Just Deserts


Las Vegas could well be my favourite city. Not for all the usual reasons - I don't drink, don't smoke, don't gamble, and am very happily married. Maybe my lack of a participant's interest in all that stuff allows me to see the place with a bit of objectivity: I'm big on context - as anyone familiar with my published writing (principally, I expect, commissioning editors and subs - though I have occasionally come across people who have actually read things I write for either information or something approaching pleasure, and am always delighted to hear from same) may have gathered. And there's a lot of context to Las Vegas

One of the most important facts about the place, and one that the vast majority of visitors - who rarely leave the Strip except to slum it in the rather more rustic Downtown casinos - tend to miss is that it is, in the words of Elliott Gould's Reuben Tishkoff in what is quite probably my favourite ever film, "in the middle of the fucking desert!!!" When you've grown up in England the concept of a desert is alien. You've seen Lawrence of Arabia and have kind of come to the rather simplistic conclusion that the Sahara is probably something like a sand pit the size of Europe; but that doesn't prepare you for a real desert.


There's a lot of space out there, but the capacity of humankind to stamp its sense of self and destiny on it is a key source of my fascination with the land around Las Vegas. The city itself is astonishing, of course, but no less so than the spiders' webs of dirt roads and byways that riddle even the most desolate sections of the land beyond its sprawl. At the ends of some of those dirt roads lie military installations, weapons testing facilities, prisons and putative/soon-to-be-mothballed toxic waste dumps; but along others are wildlife reserves, farms, homes, schools. While the former tend to be the things that draw me out there, the latter are often the parts I end up being more amazed by: I can understand the way that empty space attracts the kind of people who want to subjugate it or utilise its vastness and remoteness to do things they couldn't, shouldn't or wouldn't do anywhere else - but I'm somewhat in awe of those who make these places their home, and carve a conventional living out of the desolation. My most recent trip to southern Nevada gave me another opportunity to indulge both sets of fascinations.

The main event was a day at Creech Air Force Base in the very fine company of Squadron Leader Andy "Fluff" Jeffries and the RAF's 39 Squadron, 800-ish words about which will form a page in the May edition of Defense Technology International (though anyone interested in commissioning something considerably longer is invited to form an orderly queue at the Contact Me button to the right). The purpose of their deployment to the desert is to pilot the RAF's complement of MQ-9 Reaper aeroplanes in Afghanistan. Don't make the mistake - at least within earshot of a Reaper pilot - of describing the aircraft as "drones"; the only thing that makes them madder is to infer that their remote control work, undertaken in a container-sized room in a sandstone-brick building sandwiched between the Nevada Test Site and the hamlet of Indian Springs' one casino, could be carried out adequately by a video gamer.


A few days at the Gold Coast also gave me time to head out into the desert for some other diversions. I'd never driven up Mount Charleston before, but the tenacity of the villagers who choose to make their home in this remote and snowbound enclave overlooking a desert and a neon metropolis proved difficult to process. Red Rock Canyon (above) was easier to make sense of: it's jaw-droppingly beautiful, but a 17-mile one-way street would attract me even if it wasn't.

I also returned to matters military and mysterious, getting to play Area 51 tour guide to a couple of bemused defence journalists and two RAF staffers, which was fun (Tim Ripley, of the Independent Defence Media Association, on viewing the 'fabled' "deadly force" signage on Groom Lake Road: "You mean all that fuss happened over this?" - standing in the middle of nowhere, taking pictures of some signs, with a cammo dude jeep keeping its mute vigil from the nearby ridge, he definitely had a point). I headed over to Henderson to see TD Barnes, President of Roadrunners Internationale, a truly singular veterans' association. He and his wife, Doris, and chihuahua, Jose, always make me feel welcome, for which I'm deeply thankful; and I continue to be amazed by how encouraging and patient TD is of my long-running but as yet incomplete attempts  to place a piece about his fine organisation.

Sadly, a pressing Guardian deadline meant I wasn't able to meet up with Joerg Arnu, but I did get to buffet with Glenn Campbell, who took me to a disappearing river that only someone as unflaggingly curious and can-do would ever have found. Most of us would see a stand of trees and think, 'There's some trees.' Glenn sees the trees and thinks, 'Those are kind of big for out here: there must be water down there. I'll go and have a look.' In a just world, Glenn would have some kind of position where he'd have input on public policy - he was the first person to publicly predict the collapse of the Vegas economy, while his unpaid work reporting on the city's Family Court represented the kind of investigative journalism America's cash-strapped newspapers are rapidly giving up on. In this world, a world his principles prevent certain kinds of interaction with, he's just another voice in the crowded blogosphere, but one definitely worth tuning in to. Like so many who make the desert their home, he's resilient, individual and inspirational.



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