The International Cafe in Austin, Nevada does not hide its political leanings. A sign a movie theater would use to announce its next feature juts out over the street holding a large “TRUMP, PENCE” poster. A billboard sized “Make America Great Again” unfurls over the front door. Because we want to understand and communicate and share this country with the close to 50% that voted for Trump, we ignore the “Hippies Use the Backdoor Always” sign, and walk through the front. The cafe is empty. It’s got a feel of classic American small town diner with a bit of biker funk. There’s posters of Marilyn Monroe and paintings of Western shootouts. Next door through a narrow hallway is the bar. It’s darker in there and has that sepia tone haze that you only seem to see in empty bars in empty places. There’s one man sitting alone at a table, drinking a beer.
“Take a seat anywhere,” the woman, coming out of the kitchen says. She has yellowed, decaying teeth which she shows to us in a generous smile. “Wherever you like.”
She asks where we’re from after noticing a different license plate. We’re friendly, very friendly, we ask her about the weather, about the town and its history.
“Keeps on snowing on us,” she says. “All day yesterday, three feet before that.” We’re at nearly 7,000 feet in the Toiyabe Mountains.
“What can I get ya. We’ve got white bean soup, some steak, pizza.”
Paige gets the white bean soup; I get the pork sandwich.
She goes back to prepare it. She appears to be waitress, cook, and proprietor wrapped into one.
While she’s cooking, we look at some of the brochures on Austin history at the front door. In the 1870s when the Silver boom hit Nevada there were up to 10,000 people living on this hillside. A railway serviced the town. There was a stately brick courthouse. A wealthy financier built a replica of a roman castle on the outskirts of town.
Three hundred people live here now, at least that’s what the sign coming into town says. Our host says it’s more like ten people, but it is winter and perhaps she’s feeling a bit of the winter blues.
Nonetheless, it’s a Friday afternoon and the International Café appears to be the only place open in town. The library is open Monday-Wednesday-Friday from nine to noon. All that seems to keeps Austin’s pulse is Highway 50—The Loneliest Road in America—passing east to west across basin and range.
The woman comes out with our meal and we ask if there’s a grocery store here.
“No, got to go down to Tonopah—70 miles. There’s a cute little store there.” We wonder what her definition of “cute” is. “But mostly we go to Fallon, a hundred-fifteen miles. They got Wal-mart—everything.”
They drive 115 miles for groceries.
“There’s two gas stations in town,” she adds. “Not much else. Two restaurants, two bars and two gas stations. Best go to the next town if you need anything”
In a town that once was a destination, a place of wealth and prosperity that has spent over a century gradually decaying, it’s little wonder that when a wealthy billionaire comes along and promises to bring America back to her heyday, that the people of Austin would imagine the time when silver ore came out of the mountains and pockets jingled and the very air sang. When a man comes and brazenly declares, “We will take you back to your glory,” you sign on: “Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
But Austin will never be her rambunctious, frontier self again. She lives tied to a past that has become history and will not take the same form again. She could be a small town of art and poetry and vibrant shop fronts that celebrates its history but no longer leans on it, having created itself anew. Jerome, Arizona is such a town.
Last winter in our southwestern travels, we took a steep road up onto a mountainside, where Jerome lay perched and slumping. So many mine shafts had been dug under the town to reach the rich ores containing copper, silver and gold that the entire town was migrating downhill. Nevertheless, the town was buzzing with cafes, numerous galleries, and shops that celebrated frontier and mining history. It was still small—450 people or so—but it had rebounded from a town of less than 100 in the 1950s. It was just the right size to accommodate what it had.
There is yet hope for Austin. But it does not lie in restoring something she had. It lies in making a future based in the complex reality of our 21st century world, in actively envisioning all that a little town in the mountains could be.
Our bill comes to $13. We leave a large tip. We thank our waitress and cook and she smiles and tells to have a nice day. We feel for her because we know that she too will be hurt when Trump’s promises are not fulfilled. She too will wonder who it is that can speak for her. The answer doesn’t lie in one person, it lies in all of us working together to create equality and justice for everyone.