Desert Companion

Twenty-Four Hours in Primm, Nevada

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Photo: Shutterstock

In a few hours, it will rain so hard that the 15 will close. Everyone will assume I’m trapped in Primm because of the flooded roadway. 

But I am here on purpose. I am here because I have passed by it many times and I want to know what it feels like to stop and stay. Primm is on the border of California and Nevada, but it doesn’t seem to exist in either. It is an in-between place: too close to be a stopping point on the drive to Los Angeles, too far to be its own destination. It appears from the highway, and then it vanishes. I want to be in Primm because I want to vanish, too. 

I booked a room at Primm Valley Resort  and Casino a week in advance. I’ve been getting the We look forward to greeting you emails and imagining myself 40 minutes outside of Las Vegas, three and a half hours from Los Angeles. Check-in isn’t until 3, but I arrive early. I wander an empty parking lot. Thunderheads darken overhead. Primm contains three gas stations, three casino resorts (one is open, one is half-open, and one is closed), a golf course, a lottery store, a few fast-food restaurants, and a dying outlet mall. The only housing is for employees. Primm is where the little Google Maps voice says Welcome to California. Primm is a traffic chokehold. Primm is a place you pass through and forget — that is, if you even noticed it in the first place.

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I’ve lived most of my life in tourist destinations, staying put while other people move on, and more and more I find myself chasing the pleasure of anonymity. I worked at resorts in the national parks, and now I live in Las Vegas. I know what it’s like to be a fixed object in a place full of visitors, to be asked, “Where do you commute from?" when you are already home. To sell someone food for the road, to watch them drive away. Because of this, I can easily imagine a life for myself here: everything I own in a room by the highway, every day meeting people I’ll never see again. 

Whiskey Pete’s is a castle in the brown desert foothills. The nearby highway, a moat. Red neon sign. The casino is open, but the hotel is closed. 

Primm is named after casino developer Ernest Primm (it was renamed this in 1996 after being called State Line for years), but spiritually, it belongs to Pete MacIntyre, a gas station owner who made whiskey in a cave during prohibition. Whiskey Pete’s, which opened in 1977 as Primm’s first casino, is named after him. He died in 1933. About sixty years later, his body was inadvertently exhumed during construction. He was reburied in the desert. Today, his cartoonish figure is perched among the building’s pinnacles and turrets, above the casino. 

The clouds are gathering, shrouding Pete’s castle in mist. I am on the other side of the 15, where Primm Valley Resort and Buffalo Bill’s are. The monorail that was built to bring tourists across the highway no longer runs. The empty tracks of the Desperado roller coaster loop around the darkened windows of Buffalo Bill’s. The coaster is no longer operating. The hotel is closed, too. Later, I will ask an employee about the Desperado, and she will smile and say, “They don’t talk about that” before turning away. 

It begins to rain. Sudden, hard rain. I take shelter in an aggressively air-conditioned McDonald’s where everyone is eager to be elsewhere. An emergency alert pushes through to all our phones, interrupting a Paula Abdul song. Do not attempt to travel unless you are fleeing an area subject to flooding or under an evacuation order. Everyone ignores it. The downpour dulls to a tapping of fingertips, so I go back outside and walk across the border to the lottery store. The only indication that I’ve arrived in California is the lottery itself, which is illegal in Nevada because the casinos don’t want the competition. Fluorescent lighting, the feeling of one of those trailers my high school used as a classroom. The woman at the counter tells me I’ve circled the numbers when I should have filled them in, but the machine accepts the ticket. The wind is picking up; employees lock the doors to stop them from blowing open. Outside, brakes screech on the slick roadway. My dress sticks to me. Men in cars slow beside me, offering me rides, their words polite, their eyes sinister. One offers me money for sex, which is the third time that’s happened in my life, the first time in Primm. 

I walk toward the blank billboards that frame the outlet mall. The Prizm Outlets, formerly the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas, opened in 1998, five years after the first outlets opened in Las Vegas. Despite the competition, the Primm outlets continued to expand. In 2007, there were more than 100 stores. From 2015 to 2018, the mall’s occupation dropped by 92 percent and was facing foreclosure. In 2021, it sold for $400,000. A decade earlier, it was worth $125 million. 

