Sandy Valley: Nevada’s Best Kept Secret

Ken Derschan, above, a longtime Sandy Valley resident, says residents tend to have a live-and-let-live attitude.

By John M. Glionna
Photos by John Glionna

SANDY VALLEY, Nev. – Take a hard left heading west on Good Springs Road, not far from Interstate-15, and you’ll enter a world straight out of your grandfather’s time.

The route abruptly changes character, becoming an undulating, sun-bleached thing that snakes through the foothills of the craggy Columbia Pass. Yucca and Joshua trees spring up along the shoulder, suggesting wildness to come.

But the road is also chockfull of modern minivans, sedans and pickup trucks, a sign of something else out here, something peopled. Over the pass, the road makes a turn to the right and presents a vast valley, dry and isolated, surrounded by mountains, like some scene out of Afghanistan.

But it’s not – it’s a desert locale that is decidedly American, incorporating two states, sprawling across the borders of both Nevada and California.

It’s Sandy Valley, an unincorporated community that for 2,000 residents serves as a psychological oasis from the hurly-burly of Las Vegas and its casinos located just over the hill.

After a hard day in nearby Las Vegas, Sandy Valley seems like a decompression zone to Mark Altschuler

“You come over that hill through the Columbia Pass after a hard day in Vegas, and it’s like you’re entering a decompression zone,” says Mark Altschuler, a 71-year-old auctioneer and comic who calls the Sandy Valley home.

The valley features wide-blue desert skies by day and such vivid night skies – shielded from the light pollution of The Strip – you can see the Milky Way.

People don’t live stacked on top of one another; no sir, not in the Sandy Valley. Lots here cover at least 2 ½  acres, and many folks out live on much more. In Sandy Valley, there’s enough elbow room that you can keep horses and dogs and, as Altschuler says, “nobody bothers you.”

It’s a live-free attitude 40 minutes from The Strip. As resident Ken Derschan puts it, “when you want to have a bonfire in your front yard, you just do it.”

Altschuler calls it “the best-kept secret in Clark County.”

The community has a school complex, one bar, a handful of churches and a senior center that plays host to a regular weekend pancake breakfast. There’s also a sense of humor out here. Public trash cans are shaped like cowboy boots and a sign outside one property reads: “Free Weeds: You Pull.”

This being rural Nevada, there’s a full-throated support of the Second Amendment. So, ahem, is it true what they say, that if you’re going to the Sandy Valley, you better come packing?

The question makes Twister Fairchild shrug.

Folks are generally friendly says Twister Fairchild, but she cautions, “If the sign says, ‘No Trespassing’ and the gate is closed, don’t go through it.”

“If the sign says, ‘No Trespassing’ and the gate is closed, don’t go through it,” said the weekend bartender at the Idle Spurs Tavern. “There usually are dogs out here too, so that’s another reason not to go past that gate. But come packing? No.”

Shawn Ealy used come by four-wheel out this way. When he lost his Henderson home in the 2008 real estate crash, he moved here full time. The place reminds him of early Henderson, when nature was right outside your front door.

Outside the tavern, Resident John Duran gives a poor man’s tour of the area, pointing toward the sod farms and ranches. “There’s thousands of miles of freedom out here,” he says.

For residents like John Duran, Sandy Valley is a breath of fresh air.

He motions to a clutch of tin-sided buildings and deserted tractors a half-mile away, explaining that it’s the site of the Sandy Valley’s original settlement. “You want to know about us and our roots?” he asks. “Go there.”

At the site, a 2012-dedicated memorial explains that the community was originally known as Mesquite Valley and that in the 1850s was a stop along the Old Spanish Trail, the trade route connecting New Mexico and California.

The first town, called Sandy, was located on the site of Keystone Mine Mill. Sandy was abandoned in 1910, followed by a succession of settlements, many of which lasted only a few months, with names like Boss, Kingston, Lincoln City, Mandolin, Platina and Ripley.

Today, Sandy Valley is predominantly white, with households earning about $43,000 apiece, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. But that doesn’t quite explain the history or the lore of the place, why it has attracted so many people who wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Derschan moved out here from Las Vegas after seeing a land-for-sale ad in a newspaper called the Thrifty Nickel. The ad offered raw land, dirt cheap, but you had to develop it yourself.

“When we found the land, it wasn’t even surveyed,” he recalls. “The Realtor said, ‘It’s somewhere right around here.’”

He liked that.

“We call it the country, but realistically we’re dead-ass in the middle of the desert,” said Derschan, who owns the Trail’s End general store and is the District 5 director for the Valley Electric Association.

He likes the fact that nobody bothers the old guy who sleeps in his car and drives over the tavern every day. And he likes how at the annual July 4th picnic, grandmothers take their turn sitting in the dunk tank. “The old folks out here are kids, too,” he says.

And don’t believe those government figures; there are more people than meets the eye, or the census taker. “A lot of people just don’t report out here,” Derschan says. “They come out here to get away from things like the census. Many live off the grid. They’re completely independent.”

But the isolation of the place can be mind-numbing – especially if you’re young. Years ago, before the new high school was built in 2007, students were bussed to nearby communities on a round-trip commute that took hours. Back, then, the graduation rate was abysmal. Now it nears 100 percent.

For now, going to school here is a reminder of another era in a place that refuses change. “The parking lots are mostly made of dirt and nobody thinks twice about a kid riding an ATV to school,” says Principal Dawna Alexander. “It’s like the Wild West.”