Killer Crocodile Attack

 A version of this story appeared in Indian Country Today in August 2012.

Alex Gonzalez, a staffer at the Moapa Pauite Travel Plaza, tied together the long string fuses of several fireworks, lit them and pitched them into the desert night. On the horizon, across a dozen miles of flat, sandy ground, rugged grey crags were barely visible in the moonlight. The mountain range vanished briefly as flaming arcs of gold, green and purple lit up the sky.

Employees of the plaza, which claims it sells the “largest and most comprehensive selection of fireworks in the West,” will help you explode any ordnance you buy there in a staging area — the so-called Launching Pad — behind its facility some 30 miles north of Las Vegas. If you’re in a DIY mode, you can peruse long aisles of brightly colored boxes and choose among options that are “from safe to insane,” according to another staffer, then set them off yourself. 

While Gonzalez, who is Moapa Paiute and Latino, demonstrated the appeal of items like Killer Crocodile, Festival Balls and Rhino Busters, downrange some folks were setting off roman candles that streaked red, pink and white into the night. 

Inside at the cash register, others from as far away as Los Angeles stocked up for festivities they were planning elsewhere. Though most sales occur leading up to July Fourth, the store is open 24/7 year round and had a steady stream of customers on an August evening.

As all this noisy excitement was going on behind the travel plaza, truckers traveling Interstate 15 took breaks at slot machines in the small, attached casino or chowed down on the hearty fare served in the small café, with its counter and cluster of tables. Menu items at the café — from sandwiches and burgers to fajitas and pot roast dinners — were not just tasty, but lighter and more vegetable-centric than you might expect to find at the typical truck stop.

A do-not-miss: Just 11 miles down a road exiting east out of the travel plaza, you’ll find Valley of Fire State Park’s gnarled, pitted red-sandstone outcroppings. Heaved into place millions of years ago, then eroded, the vast bulky formations look like roiling, surging, otherworldly prairie fires. The park also features millennia-old petroglyphs, a springtime flush of wildflowers among the creosote brush and cacti, and other attractions. Go to for more information on hiking, camping and enjoying the area.
Back at the travel plaza’s Launching Pad: “This one’s the grand finale,” exclaimed Gonzalez, as he lit a fuse then backed off to safer ground. Multi-colored starbursts filled the sky, as the distant mountains receded once more, then reappeared, eternal in the moonlight.

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard.

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