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Blue Diamond residents confront ‘alien invasion’ during pandemic

For decades, Evan Blythin has carved out a Norman Rockwell life here in Blue Diamond, an isolated collection of 350 rural souls he affectionately calls the village.

As its name suggests, this place is an unpolished gem, a shady spread of cottonwood, elm and mesquite trees along state Route 159 near the towering sandstone peaks of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Since Blue Diamond was founded as a mining company town in 1942, its residents have cherished a way of life that has included a dedicated volunteer fire department, July Fourth parade, pumpkin-growing contests and seasonal festivals marked by pig roasts and horseshoe matches in the central village park.

Then came the madness of COVID-19.

With nearby Red Rock Canyon recreation area and other outdoor spaces closed, the little enclave in the Las Vegas Valley’s western reaches has taken up the overflow.

In recent weeks, Blue Diamond has withstood what some call the “alien invasion,” a vastly increased influx of nonresidents who have flocked here, seeking some fresh air and sunshine after another week of shelter-at-home existences.

Both of the town’s parks and its library have been shuttered. While the only restaurant and tiny market remain open, bathrooms are closed to the public.

But still the outsiders have come. And many residents now feel overrun in their rural nirvana.

“This place is a little oasis in the middle of nowhere,” said Blythin, 77, a former UNLV communications professor who has long served on the village’s volunteer advisory council. “You want to save it, but you also want to share it. And, boy, is that tricky.”

When the crowds first emerged, residents posted bulletins on the public board outside the market, with frank demands that visitors either act civilly or stay away. They circulated a petition, made calls and sent emails pleading for officials to step in.

In late April, after numerous locals complained, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones directed county workers to install electronic road signs at both Blue Diamond entrances along Route 159, advising motorists that the area was open to residents only. They later changed the wording to “residents and businesses” to accommodate the already struggling Cottonwood Station restaurant. An unmanned police cruiser was posted along the road as a deterrent.

“When the county’s recreation areas were closed, people were going to go someplace else, and one of those places was Blue Diamond,” Jones said. “There were public health concerns with people defecating in the county park, but there were challenges with just opening the bathrooms. We didn’t want to set a precedent we’d have to follow with all the other parks.”

Balancing act

For as long as anyone can remember, Blue Diamond residents have welcomed the mountain bikers, road cyclists and hikers who have flocked here on weekends for outdoor recreation. The village serves an access point to many backcountry trails favored by off-road cyclists from around the region. With its Cottonwood Station restaurant and Village Market and Mercantile store, Blue Diamond is also a pit stop for cyclists riding the Red Rock loop and for families visiting the county park on the town’s outskirts — with its ballfield and skateboard ramps.

Now they’re joined by legions of other outsiders.

Groups of motorcyclists roar through the village, lounging on the grass outside the market. Others walk the shady lanes in large groups, ignoring social distancing protocol, locals say.

Cars are double-parked, prompting many homeowners to put rubber pylons in front of their residences. Visitors without gloves fondle books on the lending rack outside the market. They touch door handles and leave behind possibly tainted fingerprints.

Worst of all, they have urinated and even defecated out in the open, residents say.

Without facilities, people did their business in the parks, near the market’s trash dumpsters and one even in the spring that once served as a watering hole for settlers along the Old Spanish Trail.

“If that’s how human beings are going to act, we don’t want them in our village,” said Michele Schaffer, a clerk at the village market. “It’s like having a bunch of tourists on vacation with no place to go to the bathroom.”

Signs of the times

One day, Blythin said, he counted 74 cars with bike racks, not to mention the legions of families, walkers and hikers, many of whom pulled off the yellow tape the county used to close the park and it facilities.

His beloved Blue Diamond was under siege.

“This isn’t a circus,” Blythin said. “I live here and I don’t want it to become a circus.”

Meanwhile, two Blue Diamond residents came down with the virus. The way he saw it, everyone was at risk, both locals and outsiders.

“We were trying to protect ourselves and trying to protect them,” Blythin said. “When those signs went up, there was a collective sigh of relief here.”

Jared Fisher, the owner of Las Vegas Cyclery and a Blue Diamond resident who lives near the Old Spanish Trail trailhead, saw things differently.

“The way I see it, rich people move into a place and want to close it off for everyone else,” he said. “Well, the cyclists have been here for a lot longer than they have.”

Many local cyclists agreed.

“Area cyclists for years have supported that community. We’ve patronized that market and eaten at the restaurant,” said Michael McKenna, 62, an avid biker. “Now they’re telling us we can’t even go through there to exercise?”

In late April, cyclist Tony Gebbia and a friend were standing outside Cottonwood Station, straddling their bikes, drinking coffee, when a stranger pulled up in a van.

“He rolled down his window and asked, ‘You guys live here?’” Gebbia recalled.

When told they didn’t, the man said, “Would you mind taking your drinks and going back out in the highway?”

Gebbia was livid but didn’t confront the motorist.

