In the far corner of Northeastern Nevada, hours away from paved roads and nestled in a deep canyon lies a small town—and a monster. According to tradition, the Shoshone named the creature of this canyon the Tsawhawbitts (JA-HA-BICH, roughly translating to “devil” or “spirit”), and as the legend spread amongst Europeans settling in the area in search of gold, their encampment and the eventual town were named in its honor. Today, the few dozen full-time residents of the town call it the same thing their ancestors did, a rough approximation of the old Shoshone word: Jarbidge.
Tom McHugh is one of maybe a few hundred people who can say he grew up in Jarbidge. Born in nearby Carlin, Nevada, he visited often with his family and grew to love the remote town for its sense of community and proximity to nature. Eventually, a career working for the railroad company took him away from his beloved canyon town, and Nevada in general, before promotions and circumstances allowed him to settle in Northwest Reno—where he became my family’s neighbor and friend. Indeed, I’ve known Tom and the McHugh family from almost the day I was born. We’ve even stayed as guests in the same renovated cabin his father purchased in the early 60s.
Now retired, Tom and his family take every opportunity they can to visit Jarbidge—and every opportunity to share the story of the 30-foot-tall, man-eating Tsawhawbitts. But over years of telling the story to his children, and now grandchildren, he decided that the Tsawhawbitts needed a softer side, and maybe a lesson in empathy as well. This became the basis for his newly published book Rabbits’ Dance Hall and the Tsawhawbitts, which blends real-life events and characters from his childhood in Jarbidge with a re-imagined view of the town’s monstrous namesake—one that teaches children that even supernatural forces pale in comparison to the power of kindness. I sat down with Tom to discuss his inspiration and process for writing the book, as well as the past and future of Jarbidge, Nevada.
I’m sure plenty of people reading might never have heard of Jarbidge. Before we start talking about the book, why is Jarbidge so special to you and your family?
We lived in Carlin, but I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I remembered all the fun things—hunting and fishing and that type of stuff, the hiking, the terrain itself. Now, I hike there all the time. For all the stuff that I like to do, and my wife, Mary, likes to do, it’s just a perfect setting for us. When our kids were little, we would give them the choice of going to Disneyland or Jarbidge, they would always choose Jarbidge. It’s hard to explain unless you’re up there.
The people are just fantastic. They’re our friends—they’re just nice people. It’s a nice place to be and it’s just, it’s quiet, you know. Once I spend two or three weeks there, I’ll come back for a little bit and I’m, like, white-knuckled on the freeway because it’s like, “Oh my god, where did all these cars come from?” … You walk out the door and you park your car and you don’t get in the car until you’re ready to leave again. It’s just a magical place, it really is. It’s one of the most remote towns in the lower 48.
I imagine there probably isn’t a whole lot of literature coming from, or about, Jarbidge. What gave you the inspiration to write Rabbits’ Dance Hall?
I’ve told people that I’ve been telling this story to my kids and grandkids for 40 years. But my inspiration came when I was about 10 years old. And it says in the book that one of the people that I knew when I was a kid was named Mamie Swanson that owned this hotel. And then I kind of describe it in the book what myself, [my friend] Will, and his brother Lew [Johnston], did. We climbed up around the mountains … just knocking pebbles, and pretty soon a big rock came down and almost got this lady. She was just this old lady that everybody loved. … And the very first part of the book talks about how, later on that evening, she brought us in to tell us about the cave of the mountain. And that stuck with me my whole life.
A small group of Girl Scouts that were in Jarbidge had named this particular cave Rabbits’ Dance Hall. And I knew one of the girls, she was like older than my dad even, Irene Murphy. … [Mamie] was making us to hot chocolate in there, and she was telling us about about how some girls had named the cave. She wanted to know if we had found it. And she was explaining to us it looks like a face, and then we just knew exactly what she’s talking about. … Will, Lew, and I were up there in this cave all the time.
And then when I got married and had kids, I’m still thinking about it. So, I started telling them this little story about Rabbits’ Dance Hall when they were growing up because Mamie Swanson had told me this … And there was an old Indian named Albert that lived in Jarbidge that I knew. My dad would always give me a hard time about the Tsawhawbitts. He would tease me, trying to scare me a little bit like dad’s would do with a kid. And Albert, this old Shoshone Native American, told me, I don’t remember all the words how he said it, but it was pretty much “Don’t be afraid of the Tsawhawbitts. He’s just a misunderstood person.” That stuck in my mind also. So, as I got older with kids, you know, and I was telling the story, it kind of grew between what Mamie told me and what Albert told me and, and what I just felt about the whole Tsawhawbitts legend.
Will’s son-in-law stopped me on the street there in Jarbidge the other day, and he had just read the book, and he said, “It’s so nice to read the history of Jarbidge.” And I had to tell him, it’s a bedtime story. It’s a children’s story. The historical value of it is there because I do mention what the Shoshone believed. They believed that there was a 30-foot, man-eating monster and they called him the Tsawhawbitts. But I softened him up a little bit for the story.
So Albert gave you the idea that the Tsawhawbitts wasn’t something to be afraid of, but why was it important to “soften him up” for this story?
Because it’s a children’s book. I tell my kids and grandkids stories all the time, and when you tell a bedtime story to your grandkid, it’s a nice story—that’s just how it is. You tell them nice stories. … Every time I would tell it, I would add a little bit or something. If I would tell the story, and I would leave something out, my kids or grandkids—especially my nieces and nephews—they would remind me “You left out the lion” or “You didn’t do this or you didn’t do that.” They would remind me of things I left out because when you’re telling the story, I can’t get it all in. But when I wrote the book, I got it all in.
