Wendover Familiarization Tour
September 9th, 2012

Last time I stayed at the Stateline Casino Hotel in Wendover, I asked the young girl at the desk if I could have a room with a view. “No problem,” she said. “Which would you prefer—rocks or salt?”

Fittingly, that’s what I brought home from last week’s press junket: a chunk of dullish gray rock from a local quarry and a bright white salt crystal from the Intrepid Potash Plant. The salt crystal is beautiful, the chunk of aragonite less so. However, I’m told that if I soak the rock in vinegar it’ll sprout lovely blossoms of calcium carbonate, also known as “popcorn rock.”

Turns out there are lots of interesting things to do and see in the vicinity of Wendover, none of them related to gambling, which nowadays is the community’s main industry. For example, not many visitors know that just a few miles to the south, sandwiched between a military bombing and gunnery range, is a naturally warmed lake popular with fishermen and—believe it or not—scuba divers!


The trick is squeeze yourself into your wetsuit before the horse flies eat you alive. Then you must scurry through the prickly salt brush for about a hundred yards, dragged down by your air tank, vest and weight belt—viscous, biting insects in hot pursuit. Once in the water you are safe; that is, unless you should sink beneath the surface and nearly drown because you know nothing whatsoever about scuba diving, which is exactly what happened to me. That said, if you do know what you’re doing, and have plenty of DEET on hand, then I would say Blue Lake is a pretty nifty place to hang out.

To the west of Blue Lake is the Goshute Mountain Range, familiar to moviegoers as the place where the mother alien ship went down in flames in the 1996 film Independence Day. Like all mountain ranges in Nevada, the Goshutes run north and south and offer thermodynamically ideal flying conditions for migratory raptors. Since 1980, Hawkwatch International has maintained an observation outpost at the 9,000-foot level, where passing birds, such as this young Cooper’s Hawk, are netted, examined, banded, and sent on their merry way.


Be advised the hike to the summit is challenging, so be sure to wear good hiking boots and carry energy bars plus at least three bottles of water. Leave some space in your backpack to accommodate groceries should you be asked to help ferry groceries up to the dedicated hawk watchers. I volunteered to carry the arugula.

Speaking of airborne predators, it so happens Wendover was once home to about twenty thousand Army Air corpsmen during World War II. It was here that the 509th composite group under the command of Colonel Paul Tibbetts trained to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nowadays all that remains is a small museum, a control tower, a few weather beaten hangars, some munition bunkers, a handful of wooden barracks, and a building featuring multiple bank vaults where components of the top secret Norden bombsight were kept. Perhaps the most intimidating artifact of all is a concrete pit from which a ten thousand pound nuclear weapon could be jacked into the bomb bay of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress. This is the very spot from which the atomic age was launched.


In between training flights, airmen stationed at Wendover Field made the most of their leisure time. The limestone cliffs above town are brightened by colorful squadron insignia, and at the base of one cliff lies the opening to so-called jukebox cave, where in 1945 couples swung to Benny Goodman on an ersatz dance floor, beneath which lies evidence of human habitation dating back ten thousand years. Today the dance floor itself is covered with dirt and bat guano, deepening layer upon layer as the world turns, the climate changes, and one era gives way to still another.

-Richard Menzies