Greetings from the frontier!
Americans like to complain that they aren’t free anymore, but Nevada is as libertarian as it gets: cheap booze, legal weed, roadside brothels, indoor smoking, no mask mandates, sky-high speed limits, and gun-friendly businesses. You can even gamble in grocery stores, laundromats and gas stations, playing their “loose” and “liberal” slots. I like Nevada because it still has some real Wild West spirit, as opposed to the touristy facsimiles you find in other places. Every guy in Nevada resembles a cross between Sam Elliot and Willie Nelson, plus a few more decades of alcoholism. They’re all cowboys with braided white beards, an ever-present cigarette dangling from their lips, driving around in rusted pickup trucks with happy old dogs in the passenger seats. The men cluster in dark saloons that are unchanged from the 1970s, decorated in promotional beer mirrors and posters of bikinied beer babes. Slim Jims for a quarter, pints of Budweiser for $2.50. The women are in the casinos, tired-eyed, chain-smoking at the penny slots. They say smell is the best conduit of memory, so something about the incessant stench of cigarette smoke makes me think of going out to restaurants as a kid, back when the smokers sat behind a glass partition but their smoke would waft across the whole restaurant. Now I kind of like sitting in Nevada casinos and saloons, absorbing the stink of it into my clothes.
I do have a Nevadan’s fondness for gambling, though not for the Vegas experience. In every other town in Nevada, the casino is a community hub. In Hawthorne the casino hosts Covid testing drives in the buffet dining room. In Beatty the casino has the only Wifi in town. In Tonopah the casino is the only unhaunted lodging option. In Reno the casinos have $8.99 steak dinners, and you just can’t find prices like that in Vegas anymore (aside from the 99 cent shrimp cocktail, which I do not recommend). Plus, I find that the combination of loud sounds and flashing lights serves as an excellent distraction from one’s own thoughts, particularly when one has just spent a week alone in the desert. One day I was in Pahrump, a town not far from Death Valley, and felt compelled to visit the casino. I sat at a slot machine and drank free cocktails and absorbed, through osmosis, a bit of society. The janitor and I chit-chatted as he emptied the ashtrays around me and I could feel my mouth warm up around the words, getting used to small talk again. The security guard came by to check my ID, and we got to talking. It turns out she used to live in the same itty-bitty town my dad grew up in, a coincidence so unexpected that it nearly moved me to tears – though that could have just been my third Jack-and-soda kicking in.
But I really shouldn’t spend so much time in casinos when there’s so much else to see and do in Nevada. Just outside Las Vegas you can find the Hoover Dam, that testament to American engineering and concrete, as well as the gemstone-blue expanse of Lake Mead. You can hike in Red Rock Canyon, where the rocks really are the colour of freshly let blood, and in some places are striped pink-and-white like strawberries and cream. You can explore the Marscape of Valley of Fire State Park, trundling through slot canyons past ancient petroglyphs etched into the red rocks. Nevada is also rich with hot springs. I recently spent a morning soaking in a pool of almost-too-hot water in the middle of a grassy alkali meadow, the soil bleached white and dotted with wild horses. All this within an hour’s drive from Vegas! The rest of Nevada falls into two camps: snow-capped mountain ranges and low-desert military bases. The mountains are unexpectedly huge, veined with gold and full of sure-footed big-horned sheep that like to hang out on inch-wide rock plateaus. The deserts run forever, and are home to roaming burros and fenced-off ammo repositories and mysterious bunkers. The occasional fighter jet streaks across the sky – perhaps, also, the occasional UFO…
My favourite part of Nevada is the old boomtowns, the remnants of a mining heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These are places where the west was truly wild, where the mythic stories lionized in Western movies and novels have their roots in real violence, real cowboys, and real revelry. The old cemeteries tell the stories of hookers murdered by drunks, women stabbed by jealous husbands, and saloon keepers shot in bar brawls. The miners suffocated in mine fires, got run over by trains, fell down mine shafts, were blown up by dynamite, and died of pneumonia and diphtheria and typhoid and asthma. These towns are overbuilt, full of huge courthouses and high schools and hotels that once served populations of 20,000 and now sit abandoned in towns of 200 people. There used to be dozens of railroads running through rural Nevada, hauling ore and people in and out of these far-flung towns where fortunes were made and lost and forgotten in a few short decades.
In the county museum in one such ghost town I flip through a book of newspaper clippings chronicling the rise and fall of the local brothels. It’s a particular interest of mine because legalized brothels are such a novelty. Nevada’s brothels first serviced the miners, then the military, and now the remaining few seem to service truckers, with signs out front advertising semi-truck parking. Along the highway south of Area 51 I spotted an alien-themed cathouse selling souvenir t-shirts that feature the silhouette of a sexy female alien with big breasts. Another day I saw a billboard for The Wild Cat and thought it must be one of those wildlife refuges from Tiger King until I saw the ramshackle building fronted with Ionian columns, with nary an animal enclosure in sight.
I ache to think of all the untold stories in these places, and delight in those that have been documented. In the town of Searchlight, the recently deceased US Senator Harry Reid learned to swim in the pool of a local cathouse where his mother did the laundry. In Tonopah, the ghost of a dancehall girl still haunts the historic Mizpah Hotel. Her murder was never solved. When Tonopah brothels were finally outlawed in the 1950s, one local madam – a much-loved community figure with the lovely, lyrical name of Taxscine – died of a broken heart. Now imagine how much more interesting Western movies and books and TV shows would be if they centred on these formidable frontier women, rather than those boring old cowboys and outlaws.