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Preston Jones

Aliens, A-Bombs, and Mastodons

Travels in Nevada and Colorado.

Corn dog in hand, the man in the elevator bids me good tidings, and "welcome to our white trash fiesta." Here in Las Vegas the family has gathered to ponder the deep things, such as whether we shall retch before or after we ride the Stratosphere, a roller coaster-type attraction perched atop a tower over one hundred stories high. Weak-kneed and gurgling, we stumble off the ride in short order, observing that we probably won't give it another go-around. Then we soak in the view afforded from these lofty heights. "Don't you worry about earthquakes?" I ask the girl taking tickets. She says she doesn't, and that's hard to believe. But I cannot press the point, for now we are off to watch Pappy and my siblings-in-law jump from an airplane.

The rule of the day, enunciated this morning at Denny's, is that no one shall speak explicitly of skydiving until the deed is done. Thus we drive in silence for some 30 minutes to the place where "it" will happen, and I have time to cogitate this review. My mind turns first to the space aliens who, in the summer of 1947, lighted upon Roswell, New Mexico, only to be hounded into a government compound in Nevada and there sequestered till kingdom come. The famous compound is located in a military security zone called Area 51, which is the size of the fine State of Connecticut.

David Thomson, author of In Nevada, writes that anyone who attempts to penetrate Area 51 "runs the risk of arrest, confiscation of vehicle and equipment, heavy fines, and imprisonment." Indeed, signs around Area 51 warn that the use of deadly force is authorized against tax-paying intruders who want in on government military secrets. "There are those who say that UFOs are kept there and tested," Thomson writes, "along with the imprisoned aliens who piloted them to Earth."

Thomson himself doesn't appear to believe in UFOs, and neither does Glenn Campbell, a self-proclaimed "philosophical warrior" who resides in the tiny town of Rachel, a stone's throw north of Area 51. Campbell moved to Rachel in 1992 chiefly to debunk UFO mythology, and, Thomson writes, he has done some of that. In a "guide" for visitors to Rachel, Campbell writes that in southern Nevada, "UFO proponents expect to see flying saucers, and they do. Hardened skeptics expect to debunk the saucer stories, and they do. Spiritualists see spirits. Doomsdayers see the end of the world. Conspiracy buffs find just the evidence they need to link AIDS with JFK."

Of course, Campbell has his foes in Rachel, such as a certain Mr. and Mrs. Travis, who commissioned the writing of The Area 51 & S-4 Handbook (published in 1997). The handbook suggests that UFOs may carry "time travelers from our future—perhaps historians or anthropologists that have come to study their past." It's also worth noting that Art Bell, nighttime radio talk-show host with an audience of 15 million and America's best- known Nevadan, listens patiently, night after night from his studio in Pahrump, as callers report on their encounters with the dead and other beings from beyond. And in case you were wondering, Nevada's own governor, Bob Miller—"probably born on earth," Thomson surmises—has designated Nevada's Highway 375 the "Extra-Terrestrial Highway."

It's unclear why space beings prefer Nevada to, say, Colorado (on which more shortly), but a moment or two after my sister-in-law's own descent to earth she declares that her first skydiving experience was "dang cool." Adds Pappy: "Man! You can see everything from up there!" Everything? I ask if in the course of their plummet from 12,000 feet they happened to spy any atomic blasts.

The question isn't really fair, since, as Thomson makes clear in a typically pithy chapter titled "Firings," the military stopped testing a-bombs in Nevada in the 1950s. And, as a result of the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, atmospheric tests in Nevada with nuclear weapons were also brought to an end. But the underground tests that continued for years set casino mogul Howard Hughes on edge. "I think Nevada has become a fully accredited state now," Thomson quotes Hughes as writing to the federal government, "and should no longer be treated like a barren wasteland that is useful as a dumping place for poisonous, contaminated nuclear material, such as normally is carefully sealed up and dumped in the deepest part of the ocean."

There is much more that might be said about Nevada—the Burning Man Festival, northern Nevada's stunning geography, casino gambling, prostitution, urban sprawl, movie stars, long-time Nevadans' resentment against Las Vegas—and David Thomson covers much of it in these engaging pages. But we must now leave my family, chucking quarters into slot machines at the M-G-M casino (my brother-in-law thinks he has his ma chine "figured out"), and travel east, through Utah and into Colorado, where prairie mastodons, giant bison, mammoths, and camels once held sway.

In Creating Colorado, University of Montana professor William Wyckoff writes that creatures such as these "encouraged the development of a big-game harvesting technology" (e.g., stone-tipped spears). This informative, assertion is found in a subsection titled "Native American Geographies," and it is fairly typical of the sentences that make up this book: straightforward, learned, well if not elegantly written. Sometimes one's teeth crack, such as when one reads this sentence in chapter 3: "Geology mattered: the configuration of Colorado's human geography in the mountains is in no small way related to the intricacies of mountain tectonics as well as to the erosional processes at work to redistribute some of the metals once they were created." Most of the sentences in this book do not resemble this one, however, and as one works through Wyckoff's chapters—such as "Piedmont Heartland, 1860-1920," "Hinterlands: Eastern Plains, 1860-1920" and "Geographies in Transition: Colorado, 1920-1940"—one gains an appreciation for the way human culture shapes landscape.

Not that there are a great many surprises in Creating Colorado. "The public school was one essential initial commitment to community"; "Religion complemented education as a cornerstone of community in the mining town"; "Banks facilitated the economic maturation of the mining town by lending money, purchasing precious metals, and be coming involved with local stock and real estate transactions"—none of these observations is surprising. But taken together with the many other details Wyckoff provides, they tell an interesting story about town life in the mountains of Colorado.

Because Wyckoff brings his narrative to an end in 1940—what would come to called urban sprawl was al ready underway in Denver by that time—we do not learn what impact the transformation of Colorado Springs into what one friend lovingly calls "the evangelical Mecca" has had on the city. It would be interesting to know what geographical changes the Navigators, Compassion International, and Focus on the Family (to name just a few evangelical organizations) brought to Colorado Springs, formerly known mainly as a center for wealthy tourists.

David Thomson and William Wyckoff have written two very different books about very different states. What links these works is an interest in the way people interact with their environments. Insofar as I am aware, space aliens have never visited Colorado Springs (I recognize that some of the city's inhabitants may disagree), so no significant infra structure devoted to the study of extra-terrestrials exists there as it does in Rachel, Nevada. Conversely, Rachel's chances of transforming itself into an attraction center for rich tourists are pretty slim. (Colorado Springs had in its favor natural hot springs, formerly believed to possess medicinal qualities.) But this difference is fine. Colorado Springs can have its historic resorts; Rachel can have its aliens. And lucky America can have them both.

Preston Jones is a frequent contributor to BOOKS & CULTURE and a book reviewer for the National Post (Toronto).

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