Written by Bryna R. Campbell
The building in the photograph above is Death Valley Academy, a K-12 public school located in the tiny desert town of Shoshone in eastern California. Around 30 students total, ages five to 18, are attending the school this year. I know this piece of information because I talked to the school’s administrators on the same day that I took this photograph a few months ago in January 2016. Why would I be in Shoshone, California, of all places, and why at this school? Because this is where my mom attended high school.
Sometimes on Un/Settled I write about the rural midwest in a way that makes it sound like my ties to that region go back for generations. But there’s another reason I became invested in exploring the complexities of rural identity. While my dad has deep roots in the midwest, for my mom, the American West is the closest thing to a childhood home. I say “American West” because her parents were almost always on the move in that part of the country, working various civil service jobs in a wide swath of rural locations that stretched from the Ozarks to the Olympic Peninsula. In the late 1960s, her home was Death Valley, where my grandfather worked as the visitor center’s groundskeeper and my grandmother worked various jobs including the school bus driver.
In January, I got the chance to travel with my parents to Death Valley to reconnect with this part of our family’s history. And I’ll admit it, I also wanted to see for myself the otherworldly landscape for which Death Valley is known. Don’t get me wrong; that part was great. But nothing was as striking for me as our encounter with the school in Shoshone, which I’m still trying to process as I reflect on my own experiences growing up in the midwest.
I’m not sure what I expected by our visit. I had heard stories about the hour-long commute over the mountain pass we’d later climb ourselves. I suppose I had been thinking of the school primarily as an artifact of my mom’s past. Back then it was a high school and had enough students to be able to have a basketball team. For no real reason other than my own romanticization of the region, it never really occurred to me that the school would still be serving the regional population, albeit one, notably, that has changed.
The administrators we spoke to on our recent visit described grades at the school with one, sometimes zero students in them. Some of the parents that should be sending their kids there choose homeschooling because they are anxious about their child taking a 1-2 hour commute. Transient populations of blue collar workers make it hard to predict each year’s enrollment. As you might expect by these numbers, the school has faced threat of being shut down.
It’s tempting to buy into the narrative of a vanishing rural America when you learn about a school like Death Valley Academy. But that’s a narrative that obscures the complexities of the regional economies that brought people to places like this in the first place. Both when my mom attended the school and now, the student body is a mix of kids from the National Park, the collection of small mining towns in the area, and local tribes. As much as many of us tend to think of the American West in nostalgic terms, it is very much a place where people will continue to work and live for many decades.
When I spoke to the administrators, they made it clear that the decline in enrollment was not inevitable. Much of the recent decrease in population is tied directly to the recent recession. Much is linked, more specifically, to technology changes in the mining industry. Populations shift, families leave, young men looking for jobs take their place.
The narrative of the vanishing rural America also obscures the resiliency of those who actually live in these communities. When I spoke to the administrators, I got a sense of people who were deeply committed to the local community. They were devoted to making sure the kids who grew up in this vast landscape didn’t fall through the cracks. And the vastness is part of why it remains so critical for the school to stay open even if it only serves a small population. The nearest school outside of Shoshone is across the state border in Nevada. After that, one has to travel more than 100 miles to find a school to serve these kids.