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Tucson Weekly Old-World Nevada Charm

If you're looking for beer and bratwurst in Berlin, you'll have to drive another 120 miles.

By Kevin Franklin

APRIL 6, 1998:  HOWARD HUGHES NEARLY died near here. So says Melvin Dummar, the man who picked up a bum in the desert--a bum who, on his last legs as the story goes, was in fact Howard Hughes. After exchanging stories and a ride through the midnight Nevada desert, Dummar dropped off the supposed mogul in Las Vegas.

When Hughes died years later, Dummar was named in a will thought by some to be written by Hughes. Dummar stood to inherit $156 million, but never saw a dime. The whole story is retold in Melvin and Howard, a 1980 film that won two Academy Awards.

At the time he met Hughes, Dummar worked in a mine near Gabbs, Nevada. We pass Gabbs on our lonely highway road trip, but sadly, no billionaire bums--or even any regular bums. This is the Great Basin Desert, and aside from sage brush and a few dilapidated human outposts, there's not much here. Except for the German tourists.

The town of Berlin in the next valley is nothing cosmopolitan. It's just a defunct mining town and Nevada state park. But pioneers from the Motherland just keep coming. So much so that park supervisor Steve Weaver had signs made in German.

"Achtung! Bitte ein trittsgebühr vor entrichten!" reads one sign, reminding visitors to pay before entering the park. Apparently even well-meaning German tourists were blowing past his English signs and $1 entry fee.

The ghost town of Berlin is an exceptional example of a turn-of-the-century mining town. Nearby, one of the world's greatest collections of Ichthyosaurs is also on display. (See "Monster Mash," Tucson Weekly, March 26, 1998.)

Anyone interested in pristine ghost towns and Nevada mining history should explore this place. The mill house, headframe, assay office, miners' quarters and a number of other buildings are still standing although the town's human population split nearly a 100 years ago.

Mother nature tried her best to blow the place down earlier this year. Weaver reports gusting winds of up to 100 m.p.h. in February. The storm took the metal roof right off the multi-story mill house.

"At 3:30 a.m. the house was vibrating," Weaver says. "You don't want to be sitting in a 100-year-old house in hurricane winds.

"Then again, maybe you do," he adds after musing that the house had probably seen similar storms in the past. More than 50 modern homes in nearby Gabbs were in fact destroyed by those winds.

"The carpentry here is incredible," Weaver says. "Just look at the joints in the mill house." Inside, scores of inter-locking beams and supports weave a giant fabric of wood from the ground to the ceiling, 40 feet overhead. They definitely don't make them like this anymore.

The Nevada State Park Service has already started work to replace the structure's missing roof.

Berlin is a lonely place, hunkered down on the slopes of the Shoshone Mountains near, well, nowhere really; but 120 miles east, southeast of Reno will put you in the ballpark.

We turned off Highway 50, dubbed "The Loneliest Road In America," to get here. (See "Lonesome Highway," Tucson Weekly, March 19, 1998.) We followed Route 844, presumably the loneliest dirt road in America, to the park. I couldn't help but ask Weaver if he's the loneliest ranger, in the loneliest town living off a side road of the loneliest highway in America.

"I've never done anything else but live in places like this," is his evasive reply.

In the winter he sometimes goes 10 days without a visitor, but things pick up in the summer, he says. There might be as many as three or four vehicles a day.

Weaver has worked as a ranger in Alaska, Idaho, Namibia and his native South Africa.

"It suits me, but it isn't for everybody," he explains. "I've been all over the planet a couple of times, and you just don't get views like this anymore," he says of the 100-mile emptiness in the valley below. "There's no power lines out there."

The clientele at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is just as unique. "You don't just happen to be here," he says. "You have to want to be here for some reason."

Howard Hughes would probably agree.

Getting There

For current tour information, write to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, HC 61 61200 Austin, NV 89310; or call (702) 964-2440.

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