“The Passion of Sheepdogs,” by John Haggerty

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Nonfiction by John Haggerty excerpted from our Fall 2016 issue.


Rachel, oh Rachel! Mistress of my heart, irradiated queen of the desert, alien oasis, black-budget fever dream, ghost town of the future, sheepdog disco, heart of America. Shelter me in your double-wides, fill my ventricles with Alien Burgers, stun me with alcohol, swaddle me in the lights of your brilliant night sky.

No. Rachel is a place that resists such artistic twaddle. Perhaps we just need the facts. Rachel is a town of fifty-nine souls in the middle of a long, empty highway that runs just north of the Nellis Test and Training Range in south-central Nevada. It is a settlement more than a town, and a very lonely one at that. It is difficult to capture the emptiness of the desert around Rachel, but perhaps one fact will serve as illustration: it is 110 miles from Rachel to Tonopah, the nearest town to the west, and every building on that stretch of road has been abandoned.

But our great nation boasts any number of remote towns, hamlets, and other assorted outposts of progress. What really sets Rachel apart is that it is situated just a few miles from the northern perimeter of Area 51, one of the most secure and secretive military installations in the world.

I stumbled upon Rachel many years ago and have been fascinated by it ever since. Something about the place seemed to hint at larger truths, that Rachel — its proximity to Area 51, the fact that the town exists at all — might say something greater about America, our nation’s massive security state and its shifty, combative relationship with the rest of world. I pondered this for some time without insight, until, one night, a policeman told me a parable.

I had arrived in Rachel on an overcast afternoon, just ahead of a late-winter cold front threatening snow. The town has a single retail establishment, the Little A’Le’Inn, which comprises a bar and grill and a scattering of trailers divided into motel rooms. I had hoped to stay in one of these only to discover that the place was completely full with law enforcement officers.

As it turns out, some members of the police force of a small town in California’s Central Valley come out to Rachel every year, drawn by the wide open spaces, and, ironically, the complete lack of law enforcement presence — Rachel is far too small for a police department of its own, and the Lincoln County sheriff is often very far away.

Not that the policemen (and one policewoman) were looking for trouble, of course, but they seemed to want to spend the week unencumbered, and if your leisure tastes run mostly to drinking, driving off-road vehicles, and shooting guns, Rachel is an ideal venue. It was, I was informed, a work-hard, play-hard thing, and they were clearly delighted to be embarking on the play-hard phase.

I ended up talking quite a bit to one of them, a sergeant named James. James had a pleasant, roundish face and the demeanor of someone you might expect to take lawn care seriously. He was intelligent and friendly, and I liked him a lot. One night in the Little A’Le’Inn as the hour grew late, he divulged his personal philosophy to me.

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Image: Cosgrove-Davies, Mac. “Nevada Desert.” 1986. Cyanotype. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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