For those who are struggling and have no place to sleep, it’s called Poverty Hill.
For those who are a bit better off and own RVs, it’s called Snowbird Mesa.
Almost 100 people are living on this 90-acre tract of Bureau of Reclamation land for one big reason: rent is free most of the year.
The scenery is pretty spectacular, too. The mesa features postcard views. It’s located just four miles east of the town of Overton in the Moapa Valley about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. When the sun rises and sets, the hills light up a bright orange. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area is nearby, and Valley of Fire State Park is about a 15-minute drive to the south.
It’s here where two very different sets of campers live alongside one another: the snowbirds using it as a stopover before they head south for Arizona, and those just a paycheck away from being homeless, living in decaying trailers that they bought for cheap.
“It is a unique place and exemplifies a cross-section of our society,” says Jason Kirby, a realty specialist who patrols the land and hands out the permits for the Bureau of Reclamation. “The camping season has just begun and it’s free. We provide regular patrols, and there is a law enforcement presence when necessary, but that is rare.”
There was a time when this land was set aside for the construction of the Hoover Dam more than 90 miles away, but it was never used. That was back in the 1920s.
Although it has always been the intent of the Bureau of Reclamation to transfer the land to another federal agency, possibly the BLM or the National Park Service, such an exchange has yet to occur, Kirby said.
But there are conditions for living on this free land, notes Kirby.
All vehicles must be completely contained, which means don’t dump your sewage here and pick up the trash when you leave. Moreover, every vehicle must be registered and off-road vehicles are forbidden. This land is yours for the taking, so go easy on it.
A PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE
Like some scene out of “Close Encounters of a Third Kind,” the 1977 Steven Spielberg science-fiction classic, nearly all of the campers have driven hundreds of miles to get here, arriving as early as October, when the federal government opened the land for camping.
They have come from as far north as Canada, Washington state, Oregon, Northern California, Idaho and Montana. Some of them have their sights set on other federal government land that offers similar free passage. In RV circles, it’s called “Boon Docking,” setting up camp in the middle of nowhere and running on nothing but generators and even then making sure to do it in moderation.
For those who have been on the road for years, their real homes long since sold or foreclosed upon, they’re “full-timing.”
While some Snowbirds might fly into the Las Vegas Valley and rough it inside townhomes or in their pricey Mount Charleston cabins, this land has served for decades as a receptacle for the downtrodden, the disabled, the disenfranchised. In short, the sort of hard-working folks who are waiting for their government checks while living on government land.
It’s a snapshot of frugal middle-class America during tough times, with some forced to choose between buying medication for health problems or paying the rent.
But it’s also a way of life embraced by the mobile who are eternally restless.
“You can take the truck away from the trucker, but you can’t take away the motion,” says Keith Williams, 61, a disabled long-hauler who recently set up camp and plans to stay through June, making a run for his Nevada post office box to collect his monthly check of $815.
He said it’s his latest pit stop in a series of outdoor homes ever since his wife, Janice, died 2½ years ago from a brain aneurysm at the age of 56.
For Williams, the barren high desert is nothing compared to the plush Oregon coast, where he just came from.
“This is child’s play,” he says as he leans up against his white 1990 Cadillac, his small camper in the background, the sun just coming up.
“People who say you can’t survive out in the desert don’t know what they’re talking about. For me, rattlesnakes are a delicacy. And if you ever go without water, there’s always the barrel cactus: Just burn the spines off, cut the top, reach in and grab the pulp and squeeze it.
“There’s your water.”
Of course, Williams, who was born in Missouri’s Ozarks and raised in Michigan, is being a bit melodramatic: The town of Overton, with a population of 4,000, is only 4 miles to the west, and civilization can be found there, what with its McDonald’s, Linns Grocery store, Ace Hardware, Mavericks and several bars along the town’s main drag.
But with his weathered ball cap and toothless smile, Williams is still the hardscrabble sort who believes in living off the land when it’s convenient, especially given the tough times. Or living off the sun, for that matter. The battery to his Cadillac, for example, is powered by a small solar panel — not uncommon among mesa residents.
And how does he plan to stay warm when the freezing temperatures kick in?
“With a good sleeping bag,” he answers as the early morning wind picks up.
GRAPES OF WRATH
High winds aren’t uncommon on the mesa. And when they pick up, the flying dust from the surrounding foothills could pass for a chapter or two out of “The Grapes of Wrath,” the John Steinbeck novel that chronicled the exodus of Oklahomans, their land rendered infertile by the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression.