“I should have told him, ‘Call the police and report a trespass,’” he said. “You can’t make me leave your town. I mean, on a Saturday morning, two guys in their 50s on their bicycles and you’re gonna run us off? Really, it’s come to this?”

Well, yes, say some Blue Diamond residents, it has.

‘Prisoners in our own homes’

“For years, a sign on the road into town has said that this is a private residential area, not a recreation area,” said local Dave Cook, who said the village has exploded since he moved his family to Blue Diamond two decades ago in search of a more laid-back lifestyle.

“We’re all staying at home, trying to dodge the virus,” Cook added. “Frankly, we’re trying to avoid people but here they come rolling into our village. They’ve made us prisoners in our own homes.”

Not all villagers welcomed the latest signs.

Jody Lyman, who co-owns the Cottonwood Station restaurant, was already losing business during the coronavirus shutdown.

“When I first saw those road signs, I thought ‘Oh wow! This is going to impact me in a huge way,’ ” she said. “People were turning around on the highway.”

Along with several neighbors, she called County Commissioner Jones, who altered the signs. Still, Lyman feels caught in the middle. “I’m like Switzerland here, totally neutral,” she said. “I’m just trying to stay positive, doing my due diligence.”

Over at the village market, Schaffer is having a harder time.

The 14-year Blue Diamond resident removed a warning posted by locals on the community bulletin board she thought was a little too ornery in tone.

But one day, even she faced off with a visiting motorcyclist.

“He asked how I felt about the signs and I said I was glad they were there,” she said.

He blanched, and then asked: “Do you go to Vegas?”

“I do,” Schaffer shot back. “But I do my shopping and then come home. I don’t lay on the grass eating sandwiches in the middle of a pandemic.”

As she told the story, a couple wandered out of the market without making a purchase.

“Just looking,” they said on their way out.

Schaffer frowned.

“I get that all the time,” she said. “I mean, what’s there to see in this town?”

For longtime residents like Blythin, one heck of a lot.

Rooted in community

In 2010, Blythin published “Vanishing Village: The Struggle for Community in the New West,” a folksy paean to a slower pace of life and the threat of being swallowed by the encroaching megalopolis.

The COVID invasion, he says, has put his concerns into sharper focus.

Founded in 1942 as a company town for the nearby gypsum mine, the village long served as a respite from the helter-skelter of Las Vegas. It quickly became one of Clark County’s quaint enclaves, straddling the border between man-made development and the state’s rugged high-desert landscapes.

Originally known as Cottonwood Springs, the community got its present name from the adjacent Blue Diamond mine, which in 1923 began unearthing gypsum used in such building materials as plasterboard and drywall.

In 1942, after a mill was built at the site, the nearby company town was christened Blue Diamondville and later shortened to Blue Diamond.

Blythin moved here in 1980 with his wife, Barbara — two academicians who found a home among a community of miners and blue-collar laborers. Right away, he liked how residents were quick to volunteer, with a rifle raffled off each year at the fall festival to raise money for community projects.

Youngsters Blythin jokingly called “feral children” ran the streets. On nights and weekends, locals gathered under an old cottonwood tree for what the writer described in his book as “dancing, drinking, feasting and fighting.” Eventually, townsfolk built a makeshift structure known as the “Tree Bar,” an odd-looking hangout once featured in a Japanese newspaper.

Blythin’s book is full of folksy tales of how outsiders came to Blue Diamond to make fools of themselves, like the guy who got whipped at horseshoes by the village’s women’s team and the macho character who ate a whole habanero pepper on a dare — and almost passed out.

For years, the village’s phone book, which is more of a pamphlet, has listed only four digits for each resident because everyone knows the “875” prefix.

Now Blythin, a rail-thin man with long, gray hair and a wispy beard, watches Blue Diamond change right before his eyes.

While he once spied mountain sheep from his back door, with coyotes, roadrunners and wild horses, many of those creatures are now scarce, except for the stubborn bands of wild burros.

Working-class families are being replaced by what Blythin calls “a gaggle of yuppies.” While small homes and cottages here averaged $40,000 in 1980, newcomers are building residences that can cost $3 million.

Blythin is now working on a sequel to his book, and there might even be a COVID-19 chapter.

Seeking to move on

For now, though, a bit of peace has returned to the village.

After two weeks of warding off outsiders, the electronic signs were switched off just before Mother’s Day — the orange pylons removed, the police vehicle moved away.

As the state started to phase out restrictions, Jones, the county commissioner, felt it was time to begin the long slog toward normality. He even took his family to the village that weekend to assess public traffic without the signs.

Some villagers wish the precautions would have remained in place a bit longer, but everyone is anxious to move past this shelter-in-place business.

For Blythin, the recent onslaught of outsiders is just more proof that the old village life is quickly vanishing. As residents struggle to preserve their rural identity, there’s even talk of trying to make Blue Diamond a gated community.

Folks here know that while you can’t stop progress, you can sure as heck slow it down.

John M. Glionna may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com.

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