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Pahrump says 'Harrumph!' to cityhood

Rugged individualists show off their guns and reach for their rhetoric to fight an incorporation plan.

October 23, 2012|John M. Glionna
  • Ray "the Flagman" Mielzynski of Pahrump, Nev., packs two guns and copies of the Bill of Rights that he hands out to passersby. A battle is brewing over proposed cityhood for the unincorporated town.
Ray "the Flagman" Mielzynski of Pahrump, Nev., packs two guns… (Horace Langford, Pahrump…)

PAHRUMP, NEV. — The Town Board here was nearly handcuffed and taken into custody by its own constituents during a recent civic skirmish that locals brush off as nothing out of the ordinary in this wild-hearted desert community.

A clutch of longtime residents fiercely opposed to cityhood for the unincorporated town insisted the board's actions on the issue were against the law. Moving menacingly toward the dais, they declared their intent to make citizens' arrests on three panel members, accusing the council of favoring newcomers who live in subdivisions, not trailers.

Someone called for handcuffs, town officials said.

"Lock the doors!" another reportedly yelled, eyeing the officials. "Don't let 'em get out!"

Most of the group was armed, including one man with a 2-foot-long six-shooter, but that's not exactly news in Pahrump. The town, like the rest of hyper-rural Nye County, has an "open carry" law, meaning that people don't just pack guns, they brandish them like fashion accessories.

"I wasn't scared," Town Manager Bill Kohbarger said later. "I just sat back in my chair and watched the fireworks."

Sheriff's deputies eventually calmed things down. But a showdown looms between the rugged individualists who have hidden out here for decades and the middle-class families who want to turn Pahrump into a more-manicured Las Vegas suburb.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 30, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Pahrump: An article in the Oct. 23 Section A about a fight against incorporation in Pahrump, Nev., said the community was 60 miles east of Las Vegas. It is 60 miles west.

Many call it a face-off between two ways of life: a group that wants to evade government oversight and another that wants to pull the outside world a bit closer. Some cityhood supporters are afraid to give their names, fearful of armed opponents. Yet they believe change will eventually come to Pahrump.

"The battle is coming," said Matt Ward, editor of the Pahrump Valley Times, "and it could get ugly."

For many outsiders, Pahrump is merely an odd-sounding destination on road signs, a "Who wants to go there?" kind of place 60 miles east of the Vegas Strip.

Critics say even the name is inelegant. "Lots of towns in America have lyrical names," Ward said. "Pahrump is not one of them."

The word Pahrump comes from the Shoshone Indian phrase Pah-rimpi, or "water rock," but the place is mostly desert. Until the 1960s, the 364-square-mile town had no telephone service and no paved roads. The 1980 population was just 2,000. Even today, most lots average 1.5 acres, offering what old-timers call "elbow room."

Pahrump is the "other" Nevada, a town with shoot-'em-up roots and a libertarian bent, where many residents live off the grid. It's a realm of often-grumpy desert castoffs with more brothels (8) and casinos (5) than stoplights (3). Some call it "an extended trailer park" for residents' penchant for double-wides, or "the gateway to hell" for its proximity to Death Valley.

But as Las Vegas developed, so did Pahrump. A two-lane road, once dubbed "the widowmaker" for the high number of accidents, was widened, bringing newcomers who built neat subdivisions next to ramshackle dwellings with private wells and sump pumps.

Yet even with Pahrump's hefty 36,000 population, becoming a full-fledged city would invite too much regulation, many longtime residents insist.

In Pahrump, the debate over the town's future has already turned edgy. After one resident created a "Negative Pahrump" website to lampoon the "embarrassments, ignorant people and incidents that make our community a joke," others, perhaps more civic-minded, responded with a positive Pahrump site.

When an online poll emerged asking, "Is Pahrump a dump?" 57% said no. Supporters rave about the glorious sunsets and nightly unobstructed views of what Kohbarger calls "all the stars God ever created." Many like the fact that the road into town scales scenic Spring Mountain, with signs warning of deer, bighorn sheep and wild horses.

Over the years, some have sought escape in Pahrump. Under the sting of the media hordes, Michael Jackson scouted property here, officials say, but never bought. Others have -- such as Apple co-founder Ronald Wayne and Art Bell, a retired radio host who for years broadcast his paranormal-themed program from his trailer.

And Heidi Fleiss, the notorious L.A. madam, moved here after her legal troubles with plans to open a brothel that featured working guys. For now, she owns a coin laundry called Dirty Laundry, and around town it's unclear whether she has returned to California.

Only-in-Pahrump things happen: Last year, brushing off the irony, libertarians celebrated the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. by shooting guns at a local range. The town's topography so resembles Afghanistan that Air Force jets play war games over Pahrump, chasing men in vans dressed in jihadist outfits. In the science fiction goofball flick "Mars Attacks!" the aliens attacked the town.

But what irks many image-conscious residents is the town's gun-bearing mind-set. At the local Wal-Mart or Albertsons, shoppers routinely pack heat.

Ray "the Flagman" Mielzynski carries two guns -- a snub-nosed .38-caliber and a nine-shot revolver -- and has a little saying about doing errands around town: "Two guns, no waiting."

Mielzynski, 68, who moved here in 1978, also carries an American flag and copies of the Bill of Rights that he hands out to passersby, along with sticks of gum. It's his way to protest the possible invasion of government in Pahrump.

"When I moved here there were no permits," he said, "no people poking their noses in your business."

As Pahrump works out its growing pains, residents want outsiders to stop making them the butt of jokes. They don't like to be called "Pahrumpkins."

Even odes to the place somehow go wrong: In 1999, singer Kid Rock included counterculture Pahrump in a rollicking video for the song "Cowboy."

But they got the town's name wrong -- they spelled it "Parumph."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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