From the east, Highway 160 drops gently from the Spring Mountains into Nevada's Pahrump Valley, halfway between Las Vegas and Death Valley. The high-desert, low-humidity enclave is home to 25,000 people, if you believe the 2010 federal census figures, and 38,000 if you believe the Pahrump Chamber of Commerce website. Either way, as the rural route levels out into sprawling Joshua Tree suburbia, the local demographic is defined.
"Guns 4 Sale," reads one handmade road sign. "Ron Kent--Justice of the Peace," reads another. "Retain Judge Kim Wanker."
On a visit last week, most of the signs promoted local candidates for the fall election, but in a couple of hours driving along roads named "Tough Boy," "Easy Street" and "Lola Lane," I did see three signs for presidential candidates--one for Mitt Romney and two for Ron Paul.
"Where's downtown?" I asked Janet at the Shell minimart on Highway 160 and Winery Road.
"There is no downtown." A California refugee who moved here because, she said, "I like the dark nights," Janet had the desiccated demeanor of desert dweller and a welcome-neighbor attitude. She showed me a map depicting two motor racing facilities, two wineries, the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, the Valley Electric Association, the senior center, the Cooperative Extension and the Town Office, which is where you can secure BLM firewood permits and reserve use of the Community Center. It does not appear on the map. Pahrump has a town manager and a town board that meets twice a month. The county seat, Tonopah, is 166 miles north on Highway 95.
Janet outlined a few routes a lookie-loo like me could follow to circumscribe the valley. She suggested a visit to the Lakeside resort (whose front door sign admonishes patrons that guns are not allowed in the casino), then casually mentioned the tour she took with her visiting sister a while ago at the Chicken Ranch.
"What's that?" I asked. "Sounds like a whorehouse."
"Brothel. It was interesting."
Going south on Homestead Road, past the RV Ranch Resort, past the Lakeside Casino and RV Resort, past the South Valley Southern Baptist Church and the ranch with registered Texas Longhorns, drivers are greeted with a series of Burma-Shave-like signs: "The Play. The Movie. Come Visit. Be a Star." "Voted #1 Nevada Brothel of the Year."
There were five cars in the Chicken Ranch lot, but the two handicapped spaces were vacant. I rang a bell at the white picket-fence gate and got buzzed into the tiny yard. The front door opened and a short, square woman of about 50 answered. She stared at me as if I were selling Bibles. With straight, stringy grayish hair and wire-rimmed glasses, she looked like someone who got laid off when the library lost its funding back in aught six.
"I understand you have tours," I said cheerfully, as she led me into a silent, dark room with dark leather Chesterfield sofas.
"That's next door," she said. "At Sheri's. All we have is the parlor, a public bar and ladies' bedrooms."
Move along, folk; there's nothing here to see.
The RV-less Resort & Spa at Sheri's Ranch was a larger establishment, with a prime spot in front reserved for "Sheri's team member of the month parking." It was empty.
Inside the sports bar entrance, it was as dim as the desert day was bright. Dance music pounded from the jukebox next to a dance floor the size of a king-sized bed, and a silver pole stood in the middle. The cigarette smoke was as thick as Central Valley tule fog. Five or six high-heeled women sat around the bar where a couple of tiny TVs were being ignored. A black curtain separated the bar from the adjacent room.
A short, unsmiling woman of about 50 with straight, stringy blond hair moved from behind the bar. "Can I help you?"
"I'd like to take the tour," I said, introducing myself and offering my hand. She shook it, but didn't want to.
"Ooh," I said. "Cold hands."
"Cold hands, cold heart," she said, her eyes fixed on the notebook protruding from my pocket.
"I think that's 'cold hands, warm heart.'"
"I have cold hands and a cold heart. Wait here."
Blondie returned with another woman sporting clackety black heels, blood-red toenails and a short, lacy red-and-black Spandex hairband she wore as a dress. Blondie introduced me to Brandy, who was assigned to be my guide.
"No notebooks," Blondie ordered. "You can't have a notebook on the tour."
Brandy, who wore minimal makeup and her dark hair in a soft, shoulder-length wave, escorted me behind the black curtain into the parlor. With its white Victorian sofas, hardwood floors and glass-walled view into the grassy pool-garden area beyond, it looked like your elderly aunt's living room, except for the menu of services posted on an easel in the corner.
