Along with two books of travel essays--Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)--Stephen Benz has published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, and other journals. One of his essays was selected for Best American Travel Writing, 2003. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, he now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico. He is on the faculty of the Taos Summer Writers' Conference.
West of the Great Salt Lake, the highway crosses the Great Salt Desert. Salt, salt, salt: everywhere the blindingly white expanse of the salt flats. You’ve got about fifty miles or so to cover, a long stretch of bleak terrain, seemingly the dead center of wastelands real and metaphoric. The glare is fierce. You might feel a bit lightheaded as you glance away from the road and stare off into the distance trying to make sense of this eerie, moonlike land, the now-dry bed of a lake that 15,000 years ago was as large as—and much deeper than—Lake Michigan. It’s intense, but it’s not a hard drive, not on the interstate freeway. In under an hour, you’ve crossed it east to west.
Nothing at all compared to what the early pioneers endured when they tried to negotiate this desert. There was the Donner Party in 1846, for example. In Wyoming, they left the main trail to follow an untested cutoff across Utah, hoping to reduce the long journey to California by a few hundred miles. But the shorter route in distance proved the longer route in time. The unexpected desert crossing was a nightmare—hot days, cold nights, no water. Animals died, wagons broke down, and the pioneers suffered hallucinations as they trudged across the salt flats. This ordeal was not even the worst of it: the labored passage in Utah cost the Donners precious time and further delayed their eventual attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada. By then it was too late: heavy snows caught and trapped them in the mountains, and the story of their trek became infamous.
But today you face no such difficulties. Less than an hour and the salt flats are behind you. You can linger a while if you want—stop to visit the Bonneville Speedway out there on the desert’s flattest, smoothest part (so flat you’ll see the curvature of the earth). Or you can drive a couple of miles off the freeway on a gravel road, then hike up to Danger Cave, an archaeological site where ten thousand year old artifacts have been found, including knives, scrapers, baskets, moccasins, projectile points, and a host of other objects that demonstrate how the Early Peoples were able to exist within this harsh environment. It’s hot and bright out there, and the dry sodium air burns your throat and nostrils, but you’ve got polarized glasses, a hat, sunscreen, plenty of water. There’s an ice chest in your trunk. You can explore a bit, if you like, keeping the car in sight, crunching salt balls as you walk and leaving your footprints in the mineral crust. Then it’s back to the car, a cold drink, and you’re on your way. In no time at all, you’ve made the crossing.
And what’s on the other side of the salt flats? Map says there’s a town—the town of Wendover, straddling the Utah–Nevada border. And Nevada means—as the many billboards suddenly cropping up have made amply clear—casinos, casinos, casinos. They’re up ahead, like beached cruise ships in the desert. And here’s the Wendover exit, the business loop that will take you straight to them. You’re tired of driving for the day and in no particular hurry. Might as well spend the night here, see what the town is all about.
In the beginning, circa 1900, Wendover was a watering stop for the Western Pacific Railroad, a tank town wedged between the outcroppings of the Leppy Hills and the blinding, glaring salt flats. Railroad workers called it “the town on the edge of hell.”
In the decades that followed, Wendover became a military town. Its sublime isolation made it an ideal locale for the military’s more secretive activities. During World War II, the Air Force built a base to train pilots in the techniques of heavy bombardment. The Air Force also built a dummy town out on the flats to make target practice more realistic—a tacit acknowledgment that civilian populations had become routine targets. Ordinance teams were sent to Wendover to assemble and test special inert bombs, known in military lingo as “shapes.” In 1944, Colonel Paul Tibbets brought his select bomber crew to Wendover and made practice runs in a brand new B-29 with a bay modified to accommodate an unusual shape that they called “the pumpkin.” A year later, both bomber and pumpkin had new names—Enola Gay and Little Boy—and the Tibbets crew put their Wendover training into practice over Hiroshima.
During the Cold War, bombing and gunnery practice continued out on the salt flats. The Air Force added missiles to the mix: the Minuteman and the Cruise were both tested at “the Oasis”—the Air Force’s night-clubbish name for the proving grounds near Wendover. You can find remnants of Wendover’s military heyday if you’re willing to wander out into the desert: south of town at the site of the old airfield the barracks still stand. Out there, too, you can find what’s left of Enola Gay’s hangar, a deteriorating rusted hulk that looks eerily similar to a Hiroshima ruin.
