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Vegas's Nostalgic Destinations

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

The dogged atomic aficionado can search out other, even stranger monuments to the effects of the Cold War in the desert surrounding Vegas. North of the Test Site is a town called Rachel—a tiny cluster of trailers that would likely have disappeared a long time ago if it weren't the closest settlement to Area 51, America's most secret military installation. In the 50's, the U.S. military tested the U2 spy plane here (Francis Gary Powers was piloting one when he was shot down over Soviet airspace on May 1, 1960). Still, nobody outside of Boeing, the Air Force, and the CIA thought much about the base until the 1980's. The antinuclear movement made it a protest site starting in 1986 (it still is, with much smaller numbers, today). And in 1989, when a Las Vegan named Bob Lazar appeared on TV to report that he had joined forces with extraterrestrials to work on a fleet of nine ships they were keeping in a hangar in a hillside, the idea that the government was hiding aliens and UFO's here began to enter the popular imagination. Area 51 began showing up in movies and video games, and TV shows explored the mythology of the base. Today, Rachel has learned to embrace its proximity to a clandestine military operation. The Little A'Le'Inn, the town's all-in-one hotel-restaurant-bar–souvenir stand and bookshop, attracts tourists as well as people who want to trade conspiracy theories and watch for flying saucers. The Little A'Le'Inn remains the only place along the ET Highway (formerly Highway 375) where you can get an Alien Burger and hear talk about how the CIA is in league with the Freemasons. If you want to stay the night, a few single-wide trailers are out back for guests.

Of course, Vegas itself still shows a few traces of the age of innocence. The Atomic Liquor Store bar on Fremont Street has been in business since the first tests were conducted. At Battista's Hole in the Wall, the stars who ate there when bombs still shook the earth appear in framed photos. The Golden Steer still serves the steaks and martinis Dino and the guys dropped in for when they weren't eating free at the casino. The big resorts from the early days are gone—a few of their iconic signs still shine at the outdoor Neon Museum on Fremont Street. As for Misses Atomic Blast and Bomb, both Candyce King and Lee Merlin have disappeared without a trace; but if you visit the Atomic Testing Museum, you'll find the iconic image of Merlin on the wall, in her A-bomb bathing suit. Shortly after the picture was taken, in 1957, she was laid off by the Copa. And by 1962, the tests had gone underground.

One of the most famous early test photographs, taken in 1951, shows the Golden Nugget Casino's sign lit up in the foreground, and the Pioneer Club's neon cowboy mascot, Vegas Vic, pointing his thumb toward the Strip. Off in the distance, toward the Pahrump Mountains, the roiling, radioactive cloud rises, dwarfing everything around it. If this seems crazy now, consider that the publisher of Las Vegas's Morning Sun was proclaiming at the time that after years devoted to the glorifying of "doubtful pleasures," the testing had, at last, "given the city a reason for existence." All these years later, hindsight—and perhaps some foresight, too—has introduced a little sobriety into Sin City.

Mark van de Walle is a contributing editor at Departures and is currently writing a novel.

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