Nevada Travel Literature

Nevada travel literature offers an outsider's perspective of the state's geography, environment, and culture. It is the reportage and impressions of travelers whose journeys of choice or necessity have led them to the Great Basin and Nevada. The literature ranges from explorer and emigrant diaries to the avant-garde. As visitors, the writers attempt to express the "otherness" of the place, and often the central character or metaphor is the land.

When nineteenth-century explorers traveled throughout the Great Basin, they traversed land that was home to the Shoshone, Paiute, and Washo Indians. In reports, journals, diaries, and letters, fur trappers Jedediah Smith and Peter Ogden, and government explorer John C. Fremont, carefully document their impressions and experiences crossing the Great Basin. As meticulous as these explorers are in recording the mundane details of their journeys, there is often an element of the sublime in their accounts, as if they are at a loss for words to describe the alien environment they encountered.

In 1878–79, John Muir, a native of Scotland and then resident of Wisconsin, traveled "a rambling mountaineering journey of eighteen hundred miles across the state" of Nevada. He writes of farms, forests, timber belt, glacial phenomena, and dead towns. Muir comments on the mountains "rising in bewildering abundance, range beyond range." Muir found Nevada to be rich in natural and mineral resources but was puzzled by the dead towns where human resources were wasted.

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, a Missouri native, brings Nevada and the Comstock—Carson City, Virginia City, Gold Hill, and Silver City—alive to a large national audience with Roughing It (1872). In 1861, Twain followed his brother, Orion Clemens, who had been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, to Carson City. After twenty days by coach from St. Louis, Missouri, Twain arrived in Carson City. He planned to stay in Nevada three months but did not return home for almost seven years. He describes his journey, the environment, and the people with the familiar Twainian wit, humor, and irony.

Nevada's mineral resources created a boom-and-bust environment. Towns came and went as fast as the gold and silver ore. In Ghosts of the Glory Trail (1956) and Sovereigns of the Sage (1958), Nell Murbarger, the "Roving Reporter of the Desert," chronicles the ghost towns and stories of the "People and Places in the Great Sagebrush Kingdom." Murbarger covers the state from every corner, leaving few stones unturned. Memorable are her stories in Sovereigns of the Sage of Josie Pearl, the "Queen of the Black Rock Country," Grandma Darrough, "The Lady Who Wouldn't Be Photographed," and her tribute to the pioneer women of Nevada in "It Takes Courage To Be a Woman."

John McPhee's Basin and Range (1980) tells the story of the Great Basin and Nevada's geologic foundations. Basin and Range, the result of McPhee's interest in geology and study of the earth's physical appearance, is more than science: it is a meditative essay in placing the Great Basin in what McPhee calls "a fountain of metaphor." Less known is The WPA Guide to 1930s Nevada. First published as Nevada: A Guide to the Silver State (1940), part of the American Guide Series and compiled by workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in Nevada, it describes Nevada as "the great unknown" and a "land of incredible beauty." The WPA Guide is a vintage examination of Nevada, including detailed automobile driving tours.

Las Vegas throbs with stories of mobsters, casinos, showgirls, grifters, cowboys, and transients. The stories in Literary Las Vegas: The Best Writing About America's Most Fabulous City (1995) reveal its neon and glitter as well as its scabs and underbelly. Some consider Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971), a travelogue but, as biographer William McKeen notes, "it might frighten off would-be vacationers to Las Vegas." Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a hybrid of journalism, fiction, and drug-and-alcohol-induced hallucination. A reader will never see Las Vegas the same again.

The meditative writing of William L. Fox is poetry, philosophy, natural history, and eco-criticism. Fox has spent his life exploring and thinking about deserts and the Great Basin. In Driving by Memory (1989), Fox, in a quasi-stream of conscious style, takes the reader on a road trip across and up and down Nevada while commenting on history, the people, and the environment while counting overpasses and calculating drive time mileage. Another postmodern inspection of the desert is found in Reyner Banham's Scenes in America Deserta (1982). Banham, an architectural historian and native of England, looks at American deserts as an art critic searching for the meaning of Beauty and the Sublime. Like Ozymandias, Las Vegas, the glittering town in the desert, becomes for Banham a symbol of man's impermanence.

Because the travel literature of Nevada registers the impression and opinion of outsiders, it cuts two ways. The natives may embrace it, or reject it as misrepresenting or demeaning the place, its culture, and people. In his book, In Nevada (1999), David Thomson, a native of England now living in San Francisco, initially focuses on the parochial lifestyle of rural Nevada, the oddness of its urban areas, and its social-cultural practices, but, in the end, he explains his fascination with Nevada is its space.

This may be what it is all about for these travelers: space. The desert divided by steep mountain ranges, the big sky, and the lonely highways both draw and repel the uninitiated. The culture of disparate urban centers and the sparsely populated rural areas set against the blank slate of the desert is the ultimate creative canvas. In Blue Highways (1982), William Least Heat Moon, in speaking of the Nevada desert, says, "It was calming and cleansing to be absorbed by that vacancy." Time and again, throughout the literature, a repeating theme is space and that the desert, at times serene and beautiful, is also a dangerous place, an acquired taste, and does not suffer fools lightly.

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