No Speed Limit: Lake Mead, 1969 (Unpublished 1986)

It was difficult to make out the triangular sign by the side of Lakeshore Road on the road to Las Vegas, particularly at the high subsonic speeds my friends from Boulder City often attained, but if you concentrated, you could manage it:

DESERT
NO SPEED LIMIT

“BLAST OFF,” it could just as well have said. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what some drivers on that road did, the Rangers used to tell me, their speed vehicles literally leaving the road and going into short suborbits before crashing. It was a big problem at Lake Mead.

I don’t remember seeing any of the wrecks myself, but I do remember that sign. Somehow, looking back, it seems symbolic of the wild, flat out summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock and Moon Day, the summer I interned as a photographer-at-large for the Park Service at Lake Mead by day, and jammed and hung out with a rock band from Boulder City by night, the summer when humankind didn’t seem to have any speed, distance, or experiential limits, and neither did I.

***

I can still remember the enormous excitement, tinged with paranoia, I felt when I drove across the forbidding southern Nevadan desert for the first time on a very sunny afternoon in June, 1969, aboard a slow bus bound from Las Vegas for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Wow. Things happened fast. Two months before, at Cornell, I had impulsively sent away an application for a summer job with the Park Service to the Student Conservation Association, little thinking that I actually would be selected for one of the highly competitive S.C.A.-N.P.S. positions at the dozen or so participating parks. Then, in May, I had gotten the word: Lake Mead wanted me for its “photojournalistic trainee” position. And here I was, after a transcontinental train trip, header for Boulder City — wherever that was.

Naturally, I was excited — and concerned. Boulder City: what would that be like? My collegiate atlas had indicated a population of approximately 6,000, but that was about all the information I had. Obviously, a small city, but what kind of small city? I wondered as I looked out the bus window. Would it turn out to be a crumbling desert shantytown? A gambling resort? And would someone like me, a student from a “liberal Northeastern university,” be welcome?

I wondered about the job, too. Would I actually be shooting photos? Or would I be filing negatives? I hadn’t even spoken with anyone from N.P.S. All I knew was that I was expected.

The seemingly-barren vista along the highway only increased my sense of apprehension. I had expected some cacti, at least, but all I could see was a lot of huge black, gray, and orange rock silhouetted against a scorching, pale blue sky.

***

My apprehensions — and misapprehensions — about both Boulder City and my impending position with the United States National Park Service were favorably resolved soon enough.

“Boulder City,” the bus driver said as we finally entered the city limits, after about an hour’s drive, cruising past a small, neatly-arranged trailer park, the bustling B.C. Airport, and several quasi-modern motels with signs like “BEST FOOD NEAR A DAM SITE,” before wheezing to a halt in front of the Western Union office-cum-bus-stop. I was the only passenger to get off (very cinematic, I thought). In a moment, the bus was gone, leaving me staring at the Chamber of Commerce greeting sign across the highway — “WELCOME TO BOULDER CITY–OASIS OF SOUTHERN NEVADA” — and wondering where N.P.S. headquarters was.

I ducked into the first coffee shop (New Yorkese for cafe) I found and asked for directions. Park Service headquarters? It was right across the Nevada Highway, the cheery young waitress behind the counter chirped, offering me coffee and a seat, which I gladly accepted. Leaving, I was accosted by another friendly stranger who insisted on helping me with my luggage.

“You’re from the East, aren’t you?” he asked as we reached the door.

“Yes, why? Do I have an Eastern accent?”

“No, not really,” my benefactor replied. “It’s just the way you say Nevada. You say ‘Ne-VAH-dah.’ It’s ‘Ne-va-duh.’

“Nevada,” I repeated, before lumbering inside with my gear.

An oasis? I didn’t know about that. But I did feel welcome!

***

I need not have worried about my duties with the Park Service, either — at least, not in the way I had been worried. The Naturalist Office, to which I was officially attached, wanted me to take photographs, all right, according to the five-page, typewritten instructions I was given that day, along with the usual salutations. A lot of photographs. And they better be good! “Sharp, well-composed, aesthetically pleasing transparencies and prints” were needed, for maintenance and publicity purposes, of dozens of the myriad Ranger, Naturalist, and visitor activities that took place within the dam-blessed, four million square mile recreation area, my orders declared. Boat patrols, air patrols, mountain sheep-tagging, fishing, water-skiing, “high-density camping,” you name it, the U.S.N.P.S. wanted pictures of it, good pictures. Additionally, good pictures were needed of all the species of fish which thrived in Lake Mead, including trout, bass, catfish, crappie, and bluegill, etc. Furthermore, salon-quality black-and-white prints were needed to upgrade the aging visitor display in the Park Service headquarters building.

Wow, I thought, as I absorbed it all. I hadn’t been prepared for this.

Nevertheless, of course, I was also thrilled. Clearly, I had lucked into the ultimate summer job. At my disposal, as my orders also denoted, were a large complement of high-quality cameras and lenses, a fully-equipped professional darkroom at headquarters, unlimited film and transportation, on demand, to any point in the L.M.N.R.A. A National Geographic photographer couldn’t have asked for more.

That night I looked at myself hard in the mirror and resolved to meet the challenge. I liked tests; here was another one. And the next morning I was off on my first shoot, Nikon and Pentax cameras dangling away from my already-tanned neck, to photograph a baby crapple at the Willow Beach Hatchery, followed by swimmers at Boulder Beach. For protection, I wore a pith helmet (colored blue in case I got lost and had to be spotted from the air; a nice touch, I thought). And I had a badge: “GORDON SANDER, PARK ASSISTANT.” Tally-ho!

