How to Describe the Darkness?: On the Road at Night in Rural Nevada

ALAMO, Nev. — How to describe the darkness? If Las Vegas is a city of light, rural Nevada is a creature of the opposite nature. When night falls, a blackness, thick as velvet, engulfs the world. When the last light goes, drivers turn their cars’ headlights to the brightest setting, rolling cautiously down the highways crisscrossing Southern Nevada’s deserts.

The journey from Alamo, NV to Las Vegas is 100 miles long. In the evening, the stars that hang above the scraggly mountains alongside U.S. 93 shine furiously. It is beautiful. But a stranger to these roads should make the trip in daylight, if possible. As the sun goes down, night drops on the rural world like a heavy curtain, hiding everything. The darkness that sweeps over this landscape of sand and shrub swallows every road sign. Travelers pass major intersections without ever knowing. The absence of light is so complete that not even shadows survive.

On the two-lane roads that connect Alamo to Las Vegas, Mesquite to Caliente, Ely to Pioche, approaching vehicles look like airplanes drifting in a black sky. But a driver can proceed for many miles without encountering another person, and the sense of isolation that reigns over this dark world is profound. Mobile phones die. Radio stations cut out. And man, so accustomed to light and noise, finds himself fearful in this quiet, Southern Nevada night.

The placard that bids goodbye to travelers leaving Alamo warns that the next gas station is 91 miles away. About one in 10 or in a dozen Nevadans lives in a town like this one. When people think about Nevada, they often think only of Las Vegas, of shoebox-style tract homes and strip malls and sprawl. They think of black jack, of the hum of slot machines, of the sound of clinking dice. They forget that most of the state consists of open land — wild, marvelous and serene – and that scattered across this vast expanse of red sand lie any number of small communities.

The homes in Alamo appear to be well-kept and rather old. They vary in style, but seem in general to bear more of a resemblence to the houses of old America — those of the East — than to the suburban mega-homes of the West. The gas station store is the supermarket, and on a billboard outside, people post advertisements and other messages for the community. Someone is offering voice lessons, and Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, is stopping in nearby Caliente one day soon.

Story written in January 2008.

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