To commemorate its role in the “first atomic bombardment,” the town has erected a pillar, to which a high-relief model of a B-29 bomber (aka the Boeing Superfortress) has been affixed. At the base of the pillar, a plaque memorializes President Truman’s words about the atomic bomb: “We pray that (God) may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.” The legend demands a double take, a second reading, a shake of the head at this strange attempt to ascribe a providential teleology to the bomb’s existence. It’s dismaying to know that a president ever uttered these words, and more dismaying still to discover that decades later a town would see fit to preserve them.
But these remnants and memorials are all that remain of the town’s erstwhile militarization. The Air Force has long since abandoned Wendover, and casinos have taken over. In fact, there’s a casino directly across the street from this monument to atomic bombardment.
Entering town from the Utah side, you tool past gas stations and convenience stores, budget motels and anachronistic motor courts, a wide-hipped Mormon church (pretty much the biggest structure this side of the line) and trailer parks, their dirt pales chockablock with junk cars, cast-off furniture, construction materials, toys, and satellite dishes.
Looming up ahead is Wendover Will, the “world’s largest mechanical cowboy,” according to the Guinness Book of Records. Will is constantly gesticulating: one arm waves a greeting while the other arm moves up and down, pointing out the entrance to the Stateline Casino. A loose cigarette frenetically wags in his mouth, which is frozen in a somewhat stupid grin. Will looks maybe a little pie-eyed as he beckons one and all to come on over to the Nevada side of town. That’s where the casinos are: the Stateline, the Peppermill, the Red Garter, the Silver Smith. Giant Will, the cartoon cowboy outlined in neon, presides over it all, waving, puffing, pointing. And at night he becomes much more than a droll gimmick; according to the postcards for sale around town, the lit-up Will takes on a symbolic glow: “The neon brilliance of this cowboy signals the beginning of an evening of excitement.”
Excitement indeed. But where to spend the night? You’ve got your choice of glitzy casino hotels on the Nevada side or dowdy chain motels on the Utah side. And if you want to pitch your tent, there’s only one option: the KOA.
That’s “Kampground of America,” a commercial chain of ersatz campgrounds strung out along the interstates and main highways of the USA, primarily sited near tourist attractions. KOAs emphasize comfort and convenience, providing “kampers” with electricity, showers, swimming pools, playgrounds, and asphalt. According to KOA literature, the idea is to “take the rough out of roughing it.” The company believes that you want a “hassle-free outdoor experience” with “on-site recreation and entertainment venues.”
Of course, no self-respecting tent camper would willingly resort to a KOA. The electrical hookups bring in the RV crowd, and a tent camper can feel nothing but disdain for those behemoths and their enormous consumption of energy. The pious tent camper considers RVs the antithesis of the true camping experience and will therefore deign to pitch his tent in a KOA only with the greatest reluctance. But in Wendover, there’s no other choice.
In the office of the Wendover KOA, Dolly, the manager, is in a harried state, what with all the evening arrivals trying to check in at once. On top of that, there are the questions and complaints from already registered “kampers.” Dolly thinks she’s getting one hell of a headache. No, she can’t do anything about the Mexicans crossing the kampground—they’re just the casino workers going to their jobs, honey, they don’t hassle nobody. All right, just a minute, she’ll find someone to lead you to the site, just hang on till Alberto gets back.
The RV sites are all taken (quite a crowd in Wendover tonight), but getting a tent site is no problem. All of Row J, a handful of sandboxes along the back fence, is reserved for tents, and so far Row J is entirely empty. No tent campers as of yet. Take your pick, Dolly says.
The sandboxes abut the KOA’s boundary fence. On the other side of the fence, there’s a residential sector consisting of mobile and manufactured homes. The smell of beans and tortillas and the sound of Spanish radio in the air indicate that it’s a Mexican barrio, home to the casino workers. On the KOA side of the fence, opposite these shabby little houses, the kampers’ gargantuan vehicles loom, many of them “luxuriously appointed,” to use the marketing phrase, with furnishings and household conveniences. The tableau neatly replicates the socio-economic divide of the US-Mexico border: wealth on one side, poverty on the other. Indeed, as on the border, every few minutes someone from the barrio slips through a gap in the fence and crosses the campground, headed for work at the casinos. The trespassing Mexicans clearly worry the RV folks. They watch suspiciously from the lawn chairs they’ve set up on patches of artificial grass. When they’re fed up with this alien intrusion, they stomp off to the KOA office to complain.
