Highway 61—Las Vegas Style

Rovin’ gambler, he was very bored,
Tryin’ to create a next world war.
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor.
“I never did engage in this kind of thing before.
But yeah, I think it can be very easily done.

We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun,
Have it on Highway 61.”

This is the last verse and chorus of Bob Dylan’s song Highway 61, especially fitting for what I’ve encountered so far in Las Vegas.

Each verse paints a picture of a different kind of hardship—murder, poverty, human folly, incest and abortion, war—and each scene happens, you guessed it, out on Highway 61. It’s like a supernatural fold of the land where all bad things happen, that shimmers when you try to look at it head-on.

Abe said, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”

We came from an idyllic boondocking site just about hour away on Sand Mine Road. I very much miss the mesas and washes and solitude there. We tried to find a similar site on BLM land here nearer to Vegas, but everywhere we turned, it was Highway 61.

I know people suffer from homelessness all over the world, and in many cities more so than in Las Vegas. But here, it’s abject, if I’m using that term correctly. The folks camping out on Government Wash off of the low, low Lake Mead are there because it’s where they can live in peace, without getting booted out of parking lots or off the street.

We drove down three long dirt roads towards the lake looking for a place to pull off, and all we saw was folks tucked away in their trailers (or trucks or cars or buses or makeshift whatever), glaring at us so we wouldn’t infringe on the only bit of solace they’d staked out for themselves. It felt like we were driving down the aisle of a hospice ward that had been abandoned by medical workers. Everyone seemed to be just waiting for time to pass.

But the second mother was with the seventh son, and they were both out on Highway 61.

Instead, we drove to this Lake Mead Recreation Area campground (we’d actually already pulled through here to dump tanks earlier that day, so this was a last resort). It’s $10-20/day with no water, sewer, or electricity, but there are bathrooms and running water from outside faucets. And you can have your own campsite to yourself: legal privacy.

People are appreciating that. A guy living in his truck has to do his private business standing right inside his drivers’ side door, and he basically sits in the truck all day otherwise. The older couple living in their tent have been working on their truck the whole time we’ve been here and actually drove it away one day, only to have it towed back. Each night they scavenge the trees around us for wood for their campfire to make their dinner.

And this campground is very quiet. I think most people in here are thankful they have a place to be where they’re not being harassed, not out in the public trying to do private things. Heck, that’s how I feel, too.

Georgia Sam, he had a bloody nose. Welfare Department, they wouldn’t give him no clothes.

Then there’s the Las Vegas strip. We ended up driving beside it along the Catholic Mission section, where there were maybe three blocks of homeless people on the long sidewalk, waiting for a meal, making connections, arguing with connections, trying to hang on. We had take-out lunch in a city park where a guy was trying to privately wash himself in the public fountain. Others were privately sleeping on the public grass, sitting slumped at picnic tables, staring out. Us trying not to run into them was like being a ball in a pinball machine.

I’ve seen homelessness in all the cities I’ve lived in or near (D.C., Richmond, Atlanta, Portland), and I’ve known some rare folks who choose it. These people here seem to be without hope, and driving by them, walking by them, camping by them is like walking through the memory unit of the assisted living center my mom used to live in where people stare into space without knowing quite what else to do.

We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun, have it on Highway 61.

There’s the rub. This isn’t a shimmering mirage you can’t see straight-on. Some people come here as tourists, intentionally, to live in a way that they wouldn’t live anywhere else. The motto has been changed from “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,” to “What happens here happens only here.” That’s a subtle difference, and I’d say a mere marketing ploy. People come here to step into the fold of the land, to embrace what happens on Highway 61.

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on.”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

Now I know where this is.

3 thoughts to “Highway 61—Las Vegas Style”

  1. Homelessness is extremely confronting, to me anyways. I think you summed up how it makes me feel most excellently. It’s so dehumanising.

    1. Thanks for chiming in – I have been feeling pretty self-conscious about this post. I don’t want to be all, “I’m on vacation here and you homeless people are ruining it for me!” Glad that didn’t come through (at least to you). Thanks.