I moved to Nevada in 1999 with my wife and three month old son to start a job at UNLV. Within a few hours of pulling into Las Vegas I drove to the Red Rock National Conservation area and took a trip around the scenic loop. I was one of the only people on the road that afternoon and it was glorious. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard more about such an amazing place. It was a feeling I had many times as I got to know my new State. In the coming years my family explored Nevada every chance we got. We toured all the familiar places but searched for the seriously out of the way, too. By the time my daughter was born in 2004 we knew our way around and were becoming advocates of Nevada as truly one of the “last best places” of the American West full of interesting culture, nature, people, and history.
None of the places we visited over the years better captured the unique natural and cultural richness of Nevada than a trip we took to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. We headed north on 95 one cold Saturday morning in February taking the dirt road that leads off the highway just past North Las Vegas and winds its way, very slowly, into the Sheep Range. Like much of the Mojave Desert the Sheep Mountains look dead and desolate from the highway, but as the road winds up and along the fuzzy boundary between the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the Nevada Test Site the deserts true character is revealed. A side trip from this road took us to the lush hidden forest with its bootlegger’s cabin. Winding our way further we crested a hill and dropped down into a vast valley ringed by snow-capped peaks, the type of refuge used for centuries by American Indians and later traversed by waves of newcomers.
As we drove into this amazing valley on a stunningly beautiful desert winter day we saw a wave of brown in the distance that turned out to be a vast swath of tall dunes. We climbed to the top and lay on the warm sand completely alone in the remarkable silence. The view from this spot is fifty miles in all directions and for a few hours until the sun went down we owned this place. We speculated on the creators of the rough trails and roads that came through here from earlier centuries foot trails to wildlife researchers tracks from the 1930s and atomic testers and radiation monitors roads from the 1950s and ‘60s. This was precisely the kind of place that outside observers might have called a “wasteland,” supposing it to be devoid of life and history. But on that sunny afternoon we learned what many before us had, Nevada sometimes hides its riches but always rewards those willing to take a closer look. We felt lucky to be in such a place and part of such an interesting ongoing history and through these travels we came to think of Nevada as home.