Is a grain of sand just a tiny rock? If so, we’re about to leave red-rock Utah, about which I’ve been writing, for the rockiest state in the Union. Nevada, largely an uninhabited, alkali wasteland pocked with gambling and golf resorts but mostly ramshackle towns built around a few gas stations, taverns, and cafés, is the living definition of wide-open spaces. Motoring through much of it, you can crank up your cruise-control setting, select a satellite-radio station — there are few, if any, local, terrestrial options — and watch the sagebrush and jackrabbits whiz by.
Nevada is that place you see out your airplane window on a crystal-clear day, when nothing but empty washes and bluffs appear for minutes on end, and there’s not a road or building in sight.
It is monotony in Technicolor. The sand is often a dull gray, interrupted by prehistoric dry lakebeds blistered by sun and sulfur, borax, and iron residue. Streaks of red and orange and brilliant yellow are burned into the hillsides like a vivid illustration of the Periodic Table of Elements. One state park in these badlands is called the “Valley of Fire.”
If I haven’t yet convinced you that this is the most desolate place in America, just ask the American Automobile Association travel club. It calls a 462-kilometer (287-mile) stretch of U.S. Route 50 through Nevada “the loneliest road in America.” Gasoline and a soft drink at seven tiny stations along the way are its only manmade pleasures.
It’s lonely in the Nevada desert, all right — and hot. So sizzling, they say, that even the lizards stop to rub their feet. It was here, as I mentioned a couple of postings ago, that the United States felt comfortable testing atomic bombs. Back in the barren hills are old, boarded-up mines and ghost towns — real, empty, decayed ones, not make-believe places built for tourists. They’re remnants of the days when some of the same men who rushed to California in the 1840s and ’50s to search for gold scrambled into Nevada as well, looking for silver.
They found plenty close to Reno and Virginia City, near Lake Tahoe in what became the “Silver State.”
At any place that passes for civilization in Nevada, down to the most meager truck stop, you can turn a card, roll dice, or, for sure, pull a slot-machine lever and take your (not very good) chances at hitting a jackpot. Even in the little border town of Mesquite, next to pious Utah, casinos of varying prosperity light up the desert night. Like most towns in Utah, Mesquite is an old Mormon farming settlement. But it doesn’t hesitate to remind passersby that this will be the “last chance” to gamble for hundreds of kilometers. The local Mormon church calls gaming — the industry’s word meant to soften the tarnish of wicked gambling — “socially questionable.” But it tolerates it because gambling is legal throughout Nevada, and because it brings in enough money for the town to afford good police and fire service and a larger-than-average-sized hospital.
You won’t find “high roller” gamblers in Mesquite. It’s more of a tour-bus town, where older folks on their way to Disneyland in California or the Grand Canyon in Arizona can stretch their legs, buy a bucket of quarters to lose at slots, and walk into a big tent for a cool drink and a game or two of bingo. That’s a low-stakes game in which you hope the numbers on your card will match those called out by a dealer. If all of your numbers hit during a round, BINGO! — you’ve won.
Back in November 2008, I devoted an entire blog to Las Vegas —Nevada’s world-famous “Sin City.” Like many others, I called it “Lost Wages.” You’ll find that posting in the archive to the right. Here’s a teaser from it to demonstrate that Las Vegas bears no resemblance to Mesquite: “Like Circe, the alluring witch of ancient mythology, the shimmering gambling palaces of Las Vegas can show you a good time and then turn you into a pig, or in this case, a pauper. You can see the city’s lights 40 kilometers away, beckoning, in the arid Nevada desert. Indeed, you can see the lights of Las Vegas from space.”
I could be a wise guy and admit that you can see the light of Mesquite from space as well.
Looks Like a Million
Speaking of out-of-the-way places, let me tell you about Pioche, a town of 900 people that sits off by itself, “hanging on the side of a mountain in Nevada’s high desert,” as its own chamber of commerce puts it, two parched hours from Las Vegas. By rights, the place should be pronounced like the French pastry, the brioche. But Piochians call it “pee-OACH,” like “coach, There are a couple of bars there, a little café where locals come for breakfast, and some motels.
At one of them, the 1940s kind with a few units squeezed in a row, guests are greeted by a note from the proprietor. “The key is under the mat,” it reads. “Leave the money in the Bible” — the traveler’s Gideon Bible that one finds in the drawers of bedside stands across the country.
You’ll find working lead and zinc mines in the bone-dry hills outside Pioche. And because of the nearby minerals, 10,000 people briefly lived in this place! That was 130 years ago, after prospectors had struck silver up in those hills, and aerial tramways carried silver-flecked rocks from the lode down to a mill in town. Quite an overnight boomtown it was, with saloons, stores and brothels — even an opera house. Big money flowed like bad whiskey, and Pioche was made the seat of a gigantic county that spread beyond Las Vegas.
Folks in town figured they’d better get themselves a courthouse and a jail — fast. So they put up a two-story brick-and-rubble building with an even tinier pokey for the town’s lawbreakers out back. It did dwarf the crude homes and tents and miners’ shacks that surrounded it, and Piochians were proud of it.
A million dollars’ proud. Little Pioche could not really afford the $80,000 it took to build the courthouse. But it would become, in local legend, the “Million-Dollar Courthouse” nonetheless.
