Pahrump, 60 miles west of Las Vegas
It’s summer. I check the car dashboard clock from the driver’s seat. A black compression forearm sleeve, usually reserved for sports-related activities, is shielding my large tattoo from the sun. Directly above the car, a drone sits at exactly 400 feet in the air, buzzing quietly. I’m in the middle of a neighborhood still under construction, the digital image of a large rectangle of dirt and yellow shrubbery visible on my phone from the drone’s camera.
This is my first time in Pahrump for this job, capturing photos of developing property for a real-estate company in Southern Nevada. When I was being trained, most of the focus had centered on shooting areas near the outskirts of town: North Las Vegas near Nellis Air Force Base, Blue Diamond, parts of Henderson close to Lake Las Vegas. Now I’m being sent out to increasingly distant areas. To be sure, anyone familiar with the suburban sprawl of the valley knows that both residential and business properties continue to spread with staggering frequency. As I learned on this job, there’s much more going on elsewhere.
As you might expect, I got a brief glimpse of the inner workings of the local real-estate industry, but I still couldn’t tell you what a lot of the planning and geographic strategy meant. When I showed up at the office in the mornings, amidst a flurry of employees preparing coffee and refrigerating calorically precise lunches, I would hear unconscionably large figures of money being tossed around. I would hear a constant rotation of jargon like “price point,” “market value,” “APN,” “sales volume.” I started to see the place I had grown up in the form of geometric shapes, brightly colored polygons drawn on the open-source maps our office would use to coordinate flight dates and areas. There was an unfamiliar calculation to the layout of the valley that I hadn’t known existed. There is a vast network of people — brokers, contractors, land surveyors, and investors — who have carved up massive swaths of the desert in accordance with both financial and governmental interests.
As I’m about to take a picture of this particular parcel of land in Pahrump, I get a text from my supervisor telling me that he’s added two new properties to the map. It’s nearly noon and I’m hungry. More properties mean more time, which means more money, an easy adjustment to make, in theory. However, and this is no offense to the citizens of this little town in Nye County, there’s not a lot in the way of culinary variety here. It’s my own fault, really; I didn’t bring anything more substantial than granola bars and a bottle of water. Just as well, though — more than a few people in the surrounding houses are looking at me with what I can only hope is curiosity and not suspicion. I’m not keen on spending too much more time here.
Rule #1: Don’t park in front of a residential area if you can help it. In this case, I couldn’t.
I finish capturing the parcel at hand and head toward the new areas my supervisor has added. Thankfully, they’re in a deserted part of Pahrump, away from anyone who would think I was spying on them. Over the summer, I’ll return to this place at least three more times.
Mesquite, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas
Light red and orange hills give way to improbable patches of bright green grass as I exit into the small city of Mesquite. It would be poetic to describe this place as a kind of oasis, but it’s much stranger than that. Many residential areas look as if entire buildings have been plucked from the ground, with exposed piping jutting up from the dirt, roundabouts leading to nonexistent entrances, and street signs that give way to walls of sand. On the outskirts, there is no gradual progression from civilization to nature; open desert sits just beyond the backyard wall.
My routine when flying drones is to listen to NPR in the car. But on this day, just as I’m leaving the main area of the city, the radio station begins to fuzz out. Where before there was news coverage — Republican congressman Steve Scalise and others have just been shot at a baseball practice in Virginia — now a different person’s voice fades in. I’m hearing words like “heavenly father” and “beautiful salvation.” As I drive further from the city, toward new residential land, the voice becomes clearer. It appears to be a live broadcast from the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix. A man who I can only assume is some sort of preacher is talking about the new Christian Bible, the alterations that have been made to accommodate social changes perceived in the modern world, and what it means to be a Christian in spite of those changes.
I change the station. I want to find the news again, but I only end up on a different channel. This time, it’s a conservative host speaking. The topic for today concerns doubt: about supposed Russian hacking during the presidential election, about the supposedly nonviolent far left and its hypocrisy, about conspiracy theories surrounding the “true” control of the American government.
I change the channel again.
A female host is giving home-owning financial advice to a caller who doesn’t know how to ask the bank for a loan. Luckily, the host has written a book that lays out every conceivable solution to every financial problem a vulnerable citizen could have, and it’s available for a “suggested donation, $50.”
