I lived in Las Vegas recently for about a year, doing research at a large weapons-testing facility outside of town. Among all the places I’ve lived, from tropical islands to small towns to Western strip-mall communities, Las Vegas seemed uniquely American for its boosterism of get-rich-quick schemes and the sex industry — and for the stupendous desert that surrounds it.
My office window overlooked a mirrored casino. On its wall was a billboard with a gigantic photo of five women’s bare backsides. No faces were visible, and the caption proclaimed proudly: "Stripper Revue: voted ‘Dirtiest Show in Vegas!’ " Of course, all that decadent excess sits in the northern Mojave Desert, whose dust and windstorms wait just outside of town, ready to reclaim ownership as soon as the water pipelines run dry.
I worked outdoors and, unlike most residents, couldn’t ignore the natural landscape. On many days I was driven, very early, to the test site located in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes I watched as the glittering neon of Planet Vegas became an orange glow on the horizon and then vanished completely, replaced by the pre-dawn grayness of desert canyons and stark mountains.
Few people sing the praises of the Mojave, and for good reason. It is simply the most arid environment in North America. The mountains are brown and gray volcanic rock, and the vegetation consists mostly of low shrubs that have twisted into knotted, woody balls to shield themselves from the sun.
But there is power in the quiet of the unpopulated spaces, and subtle beauty in the contrast between the valley bottoms and the toothed ridgetops — except between mid-summer and early fall, when the parched earth is pitiless. During that time, the empty land just sits there, silent and ominous.
My skin would sunburn right through my clothes. My fieldwork was solitary, and days went by without my speaking to another person. I took pleasure in any living creature: Tarantulas, tortoises, lizards and snakes thrived where public access and ATVs were prohibited. I would stop and stretch, noting no sound except the incessant wind.
The beautiful seasons are the brief winter and the briefer spring that follows, unless there is drought, in which case cruel summer reigns all year.
My second season of fieldwork fell during a wet year. Big clouds filled the empty sky and the mountains turned a soft slate blue. Spiny shrubs busted out in gloriously vulgar displays of green leaves and white, lavender and red flowers. There was a snowstorm at the peak of the bloom: Fluffy white flakes gathered on the flowers while I threw snowballs and enjoyed the novelty of being cold. The next day, the flowers withered and spring was over.
A field office was located in a small town called Mercury, where squat, cement buildings lined the streets. Bars sold T-shirts, with photos of mushroom clouds printed over catchy slogans — "Made in America, tested in Japan" — but in spite of the fashion statements and flowing booze, Mercury’s hub was the cafeteria that sold federally subsidized meals.
In order to take full advantage, I would heap my plate with great slabs of dripping red meat plus a baked potato, pasta and a wad of garlic bread, then contemplate how to balance a piece of 25-cent cream pie, along with the obligatory salad ("must eat healthy") on top of the precarious mound. I had plenty of company. Virtually everyone who ate there became overwhelmed by the sheer quantities of cheap food. Fleshy men ate steadily, hunkered low over their tables, and I would feel a tightening panic in my throat if I noticed something on their plates that looked good that I didn’t have.
But the strangest thing about living in Las Vegas was that I stopped noticing anything strange at all.
For instance, the ground floor of my office building featured overstuffed neon-pink and green sofas set on a carpet that was purple with a bold diagonal pattern. One day, I found myself looking around and thinking, "It’s not so bad, really ... it’s kind of fun and colorful."
A visiting friend was horrified in the neighborhood Safeway. "Look," she hissed, "there’s slot machines." I glanced at the customers dropping their grocery money into slots, but only vaguely remembered that this sight used to bother me.
It was obviously time to leave Las Vegas. And yet, the picturesque mountains near my new home in wholesome Fort Collins, Colo., are jam-packed with recreationists all year long. I look at them and think of Nevada and remember the arid land that’s still wild and desolate, and I’m a little wistful.
Sarah Flick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Fort Collins, Colorado.