NV Day 4 - Aliens, Art, and Abandoned Towns
Today started with a little bit of hometown nostalgia, as I got my morning joe from Dunkin’ Donuts. I hadn’t realized traversing across the south where Dunkins are so few and far between how much I missed their shitty shitty coffee. It was great and terrible, but, also like Oz, it always reminds me there’s no place like home. The one funny thing is that in Boston most people I know get ice coffees there even though it’s constantly freezing, but even in the desert heat of Nevada the found the idea of just ordering an iced coffee strange and unnatural (cold brew became trendy while I was on the road, but I had no idea until I left New England how uncommon my morning beverage of choice is)
All fueled up, I (star)trekked through the desert up to Area 51. Well, actually because it’s still an active and top secret Air Force base, I couldn’t go anywhere near it. For some reason writing a comedy travel blog does not give me government security clearance. Maybe if I wrote it in Cyrillic…
I did however have the security clearance to got to the Area Alien Visitor Center, a very cheesy highway rest stop in Amargosa Valley about 70 miles southwest of the famous base. It is possible to get slightly closer to the actual site but no closer than 20 miles before you hit security blockades. The Alien Center, while not the closest, was more on the way to my other stops I wanted to make later in the day so it was as close as I was going to get.
There isn’t a whole lot of information about Area 51 available to the public, but I was able to find some facts online. My favorite is that the other lesser known code names for the base are Dreamland and Paradise Ranch which are much sillier names for a place that most likely develops state of the art weaponry and aircrafts. In terms of the spacecrafts the place is famous for, the U in the UFO probably came from the fact that they were developing new kinds of planes for spying and warfare that they had intentionally not wanted to tell people about lest those damn Ruskies get a load of it.
Of course none of that logical reasoning matters when you’ve got a highway rest stop to advertise and you’ve got to lean into what gets the butts in seats. So it’s all aliens all the time, and it’s corny as heck but it’s sort of endearing. The shop itself is filled with all sorts of novelty t-shirts, paintings, and alien themed snacks.
The strangest marketing tie-in however was the Alien Cathouse, a legal brothel. Brothels are legal in Nevada, but only in counties with under 700,000 people because I think part of the plan was to actually convince people to go out into the middle of the desert with promises of sex (which does seem like the one of the crazier plans hatched by a state legislature). I’d never seen a real brothel before, and it was pretty surreal that it was right next to a diner and gas station on a dusty old highway. There was a sign offering free tours, and I’ll admit I had some morbid curiosity especially about how the alien theme was incorporated. Part of me felt like as a travel writer, it was my duty to take that tour since this is truly something that only exists in Nevada, but then all of me saw all the customers walking in and out and I knew if I took that tour I would die of the world’s biggest bummer. Look I don’t wanna judge anyone for having a consensual good time, but let’s just say every customer looked exactly like who you would imagine might drive into the middle of the desert to pay for sex at an alien themed brothel. It was pretty rough. The cathouse also showed up on Atlas Obscura and they said that the theme was mostly nominal but that there was a “Probing Room” so I’m pretty sure I dodged a huge bullet (or laser beam?) by not going in there.
While I did not cat it up at the cathouse, this rest area was very likely the only one for miles so I did get lunch at the diner next door. I had a perfectly pleasant grilled chicken sandwich, which was really elevated by some great fries and the presence of fresh avocado. Somehow I was even able to not imagine what was happening next door long enough to keep it all down.
After the rest stop, my next stop was the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an eclectic outdoor art museum just on the outskirts of an abandoned ghost town. The museum is free and open to the public and it brings together contemporary artists from around the world and gives them space to explore their creativity on a large scale with the blank canvas of the desert at their disposal. There weren’t a whole ton of pieces but each one was really unique and heightened by the stark landscape all around. Pieces included: Icara, a beautiful wooden sculpture made on-site by Dre Peters of a female iteration of the the classic Greek tragic hero who flew too close to the sun, elevated mid-flight on large poles at the moment just before her fall as the wings are bare presumably melted in the Nevada sun; an odd little scene called the Beauty of Decay consisting of handmade burlap puppets from a Belgian experimental theater piece that are intentionally left out in the elements where visitors are encouraged to take photographs of them to document their natural decay; a gorgeous if uncomfortable seeming hand sculpted mosaic sofa bedecked in vibrant tiles and art glass entitled Sit Here! by German-born artist Sofia Siegmann; a giant brass interpretation of an origami crane, somehow recreating the feel of delicate paper folding with heavy metal; a very creepy circle of plaster masks in the sand around a metal cat’s cradle sphere; and a wonderfully whimsical 24 ft. tall iron sculpture called Tribute to Shorty by Belgian artist Fred Bervoets paying tribute to the areas mining past but also including a penguin because it was the most out of place thing the artist could imagine being there.