At 90 years old, John Martin, with his long gray beard and gold miner countenance, could pass for such a homesteader. Only he’s not an “Okie.” He’s from Kemmerer, Wyo., a city whose motto is “Gateway to the West” or the “Fossil Fish Capital of the World” — depending on whom you talk to.
In the 1950s and 1960s Martin worked as a “roughneck” in the oil fields of Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. When he wasn’t manning the rigs, he had the dangerous job of planting charges inside Montana’s copper mines — “then crawling out of them real quick” before the dynamite went off.
His jobs came piecemeal. He called it “job spotting,” performing odd jobs that included “digging ditches” and “chasing cattle.”
These days, he is collecting $700 a month in Social Security while he waits to die on this government land in his tiny 1966 trailer. He bought it for $600 nearly six years ago from a physician in St. George, Utah. It’s far smaller than any walk-in closet. With no relatives to speak of, Martin, who claims he’s the godson of one of Wyoming’s former governors, recently wrote a goodbye letter.
The letter, taped to a wall in his trailer next to a photo of Buddha, stipulates what he wants done with his body should it be discovered some fine cold morning.
A few feet from the letter is a bunch of canned foods, his sustenance for the approaching winter.
“I don’t have any relatives, but I’ve got God,” he says. “A lot of these churches try to get me into their cliques, but I say, ‘I don’t think so. God intended me to be a free spirit.’”
While he waits for his maker, he’s been reading up on all sorts of philosophy, including a thick book whose purple cover says, “Neo Think.” He considers himself very spiritual above all else, and he taps that spirituality before he goes to bed every night.
“When I go to bed, I say my prayers, then I go into this deep meditative state,” he says. “Then, I can see my body laying there as I float above it. I’m at peace because I know I’m ready, and this could be the last night — that I could go at any moment.”
How do you feel when you wake up the next morning?
“I feel like I feel now,” he says.
And how do you feel now?
“Better than nothing,” he says.
Martin said he was forced to sell his home in Kemmerer a few decades ago after Warren Beatty, Donald Trump and other Hollywood types started buying up the land around the city, which is the county seat for Lincoln County.
He doesn’t like Hollywood too much.
He’s also full of one-liners. When asked if he had a phone, he said, “No, but I’ve got a big mouth.”
When asked if he was really born in Ulster, Ireland, his parents immigrants from the Potato Famine, he said in an unmistakable brogue, “Is Paddy’s pig Irish?”
When asked about his short-term goals, other than dying, he said, “I’m trying to find a girl who will be my soul mate.”
DON’T WAIT UP
Inez Hammond is his neighbor, although they haven’t met. She’s also 90. She came from Kimberly, Idaho, where she left a worried daughter, who’s now in her 70s. Telling her daughter not to wait up for her, she drove her trailer out here after hitching it to her pickup.
She’s been taking the same journey for years, although her memory seems to be giving way these days. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t miss her dog, who died a few months ago.
This former Montana ranch house cook, this former bookkeeper who’s been married twice and has long since been widowed, spends her older days on the road and on Poverty Hill.
Unlike the Irishman, she’s said she doesn’t believe in God all that much.
“I never was religious, and never would be,” she says, her face weathered after living just under a century in the greater West. “It don’t make sense.”
What does make sense, however, are crossword puzzles. She spends hours doing them.
“Luckily,” she says, “the answers are always in the back of the book.”
In the mornings she counts the RVs that come and go. A few mornings ago, there were 40 of them that left, she said. When the government shut down in mid-October, there were about 50 arriving nearly every day.
“I like it here,” she says. “I think I will stay.”
For Betty and Butch Reider, Snowbird Mesa is just a stopover, but their life on the road is permanent, ever since they sold their house two years ago in Clearwater, Fla. A postal worker for more than three decades, Reider, 70, met Betty, 56, 10 years ago when she was working at the Ponderosa restaurant. The two have been planning this trip for quite some time.
“We don’t miss the house at all,” he says. “And it was big. It was too big. So we sold it, held a huge yard sale, put a big sign out front and sold everything over one weekend, fetching $3,500 for everything, from lawn equipment to a washer and dryer to the knickknacks that take up space.
“It just doesn’t pay to own a home anymore,” he says. “And you can’t beat the freedom. No schedules, no nothing, just the open road. Just go when you wanna go.”
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.