An hour south from the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip, a tiny town in Nevada is up for sale.
Cal-Nev-Ari, Nev. (pronounced Cal-Nev-Air) is off a lonely stretch of Highway 95, surrounded by distant mountains and endless desert. The town isn’t far from the California and Arizona borders, which is how it got its name.
If you can afford the $8 million asking price, you’ll get the airstrip, the diner and the town’s only casino. That includes a dozen old slot machines and a smokey bar. This place has character.
Waitress Debbie Aguilera brings over a glass of water — fresh from the town’s well. That well is what started this close-knit town. It’s all thanks to the couple that found this place 51 years ago: Nancy Kidwell and her late husband, Slim.
“There was nobody here but Slim, me, our dog and a cat,” Nancy Kidwell says.
This was once a dusty airstrip — an abandoned military runway.
The Kidwells, both aviators, dreamed of building a town around it. Under what was known as the Pittman Act, they could actually settle here. The couple just had to prove that they could be self-sufficient. So, they searched for water 30 miles away in the Colorado River.
“We hauled our water in the back of a pickup in four, 55-gallon drums,” Kidwell says.
They rigged up an irrigation system and planted 20 acres of barley.
“It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude because there’s a lot of hardships,” she says. “No power out here in the middle of the summer. We could work until about noon and then we had to get in the shade cause it just got too hot.”
Incredibly, the barley grew and a well was dug. The BLM granted the Kidwells a land patent and Cal-Nev-Ari was put on the map.
Back then, there weren’t any visitors in the new Cal-Nev-Ari Casino — except a few burglars who broke open the slot machines only to find the Kidwells had no money.
“If we’d defaulted on our loan, we would’ve walked out of here with the clothes on our back and that’s it,” Kidwell says. “Nobody ever thought we’d make it.”
So they found a new angle with the airstrip. Cal-Nev-Ari became the first fly-in casino town in the state, according to an old newspaper clipping framed outside Nancy’s office.
This little desert outpost started to grow.
About 350 people live out here. It’s mostly retirees in neat rows of mobile homes with yards. The pilots in town have prop planes parked in their driveways. The dirt roads in town are wide enough to taxi planes from driveways to the runway.
There’s the retro Blue Sky Motel with a neon vacancy sign and a tiny convenience store.
“It’s probably the last town that’s been pioneered. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t exist anymore,” Kidwell says.
Since she pioneered Cal-Nev-Ari, she’s in charge. It’s an enormous responsibility because if anything goes wrong, Nancy’s phone rings. Plus, she manages all of her employees: Bartenders, volunteer firefighters, the chef.
Bob Shawn is cooking French toast in the vintage diner. He says he doesn’t think of Nancy as the boss.
“She’s like a mother to me,” Shawn says. “And you know how moms can be, you know, ‘Bob … it looks like you’ve been sampling the food too much.’ “
Nancy loves her job but it’s exhausting. At 78 years old, she’s ready to call it quits.
“I’m not going to be here forever,” she says. “And I have to provide for the future of this town while I’m still able to do so.”
She hired a broker from Las Vegas named Fred Marik. He says he has potential buyers but no deals yet.
There is the occasional bid from locals though, like Foster Aguilera.
“I kind of offered her an option to buy it if it’s $300 a month and, you know, pay her off in like 600 years but she wouldn’t go for it,” Aguilera says.
Joking aside, the thought of Nancy Kidwell retiring makes folks nervous. There’s a certain way of life here where if you stay for a beer you’ll get invited to a barbecue.
“I’ve got 22 pounds of pork butt on the smoker right now,” Aguilera says.
He doesn’t want that small town personality to change. Chef Bob Shawn says he’s worried about his job.
“I don’t know all the details, it’s not my business how she’s going to do it,” Shawn says. “But they don’t know if they’ll just add on, or get rid of the place, close it down, bulldoze it down, you don’t know.”
The good news is that Nancy’s not going anywhere. More than anything, she wants to relax and enjoy the Cal-Nev-Ari sunsets.
“You can see so far,” Kidwell says. “I don’t know. Guess if I’ve been here 51 years, I must like it, huh?”
It’s midnight at the casino and a few stragglers at the bar finish their last cigarette. Back in the corner, Dick and Dolly Miller sit side-by-side at the slots.
The Millers say, even if they win the jackpot tonight, they won’t be making an offer to buy Cal-Nev-Ari. It’s too much work. The Millers admire what Nancy Kidwell has done.
“Everybody loves Nancy,” Dolly Miller says. “Her and her husband, when they came out here, there was nothing here. They built it up from nothing. And she deserves a break.”
Dick agrees: “She’s a hell of a gal.”