Deprived of my notebook, the only menu item I remembered to write down outside after the tour was "straight lay." Later, linking to "sex menu" on the Sheri's website, I refreshed my memory. Apart from the pool, spa and bubble bath, Sheri's' amenities are not those of any resort with which I am familiar. Do your own research.
No prices accompanied the menu items for two reasons, Brandy explained. "First, that would be solicitation. Second, we ladies are independent contractors, and we set our own prices. That's discussed when we bring a gentleman into the room to party."
All of the services listed were available, she said, but not all ladies choose to perform all of them. "We don't do anything we don't want to do."
I asked if customers ever object to the "condoms required" signs prominently displayed in every party room. She shook her head, and said that she and her colleagues almost never have a problem. "Ladies who get beaten up are the ones who walk the streets, the people with drug or alcohol problems who wouldn't be allowed to work in a place like this."
She and her colleagues are tested regularly for STDs by health department personnel. Drugs are not allowed, for them or their customers. (One time, she said, two ladies had to escort a couple of gentlemen from their party room because they were high on acid. "As if they were going to be able to do anything... They barely knew where they were!")
Customers choose ladies a couple of ways. Some are regulars and make reservations. Some hang out in the bar. Some request a lineup, which is just like a police lineup except the participants all wear high heels and are suspected only of wanting to make a legal living. When a lineup is requested, available ladies are summoned to the parlor to stand in front of the couch where the patrons sit. They each step forward, introduce themselves and do a pirouette. The customer (usually one or more men, but sometimes women) makes his choice and off they go to discuss terms behind closed doors.
Suddenly, Blondie appeared from behind the black curtain. She whispered something to Brandy, who told me that some men had arrived for a lineup. I was to wait in the bar. "We protect their privacy," she said, but told me if I lurked near the curtain I would be able to hear the high heels clicking on the wood floor.
I kinda sorta did, except that Mitch, the security guard who stood in front of the curtain to ensure nobody in the bar breached protocol, got all chatty about the pleasure of living in Pahrump. Something about how it cools off at night, unlike Vegas, where it stays hot. Who cares. I was trying to eavesdrop, for crying out loud.
Three minutes later the tour resumed with Brandy. "So I guess you didn't get chosen," I said. "Good for me, bad for you."
"Yep. If I had been chosen we both would've gotten screwed."
Brandy showed me the Jacuzzi suite, and turned on the machine that spits bubbles from the ceiling. We toured the romantic dining suite (replete with a floor cushion next to the table so the ladies don't hurt their knees) and a kind of surfer-dude/palapa room.
Brandy articulately answered all my questions. She could be a hotel flack, a Chamber of Commerce rep, a corporate spokeswoman. Turns out she's good at a lot of things; when she's not working a series of 12-hour shifts here at Sheri's, she has another life. Brandy is a nurse.
"Lots of the ladies here have college degrees," she said. Many have other careers, and, like Brandy, choose not to show their faces on the website. They all use pseudonyms at Sheri's.
Most of the ladies here are in their 20s, some in their 30s, Brandy said, "and a few, like me, are in our 40s." She's 41. The years have been kind.
The final room on the tour was the bondage/domination suite, for which customers must sign a liability waiver and where a Sheri's colleague must be present if he wants to dominate. No chaperone is required if he wants the lady to dominate. The design is vintage leather-and-metal, featuring a big wooden armchair with restraints and a wall studded with chains and straps.
Brandy recalled the time she gave a tour to a group of men visiting from Salt Lake City. They had just come off the golf course "wearing their collared shirts, looking so clean cut," she said. "They were all Mormons, and the two of us giving the tour realized right away who the leader was, an older gentleman. When we got to this part of the tour, we strapped him into the chair, and chained his friends to the wall. They were all laughing."
The gentlemen did not partake of any other services, she said, but "They had a good time. They left with a more generous sense of what we do, and a respect they didn't have when they got here."
Me, too. "I know how much to tip a waitress," I said, as the tour concluded in the sun-washed parlor. "I know how much to tip a bellhop, but I have no idea what to tip a brothel tour guide."
"Anything you're comfortable with," Brandy said. "Most people tip between $10 and $20."
Driving back up Homestead Road, past the church sign reading "God's Ten Commandments. 7 Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery," I considered Brandy's refreshing tutelage. I could ask that woman anything. Later, looking at the website, I wanted to know ... what's French oil? And, has anyone involved with Sheri's Ranch ever appeared before Judge Wanker?
Photos Ellen Alperstein