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Wendovers

It isn’t beyond the realms of probability that businesses, which surround Bonneville Salt Flats, are economically reliant upon the
thousands of visitors who appear in August to witness the spectacle that is Speed Week. In 2014 I too was one of the individuals who’d booked in earnest to snap up a hotel room. In fact my family vacation was underpinned by the event. Whilst en-route to Bonneville I
learnt that the sacred home of speed was under a foot of water and therefore cancelled by the event's organising body (The Southern California Timing Association). I was, to say the least, miffed – at this stage it was pointless altering my plans. As my destination drew closer the disappointment increased, as a procession of hot rods and support trucks headed towards me on Interstate 80. However, my setback was nothing compared to the proprietor at the local gas station. Who was pondering what to do with a job lot of, now worthless, promotional t-shirts.

 

Imagine the economic repercussions and dredging of bad memories when the event was cancelled again in 2015; after heavy rain left the normally gleaming sheet of salt a sodden mess. Where seven miles is the norm, barley two could be found. Rumours have been rife for decades that nearby mining is draining an aquifer that replenishes the salt flats. Leaving the salt far from the optimum smooth, hard surface it’s become renowned for; a prerequisite for high speeds. 24oz ribeye steaks and gambling stakes eased the blues for those who hadn’t deserted Wendover. However, I made the most of the situation and admired, what was the silver lining of the cloud, the beautiful vista of the salt flats immersed in water; creating near perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains.

 

With all my ‘unnecessary’ fact-finding of Speed Week, I’d neglected to fully research Wendover. The nearest city to the salts flats on the western border of Tooele County, Utah – where pace and progress is somewhat slower. So begins an overview of what is an epitome of a city within a dysfunctional state. Without proper leadership or foresight offspring (in this situation Wendover) have, in part, been left to their own devises. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be humorous. Initially Wendover was no more than a stop on the Western Pacific Railroad, established in 1908. It now exists contiguous with its richer sibling; the city of West Wendover, Nevada. Home to hotels, casinos, thriving nightlife, all-you-can-eat buffets and favourable tax rates – trappings afforded to a gambling state. 

 

Early in the new millennia common sense was on a high; due to West Wendover recently becoming the only state in Nevada to adopt MST (Mountain Standard Time). Thus being inline with its brother from another mother in Utah. Next on the agenda was a harmonious resolution for Wendover to leave the clutches of Utah and unite with Nevada. However, this was blocked by the U.S. Senate in 2002, due to Nevada’s unwillingness to accept Wendover’s debt of $27 million. Aside from the geographical state line Wendover Boulevard also traverses a visible economic divide. The population (across both cities) fluctuates at around the 6,000 mark, with West Wendover taking over 60% of the diverse demographic. Across the rail-lines, to the south of the city, you enter the eerie location that is the remains of Wendover Army Air Field. Once the home to the crew of  The Enola Gay before heading to Guam, then Tinian before eventually dropping an atomic payload on Hiroshima. Plans are afoot to restore the historic Airfield; until then it remains the arrival destination for eager passengers. Who once disembarked are whisked away to dispose of their money in the perpetual daylight of the casinos. From the safety of my hired SUV I skirted around the semi-abandoned military hangers and outbuildings. Amongst the detritus lay abandoned sun bleach vehicles, complete with stark reminders that trespassers will be prosecuted or worse! Faded signs are now all that remain of failed enterprises. Whilst casino billboards dot the landscape enticing visitors over the border into Nevada.

 

During World War II Wendover’s population swelled to 20,000. In the post war years West Wendover established itself as a tourist destination. However, as well as attracting tourists it also lured residents permanently over the border from Utah. It was a boom time with individuals keen to take advantage of casino employment and Nevada’s low taxes. Even today a majority of Wendover residents still work in the casinos. Those that do cross the border for employment are primarily hispanics, who are only too willing to fill the low-level jobs on offer. Yet with housing now proportionally more expensive in West Wendover, they’re forced to remain in Utah – commonly living in faded and dilapidated trailer homes nestled at the side of crumbling roads.

 

So for the foreseeable future they will exist side-by-side, with the Nevada-Utah border running through the middle of a casino resort parking lot. Whilst there are pockets of hope, in otherwise dismal surroundings, the vicious economic divide will grow ever wider
for the majority.

© 2018 CHRIS HADDON

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