The tracks of Highway 95 are laid down along the Mojave and run north and south between Las Vegas and Laughlin. About mid-way the highway comes to the tiny desert town of Searchlight, Nevada. I end up in Searchlight when my GPS goes awry. It’s almost noon Saturday late Spring. Pulling into Terrible’s Casino with its combo gas station, I’m ready for a break and decide to explore this unintended stop. Searchlight serves pretty much as a pit sop for those on their way to party at Las Vergas or those on their way to jet-ski the river at Laughlin. Searchlight’s lone gas station is busy. Inside small sacks of gold nugget bubble gum, toy cap guns and salt and pepper shakers in the design of cactus are all part of the mounds of kitschy stuff overflowing from the crowded shelves. I am tempted to look around but resist. Through the archway Terrible’s Casino has penny slots and still hand counts its payouts, a throwback considering slot machines today dispense bar coded tickets that are scanned by computers spitting winnings like any ATM. The locals don’t seem to mind if a passerby opts to join them at the poker table. Across the highway the Nugget Casino’s diner, the hole-in-the-wall kind and run by a former madame, advertises bottomless coffee for ten cents and a mug of cold beer for a buck. Madame’s dyed blonde hair is swept up in a sloppy French roll and gold rings are loaded on her every finger. She knows no stranger and refreshes beverages with a regal bearing. She’s telling a local guy she wants to retire to Montana. I have a hunch she’s talked of a change of scenery for a long time. The bikers gather here in their tie-dyed bandanas and cowboy shirts with the sleeves ripped out. The ribbons of roads that maypole from its center present endless opportunities for the ultimate thrill ride on a hog. One couple has flown their motorcycles from Chicago to Las Vegas to ride the washboard desert roads. They are exhilarated. Other bikers laugh about the voice on their GPS forever informing them she is rerouting. No wonder. This is the place to reroute. I like the humor and the harmony of the group. I can imagine the birde still in her white gown on the back of her groom’s bike as they celebrate their Las Vegas chapel vows with a ride down the road, the bridal veil fluttering in the wind. Searchlight’s vibe is laid- back and the desert warmth feels good. The morning shadows lift as the sun sweeps across the huge expanse of desert and expose the white dunes and mountain profiles in the distance. Big-horned sheep and fringed-toes lizards wander among the rocks. To travel to Searchlight is to escape the hurried path. It’s easy going here. I linger as the town’s calm engulfe me and lures me to stay for just a little longer. The old gold mining camp which dates back to the Gold Rush of the 1890’s is like one of the Baby Boomer bikers who’s mellowed and is aging with grace. The storied and tainted past of Searchlight is nothing now but fodder. Legend is the town got its name when searchlights were used to guide patrons from the dozen or so clapboard saloons to the brothels. A string of cathouses conducted business in the town where patrons were led to a crib by any number of available ladies. During its hey-day of the Fifties the secluded hideaway known as the El Rey Club was the hot spot for dining and dancing and was Searchlight’s primary bordello. Flamboyant owner Willie Martello held court for his patrons he treated like royalty. The mob-connected Martello put in a fancy pool, hired a trained chef and brought in nightclub orchestras. He built an airport to ease the travel constraints of Searchlight’s outpost location. In the end, the remoteness of Searchlight was an obstacle too difficult to overcome. Fortunes lay in gaming and the early business fathers of Nevada looked to Las Vegas as the promised land. The El Rey burned to the ground one night as the town’s glory days began to wane. Broken, Willie Martello moved to Las Vegas where his brothers lived. He died there a few years later. Along with his brothers, the legendary Las Vegas casino and real estate developer Del Webb served as one of his pallbearers. Webb’s presence at the burial foretold the changing landscape of Nevada and new lifestyles to come. Clark County which includes Searchlight eventually outlawed prostitution and focused its energy on gaming and different adult-slanted industry such as quickie marriages, quickie divorces and live stage extravaganzas with show girls in elaborate topless costumes. The working ladies of Searchlight packed their bags and left town. Perhaps Searchlight native son Senator Harry Reid has helped bring the peace. Reid whose mother took in laundry from the brothels is glad the chaotic times are gone. New days bring an art gallery to town. A flyer with schedule for painting and drawing classes at the community center is taped to its window. I hear the buzz around town about wind farms coming in and gold mines reopening. In the midst are blue sky and few clouds. I head to the car. I stop to take in a deep breath and savlor the beauty of the desert full with the blooming yucca and the fragrance of the sage. Leaving Searchlight and the desert floor the 95 passage gives rise and I begin to wind through the mountains. The mammoth Colorado River lies ahead. The teddybear cactus has vanished. My moment of Zen in Searchlight is over.
in quiet whispers