Tuscarora and Jarbidge: A Tale of Two…Unincorporated Communities

Daniel Enrique Pérez

In their heyday, Tuscarora and Jarbidge had populations of approximately 4000 and 1500, respectively. Today, they each have less than 100 year-round residents. Whereas they at one time had enough residents to sustain schools and other vital services, they are now at risk of becoming ghost towns. And if it were not for the commitment and love that locals indefatigably demonstrate for these unincorporated communities in Elko County, Nevada, they would surely become specters of an era long past. Instead, they remain full of life and unique opportunities for engaging with others and nature.

I had the privilege of visiting these two areas for the first time in early August of this year. Tuscarora is approximately 50 miles northwest of Elko while Jarbidge sits 100 miles northeast; both require traveling along dirt roads that can be dangerous or impossible to cross when there is heavy rain or snow. Whereas some may see these communities as portals to a distant past, they can better be described as opportunities to experience the present fully. Visiting these areas is an invitation to slow down and connect with other human beings and nature in holistic ways.

Besides being nestled in some of the most picturesque mountain ranges in the state of Nevada, what these communities have in common is that everyone who lives in them knows everyone who lives in them, and guests will feel at home it both places. These communities truly emulate the meaning of the common Spanish saying, Mi casa, es su casa.

On Saturday, August 1, the Nevada Humanities Board of Trustees met in Tuscarora for a retreat; for most of us, it was our first visit. Throughout the day, we learned about the history of Tuscarora and met some of the people who currently live there. Thanks to John Rice (chair of the board), who owns a home in Tuscarora, we immediately felt at home in the community. We had a chance to enter several residences that belonged to talented artists who had studios on their premises. Besides witnessing the fascinating and prolific creative expression of these individuals, we were enthralled by their hospitality and generosity. At the end of the day, we shared a community BBQ right outside the Tuscarora Society Hall. It was a unique opportunity and introduction to a place in Nevada that still embodies the essence of the term neighborhood.

Tuscarora reminded me of my childhood and a time when you not only knew who your neighbors were, but you also knew their extended families and friends—a time when borrowing a cup of flour or sugar from your neighbor was as routine as borrowing your friend’s bike. In fact, my partner did borrow John’s mountain bike, took a ride in the surrounding hills, and then took a dip in the cool swimming hole before joining us for the BBQ. By the end of the day, we had extended our range of family and friends significantly.

After the retreat, my partner and I had plans to drive to Jarbidge to camp and do some hiking. We arrived in Jarbidge on Sunday afternoon. Our first stop was the local café where we spotted a sign advertising homemade ice cream and pies. We sat outside in front of the café and indulged in our treats while observing humming birds indulging at a feeder. A friendly gentleman asked if we were interested in visiting the community center, which was right across the unpaved street that runs through the center of town. When we expressed an interest in seeing the center, he went into the café, asked the café owner for the key, and opened the building for us. Like the community center in Tuscarora, the space serves as both a museum where one can learn more about the history of the area and a gathering place for residents and visitors. I was struck by how alive and important these spaces were—how they were treasure troves to a rich cultural heritage as well as practical spaces where people still came together to conduct business, socialize, and meet. In many ways, the community center in each town is a pulsing heart that keeps the community alive.

After our treats and a walk through town, we needed information to plan our hiking expedition in Jarbidge Wilderness the following day. We asked the café owner about hiking trails in the area. She explained that she was not very familiar with them, but that we should talk to Ben. We then followed her through the swinging doors of the café to the bar next door where patrons sat and chatted; Ben was sitting among them.

A thin, but rugged man in his 70s, Ben was bright and friendly. He had moved to Jarbidge in the 1970s. Over the years, he helped to build many of the trails in the area and possessed a wealth of knowledge about Jarbidge Wilderness. He gave us a detailed description of the path we had to take to reach our destination.

We found a beautiful campsite and assembled our tent right next to the Jarbidge River. We were the only campers in the area. The next day, we summited Jumbo Peak, which was approximately a 14 mile round trip and more than 4000 feet of elevation gain. It was a challenging hike in one of the most scenic and remote areas of the state. We did not see another human being throughout the day. Instead, we were captivated by the deer, sage grouse, and other birds that made the day so memorable. It rained on and off as we ascended the peak. Luckily, we had our rain gear, and the cool weather made the strenuous hike more bearable.

When we returned to our vehicle, it was raining lightly. Thanks to Christina Barr (executive director of Nevada Humanities), we met Meg Glaser (artistic director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko) in Tuscarora the previous day. Meg also had plans to spend time in Jarbidge and arrived shortly after we did; she is a co-owner of a comfortable home in the town. She invited us over for cocktails the previous night, and even though we were camping, she had offered us a place to stay. We could have had a cold, wet dining experience at our camp after our hike. Instead, we drove to Meg’s, knocked on the door, and found ourselves embraced by a warm group of people and a scrumptious home-cooked meal.

After a lovely dinner, the six of us sat around another table and worked on a jigsaw puzzle that proved to be even more challenging than our hike; I couldn’t remember the last time I worked on a jigsaw puzzle. That night, we left the puzzle unfinished but satisfied that we had all contributed important pieces to it. We slept comfortably in warm beds as the rain drizzled lightly on the rooftop of Meg’s home.

In the morning, we had breakfast and spent a little more time working on the puzzle before we all went our separate ways. It was not easy to leave such a quiet and inviting place, but the unfinished puzzle was a good excuse to return to the area someday soon in order to finish putting all the pieces together.