Another Day in Starr Valley Paradise

Vivacious Lamberts celebrate the year-round gift of being part of the community

By Dianna Troyer

Omar and Lili Cobian enjoy meeting with Santa Phil at Starr Valley’s annual holiday program. Photo Courtesy of Olivia Cobian

Since moving to Starr Valley, Phil Lambert has added another job title to his diverse skillset. A retired dentist and former weekend race car driver and mechanic, he has become Santa in the remote scenic valley west of Wells.

Phil, 76, and his wife, Pat, 80, say with their flexible retiree lifestyle, they are rigid about only one event during the year—participating in the valley’s annual Christmas program at a historic community hall.

For more than a half-century, children have performed an original holiday play and musical program in mid-December. When they sing “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Pat sneaks out and cues Phil, who strolls in as Santa.

“We tell the children they have to sing louder and louder, so he can hear them and know it’s time to come in,” says Olivia Cobian, one of the event’s directors and playwright. She recruited Phil for the role four years ago.

Olivia says his personality and white beard make him perfect for the part.

“He’s friendly, patient and ever ready with a smile,” Olivia says. “He’s willing to pose for endless photos—sometimes while holding screaming babies. He even bought his own Santa suit.”

Since building a house in the valley in 2011, the Lamberts have become indispensable, not only for supporting the Christmas program but also for serving as substitute mail carriers. They also repair ranchers’ ag equipment and vehicles at their shop adjacent to their home.

“We never know what each day will bring,” Pat says, “and that’s the way we like it.”

Postal carrier and neighbor Tami Dahl relies on them when she needs help with the mail route.

“When we’re branding, or something unexpected comes up and I need a day off to help with ranch work, they do the mail route for me,” she says.

Tami appreciates Phil’s sense of humor when he does mechanical repairs.

“If something goes wrong, instead of getting angry or frustrated, he cracks a joke and says, ‘Another day in paradise,’ or ‘Keep on keepin’ on,” Tami says.


Tami says she appreciates Pat’s celebratory personality.

“She threw baby showers for me,” Tami says. “When she sees me coming with the mail, a lot of times she gives me fruit for our boys and treats for our dogs.”

Patricia and Phil Lambert in their Starr Valley home. Photos by Carollee Egbert

Tami and neighbors celebrated Pat’s 80th birthday July 8 with a surprise party.

Another neighbor, Jana Wright, organized a socially distanced drive-by birthday celebration due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I did a group text, and everyone jumped on board,” Jana says. “They’re an amazing couple, and we’re lucky to have them in the valley.”

Pat says she was surprised and delighted to see about 20 cars coming to their house in a parade.

“Each driver stopped a few minutes to talk and give me balloons or baked goods or flowers,” she says. “We’ve found such a sense of community here even before we built our house.”

Before retiring to northern Nevada, the Lamberts lived in Reno and stayed in their motorhome at their Starr Valley property during weekends and holidays.

“We met the greatest people who stopped by to visit,” Phil says. “Our nearest neighbors, Paul and Tina Barger, told us to fill up the water tank in our motorhome from their well and to use their house phone anytime, too.”

Discovering the Valley

By chance, the Lamberts discovered Starr Valley nearly two decades ago. In 2002, Phil took a photography class at the Western Folk Life Center in Elko and was assigned to the 71 Ranch in Starr Valley.

“I came home and told Pat how beautiful it was and hoped we could retire there one day,” he recalls.

Phil creates custom designs in the shop next to their home.

In 2006, Phil was grateful when a former patient who had retired to Jiggs told him 5 acres were for sale in Starr Valley.

“He happened to hear about it and told us on a Friday,” Phil says. “We drove up and looked at it the next day. On Monday, we contacted the Realtor and bought it. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We can hardly believe we live 10 miles north of the 71 Ranch and deliver mail there.”

Driving 660 miles round trip from Reno to Starr Valley for a weekend road trip was nothing out of the ordinary for the Lamberts. For years, the adventurous couple traveled throughout the West. Phil designed and built engines for race cars, and the couple would go to weekend races together. He occasionally drove the cars and sponsored other cars, too.

He scheduled his dental practice appointments four days a week, so he could have three-day weekends for the races.

“During high school, I was bitten with the adrenaline rush of racing,” he says.

Besides drag racing, he raced dirt bikes and off-road cars.

“That thrill gets in your blood,” he says. “My dad was a mechanic, so I grew up around the wrenches.”

After his dental practice was established, Phil returned to racing. He rebuilt engines for racing boats and also built an off-road race car in his garage. It led to a partnership with a friend and the establishment of Road America Racing Fabrication in 1976.

“We sponsored an alcohol funny car for an owner from Houston, Texas,” Phil says. “He and the car were with us three years.”

Wanting to share his automotive knowledge, Phil also taught an engine machining class at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno for five years in the evenings.

After settling in Starr Valley, Phil realized a local vehicle repair shop was needed and opened Rusty Starr Welding and Metal Fabrication next to their home.

Phil works in his welding and metal fabrication shop to create custom designs and work on projects that come his way.

“I’m happy to do whatever it takes to keep ranch vehicles running smoothly,” he says. “I’ve changed truck engines, installed exhaust systems, welded aluminum, pressed bearings, removed broken bolts, and repaired horse trailer doors—you name it.”

Phil says when they retired, he and Pat were determined to stay active.

“In 36 years of my dental practice, I saw how patients handled retirement,” he says. “The ones who went home and sat around expired.”

He welcomes breaks from his mechanical work.

“We have a neighbor who bakes cookies and calls and meets Phil at the end of her driveway to give him whatever she’s made,” Pat says. “A ranch hand we think of as a son stops by to visit, too.”

Pat says she and Phil have adopted nearly everyone around for miles.

“As our friends and extended family. We feel so wanted here being somewhat of intruders in this valley more than nine years ago. We just wanted to find a place to retire and belong. And we did.”