Sounds like a real, modern-day oral tradition.
Yeah, it was it was pretty much just in the family for the longest time. It was a family story. I was a little apprehensive to have it in print and taken to Jarbidge, but they were very receptive. It was a fun thing to share with them. I’ve told the story to Jarbidge people going back quite a ways. And then people up there have said to me, “Well, you gotta write it down.” I don’t sleep well at night, so I’d get up in the middle of the night and it took a couple of years to write it—and it was just a rough draft.
At first, I wanted to make sure that my family, my siblings—I’ve got two sisters and a brother—I want to make sure I didn’t embarrass them. So I gave them a call and said, “This is what I’ve done.” I didn’t even tell Mary about it. She didn’t know until a couple of months ago. … So anyway, when I got it all done, I sent it off to my siblings and they said, “No, do it.” They loved the story. They heard the story, they liked the story. They wanted me to put it in print.
Could you summarize the point of the book?
Telling a kid a bedtime story or telling them any story, I’ve always tried to teach a lesson. I guess that’s probably the main point of it. It’s a nice story that would make a child, if they read it, try to be a better human being. It’s about a young boy that struggled, and he dreamed of not having to deal with the struggles. And, magically, it was taken care of.
By mixing the myth of the actual Tsawhawbitts with your inspiration to teach your grandchildren, and any child who might read this story, a little bit of the morality that you talk about, it almost comes across as a Nevada-specific fairy tale.
That was really important for me to be all Nevada. Marilyn Matylinsky, across the street, she did the artwork. I had Marnie Mattice, she did the designing for me. She loves Nevada. Everything was Nevada. I just wanted to keep it all Nevada just because I’m a Nevada guy.
Where did the historical photos in the book come from?
All photos in there are in Jarbidge. All of them—most of them anyway—are in the community hall that’s up there. They have a big board with pictures. And they are all online too. So, it was kind of nice for me when going through and looking for, like, the Nevada Historical Society in Elko, you know, to find the pictures that have been cut and pasted to do it. And I talked to them about it. Since they have this stuff in there, I’ve liked giving them props. I want people to go look at their site.
And the photo of the actual Rabbits’ Dance Hall cave?
That’s my photo. Most people would never be able to find Rabbits’ Dance Hall. There’s, like, five people in Jarbidge who even know where it is.
So what has the reception to the book been like amongst Jarbidge residents?
It’s been very good. There were like three people that I really wanted to get it to first because they’re in the book. Mary Stadstad is Mamie Swanson’s granddaughter, and she still owns the Nevada Hotel. … There are a lot of people in her family so I wanted her family to have a book. And I wanted Will to have a book. And if you notice in the front, there’s a little boy on the first page, his name was Johnny Williams, and they lived up Bear Creek. And he died when he was not quite five years old. And he was about 10 years younger than us … Everybody called him Bear Creek. So when I came up with the [protagonist’s] name, “Little Bear,” that’s in the book, it’s because of Bear Creek.
His sister, Mary Margaret, is postmaster up there, so I wanted to make sure she had a book. I didn’t tell anybody until Mary Margaret got one, Mary Stadtstad, and my friend Will—I just want to make sure they got the book, then I was able to tell everybody and they’ve been very receptive. The little gift shop up there [is] going to sell it in the store.
You and your family continue to be invested in Jarbidge, and with the addition of the new book, you seem committed to furthering the town’s legacy. What would you like to see for the future of the town?
I’m hoping it will stay as quaint as it is. It’s getting to be kind of popular, you know, none of us that live there like it when it gets real busy. But I understand the importance of people visiting there and the people in Jarbidge are very welcoming to the visitors that come in … [but] I think that myself and others, we don’t want it to be commercialized … we want to keep it the small town, dirt road—quiet.
Fourth of July, it’s pretty hustle and bustle. I’m not real crazy about it, but I understand it, and this is what we do to keep it going. As long as there’s something going on in the town, its memory will stay alive. It’s like a house: if nobody lives in a house, it falls apart. The businesses in Jarbidge are real important to everybody in Jarbidge; the little store and the bar and the gas station, and they got a little glass shop up there. Those businesses keep people coming in. If there’s nothing there, it’ll start to go away. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword as far as how we want to preserve it.
Are there any real existential threats to the town or its way of life?
Probably fire—that’s the biggest threat. And the fire community has been just outstanding, you know. The BLM and the Forest Service, they do a lot, and the wildland firefighters that have to come in and do what they do. We’ve evacuated more than once out of there. It’s a scary situation because it’s a deep canyon and there’s only two ways out: North and South.
As far as the next generation, are you hoping the grandkids will take up the mantle and continue visiting Jarbidge?
That’s what it’s all about. That’s what my folks wanted and that’s what we want. And we’re going to be buried up there. We’ve got a plot already. That’s where Mary and I will be for the rest of eternity.
Now that the book’s been published, do you have plans to write anything else?
No, it was just a fun thing to do because of this specific story. I’ve got lots of stories, but they’re not anything worth putting down on paper. But, who knows?
Readers can find Rabbits’ Dance Hall and the Tsawhawbitts on the Barnes & Noble website.
Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and is currently writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally, Double Scoop, Reno News & Review, and other publications. Support Matt’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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