Entering feels like trespassing. The vacant stores are gated, some outfitted with murals, an attempt at making this a destination. Vending machines selling off-brand Dippin’ Dots are out of order. The food court is completely empty. A coin-operated ride emits random sounds. The few people I encounter make direct eye contact with me, the kind of eye contact you make when you’re on public transportation and something fucked-up is happening. I count six open stores. Near an empty fountain, an employee watches the rain. “Get caught in that?” he asks me. We stand next to each other, in between a towering pair of statues — a woman in a one-piece, a man in a speedo, both holding large orbs above their heads, their eyes black. He tells me he just got a job cleaning the mall and is staying at the hotel right now, waiting for an apartment to open up. He hates it here — he doesn’t have a car, and there’s nothing to do. The most exciting thing he’s seen is an altercation at the employee laundromat. 

The mall connects to the Primm Valley Resort and Casino, which feels equally vacant — a closed comedy club, a closed bar, a closed ice cream shop. The main draw is a bullet-riddled Ford enclosed in glass. Bonnie and Clyde’s Death Car, a sign tells me. A documentary about the famous bank robbers plays on a loop, projected beneath a fake pied à terre. I make my way past a row of roped-off slot machines, thinking about death — the seven-year-old girl murdered by a stranger in this casino’s bathroom in 1997, the baby murdered by her father in a hotel room at Buffalo Bill’s in 2005, an unidentified man found face down in a hot tub in 2011, and Whiskey Pete, buried twice in the same desert. 

In my hotel room, there’s a view of a pool that looks like it could be anywhere. I turn on the TV and watch the former president’s home being raided by the FBI. Someone is whistling on the other side of the wall. The rain lets up again, so I go back outside. The air is hot and wet. The dry lakebed shines with a fresh mirror of water. There are men by a truck grilling hot dogs. Men outside of a hotel room drinking beer. Men in cars, circling the puddled pavement. They roll down windows to say things — “Hey, sweetheart, are you lost?” — and sometimes they just stare.

There is always a hint of danger in these in-between places. You put your fingers on it, you touch it, but you don’t press too hard. The rush of the highway, a room key programmed and then wiped clean, a 24-hour restaurant where each table contains a person sitting alone. Every impression a first impression. I like places like this because
I feel like I don’t exist; I hate places like this because I am always being perceived.

I want to know who Primm is for. Everyone I ask gives me a different answer. Some say it’s a potential spot for a second airport to service Las Vegas. An airport that was supposed to open in 2017, could open in 2035, maybe won’t ever open. Others talk about the period around 2008 when Primm courted Nevadans with gas rebates, show tickets, and $59 packages that included golf, meals, drinks, spa vouchers, and hotel stays. Others mention the off-road racing, even if some of the long-running events are now happening elsewhere. Maybe Primm is for Californians who like to gamble but don’t like Vegas — although high gas prices and Indian casinos are hurting business. Maybe it’s for a guy who mops rainwater from the floor of the empty mall, who would like to be in Las Vegas, or Los Angeles, but they are just out of reach.

Get even before leaving, a marquee read in 2016, marking Primm as a last chance, a final temptation. 

Eventually, I do find my way to Whiskey Pete’s, which involves walking through Primm Center (a gas station with a donut shop inside), and down a road where every passing car sprays me with mud, but once I’m there I like it better than anywhere else in town. Fake Old West storefronts, stained glass on the ceiling, a painting of a lonesome desert sky. These same unspecific frontier elements existed at every hotel I worked at in the national parks, whether it was Yellowstone or Death Valley. The familiarity is comforting. 

The highway floods and closes. I settle in. 

Tomorrow, I’ll walk to the employee apartment complex to see if I might fit in there. It’s so close to the roller coaster you get the sense you could reach out and touch the tracks. There’s a little market — liquor, cigarettes, laundry detergent, heads of cabbage, cans of soup. I imagine buying rice and beans, walking home, and making dinner, listening to the screams from the roller coaster, because in the fantasy it still runs. In the fantasy, I am unseen. But the reality is in the eyes of men in a parking lot. Their expression tells me I can never disappear. 

Tomorrow, I will return to Las Vegas, scan the Mega Millions ticket on my phone to see my results: not a winner. 

But tonight, at Whiskey Pete’s, there’s country music and darkness, a bartender who makes a strong gin and tonic, people waiting out the storm. The highway opens, and they leave. It’s just me. Φ

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