With camp chores done, there’s time to sit on the picnic table and look through the casino literature made available in the KOA office. According to these brochures, Wendover’s casinos promise “high-class entertainment” and “a complete gaming experience.” The complete experience presumably involves losing money—inevitable in games of chance. But, not surprisingly, the literature doesn’t mention losses. Instead, the brochures declare that Wendover’s slots are “hot and loose—the loosest in Nevada.” Demonstrating the keen predilection for bad puns that characterizes second-rate American marketing, the casino literature promises that you will have “slots of fun.”
There’s more to read, including laudatory blurbs from “Respected Gaming Publications,” but just now the sunset is diverting your attention, making it impossible to concentrate on anything else. Dusk in Wendover is spectacular indeed: shifting light, metallic glints, a spectrum of hues in the vast western sky, a luminous sheen on the salt flats. The foothills and outcroppings turn a rich, intense gold, and then as the sun nears the horizon the rocks shimmer and glow. The glow eventually gives way to gloaming, and then the RV generators rumble on and light up the place with serious kilo-wattage—enough to power their televisions, stereos, and spotlights.
The diligence of the RV people in recreating the comforts of home is impressive. Outside their well-equipped rigs, they’ve set up neat little patios: lawn chairs; squares of green carpet or artificial grass mats; canopies; strings of lanterns and glowing colored globes. But for all these comforts—and for all the wealth needed to enjoy leisure travel—no one seems terribly happy tonight in the KOA. Discontented voices rise above the generator noise:
“I wanna go swimming now.”
“No, I told you not for half an hour.”
“Hey, watch what you’re doing. You’re messing everything up, your feet are filthy!”
“That don’t give you no reason to whine. Quit your complaining right this minute.”
The families on the Mexican side of the fence—with their mariachi radios and smoking barbecues and merry children—sound much happier than those parked in the KOA for the night.
But happiness is beside the point just now; there’s gambling to be done. The neon lights of the casinos beckon. Closest to the KOA is the Red Garter, over on Wendover Boulevard. Perched atop the Red Garter’s neon sign, a leg-wagging wench winks a come-hither to passers-by. Down the road a bit, the Rainbow’s neon sign renders a pulsating polychromatic arc. The Peppermill’s signage contributes a spinning star to the razzle-dazzle, while two searchlight beams continuously separate and crisscross in the desert sky. And then there’s Will, the spindly cowboy winking, puffing on his cigarette, and pointing to the Stateline door.
Inside the casinos, it’s like Mardi Gras on the catatonic ward: a party atmosphere without the human revelry. There’s a curious combination of joyless monotony and sensory frenzy. In the midst of spinning lights and colored neon tubing and the onslaught of sound, hundreds of unsmiling people are engaged in one repetitive act or another: slipping tokens into slots, smoking cigarettes, staring at cards as they are turned over. Weirdly, the people look lifeless, while the machines are hyperactive.
And there are rows and rows of these brightly lit machines, all bonging and whirring and blinking. They all have different names, and their façades feature different cartoon imagery, but this surface variety belies the functional similarity of the slot machines. Quartermania, Slam Dunk, Haywire, IRS Special—the pictures and names promise different games, but they all play the same way. Put in the token, pull the lever, watch the spinning icons. Repeat. In fact, they are not games at all, just machines with one mode of operation, one thing to do, no thinking or skill involved. The façade of a machine called Naughty Nickels depicts a girl, apparently nude (her midsection is discreetly covered by a coin), leaning back, kicking her bare legs up in the air. Naughty Nickels is being played by an elderly lady, the most prominent demographic at the Stateline tonight.
A shuttle bus circuits the several casinos, making it easy to tour and view their peculiar interior décors. In the Silver Smith, a balcony overlooks the game room, allowing for a panorama of the casino floor. Below, a faux fountain splashes strings of light. A coin made from neon tubes spins around. Purple and orange neon tubing snakes along the walls. In the Peppermill, it’s all mirrors and neon: a mirrored ceiling, mirrored pillars, mirror balls. Crazy swirls of neon tubing adorn the walls. One repeated motif is hard to figure out. Is it a ball of neon yarn? A cluster of multicolored worms? Spaghetti gone bad? Who knows.
