Wandering the West
March 29, 2011
Look out, ’cause I’m setting the way-back machine back to the Seventies. As a young news reporter in Salt Lake, I and my colleagues were on the trail of the story of our careers. Twenty years after open-air nuclear testing began at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, residents of small, mostly Mormon, farming towns were suddenly dying of cancer, in numbers too large to be natural.
Twenty years is roughly the time it takes for radiation-induced cancers to develop, spread and kill. And little hamlets like Mesquite and Bunkerville in Nevada, Enterprise, Utah, and Littlefield, Arizona, were reeling as an entire generation died off in a compressed period of time. The contaminated winds also blew toward the city of St. George, population 3,000, which was the epicenter of the tragedy.
From 1977 until the end of the decade we dropped into small towns unannounced, and just asked questions, listened, and rolled our TV cameras.
Against that backdrop I first visited Mesquite, Nevada. Nothing about it was attractive. Highway 91 wound through a dusty forgotten town. A small one-story stand-alone casino was about the only tip-off that you’d even crossed the border from Littlefield, Arizona, to Nevada. In a city park I found a family reunion in progress, and four generations of survivors of those terrible tests.
The next time through, probably on the way to Las Vegas, I blew by on I-15 and noticed a big multi-winged motel, the Peppermill. It became the forerunner of Mesquite’s reinvention. What started as a Mormon pioneer farming village in the 1880s, surviving on irrigation water in a desert of gray badlands, was evolving into the gambling city at Southern Utah’s southern gateway city of St. George.
Eight miles south of St. George, the Virgin River Gorge starts. At great expense, I-15 was blasted through it, across the northwestern corner of Arizona. Still, Mesquite looks and feels like a Utah-state-line gambling town like Wendover, only better looking.
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The better look comes from its golf courses. I’m an unenthusiastic golfer who does not seek out courses for their architect, or their design, or their handicap, or anything like that. I wouldn’t know bent grass from crushed grass. I’m barely a muni-course golfer, but if I sought out amazing manufactured landscapes draped over forbidding natural lands, I’d pack my golf bag for Mesquite.
There are now at least seven 18-hole layouts in Mesquite. Those 1970s families I had Dutch-oven chicken with in the Seventies used their water allotments for alfalfa. Today the water is channeled into improbable lakes and streams and irrigation systems for brilliant green courses built around, over and through low winding washes sided by gray sandstone badlands.
To stretch the limited water, some of the courses require golf’s version of target shooting, hitting over the dry arroyos onto the next green landing pad. As one who likes natural landscapes, I’m still fascinated by what water, topsoil, fertilizer and grass seed can do when sprinkled with tens of millions of dollars.
This is not a guide to the golf courses. I haven’t played them. But Mesquite is the kind of place that makes me wish I could play well enough to justify stepping onto these oases. There’s the Casa Blanca Golf Club, with a course winding in, out and over the Virgin River. The Conestoga Golf Club in the Del Webb Sun City Mesquite development looks like the artist Cristo, who drapes things in colored canvas, was at work, draping the gray rocks with green coverings.
The Falcon Ridge desert course has its devotees, and at the Oasis, two 18-hole courses, one of Arnold Palmer’s design, await. The Palms Golf Club has more than 200 palm trees lining the fairways, in a place where palms do not grow naturally. The Chase at Coyote Springs is a Jack Nicklaus design, the first of several courses planned as that new retirement community expands.
In Utah’s winter, St. George lures Wasatch Front golfers to its own magnificently sculpted courses through the red rock arroyos. But before it gets too blasted hot down there, if you’re after a new golf getaway, drive 45 more miles and check out Mesquite. It’s a far more beautiful and happier place than the dusty town I drove into back in another time.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
The vitals: Park City to Mesquite: 342 miles