The pieces that started it all were the ethereal sculptures of Belgian-Polish artist Albert Szukalski. He created these hauntingly beautiful ghostlike statues by draping wet plaster over carefully posed models capturing their form and outline but leaving the actual piece mostly hollow. This created a really neat ghost-like effect that was partially inspired by the vast empty landscape the artist saw all around him. It’s a little creepy, but there’s something about the suggestion of human forms that taps into a subconscious gracefulness and beauty. The centerpiece of Szukalski’s works that inspired the rest of the museum was a recreation of Da Vinci’s last supper entirely in ghosts, which became a big tourist draw and inspired other artists to tap into the potential of the barren desert.
My personal favorite piece for sheer absurdity was entitled Lady Desert: Venus of Nevada by Dr. Hugo Heyrman and it features a giant nude pixelated woman made entirely out of pink and yellow cinderblocks. It’s just such a startling juxtaposition with those garish bright colors against the muted palette of the landscape. It’s at once both childlike and goofy, and oddly impressive and powerful if only for its monumental size and simplicity. It’s the kind of thing that I’m really happy people must frequently see in the distance with absolutely zero context.
After the museum, it was just a short drive up to the abandoned mining town of Rhyolite. The town was a gold-mining boom town exploding into exisitence on the eastern edge of Death Valley in 1906 with the help of industrialist Charles Schwab. The town planned on becoming huge building up every modern extravagance including a stock exchange, a school, hotels, an opera house, an electric company, a miners’ hospital, and even a red light district (it’s like impossible to dig into Nevada history without running into prostitution eventually). But in just one year, the largest gold deposit had already been mined, there was a huge earthquake in San Francisco, and a Financial panic that rocked the mining industry, and the town began to falter under its own weight, becoming completely abandoned by 1911. It ended almost as quickly as it began, but the ruins remain as an eerie specter of one of the casualties on the road to industrialization. Even as a shell of itself, the building that remain are oddly lovely and you can only imagine how gorgeous the town could have potentially been in its prime. I’m glad that its preserved as is as opposed to renovated, because I think it makes a nice counterpoint to revisionist history that wants Americans to have a rosy picture of the West, Capitalism, and the pioneering settlers. It wasn’t all manifest destiny, sometimes they failed, and those failures could be crushing. The town itself is almost a better encapsulation of the myth of Icarus, hubris and all, then the statue at the museum.
Probably the coolest house in the town, and one of the only ones to get restored because it was featured in a 1925 film entitled The Air Mail, was Tom Kelly’s Bottle House. At it’s height, they estimate that their were over 50 saloons in Rhyolite, which meant that there were a whole lot of beer bottles. One miner named Tom Kelly saw the potential of all these glass bottles, building a three-bedroom house entirely out of 50,000 glass bottles and a whole lot plaster (plus a cute little wood trim and roof). This impressive feat of design and construction is shockingly resilient and well made, still standing after all these years with only really a little help from that 1925 restoration mainly in the form of a new roof. Now you know that next time anyone says you’re drinking too much beer, you can just tell them you’re saving up for a house.
After that I made the trek back across the desert to return to Vegas for the night’s festivities. I would be remiss though if I didn’t highlight just how ruggedly aesthetic the landscapes in between were with, for the most part, just one stretching out for miles through the vast expanses of the Mojave.
After all that sparsity, things took a slightly different turn back in Vegas when I went to visit the extravagant Venetian Resort and Casino and the adjoining Palazzo. Things started off right with a bang in just the hotel lobby with a beautiful atrium featuring a stunning water fountain adorned with glass sculptures by Samuel Bocchicchio. I want to be cynical about these resorts, but I’ll admit this one wowed me.
The main reason I wanted to go to the Venetian though was that I had heard that they had an entire faux Venice canal inside the resort which I needed to see first hand. The rumors were true, and it was a pretty wonderful confluence of super-cheese and high art, because if you’re gonna rip something off ripping off Italian masters gives you a lot of incredible art to work with. It was gaudy, impressive, lovely, and stupid all rolled into one, and more than the other hotels it hit me in that sweet spot of being just ridiculous enough to kind of work. The craziest thing to me which I wasn’t expecting is that the canal is on the second floor because why not throw reality totally out the window? I think it was just an excuse to build in a waterfall which I guess is a pretty addition. The fake beautiful blue sky on the ceiling did sort of mess with me though, because it makes it extra easy to lose track of time inside which I guess is probably what you want gamblers and shoppers to do. While I was there, I got some coffee at Espressamente Illy which is a chain place, but it at least sounded Italian. Not my craftiest day for coffee, but it all did the trick. I made up for the generic coffee by trying a pint of craft beer, because nestled in the Canal is Sin City Brewing Co. I got a pint of their amber and it was a very pleasant light beer, rich and malty but easy to drink.
I bid farewell to Fake Venice, and got dinner at a local staple for good Mexican food, Lindo Michoacan. I loved this place because before the meal even begins because all guests get a massive platter of delicious house chips and salsa, which is pretty standard but always a pleasure, and every meal comes with a side of fideo soup which is a Mexican tomato based soup with thin noodles that was just a perfect appetizer that I wasn’t even expecting to get. For my main dish, I got a combination plate called the Zamora which came with green chile pork and guacamole burrito, a cheesy chicken enchilada, and a whole mess of beans and rice. Everything was perfect even I could barely finish it all. Somehow this entire mini-feast all clocked in at $12! That’s the kind of deal that might even make my spice-averse father want to try out a Mexican restaurant.
