Because I grew up near Bristol, Tennessee (dry) and Bristol, Virginia (wet), I know that a state line running through the middle of a town can have dramatic consequences. So when my son Kyle moved to Utah, I decided I needed to cross the West Desert to visit Wendover, Utah and (West)Wendover, Nevada. A recent trip to Salt Lake City with my husband Carl afforded that opportunity. After an hour and a half drive, past the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats and Iosepa ( a late 19th c Polynesian Mormon colony), the four of us (including Kyle’s friend Tallie) reached our destination.
On the Utah side of Wendover sits the historic Wendover Airfield, a primary training site for heavy bombardment aircrews during World War II and the launch site of the Enola Gay. That important launch from Wendover in 1945 resulted in the bombing of Hiroshima. Wendover was also the home base of the first supersonic missile. Visitors will find a quite serviceable small museum, but in general the base is in near original condition, meaning dilapidated and rather ghostly.
On the Nevada side, casinos sprout from the same desert setting.
Along with bright neon and astro turf, West Wendover also sports the world’s tallest electrified cowboy, 90 foot-tall “Wendover Will.”
Will used to stand near the first casino, originally housed in a 1930s cobblestone filling station, and presumably he pointed at it. Today, he stands at one end of Wendover Boulevard, pointing instead at rectangular boxes, and presides over West Wendover’s urban redevelopment. West Wendover tried to annex Wendover in 2008, assuming Utah residents would welcome neon and astro turf into their lives, but they did not. A white line crosses Interstate 80, dividing the two towns and the two states.
In addition to the former airbase, World War II museum, and county airfield, Wendover Airfield also provides space for an artist’s residency supported by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), which has a main office in California.
Three of the buildings still standing hold exhibit halls.
A fourth rectangular one-story building is the artist’s residence.
It faces the Enola Gay hangar, the airstrip, and the desert. We visited during perfect weather (mid October). Conditions in the summer or the winter are harsh and the landscape is bleak. This environment is inspiring to a certain kind of artist.
I take photos for reference and later inspiration. They are not much use as travelogue, but here are a few:
Before visiting, I thought I might like to live for several weeks at Wendover. Having visited, I fear living there for any length of time might make me glum. I sense the presence of desert ghosts.
The rest of our trip contributed to that sensation. After our town visit, we drove across the open desert in search of a distant cave just north of Wendover, and our small group reflected on the hardships the Donner-Reed party must have experienced in that harsh environment, where they tarried too long before making the fateful trip across Nevada toward California. Exploring the West Desert, fearing you could get stuck or might blow a tire, you almost feel their presence.
It will be a while before I go back to Wendover. I think these photos and my imagination will have to suffice for present. But I am convinced more than ever that Wendover is the foundation for my next project, and I am already crafting a plausible pretense for going back.