On the way into Wendover from the west, the freeway tops a rise and then sweeps down toward the Utah border and the Bonneville Salt Flats below. If you pull off the road at the crest you can study a view unlike anything else in the world. The Salt Flats extend in a broad white plain, the desert’s skin stretched tight, as far as the eye can see — and it curves. The horizon line is a clear arc from side to side, and the two stripes of freeway pavement curve away across the alkali toward the vanishing point. Nowhere else on land can you actually see the curvature of the earth.
Columbus was right!
Almost as amazing as its shape is the earth’s texture and color here, spread out in horrid immensity: surely the cruelest desert your eyes will ever see. And where the bleached and crusty sea of alkali meets a shoreline of dead brown hills, is Wendover.
This remarkable settlement was established in the 1920s when Bill Smith built a gas station beside the road here on the Nevada side of the border with Utah. The light bulb he erected on a tall pole was only a tiny speck of light in the black desert night, but for years it served westbound motorists as a
welcome beacon as they crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Wendover boomed during World War II when the Army Air Corps built a bomber training base on the Utah side of the line. The B-29 crews who dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima trained for their missions here. Some of the base has since been converted to civilian use, but most of it has simply been left to warp and tatter in the baking heat and the scouring winds. A small museum harks back to the time this raggedy relic teemed with fliers and their war planes.
Now a neon cowboy greets the travelers passing by on Interstate 80 and Wendover is booming again. Wendover has five large casinos now, with more on the drawing boards. Bill Smith’s old place, the Stateline, is now the Stateline Nugget, the Silver Smith is the Montego Bay, and both of them are thriving.
So are the Peppermill, Rainbow and Red Garter casino-hotels up the street, serving a clientele of weekend hedonists from Utah, highway travelers and fly-in junketeers from all over the country.
And it’s not just hotels and casinos. The 1,021-seat Peppermill Concert Hall opened in 2006 with Tanya Tucker as the headliner. Since then many of the big name stars who have appeared here — Merle Haggard, Wayne Newton, the Smothers Bothers, even the Chippendales — have scrawled their big names on the wall of the hallway leading backstage.
Wendover resembles an old-time mining town in the way it has sprung so vigorously to life in the desert wilderness, progressing from next-to-nothing to rambunctious little city in just a few fast years. Bill Smith’s little light bulb would be lost in the glare of Wendover’s splashy brilliance now.