Here’s how: Just as the town took out a loan to build the courthouse in 1871, the silver mines played out. Most of the people left, and suddenly Pioche was a little tumbleweed town again, stuck with its showplace and a huge debt. Interest on the loan mounted at the bank, and over the years the county commissioners kept trying and trying to pay it off. But it was not until 1938, almost seven decades after the courthouse opened, that the last payment was made.
By that time, someone calculated, Lincoln County had spent $800,000 on the building. If you’re a storyteller, that’s close enough to pump that figure up to a full million! In the 1990s, public-spirited citizens fixed up the Million-Dollar Courthouse — even put in some life-sized models of an old-time sheriff, judge, jury, and outlaw defendant in the courtroom upstairs, just in case a tourist came along.
Sometimes you see visitors who had heard about the fabulous courthouse in this obscure part of the state and pulled off the highway for a look. They stare at the building and then at each other, maybe scratching their heads.
You can almost hear them saying, “A million bucks for THIS?”
I have one more boom — and sort of bust — town to tell you about. A modern one.
It’s Henderson, Nevada, which earlier this decade was nothing less than America’s fastest-growing mid-size city — a place people called “Boomburg, U.S.A.”
Until the massive Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s, only scrub desert and cattle ranches could be found between the damsite and Las Vegas’s casinos. Then rowdy bars and houses of prostitution sprang up. They served Hoover Dam’s workers, whose housing project near the dam permitted neither gambling nor the sale of alcohol. The federal government built the first housing in what became Henderson in 1942 after magnesium and titanium deposits were discovered in the surrounding chocolate-colored mountains. Government contractors used the minerals to make fighter jets during World War II.
Henderson, named for a U.S. senator who never set foot in town, was meant to be a temporary settlement that would be torn down during after the war. It consisted of compact, one-story homes whose flat roofs, it was hoped in the hysteria after the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, would blend in with the surrounding desert should Japanese pilots make it to the mainland. The streets even zig-zagged so the enemy could not use them to draw a bead on the airplane plants.
But the little houses did not disappear. People kept them and added onto them. As late as 1980, Henderson was still a grimy mining and manufacturing town that some people called “the armpit of the Valley” in which the annual city celebration was called “Industrial Days.”
By 1990, though, Henderson was beginning to evolve as a Las Vegas bedroom suburb, and 65,000 people lived there. But there was still only one main road — through its shabbiest neighborhood — carrying people to Hoover Dam.
Then came the boom. Over the next 11 years, Henderson’s population more than tripled to 225,000, overtaking Reno as Nevada’s second-largest city.
It began with a debt owned by Howard Hughes, the reclusive Hollywood producer and aviation pioneer. He owned all of what is called Green Valley, which includes most of Henderson. Hughes was feuding with a Las Vegas newspaper publisher who ran disparaging stories about him.
Hughes pulled all of his advertising, the publisher sued him, and the newspaperman won. As Wayne Bernath, a publicist for several Las Vegas showbiz stars, told me, “Hughes said, ‘OK, I’m going to pay you in this barren land that’s not worth anything.’”
The new owner turned the land “not worth anything” into one of the most upscale golf- and swimming-pool neighborhoods in the world. And real-estate speculators soon threw up modest places nearby. “You can drive by an empty lot, and a week later go back and there’ll be an open store there,” Bernath said in 1991.
Lots on Henderson’s hillsides, with their nighttime views of the lights of Las Vegas — just the land, with no houses — sold for a million dollars or more.
Money magazine called Henderson the nation’s top retirement destination. Subdivisions sprouted so fast that the fire chief told me his crews had a hard time finding some of the places that were ablaze.
Green Valley became “Old Green Valley” — old, as in 20 years ago. The “armpit of the Valley” had become its jewel.
There is a not-so glittering postscript, however. Search the Internet for “Henderson foreclosures,” and you’ll get page after page of listings of homes, bought by the financially overextended, that now sit empty — some of them next to five or ten other foreclosed houses on a subdivision street. Some, like a 28-room mansion with four fireplaces, three balconies, two wet bars, several chandeliers, a pool, and a spa, are advertised as “luxury foreclosures.”
Henderson, where a lot of Las Vegas executives and mid-level casino workers live, is doing far better than more modest communities farther north in the valley, though. The area, where unemployment ranks second-highest in the nation at 13 percent, isn’t a ghost town by any means.
But Henderson is not Boomburg, U.S.A. any more.
Alkali. A harsh mixture of soluble salts, often found in arid regions, that makes land unsuitable for agriculture.
Borax. A crystalline chemical containing the element boron, often extracted for use in soaps and other cleaning agents.
Lode. A deposit of valuable ore confined to a particular location from which the mineral can be extracted.
Pokey. Slang for a prison or, more often, a jail where one is confined only for a short time. It was first used in the 1840s as an adjective, spelled “poky,” to describe confined accommodations. Sounds like a jail, all right.
Ramshackle. Poorly constructed or maintained. A ramshackle structure is literally falling apart. Believe it or not, the word comes from the Icelandic, meaning “badly twisted.”
Tumbleweed. A plant, often the Russian thistle, that dries each fall, becomes light and brittle, and breaks away from its roots, only to be rolled and bounced by the wind.