On the Road Again 

I have seen the future, and it's Nevada

It may seem like I'm dissing the future, but I'm not. I like Nevada, mostly. I like its clear skies, its empty towns and its towns in the process of becoming empty. I like its north-south mountain ranges. I like the alkali flats that separate them by 20 or 50 miles. I like its scrub sagebrush and 1,000-foot dust devils on the horizon. I like staring out the passenger window for five hours and not seeing another human being.

Julie and I are a week on the road--mostly in Nevada, although lately the scenery has gotten greener and more crowded. From the looks of the ocean outside our motel window, we're in California.

Road trips are like that. One day you're looking through binoculars at ranch houses 20 miles away, wondering if everyone but you has been Raptured, and the next day you're sitting with hundreds of other tourists in coffee houses in beach towns, looking at local real estate ads and wondering what it would be like to own a bed-and-breakfast.

But, in glowing afterimage, Nevada stays with you. A few observations:

--Ely, on the east side of the state, is Nevada's answer to Marsing, if and when the Snake River goes away and Marsing gets more empty storefronts, more worn-out poor people and five or six run-down casinos. Gambling only looks like Ely's biggest industry. A big open-pit mine just west of town fuels the town's economy. The casinos vacuum up a lot of discretionary income, though, and money that would normally go into house repair or a new car gets sucked away. The result is a place where Entropy has hit the jackpot.

--Nevada is full of holes. Mining was the reason for the state, and its desert climate doesn't allow for much revegetation, so you can see the results of digging everywhere. In Nevada, roadside geography looks wild at a distance. Close up, it's mostly human.

--Lots of Nevada's holes are graves. The cemeteries are a tourist attraction in Eureka, a town on Highway 50, the Loneliest Road in America. The Masons have one, the Catholics another, the Protestants, Jews and Chinese still others. Immigrants brought their prejudices with them and kept them alive, even in death.

--Lots of women died in childbirth. Lots of children didn't make their first birthdays. Lots of men died in their 30s, far from their birthplaces. Lots of graves are marked with the word, "Unknown."

--Over time, mining towns go from being environmental outrages to tourist attractions.

--If you're still wondering about owning a bed-and-breakfast, the ones for sale on Highway 50 in Nevada are way cheaper than the ones for sale in Mendocino.

--While we were in Nevada, a shoe was thrown at Hillary Clinton. She was in Las Vegas, speaking on solid waste management. Rush Limbaugh accused her of staging the incident. Limbaugh was remembering when George W. Bush had persuaded a friendly Iraqi to stage an affectionate shoe-throw during Bush's post-invasion visit to Iraq.

--Also while we were in Nevada, rancher Cliven Bundy's dispute with the Bureau of Land Management turned into an armed standoff involving federal agents and militias from Nevada and surrounding states. The BLM backed down. Bundy claimed a victory for liberty and individual rights, but the militias and Bundy family didn't look anything like Alan Ladd in Shane. They looked like the Lakota just before Wounded Knee.

I spent much of my adolescence reading science fiction stories, trying to discern the future--the 1980s and '90s. But nobody's discovered a faster-than-light drive. Humans have not walked upon Mars, although not for lack of willing one-way volunteers. Cars can't fly.

Nobody said the future might look like Nevada, except for T.S. Eliot, who said the world would end not with a bang but a whimper.

We're whimpering. Equivalents of the casino industry are moving into our national life. Medical and educational corporations are vacuuming up the savings of the middle class, turning them into debt serfs. Corporations tell employees to apply for food stamps because their employees are poor enough to qualify. Banks skim profits off pension funds. Across the nation, dust accumulates on the For Lease signs in the windows of once-bustling stores. Finance has become an extractive industry. In its wake lie radically altered human landscapes whose remaining attractions are archeological.

Toward the end of our time in Nevada, we drove through the dry lakebed of Lake Lahontan. Once it was a giant sea that supported a rich ecology. But 10,000 years ago, Lahontan--along with 30,000 other Nevada lakes--became desert.

Now, at the lake's northern edge, a two-mile-long sand dune has become a BLM recreation area. A few hundred motorhomes and trailers sit on the rocky desert floor behind the pay station. American and Confederate flags fly above pickup beds, and the dune itself is marked by hundreds of small high-velocity dots, which, through binoculars, resolve into dune buggies, ATVs and dirt bikes. Dust and diesel and the snarl of engines thicken the air.

The nice BLM lady who ran the ticket booth gave us a one-hour free pass to go in and look around, and we did. It was five minutes from mild curiosity to full-on weird-out. We turned around and headed for the exit.

"You lasted longer than most," she said.

"Who are those people?" I asked.

"A new species," said the BLM lady. "Proof that humans can mate with internal combustion engines and breed true."

"It's like Mad Max out here," Julie said. "How'd you end up working here, anyway?"

"You go where they tell you," said the BLM lady. "When I got the job, they told me I'd get to work with wild horses."

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