The landscape of Wendover, UT and its adjacent neighboring town, West Wendover, NV, does not even vaguely resemble terrain fit for human occupation. To the east, the towns are bordered by the Bonneville Salt Flats, a 40 square mile salt pan left from the evaporation of a Pleistocene Lake. In all other directions lies the dry, rugged terrain of eastern Nevada’s desert. There’s scarcely a naturally occurring plant or tree in sight, and there’s not a drop of fresh water for many miles.
We human beings are a crafty species, however, and we’ve found a few interesting things to do with this inhospitable area – for a while, at least.
For starters, we’ve created a race course. The Bonneville Salt Flats on the east side of Wendover are home to Utah’s Measured Mile – a.k.a., the Bonneville Speedway. I’d heard about this spot, mostly from having seen previews for the movie “The Indian” a few years back, and as a result expected there to be something there – a few buildings, a museum – something. I exited I-80 and drove six miles of straight road to find out just what was there, only to come to a dead end where many sets of tracks left the asphalt for the open road – or perhaps I should say, “the open salt.” The end of the road was marked with one lone sign explaining that the mile is measured and prepared each summer by the BLM, with a cautionary message stating that “salt crusts may appear firm, but can often be unstable.” Most of the time it’s pretty darn lonely out there, but during “Speed Week,” thousands of people descend on the place to be timed racing a course in their racecars, motorcycles, hot rods, and even beat up old-time cars. The track is “groomed” in order to pack it down, and all sorts of high-tech timing devices are set up.
We’ve also created art out there. Not too far from the race course, a creative human being named Karl Momen funded and erected an 87-foot sculpture called “Metaphor: the Tree of Utah.” It’s made from 225 tons of cement, 2000 ceramic tiles, five tons of welding rod, and tons more local rocks and minerals. It towers above the salt and can be seen for many miles in all directions. Humbler and more impermanent art abounds in Salt Flats on either side of I-80 where folks have written their names in assembled rocks or created empty beer bottle shrines. It seems that the wide desolate expanse begs for some form of expression.
Meanwhile, Wendover’s lack of population, dry climate, and unobstructed 360 degree views made it the US Government’s idea of the perfect location for training WWII B-17 and B-24 bomber crews. The Wendover Air Field was opened in 1942, and by 1943 was home to 2000 civilian employees and over 17,000 members of the military. Its most famous trainees were the crew members who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, the place looks like a ghost town. There are rows and rows of abandoned military barracks, as well as deteriorating old hangars and maintenance buildings. Toole County, Utah took the air field over in 1998, and Allegiant Air (the airline that appears to focus on transporting residents of small western towns to gambling centers) currently operates a tiny office out of a modular structure hidden deep within the ruins – so there’s a little life. Mostly, however, the site is a testament to the boom – and subsequent bust created by the wartime economy.
Wendover’s current boom is a result of its casinos. When gambling was legalized in Nevada in the 1940’s, Wendover’s location as the Nevada town closest to Salt Lake City gave it a great head start in the industry. There are three major casinos in West Wendover, NV (Wendover, UT and West Wendover, NV became separate towns in 1991; however there has been movement towards reuniting them again so that the Utah town can benefit from the healthy tax base that gambling currently provides to only the Nevada side of the line). The casinos are clearly the backbone of the community.
There are over 1400 hotel rooms in the two towns, and gambling brought in $30 million in 2013. The casinos are huge concrete structures, neon-speckled monoliths rising up out of a sea of salt and desert. Surrounding them – but far enough away that you have to go looking for them – are the single-wide trailers and modular homes of the employees. It’s not hard to imagine a strong wind carrying away most of Wendover’s housing. It’s also not hard to imagine a day when the casinos deteriorate into abandoned shells much like the ones over at the airport. A simple shift in economic trends or recreational interests could kill this town instantly.
If you look past the glitz of casino row, it’s clear that this town isn’t just existing on the border of NV and UT. It’s also hovering on the border between thriving and disappearing. The activities that we human beings have chosen to pursue in this neck of the woods are often temporary ones, or ones that our fickle species might turn away from in the span of only a few years. Without a stable resource base or a geographically appealing location, Wendover may only exist from boom to boom.
That precarious quality was palpable to me while I was there. Sure, I was enjoying a concert in an air conditioned, comfortable theater– but I could never quite stop wondering what we were all doing there, every one of us transplants who drove to this place in fossil fuel powered vehicles to see a performance by someone who came from afar as well. When we exited the hall into the slot machines, then out into the evening, I couldn’t help but look around at the scenery once again. Beautiful, but stark, and foreboding. A place to visit, not a place to live.
Seems like we’ll keep trying, though. After all, we’re the species who landed on the moon….