Nuclear Disasters, Inception and Carl Sagan: Las Vegas, NV

Death Valley Morning

I wake up in Death Valley, still very much alive, and head back into Nevada heading east, towards Las Vegas.  Periodically, you get a road sign which, if you can still read it through the bullet holes, warns you that speed is being monitored by aircraft. Now I did assume this to be somewhat unlikely, given that it’s not the most cost effective use of resources. But as I drive along the vast highways of Nevada, I did at one point come across (or rather, below) a helicopter that was hovering over the highway. Obviously don’t know for sure that it was a traffic cop helicopter, but if it wasn’t, then someone was taking tourists on the most disappointing helicopter ride of their life. Much more importantly, I stop in to have breakfast in a town called Pahrump, Nevada.

Pahrump Heh. Pahrump. (Source)

On the road to Las Vegas, you can sometimes catch glimpses of the city as the road dips in and out of valleys or behind ridges. The city at a distance has an early morning haze and I’m trying really hard not to immediately say that Vegas sucks. Oh. Er, well, I tried. It does suck, the reason “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is to try and keep a lid on all the stories of how much it sucks. Anyway, I hope to produce an unbiased account of the city (and how it sucks). Let’s start with something that I don’t understand:

Jane Hare

That might seem like a non sequitur, but really, ask yourselves: what topic could I have been talking about that would have made that image appropriate? You see, for some reason, my car is directing me to a library that has an art exhibit on display. I really don’t understand why I came here – at the time and certainly not after. My various guides to the American outré don’t mention it; I don’t instinctively drive to libraries. Maybe I was Inception-ed. Maybe I went to a hypnotist’s show in Vegas and actually all my memories of this city have been faked to cover up whatever the hypnotist made me do; to make me forget all the trauma I experienced.

John LithgowCoincidentally at the same exhibit.

I was going to move on at this point, but I can’t. I was speaking to a friend about this and it triggered a memory. Regular readers (haha… ha… ha.) might remember something similar has happened before. Past-Me sent Me-Me (now also Past-Me) to Eden Prairie Public Library, for no reason that I could find. And if there’s anything I know about two points, it’s that they make a pattern. Something, whether it’s an amnesiac past version of myself, or some dream suggestion, is sending me to the public libraries of America. Is this a plot by Big Library to make libraries appear busy? Since other evidence would require research, I’m just going to say yes. Yes it is.

Public LibrariesOh I’ve got one, thank you.

Right. Well, let’s just move on, shall we?

Next up before I get dragged into the central cess pit of the city, is the most interesting part of Las Vegas: the AtomicTestingMuseum. The US used to test its nuclear capabilities in the desert about 65 miles north of Las Vegas and the explosions could often be seen from the city itself. Tragically, due to the prevailing winds, much of the radioactive fallout was taken to beautiful Utah and not funnelled down on terrible Las Vegas. The testing site itself was an obvious hot spot for protests and, Wikipedia tells me, during one of protests over 400 people were arrested, including Carl Sagan, Kris Kristofferson and Martin Sheen. Can you imagine that holding cell?

The Unusual SuspectsYou would watch the shit out of this film.

The Testing Museum itself focuses less unrealised pop culture classics, but rather on the history and science of the nuclear arms race. We begin with a highly informative presentation on the nature of atoms:

Classy Atoms

And we make time for realised pop culture classics, like Tom Lehrer:

Tom Lehrer

Some of the exhibits skipped over a lot of human elements of the testing, such as with Bikini Atoll. Some of the earliest nuclear testing (the first peacetime testing in fact) took place there (and, yes, if you’re wondering, that is where the term “bikini” comes from), which necessitated the “temporary” removal of the 167 inhabitants. After nuking the hell out of the atoll, the US government gave control back to the native inhabitants, but those who returned were forced to evacuate a few years later, some suffering from radiation poisoning. Nearly 70 years after the first tests there, the island remains uninhabited, with government agencies warning against consuming anything that grows there. The reason for this tangent is that Bikini Atoll is discussed by one  guy who dismissively points out that he was fine with it, so that’s all good.

The good news is that beyond the dangers of deliberately detonating nuclear weapons, it’s all been good. There was that one time when a B-52 carrying two nuclear weapons crashed in North Carolina (there remains some debate about how close we came to losing North Carolina’s fantastic pulled pork recipe, but “closer than not having nukes drop in your backyard” is reasonable to say), or the B-52 which crashed in Greenland, spreading radioactive material and necessitating a massive clean up operation.

GreenlandOn the other hand, Greenland hasn’t messed with us since.(Source)

Fortunately, nuclear disarmament and stricter safety regulations have made it highly unlikely that similar disasters could occur in the future. It’s not like there’s a big red button to bring on the Apocalypse. Anyway, I set Bertie down for a minute to go read a plaque, but I’m sure everything’s—

Bertie and the Bomb … Oh Bertie.

Actually I’m starting to think this museum isn’t trying as hard as it could to protect us from these incredible weapons. For instance, here is their B-53 thermonuclear weapon:

Bunker Buster I mean, is it too much to put a rope around it or something?

And why’s it right next to the door? They’re just asking for a heist, and we know professional heist operators (heisters?) are in the area.

Okay, I’ve put it off as long as possible. Let’s get onto the fat-ridden, shrivelled, black heart of Las Vegas. I stay in a cheap, mean room in the cheap, mean hotel that is Caesar’s Palace. Now, although I was paying over double my average for places I’d been staying, I know it was a relatively cheap room I booked. So having an obstructed view of the car park I was expecting, but the missing wall sockets and hole-riddled towels I thought were a bit much. And more egregious than the $20-a-day wifi fee was that they were mean to Bertie. Poor, innocent Bertie, who never hurt anyone (except whoever was in the blast radius from the above).

Okay, in the spirit of generosity, I would like to say something nice about Caesar’s Palace. Throughout the trip I’ve been learning lots of interesting things (and lots about potatoes) and Caesar’s Palace was no exception. It was here that I learned about the origins of that mythical place, the Cheesecake Factory:

Cheesecake Factory

There was a lot of hellfire and insane dictators, more than I’ve seen in any other corporation’s history.

Cheesecake Factory Fire Except Arby’s.

I decide to write Vegas off, grab some lunch and hit the road. I leave Bertie to explore a little and stare in amazement at the vast hordes of tracksuit-clad visitors hunched over automatic poker machines and go check out the food options. The first choice is a Gordon Ramsey restaurant. Fuck this hall of the damned, let’s get out of here. Bertie?

Bertie's Addiction Poor innocent Bertie.

Fortunately I manage to wrestle him away before he has a chance to gamble away our car and peel out of this pit.

We have one important landmark left before leaving Nevada. Can you guess what it is? Do these, deeply unnerving, statues with airplane wings stitched into their ribcages give you a clue?

Angel Wings

No? How about this star map, that’s here in the ground for some reason:

Star Map

Now that last one give you a clue that this place was made back when we thought Andromeda was still a nebula and not that show with Hercules. Okay, one last hint:

Bears Attack

Surely everyone remembers when bears with the head of some sort of skeletal fox attacked that nice Californian lady? And Colourado saw giant pyramids with eyes floating in the sky (though, for clarity’s sake, I mean before marijuana was legalised over there). That’s right, these are all things you can see at the Hoover Dam:

Hoover Dam

Now, I’d go into more detail about the staggering effort required to great such a vast structure, but Bertie is rather insistent that we are across the state line by sundown. Something about some friends he met at the casino, money and missing limbs. Never one to quibble, I hop back in the car and head south to California.

Hoover Dam Hoover Dam


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