Photo by Margaret Davenport
The Armpit of America
Shifting the Zeitgeist: Battle Mountain, Gene Weingarten, and Americana
By Margaret Davenport
“Take a small town, remove any trace of history, character, or charm. Allow nothing with any redeeming qualities within city limits—this includes food, motel beds, service personnel. Then place this pathetic assemblage of ghastly buildings and nasty people on a freeway in the midst of a harsh, uninviting wilderness, far enough from the nearest city to be inconvenient, but not so far for it to develop a character of its own. You now have created Battle Mountain, Nevada.”
- Gene Weingarten
I no longer celebrate the 4th of July. If I accidentally wear red, white, and blue, everybody surrounding me suddenly becomes aware that I am quite the francophile. The last time I recited the Pledge of Allegiance was in 2016. And yet, in spite of my attempt to unlearn the deep nationalism I was raised in, I cry at every baseball game. I have to eat Southern comfort food at least once a week. When I am in desperate need of a good cry, I watch Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem at the 25th Super Bowl and “American Soldiers Coming Home” videos. I am the most passionate and inspired version of myself during cross-country drives reminiscent of The Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces.” Despite my best efforts, I am an All-American Girl.
In late March 2022, I found myself in this americana mindset, driving eastbound across Nevada. I was assisting my sister and her husband with their California-to-Colorado move while simultaneously completing the last leg of a 4-year, cut-up cross-country drive. The spring sun had just started to melt in our rearview mirror. Teetering between night and day, we were caught in time, driving through nowhereland. With three bikes on the back of the car, two kayaks on the top, and one sleeping dog in the middle seat, my sister and I hurled her hand-me-down 2002 Toyota Highlander into the night, towards our stopover destination: The Big Chief Motel in Battle Mountain, Nevada. After departing the sketchiest Taco Bell in all of Reno, I randomly selected Battle Mountain based on driving distance alone. I then selected The Big Chief Motel based on several five-star Google reviews. When I called to confirm their availability, a pleasant woman answered the phone, took down my name, and provided me with directions (“Take exit 229, then a left… That’s it! We’re on the right!”). After two hours of night driving and singing Southern rock, we pulled up to a sparkling marquee sign proudly boasting “The Big Chief Motel: Comfortable and Clean… Home Away from Home!”
The motel was comfortable and clean. The staff was lovely, even discounting us part of the pet fee. Their parking lot was packed with trucks from a nearby construction site. While I paid for our room, a queue formed behind me of other late night drivers. I could hear the rumble of a train passing through, a sound reminiscent of my childhood home and first apartment, both nestled against train tracks. Our room was a spacious two-bed with a tiny kitchenette and an even smaller pink tile bathroom. I felt right at home. That night, as we crawled into the large, comfy beds (complete with a fuzzy blanket), we debated looking up the history of Battle Mountain. American towns with keywords like “Battle” and “Chief” lack any promising historical context. “Oh! The Washington Post named it The Armpit of America,” my sister read. “Wait… like the Gene Weingarten article?” I asked.
I had read “Why Not The Worst?” by Gene Weingarten in 2012, before I saw him speak at my high school in Virginia. Ten years later, I still remembered the article. That’s the type of writer Gene Weingarten is; funny, cynical, and gripping. I had sent my sister Weingarten’s 2009 article on children dying from being forgotten in cars only a few weeks before our road trip. I love Gene Weingarten. He hated Battle Mountain, Nevada. I was finding that I loved it.
Weingarten began the hunt for “The Armpit of America” in the summer of 2001. By then, he was settled into a career of poking fun at America through his humor column in the Washington Post. However, in the midst of writing up his scathing review of Battle Mountain, the September 11th terrorist attacks caused Weingarten to look at small town America in a new light. He could no longer, in good favor, slander the United States—“The zeitgeist had shifted. Snide was out.” Weingarten was forced into writing from a perspective that doesn’t care about crumbling buildings and bad diner food, but the entire town showing up for a high school homecoming football game. Weingarten shifted his article from trashing Battle Mountain to applauding its deep community. Instead of labeling the town The Armpit of America with the intention of shame, Weingarten placed the title like a crown, which Battle Mountain has capitalized on to this day. Before, Battle Mountain was one wind gust away from being forgotten; then, it was a Somewhere with a Something that no other place had.
I was two during September 2001. I don’t remember what America was like before the 9/11 attacks, but I was raised in its impacts. I had a childhood filled with patriotic barbeques and American flag tankinis. I bought red, white, and blue rocket pops off of neighborhood ice cream trucks in the summer and spent wintertime curled up by the fire re-reading Childhood of Famous Americans: Betsy Ross over and over again. Then, I graduated from college in the beginning of a pandemic and entered adulthood rifting through the remnants of the patriotic world I had been placed inside of. There seemed to be an ever-growing list of “American Dream” betrayals. I was trying to define who I was in the stark light of a country I no longer loved. Weingarten had to teach himself how to love America. I had to teach myself how to hate it.
I talked about Battle Mountain, Nevada for days after we left. In the morning, the receptionist was singing Adele, so I had my sister play “I Drink Wine” as we continued driving east. Weingarten hated the surrounding topography. I loved it. As he drove across land “flatter than any cliche… the only flora consist[ing] of nondescript scrub that resembles acre upon acre of toilet brushes buried to the hilt,” Weingarten saw no trace of life or death. For him, Battle Mountain is worse than Hell. It is the lack of all that is good: culture, art, expensive dining. Weingarten sees Battle Mountain as Dead on Arrival, a corpse with a zip code. Hell, at least, is exciting.
However, I spent nine months studying the Florida Scrub ecosystem, where most of the plant mass is found underground. I like ecosystems that hide their greatest strengths. Desert plants that have adapted to persist despite constant stress are miraculous to me. Battle Mountain receives nine inches of rain on average every year, less than a fourth of the national average. Yet it is home to over 300 different plant and animal species, including the chukar, a small partridge that looks to be the result of a one-night stand gone wrong between a pigeon and northern rockhopper penguin. For the past fifteen years, Battle Mountain has hosted a chukar hunting tournament because, despite its mango-shaped body and striped wings, it remains one of the toughest Western birds to hunt. It seems even the fowl have found the will to live. This is, of course, what Weingarten struggled with while writing his Battle Mountain review—digging until he found life.
If I had the opportunity, I would drive back to Battle Mountain, Nevada. I would stop at every Dollar Tree-centric town along the way and I would patiently wait in their McDonald’s drivethroughs. I would brave the “TRUMP 2024” signs and lack of non-gas station coffee shops. I cannot hate America, despite all my greatest wishes. Instead, I have learned to love a new version of America, an honest version. One that is hairy and dark, stenched with salty sweat. Gene, isn’t that funny? You went through all the hard work of finding The Armpit. As it turns out, you were already in it.