I park at my first flight location, in the middle of a prospective neighborhood entrance. It’s nothing but sand. As the drone takes off, NPR fuzzes back on. There’s breaking news about another shooting, this time at a UPS distribution center in San Francisco. The shooter hasn’t been found. Police are sweeping the area. Meanwhile, the afternoon wind is picking up. It’s getting harder to angle the drone long enough to get a decent shot of what I’m sure will be a very nice and expensive house someday.
Moving on to the next location.
The BBC World Service summarizes an incident — a 34-story apartment complex caught fire in the middle of the night with several presumed fatalities. The eyewitnesses being interviewed all have accents, though they’re not necessarily British. Many tenants were asleep when the fire started. Muslim residents already awake in observation of Ramadan were among the first to respond. The program moves back to the aforementioned Republican shooting, with audio of shaken eyewitnesses describing the scene and the fear they felt.
As I move east, the channel changes to a station playing Yes’s “Roundabout.” I have three more shots to capture after this. Out here, there’s no symbolic cohesion to the way events present themselves; incongruent things simply are. I’ll come back to Mesquite at least two more times. In both instances, I keep the radio off.
Kyle Canyon, 23 miles north of Las Vegas
I’ve really screwed up this time.
The company car, front and passenger doors ajar, is parked on North Alpine Ridge Way, just off the Kyle Canyon exit. I’ve been flying all day in 110-plus degree heat. This was supposed to be my final location.
At some point, the drone dropped out of the sky.
Where I went wrong was in the assumption that I could fly a parcel more than a mile in length, capture shots of all four corners, plus two wide angle side shots, all on a 15-minute battery. Needless to say, as the controller in my hands started beeping and the battery icon flashed red, I knew I was in trouble.
Now I’m running through rocky desert, the mountains jumping up and down as I try to scan the ground quickly. I’m near the end of my time at this job; this is really the last thing I need to have happen to me. As you can tell, I’m deflecting responsibility.
I pause to check on the car. It sits about a quarter mile away, barely visible through the afternoon haze. The road I’ve parked on leads nowhere, cracked pavement terminating at a patch of scorched bushes strewn with beer bottles, broken furniture, and various smashed electronics. If I don’t find this drone soon, I’ll have to return to the office with a less than acceptable excuse for why a $1,200 piece of equipment is missing.
Over these few months, I’ve noticed how intuitive my awareness has become. I rarely use my phone for navigation. I know how much gas I can get away with while using the company car when the fuel light is on. I can feel when the wind gusts above 16 mph without checking the weather. I can even eyeball how high the drone is flying if I have enough landmarks for reference. I’ve visited places I would have never thought to see (Celine Dion’s neighborhood has some very, very good security, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one) while also getting to know the places I was already familiar with in a more intimate way. Or perhaps, in a more objective way.
A good friend pointed something out to me about this job that I feel is extremely poignant. The bird’s eye view, contrasted with a human’s flat perspective of the world, has historically been relegated to specialized experiences such as flying in an airplane or aerial shots in film and television. But the “democratization” of drone technology has quite literally expanded our horizons. We can now view the world in greater detail. We can appreciate the geographical context of our cities and acknowledge the holistic, connected nature of where we live, all from above. With such insight, our individual bubbles weaken the higher we climb, until ultimately that thin layer of ignorance bursts in full view of all the places and people that surround us. That’s what I’ve seen in the short time afforded to me this summer, a gateway into a new kind of seeing.
But it really all comes back to me, the radio, the highway, and this drone that I’ve unofficially named Archie. In about a month, I’ll be packing my bags for New York and leaving the desert skies behind. Before I can do that, I have to find out where Archie crashed. Don’t worry, he doesn’t get hurt too badly in the end, though he will need to be repaired. I’m actually very close to finding him.
Overhead, a stray cloud covers the sun and I’m able to stop squinting for a moment. In the distance, I see something white and rectangular lying on its side behind a barbed wire fence. On one of the fence’s sides someone has thrown a large Sanyo TV onto the wire, pushing it down low enough to step over. This is going to be trickier than it sounds. If you’ll excuse me.