The Park Service personnel who ferried me around the tri-state park that summer were great. My favorite of the bunch was the official park pilot, a crusty ex-cropduster by the name of Herman Hoogerworth — “Hoogie” to his friends — who tended to wax mystical behind the wheel, while keeping me alert with his aerial antics. “When I’m up here,” he would exclaim, arm sweeping the horizon as we flew over uninhabited regions of the park, “I feel like I own this place.” Then he would do an Immelman or something.

It was Hoogie who introduced my to the Grand Canyon (which grows out of the eastern side of the L.M.N.R.A.) in his inimitable way, calmly driving directly into the yawning, multi-colored abyss, rattling off geological pointers while I kept a firm grip on my Sic-Sac. Hoogie was proud of being the only pilot assigned on a full-time basis to a national park, a testament both to his abilities and to Lake Mead’s size and peculiarly rough, almost lunar, terrain and the need for spotting lost persons — immediately.

There were a few characters amongst the Rangers who shepherded me around on the ground, too, but they tended to be less voluble, at least while on duty. The two dozen or so Rangers who worked out of Boulder City were, at least at that time, the only “smokies” in the country who were authorized to carry heavy firearms in their cruisers, a practical neccessity because of Lake Mead’s proximity to Las Vegas. As the closest thing to a public beach in the regional Las Vegas area, Boulder Beach had become the sight of occasional racial confrontations and gang fights over the past few summers, with the result that every Ranger car was now equipped with a twelve-gauge shotgun, Mace, and other “street cleaners,” as they were euphemistically called in those days of nationwide racial disturbances and antiwar protests. Too, the Rangers had to interdict criminals hightialing it out of Vegas for their brethren in the L.V.P.D. It certainly made riding with the Rangers as they patrolled Boulder Beach for signs of trouble an interesting experience, if a somewhat tense one, with little time for chat. The Rangers were cops–and proud of it–and deported themselves as such.

Withal, by the end of my first week on the job I had covered nearly a thousand miles by plane, car, boat, and foot (Ouch!). and had shot at least that many exposures. I had also logged two long, exhilerating darkroom nights. I loved working long into the morning, like the obsessed photographer in the 1967 Antonioni film, “Blow-Up,” blowing up, and printing, and blowing up, and printing — and occasionally discovering things that I hadn’t seen in the original camera frame: license plates, mountain sheep, bikinis.

Then I would walk through the darkened lobby of the Park Service administration building, shut the door, and hitch a ride home to my trailer in the Park Service Reservation, six miles down the hill from Boulder City, and just up the road from Boulder Beach.

***

I had a little more trouble adjusting to trailer life, and therein lay my only real grievance. As carefully as the Park Service had planned my work days, it had made no provision for either my age — I was eighteen — or for any need I might have for a life outside of my work. Witness its decision to house me, alone, in the remote Park Service Reservation.

The reservation, consisting of several dozen modest houses and trailers, could be a pretty cozy place for a Ranger family, but it could also be a desolate and confining one for a teenager living alone — at least I found it to be so.

Of course, it was neat to have one’s own 40-foot, white and beige trailer, which a choice of three beds.

And I did enjoy making friends with the desert night. Sometimes I would stand outside my trailer and just stare at that — for me — remarkably clear, three-dimensional, pollution-free, shooting star-filled nocturnal vista. And I would muse upon time and space and reality and surreality (and girls). Coming of consciousness, it used to be called, in those mind-expanding days. And this was the place to do it.

On reflective nights like those, of course, I cherished my aloneness, even reveled in it, like Hoogie. The desert was mine!

But too often, it felt like plain loneliness.

To be sure, I wasn’t completely ignored — I was once invited to a reservation barbecue. “Oh, so you want to make arty movies!” one of the Ranger wives teased me upon learning of my interest in cinematography, one of about 28 careers I was seriously considering at the time. And the black and white mutts who belonged to the Ranger who lived next door always had a tail-wagging hello for me when I came back after a day’s shooting. But that was about it. I didn’t even know how to cook for myself, as I demonstrated one evening by waiting too long to light the pilot light on my oven and blowing myself out the door.

Occasionally, in search of safer forms of recreation (and uncharred food) I would bicycle down to Boulder Beach to mingle with the various cross-country campers, hitchhikers, and other voyagers who could be found there. Once I met an attractive German girl in her early twenties who was driving alone across the U.S.; she even invited me to swim out with her to the diving dock, 50 feet offshore; no, she didn’t want to kiss (shucks). Another time I befriended two summering students from Carnegie Tech, the first Easterners I had met thus far, and let them spend the night in my trailer before moving on to California; in return they “laid” a capsule of “natural mescaline flakes” on me, a true countercultural gesture if there ever was one.

Then, one night in July, I wandered farther afield, on a tip, up to the Boulder City Teen Club Dance.

Fortunately, I remembered to bring my harmonica along.

***

The B.C. Teen Club, situated behind a small, darkened storefront on Nevada highway, was definitely the place to be the Saturday night I hitched up to check it out.

Blasting rock; blurred, entangled teeage bodies; guys in T-shirts taking slow-eyed drags from Camels — I had found the scene in Boulder City.

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