In the Rainbow, the décor of the buffet restaurant plays with rainforest themes. There’s a lot of plastic tropical vegetation—an odd touch given the vast desert that surrounds the casino. Plastic palms embower the booths, their fronds populated with fiberglass parrots sporting neon-bright plumage. Ceiling mirrors reflect splashes of blue, lavender, atomic orange, and lime green. A jungle fountain and a row of plastic trees separate the restaurant from the casino, but the game room noise filters through and competes with the canned music issuing from speakers implanted in the plastic tree trunks. The Rainbow’s décor aggressively plays up these rainforest motifs without foregoing the neon decoration that is de rigueur in Nevada’s casinos. It’s a wacky combination, all this neon-tropical imagery—the flitting neon butterflies, the neon parrots, the clusters of neon vines, the neon palm trees, and the unidentifiable neon fruit (mangos?). On the wall, words appear in neon script: Rainforest Poker! Win! Here the carpet has a tropical flower design, and over here it has an incongruous outer space design; here, plastic trees are growing right up through the round tables; and over there crystal spears are flashing colored light; and over there neon bars and stripes flicker off and on, off and on. The words Nickels and Win pulsate repeatedly from random placements on walls and pillars. Plastic vines slither up plastic trees, and they are blooming with purple-white-pink plastic flowers. Through the fake trees, a keno board flashes bright red numbers—a mystical code being studied by people on barstools. Every surface gleams like obsidian or gold, and the noise—the thrum, the hum, the drone, the ding-dong bing-bong—is incessant. This is not a place for anyone prone to headaches.
No casino has natural light of any kind. Lost in a liminal zone, patrons have no idea what time of day it is. One casino’s coffee shop supplants natural light with the illusion of natural light: the round windows along the booths are pasted over with photos of pastoral scenes—meadows, cows, mountains—all backlit to give the impression of sunlight. These inert scenes don’t change—there’s no movement in them—thus reinforcing the impression that time is not passing.
Meanwhile, late as it is, children are bouncing around the high-volume kiddie playroom, trying their luck at junior versions of the adult games. The lobby, too, is swarming with screeching, giggling kids. Long into the night, they’re running around blowing bubbles, chaperoned by a couple of casino employees.
At some point, the sensory overload becomes too much, and it’s time to escape.
Well after two a.m., outside the casino, the weather has turned. A fierce, stinging wind whips sand and salt and even red ants into the face of anyone out walking. The wind deposits a layer of grit on cars and piles sand up against the tires.
Then something happens. A laughing threesome emerges from a casino. Two men in cowboy hats and boots, a woman in a studded denim jacket. She’s carrying a chihuahua and baby-talking to it. Suddenly, the dog wriggles from her arms, drops to the sidewalk, and takes off running.
“Pumpkin!” the woman cries. “You come back here! Help!”
An oncoming pedestrian stoops to snatch the dog, but it veers away and darts into the street—just as a shuttle bus comes along. The bus skids, the dog yelps. Then comes the dull thud, and just like that, the chihuahua has gone under the tire. The woman and her companions come running up. “No, no, no, Pumpkin!” the woman cries. “Christ almighty,” one man says. The driver comes around the bus looking horrified and speaking Spanish. He’s followed by a handful of passengers and everyone stands over the dog. Pumpkin is clearly a goner. Blood trickles from the mouth, nerves causing him to twitch even after he has died. The woman sobs and sobs. In a matter of seconds, a little ridge of wind-blown sand has built up against the dog’s body and against the onlookers’ shoes. Above, giant Wendover Will grins and glows, his mechanized arm continuing through its inexorable motions, up and down, up and down, pointing out the spot.
Back at the KOA, the windstorm has played havoc with the tidy campsites. Lawn chairs have tumbled into the driveway; strings of colored globes have blown down; screen houses have collapsed. Tomorrow, the kampers will have a mess on their hands.
For the rest of the night as you try to sleep, you hear the tent fabric rippling and shuddering; you hear tumbleweeds scraping against cyclone fencing; and from far off in the desert night, you hear the ghost moan of the windstorm rattling the rusted hangar, the liminal ruin that once upon a time sheltered gravid Enola Gay—she who left these barren salt flats for a land faraway where, as legend tells, she bore and delivered a divinely ordained Little Boy.
Not long after the trip and research that led to this essay, ownership of the Stateline Casino changed hands. The new operators no longer needed Wendover Will’s services. After 50 years on the job, Will had become superfluous. Not wanting to lose its most prominent citizen, the town acquired the sign, refurbished it, and moved it to the far western edge of town. Wendover Will now stands in the middle of the highway, still waving, still smoking, and still pointing—though now it’s unclear exactly what he’s pointing at or toward.