Dear 2.6 million residents of Nevada:
It’s not my fault. When I asked friends and family to suggest places not to see before you die, six people independently insisted that I include the entry state of Nevada as an entry in the book. “But what about the salt flats?” I protested. “Or Red Rock Canyon? Or the Nevada State Mining Championships, held each year in Tonopah? There are good things in Nevada! And besides, people in Nevada buy travel books!”
But these friends didn’t want to hear it. They wanted to talk about the heat, the emptiness, the atrocity that is Lake Las Vegas, the nuclear waste, the alien sightings, the fact Criss Angel calls it home. So for them, the Nevada haters, I am including this entry. Please forgive me.
A. The Vegas Strip.
There are many, many things to dislike about the Las vegas Strip, the main drag of Sin City that’s known for its casinos, clubs, and, in the case of the Bellagio Hotel, a dancing fountain show set to “Lick Be a Lady Tonight.” Complete with fake Statue of Liberty, the Strip is also an example of Americans’ willingness to accept reporductions of famous sights as adequate alternatives to the real thing. (“It’s just like the one in New York City!” I heard a woman say, pointing at a replica of the Eiffel Tower.)
Some of the Strip’s theme hotels are fun to walk around in, like the Venetian or Mandalay Bay. But most have no redeeming qualities. Consider the Luxor, a giant black pyramid guarded by an enormous sphinx. Despite having only opened in 1993, it has already managed to achieve an authentic feeling of decay, with dark hallways, faded faux-hieroglyphics, and an unstable railings that provide only the slightest protection against falling hundreds of feet onto the casino floor. The result is impressive, even for Vegas: a building that combines the dispair of an existential crisis with the ambiance of a parking garage.
B. Nuclear Fallout.
Nearly 80 percent of Nevada belongs to the federal government, which decided to take advantage of its vast deserts not for nuclear explosions. Pockmarked with craters and larger than Rhode Island, the Nevada Test Site is the most notorious of the government’s testing grounds. Between 1951 and 1992, it was home to more than one thousand nuclear detonations. While the tests’ full fallout, if you will, remains unclear, in 1997 the National Cancer Institute concluded that atmospheric tests done in the area had contaminated large parts of the country with radioactive iodine-131 in quantities big enough to produce ten thousand to seventy-five thousand cases of thyroid cancer. I consider that reason enough not to visit. But others disagree—and for them, the U.S. Department of Energy has joined forces with NTS to offer free monthly tours.
C. Nuclear Garbage Dumps.
When you do that much nuclear testing, you have to have someplace to put your garbage, for a long time, the plan was to dump it at Yucca Mountains, conveniently located within the Nevada Test Site. Designed to hold more than seventy thousand tons of nuclear waste, the mountain seemed ideal: no one lives around it, its water table is deep, and besides, it’s in a location already contaminated by nuclear waste. The federal government spent more than two decades—and billions of dollars—hollowing out the mountains in America’s largest-ever public works project. Then in 2009, the project was scrapped. No one yet knows where America’s homeless nuclear waste is going to end up (its eventual location will be another place not to visit), but in the meantime, there’s at least one good reason to abandon Yucca Mountains: in 2007, geologists realized that part of the complex was situated directly on top of a fault line.
Living in Nevada can make a person paranoid. If the government already used the state to test nuclear bombs, goes the logic, who’s to say it’s not up to other things? For example, concealing evidence of alien landings. Don’t believe me? Go to Rachel, Nevada, a tiny town—or, rather, trailer park—some sixty miles from the nearest gas station on a road whose official nickname is the Extraterrestrial Highway. Tucked next to the mysterious Area 51 (a top-secret air force base), it’s a mecca for some of America’s most fervent believers in extraterrestrial life. And Rachel encourages them—its official Web site lists its population as “Humans 98, Aliens ??” and sings on telephone poles advertise an alien-sighting hotline. These days the town’s main gathering place—and only business—is a motel called the Little A’Le’Inn, where visitors gather to swap stories of alien sightings over burgers and cups of coffee. It’s worth a visit, but be careful—if you stick around long enough you have a high chance of being invite over to someone’s house to watch home movies of UFOs.