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 and Western strip-mall communities, Las Vegas seemed uniquely American in its boosterism for get-rich-quick schemes, 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
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
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
themselves into knotted, woody balls to shield themselves from the
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
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.
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.
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
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