeling refreshed for once, did a bit of work, then checked out and sped off into the sunny desert towards our next destination.