28-Mar-2009 -- As I was in Las Vegas for the world's largest gathering of geographers, for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, a confluence visit seemed like an appropriate way to end the conference. Over 7,000 geographers had attended the conference. I have made it an annual tradition to visit a confluence in each location where the AAG conference has been held, beginning in New Orleans (2003), Philadelphia (2004), Chicago (2005), San Francisco (2007), and Boston (2008). As I had already visited 36 North 115 West near Las Vegas before, that left the next closest point--36 North 116 West, which wasn't in Nevada at all, but just over the California border. My meetings ended earlier than expected, and so I rode to the airport with a taxi driver who, like me, knew of the old hotels in Las Vegas which are no more--the Desert Inn, El Rancho, Dunes, Hacienda, Stardust, Sands, and Aladdin. By 7:00am I was driving west in a Prius rental car.
Leaving the city behind, I drove west on Highway 160, amazed at how beautiful the landscape was in the early morning light. I had been to Las Vegas many times but never out here, and stopped to take photographs of the canyonlands and joshua trees. Traveling over the ridge, I entered the Pahrump Valley. It was one of the enormous valleys bottomed out in a vast playa that the basin and range province is famous for. As I neared Pahrump, I could not find the turnoff to Highway 16, which would take me south of the confluence. I continued to the city and out the other side, where I doubled back and puzzled. I took Highway 372 west for awhile but it was leading too far west, not south. I saw an ice cream stand in the desert, topped by an enormous ice cream cone statue, which would have made for an excellent photograph, but I now was focused on my goal and having trouble getting there.
I drove back on 160 and turned south on Homestead Road. I followed it to the south but was still looking for Highway 16 which according to my maps, should be just off to the east. The road abruptly ended...at two very well kept brothels. I was very surprised, turned around, and took a side road to the east. It ended in a dirt track which eventually ended altogether. I tried several roads like this with the same results and even talked with a homeowner who was watering his plants. Mesquite Valley Road is what I was seeking. He said there was no road to the east, and so I crossed Homestead Road and tried some of the roads to the west. New homes were here, and I drove south on Vicki Ann Road until it ended. I saw a dirt trail that led to the southwest, into California.
The best part was yet to come: The dirt road ended at the edge of an enormous playa, one of the flat areas at the foot of the mountains in this basin-and-range province, where water flows here after rainstorms and evaportaes, the basin having no external drainage. The surface of the playa is hardened by the harsh sun and driving on it is a truly unique experience. Imagine no boundaries for miles in every direction. It would be the perfect place to take one's teenager to teach him or her to drive. I had so much fun that I filmed a movie while driving, and aimed for the road I could see far away to the south. After 5 minutes, I spied a small convoy of vehicles, from which motorcycles were being unloaded. I gave them a wide berth. I encountered a small ridge which was traversed without any problem, and in a few more hundred meters, I entered the one-lane gravel road, which looked passable in a standard car.
I drove south along the road, crossed 36 North, but found nowhere to pull over. I finally made do in a bit wider area, with the GPS reading giving me about 1 km to the confluence. I donned sunblock and supplies, setting off at a brisk pace. The ground alternated between gravels and low shrubs, marked with animal holes. In less than 15 minutes, I arrived at the confluence. It was one of the most wonderful confluences I have visited, although no doubt, those who do not appreciate the desert would not agree. My colleague Ann Johnson would definitely agree with me that this was a beautiful spot. I took photographs and a movie, spending 30 minutes here and at a magnificent yucca a short distance to the south. I could plainly see the playa to the north, and could faintly hear the motorcyclists on it. Otherwise, it was peaceful there, about 70 F under blue skies.
I have stood on 36 North many times before, in New Mexico, Texas, and North Carolina. This was only my second time to stand on 116 West, the other time being with my colleague Tom Baker in Joshua Tree National Park a year ago.
As I hiked back to the vehicle, I contemplated going back the safe route, the way I had come in, but the road to the south was intriguing and I was determined to solve the map mystery. Therefore, after arriving at the vehicle, I drove south, up the valley, and before long, came to Highway 16 at last. But first, another interesting thing happened: I could not start the car. Being a Prius, there is nothing to crank...the status lights either come on or they don't. After getting out the owner's manual and wondering if anyone could ever find me out here, and getting a bit jittery in the process, the vehicle finally started. After driving south, I continued east and then northeast, ending on Highway 160 many miles east of where my map said it should be. Mystery solved--the map was in error, or else was hopelessly outdated. I drove back to Las Vegas and was thoroughly satisfied by my visit.
My curiosity was at a high point about my puzzling wanderings around Pahrump, so later, I logged into the Internet at the Las Vegas airport at my gate. I examined the online maps I was using. Google Maps was definitely in error on the east side of Pahrump. MapQuest, in this case, had it right. It confirms what we are always telling students--use caution, use your head; maps are incredibly useful, but they are not perfect.