Set foot in Nevada, and be changed.
Mostly for worse, as it turns out.
That’s the only conclusion you can reach after reading about the state through the eyes of some writers. Whether describing the treacherous politics of early statehood or attempting to comprehend the break-neck growth policies of recent years, writers and academics have been challenged to capture the essence of this remarkable place.
Some see wealth, others wasteland — mostly the latter.
The chaos of Virginia City and the corruption of the Legislature at Carson City filled Mark Twain’s early notebook as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise. His experiences made their way into his autobiography.
In “Roughing It,” he recalled of early Nevada, “…There was but little realty to tax, and it did seem as if nobody was ever going to think of the simple salvation of inflicting a money penalty on murder.”
Later he would write, “Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would … get homesick and go back to hell again.”
A century later, the transplanted news dandy and latter-day Territorial Enterprise publisher Lucius Beebe reveled in the spirit that irritated Twain. When Virginia City’s solid citizens attempted to push a brothel farther away from a public school, Beebe replied, “Don’t move the girls; move the school.”
Beebe’s romance with the libertarian strains of Nevada reflected a philosophy future generations would call detrimental to the difficult task of building a responsible state that nurtured and celebrated a sense of community.
By 1995, many thoughtful academics and writers were predicting the unthinkable: a bust after generations of boom in Las Vegas. Author and urban theorist Mike Davis likened the experience of Las Vegas and Nevada to the effects felt by his California.
“So that’s the issue to be faced about Las Vegas, particularly in the context of Nevada history. There’s simply nowhere of the earth that’s been shaped more by the boom/bust cycle than Nevada,” he told a reviewer. “This is a civilization of abandoned dead cities and dreams. No boom has ever lasted in Nevada. Part of Nevada’s charm is that it remains in many ways an uninhabited place, a place defined by its ghosts.”
A little more than a decade later, as recession swept the nation, he would be proved correct about even Las Vegas.
Although Hunter S. Thompson is best known as the author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” for me it’s his 1992 Rolling Stone piece, “Fear and Loathing in Elko,” that’s a reminder that cynicism is easy in Nevada.
“It was just after midnight when I first saw the sheep. I was running about eighty-eight or ninety miles an hour in a drenching, blinding rain on U.S. 40 between Winnemucca and Elko with one light out,” he wrote. “I was soaking wet from the water that was pouring in through a hole in the front roof of the car, and my fingers were like rotten icicles on the steering wheel. …
“… I know this road — a straight lonely run across nowhere, with not many dots on the map except ghost towns and truck stops with names like Beowawe and Lovelock and Deeth and Winnemucca. …
“Jesus! Who made this map? Only a lunatic could have come up with a list of places like this: Imlay, Valmy, Golconda, Nixon, Midas, Metropolis, Jiggs, Judasville — all of them empty, with no gas stations, withering away in the desert like a string of old Pony Express stations. The Federal Government owns ninety percent of this land, and most of it is useless for anything except weapons testing and poison-gas experiments.”
In Nevada, even after 150 years, cynicism is the easy part.
Keeping your sense of humor takes more effort, but it’s part of what separates the locals from the tourists.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at email@example.com or call 702-383-0295.