Travelling While Privileged #1: A Castle In The Desert
Updated: Dec 5, 2018
Throughout this trip I have been conscious of how my privilege shapes my experience of travel. I'm white, middle-aged, U.S. citizen, native English-speaker, not-poor. As I've moved across the country these characteristics have been very helpful. I have been in many different kinds of communities: rural, urban, Hispanic, Anglo, wealthy, poor, north, south, east and west.
Few of the places I've visited felt like home. But in no place was I made to feel I didn't belong. In fact, almost everywhere I felt actively welcomed. I know that would not be the case if a few of my personal characteristics were different. If I were a Muslim woman who wore a hijab. If I spoke English with a strong accent (Spanish, Hmong, or West African, for example). If my skin was dark. If I were driving a beat up 2002 van instead of my shiny 2017 Prius. In the schema of this country's past and present I have privilege and that's made this trip easier than it could have been for someone else. This is the first of several posts I plan on writing about that.
I spent one day in Nevada driving south and west from Elko to Carson City where a number of Nicaraguan relatives live. As I usually do, I looked on the map for a route on two lane highways and found Nevada Rte. 278 South to Eureka and then U.S. Rte. 50 West to Fallon. Serendipity rules. Both roads passed through extraordinarily beautiful places. I hadn't noticed that Rte. 50 is marked "the loneliest road" on my map. Unbroken horizons and plains edged by mountains for four hours. With a stop for cookies near Eureka. "Interstate Kyle" shared his drive along Rte. 50 on YouTube:
By the late afternoon I was in a kind of daze, enchanted by the miles of emptiness, when I stopped for gas in the little town of Austin. As I was pulling out of the gas station I saw a sign for "Stokes Castle". Stokes is a family name that doesn't often show up outside of relatives. Curious, I pulled up Google on my phone and found that this Stokes Castle had been commissioned by my great-great-grandfather, Anson Phelps Stokes as a vacation retreat. This weird encounter fit the dreaminess of the day and place.
The "castle" is only a couple of miles off the main road, up a steep and twisting dirt road. It is fenced in, with an explanatory sign. And the most amazing views of the valley below. I sent pictures to my father (who had not known of it) and then called. We had a nice chat about this folly of his great-grandfather's that had been modeled on one he'd seen in Italy. I love the romance of Anson Phelps Stokes' vision.
Anson Phelps Stokes was born into wealth generated by what began as Phelps, Dodge and Company, an import-export, mining and industrial conglomerate. He made more money through investment in railroads, lumber and banking. He became involved in mining - and politics - in Nevada in the late 19th century, at the tail end of the silver boom. This included lobbying for a railroad line to Austin NV (my gas stop).
The privilege I experience while travelling is connected to the wealth and status Anson Phelps Stokes lived. He was on the winning side of a very lopsided capitalism. He was able to have local workers haul stones up a mountainside so he could enjoy a vision of rustic opulence, was able to use money and influence to pull levers in the Nevadan legislature to use public funds to build a railroad (where it maybe wasn't needed). He could do this because slaves in the U.S. South produced cotton and miners throughout the U.S. and Mexico dug copper. He could do this, also, because he was white, Protestant and European-descended as I am. The trajectory that put me on this road in Nevada, that gives me the opportunities I've had - including being a professor on sabbatical - has roots in the imbalances - and injustices - of the past.
Interestingly, when I told the story of encountering the castle to relatives in Carson City, one of the young people said their principal at the high school is named Stokes. I like to think of parts of the family putting down roots in this enchanted empty loveliness.