The open mic for the night was at a quirky little comic book shop and geek movie theater called The Sci Fi Center. It was tucked away in a pretty unassuming business plaza, and I got there early so I was worried that perhaps I had gone to the wrong place, but it soon filled up with comics making for a cozy and intimate night of great jokes and story telling. Part of the nice communal vibe was the close quarters, but it also was probably helped by the fact that the host announced at the beginning of the show “I’m feeling generous so anyone performing can take a hit from my vape pen if they’d like”. I think Nevada is the first state on this trip where recreational marijuana use is legalized, and I oddly hadn’t really noticed until now when people just casually smoked on stage. It did give the proceedings a looser feel though.
My favorite comic of the night was a guy named Justin Brown. He was new to comedy, so his delivery wasn’t totally polished, but he told one of the most naturally funny and incredible stories I’ve ever heard about how he was about to fail out of college when his school’s boxing coach came up to him in the gym. Apparently the team was very good and going to NCAA but they just lost a heavy weight and so they just needed someone in the weight class in order to qualify. Justin told him he didn’t know anything about boxing, but the coach said it doesn’t matter if you lose the rest of the team is good enough we just need to be able to go. Justin was skeptical but then the coach dropped that all athletes going to NCAA got a week deferral on their finals because of the travel commitment, which meant he’d have an extra week to study and maybe not fail out. He went to the Heavyweight quarter finals and the other team’s guy didn’t show up, so without any boxing experience he made it to the NCAA semi-finals. He lost that match easily, but his team did so well that he still ended up going to the finals. So with a record of 1 loss and 1 forfeit he went up against an undefeated finalist heavy weight boxer. He just decided that if he was going to lose, he was going to lose he was going to make it hard on the guy so he just kept doing illegal things like kicking and punching below the belt, and whenever the ref called him out he’d just shrug and say “I’m sorry I didn’t know, I’m new!”. I was dying listening to this and picturing what a goofy sight it must have been, but the icing on top is that his team still won so he just accidentally became an NCAA champion boxer. It was an incredible journey to go in the back of a little comic book shop.
Holly (the host) - I have depression but that's for mental illness what the free space is in bingo. Everyone gets that one.
Pat G - This place looks like the before building in a mesothelioma commercial
Hugo Ramos - I saw a doctor about premature ejaculation, but I came too fast with him too.
Balls Out Ron (who performed in just a banana hammock) - Think about this, if God hated gay guys, why would he put the male g spot on the prostate?
Santoria Rush - All the women in my family are married to weak men. We don’t date weak men though, we make them weak.
After the open mic, one of the comics I made friends with over the week, the very very funny Genevieve Elgrichi, invited me to her friends birthday party at the Gold Spike, a hotel and casino that also has a really fun Carnival themed bar complete with big posters for The Frog Boy. The party was in the bar, and I had a great time cracking jokes and sharing stories with Genevieve and playing lawn games with her friends on the outdoor patio of the bar. There was even a live band playing pop punk hits from the early 2000s for a fun a middle-school dance vibe. It was a great night, and it’s always nice knowing that friendships you make in the weird clubs and bars that have open mics can actually extend out into the real world.
Favorite Random Sightings: The Nail Zone (in oddly Twilight Zone themed font); My Left Foot Children’s Medical Services (possibly the strangest movie marketing tie in I’ve ever seen), but mostly I just saw a whole lot of sand today.
Regional Observations: I had no idea mirages were a real thing, but on those long desert roads I totally saw them. I got more of the visions of water that wasn’t there type of mirage than the looking at a person and seeing a giant ham kind though thank goodness.
Albums Listened To: The Slackers by the Slackers (their latest album and one I highly recommend); The Slackers: Live at Maxwell’s Hoboken by the Slackers (a fantastic nearly two hour double set that was a released as a reward for funding their kickstarter)
People’s Favorite Jokes:
As fitting for the desert, I had a bit of dry spell getting jokes out of people so here’s one from the internet:
After dating a young lady for some time a young man decides it is time to marry her.
He proceeds with all the necessary plans and finally the day comes.
On the day of the wedding the young man has yet to pay the pastor for performing the ceremony. However the pastor has a plan.
The service proceeds as planned the vows are exchanged etc. Now it is time for the groom to kiss his bride. The pastor sees this as the perfect opportunity to ask to be paid. He pulls the young man aside and asks him. Can you please pay me?
Not wanting to create a seen the young man asked. How much do I owe you?
The pastor thinks quickly and replies, pay me according to your wife's beauty.
The young man discretely pulled out five dollars and gave it to the pastor.
Although annoyed by this, the pastor continues the ceremony and says; you may now kiss the bride. At this point the veil is lifted from the brides face to allow the groom to kiss her. As the groom is about to kiss his new bride the pastor interrupts and promptly hand the groom four dollars and fifty cents.
Songs of the Day: