Simulacra, by definition, is the ‘imitation of someone or something.’ Jean Baudrillard goes even further, ‘the substituting of signs of the real for the real: a hyperreal.’
Las Vegas is the essence of this.
A living definition.
Walking out to get a taxi, Elvis brushes past us as he struts over to a rented limo. His spray on tan so thick he looks rusted.
The Luxor Hotel. A modern marvel erected in glass as black as pitch. A Nevadan pyramid that, to school children unbeknownst, could harbor the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.
Ironically, the Luxor is where a permanent Titanic exhibit rests.
The hotel, a complete, historic anomaly. An utter anachronism.
Its Nile created by the vomit and piss trickling behind its casino. Through the gutter it flows, down the drain to fill the empty underground caverns once inundated by groundwater. That groundwater (what’s left of it), the life’s blood to the Bellagio’s fountains where, every half hour, the recycled liquid dances to forgotten tunes of the good ol’ days.
A sentiment to those retirees, dumping millions into penny slots.
At Mandalay Bay, the Moorea Beach Club allows topless sunbathing. With tits out, you can swim in waters sucked out of the distant Colorado River.
Mandalay Bay: a tropical paradise. Its name an homage to a locale on the Irrawaddy river.
A totalitarian city, which for decades, has been crushed under Burma’s police state.
We choose the Mirage. With its over active volcano, rumbling hourly in honor of Vegas’s gambling cartels, bursting flames and molten lava into the dry desert sky.
The Mirage. A hyperreality. A symbol for the whole of the Vegas strip.
In 1931, gambling became legal. And here in the desert, waves of people migrated West to push the boundaries of chance. By 1942, the Manhattan Project was underway. By 1945, Trinity was detonated, and soon after the Nevada Test Site was established just sixty-four miles north of the city proper. And as the cold war became warmer, droves of government employees filled the strip while amplified atomic tests (totalling 928 in the state of Nevada) brought in tourists.
To each onlooker, a pair of military issued goggles was handed out.
Each detonation, an atomic testing soiree.
Dancing drunk, you could witness pre-dawn Vegas lit by a blast brighter than the sun.
From Vegas, we drive one hundred miles North, traversing three highways that cut deep into nowhere Nevada.
I-15 to 93.
93 to I-375: The Extraterrestrial Highway, where, for years, conspiracy theorists have come for potential alien contact.
On the ETH, we pass less than a half-dozen cars. Millions of stunted Joshua Trees litter the moonscape. Each slumps, ghostly, marking a gravel plot blessed by Mother Earth.
It’s a miracle that anything survives.
We continue on, forty miles Northwest to the trailer town of Rachel, Nevada. Here, there is one tourist spot, the little Ale’E’Inn.
For years, the proprietors have amassed paraphernalia celebrating what lies over the adjacent mountain range: Nellis Air force base.
Nellis, a military complex cut into zones.
Each zone an ‘Area.’
The most famous: Area 51.
“Must have been interesting to grow up here?” I asked the cashier.
My hands filled with knick knacks. An ‘all species welcome’ magnet. A fake license with an alien mug-shot. A bumper sticker: ‘I visited Area 51 and all I got was this anal probe.’
“I guess man,” he finally answers.
And I begin to realize that the paranoia surrounding this place, a paranoia feeding a feeble economy, must get old.
There is life. Real life.
And then there is this place.
An imitation of reality where simulacra feeds an existential faith.
And faith in what’s beyond, feeds income.
Behind me, the screen door slams open.
Sitting down at the diner stool, a biker slides off his dusted leather jacket and asks “Can I get an alien burger?”
Out in front of the Inn is a tow truck hoisting a flying saucer. Eight feet round, its imperfect, beaded welds identify it as human. Of Earth. Terrestrial.
To its immediate right is a mock tower. One you see often in top-secret exposes. Metal, like a small oil derrick. Its aluminum wind sock rotates uncontrollably to designate speed, direction, and barometric pressure.
At the top, a security camera points directly at you.
Under surveillance, your knowledge is their knowledge.
In the corner of the Lil’Al’Inn’s bar, locals have made a shrine to their microcosmic phenomena.
A Polaroid of a botched alien autopsy, its dummy guts spilled on a dissecting table.
Flying saucers photo-shopped on a dusk embraced, desert horizon.
And dozens of long exposures spread like patchwork across the wall.
In each photo, starlight is stretched laterally. We’re to mistake it for spacecraft travelling at the speed of sound.
What really caught my eye were the handful of snapshots capturing tangible, supersonic, military aircraft.
One of a B-1: The atomic bomber set in secret motion in 1974.
The picture was old, pixellated and grainy, like your parents at the disco. It swooped low over the desert, no more than a hundred feet above ground.
The photographer caught the jet late, in passing, almost too far gone.
Its carapace, shaped like a peregrine slicing sound.
Its bay doors open, ripe to deliver a nuclear explosion.
I wondered what the photographer had thought upon seeing it?
This was, no less, his communing with the Gods.
We had gotten directions to the infamous black box.
On arrival, and to our disappointment, it was a white box.
A white box representing a black box.
A white box representing a black box, representing the tangible evidence of Area 51.
Baudrillard would have been proud.
We got out of the rental car.
For miles, the desert stretched. Tumbled weeds froze in stopped motion, waiting for the faintest gust of wind to resurrect them.
But there was absolutely no breeze.
Instead, complete and utter silence.
In front of the mailbox, a narrow, gravel road lead into Nellis, AFB.
It cut southwest, then doubled back, piercing the craggy mountain side and disappearing into the void.
Behind us, from the direction of Rachel, a weathered tanker truck sauntered down I-375. As it approached, it down-shifted and the engine snorted like a raging bull.
Turning onto the dirt road, the truck sauntered past us toward the mountain range.
With the window down, the driver, wearing a wide-brimmed Stetson cowboy hat, nodded at us in acknowledgement.
Was he secret service? A cloaked member of the CIA?
Or was this just a simple reality: a stoic trucker, making due in an unforgiving desert, delivering jet fuel.
**Thanks to Keith Treanor at www.wehavemotive.com for being my co-pilot on this trip.