Surprises may not lie around every corner, but I’ve discovered a dash of magic beyond quite a few of them. Part of the delight I take in travel is recognizing these surprises are inexhaustible and potentially waiting across every leg of a journey. For the traveller this leads to the useful notion of simply getting out and about to see what you might stumble upon. The latest stumble I happened upon was the splendid Goldwell Open Air Museum in Rhyolite, Nevada.
The discovery was set up by a recent (week after Christmas, 2016) ramble around National Parks in the Western United States. Daylight remained after having pitched our tents in Death Valley, so my travel companion Sima suggested running across the border to a nearby ghost town she had heard about. Rhyolite, Nevada was born from a gold rush in the early 1900s and was only thirty miles from our tent site at Stovepipe Wells campground in Death Valley National Park. The boomtown benefited when a wealthy industrialist bought rights to the mine. Grand plans led to an almost instantaneous build-up of facilities: the town soon boasted a schoolhouse, hospital and even a casino. Everything was wired for electricity and water pipes soon plumbed the numerous structures – an outrageous bounty for the times.
Sadly, the freshly discovered deposits petered out quickly and after only ten years Rhyolite came full circle to being a ghost town. Many of the buildings were looted of materials by neighbouring communities, but the rest remain fairly well preserved in the desert climate (the ones made from rock, anyway — many vacant lots suggest wooden structures that have long since vanished). There is not a whole lot to see, but the site is totally free. And I sincerely mean that because beyond the absence of any entrance charge, Rhyolite is also free from the clutter of other tourists.
But before we reached the ghost town was the marvellous surprise. The Goldwell Open Air Museum is a petite, but really fun outdoor sculpture park that is similarly free of charge (you will not miss it as there is not much out this way). Just turn left onto a short dirt road immediately before the remains of Rhyolite. I suspect part of the attraction is the remote location in the Mojave Desert. The setting for the small collection of funky sculptures is a vast barren landscape with the only a few wild donkeys contributing signs of life. In the middle of nowhere, the unexpected gathering of sculptures becomes totally whimsical.
The most intriguing of the pieces here is the genesis of the museum. “The Last Supper” is a ghostly recreation of da Vinci’s masterpiece, but with a literal twist. The figures are represented as white shrouds absent a body, lined up single file without the benefit of a table for Christ’s final feast. The art was created by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski in 1984 by wrapping fabric drenched in plaster around models striking appropriate poses. Because the local environment reminded Szukalski of Palestine, the setting was indeed the inspiration and the artist subsequently coated everything in fibreglass to endure the harsh climate. While Szukalski only expected the pieces to last a few years, they proved remarkably durable, though several have been damaged (and replaced) over time – the suspects being vandals, or possibly the wild donkeys we saw roaming about.
This fascinating rendering drew others to add their own creations, and Szukalski added several more works before passing away in 2000. After his death, the site was converted into a charitable organization and today survives as a brilliantly remote artistic installation. The “Last Supper” tops my list of Goldwell sculptures, but favourites are expansive, not exclusive. Runner up maybe “Tribute to Shorty”. This is likely the first structure you will glimpse, a rendering by Fred Bervoets which pairs a sculpture of Shorty Harris, the miner who first struck gold at Rhyolite, standing beside a penguin? I found inserting a penguin into the desert surroundings charmingly playful and was amused to learn the critter serves as a self-portrait to illustrate how out of place the native Belgian artist (who was invited to the location by Szukalski) felt working here.
The fun continues with “Sit Here!”: a splendid mosaic couch by Sofie Siegmann, whose vibrant colours scream for attention amidst the muted browns of a lifeless desert. Though I seldom take selfies, I dare you to witness this vivid explosion of colour and not pause to pose. The bonus story here is that Sofie is from Switzerland but was captured by the American West and relocated there. The expanse made her more deeply appreciate the value of colour and she learned to apply it “thick as tar”.
“Icara” was another thought-provoking sculpture. This female personification of Icarus is perfectly placed. Where better to depict the travails of attempting to reach for the sun than in a scorching desert? This presented ample but completely unexpected, food for thought. What a treasure to come upon such a tantalizing art collection sitting in such foreboding country.
Discovering Goldwell amplified why I cherish travel so deeply. We strike out to expand our horizons. The traveller learns that while we can broaden horizons, life is boundless and it is impossible to ever reach the horizon. But the value lies along that journey towards the unattainable. Experiencing our planet offers compelling pathways to personal growth which cannot be anticipated nor planned for and acknowledging this notion renders our world a giant, unopened gift box. My advice is to get out there and start unwrapping.