In the desert, a dream town in search of a buyer

Slim and Nancy Kidwell dreamed up a town on a barren patch of federal dirt.

It was the 1960s, and the two California pilots had long talked of running their own airport. One day, Slim was flying over scrub brush about 70 miles south of Las Vegas and spotted something peculiar: the faint outlines of a landing strip. It was a remnant of a shuttered military training base, and Slim grew determined to own it.

The Kidwells could acquire the land free under a federal law, but had to prove they could wring sufficient water from the desert and raise 20 acres of something. An agronomist suggested long-rooted winter barley.

So like homesteaders of centuries past, the couple ventured into the middle of nowhere, bringing little more than their cat, their dog and their long-held hopes. Slim was 62, Nancy 28.

Theirs was a ramshackle freedom. They lived in a trailer off U.S. Highway 95 that initially lacked air conditioning and water, and guided their Piper Comanche aircraft onto the bumpy landing strip with only orange construction flashers for illumination.

In 1966, Slim and Nancy were awarded 640 acres. They named their tiny fiefdom after the nearby intersection of three states, posting a sign that radiated frontier optimism: “Cal-Nev-Ari, Population: 4. Watch Us Grow.”

Soon the Kidwells built a mobile home park. Their casino — advertised as a “fly-in” gambling hall — opened in 1968 with a few table games. But their original partner in the venture soon moved: His wife found the isolation unbearable.

“A lot of our friends took one look and never came back,” Nancy said. “They thought we were out of our minds.” It’s little wonder that, for decades, she has clung to a fortune cookie prediction from 1967: “What’s done here is of permanent importance.”

By the 1970s, the Kidwells began selling one-acre parcels for $3,000. Today, the plots go for about $40,000. The unincorporated community’s 300 or so residents mostly live in mobile homes with neat yards, and many have small planes. Their properties are adjacent to Kidwell Airport — Federal Aviation Administration code 1L4 — and its dusty mile-long runway.

Kenny Allen, 78, bought a home here two decades ago after making two emergency landings at Kidwell Airport. “After the second time, I thought, ‘Maybe somebody’s trying to tell me something,’” he said.

He was playing keno at the market, which also sells food, cassette tapes, pet food and beer. “Please Don’t Open 6-Paks,” a sign in the cooler scolded.

His girlfriend, Linda Johnson, 52, ran the cash register and recalled a customer who recently sprinted inside. “Do you have a camera?” the man asked. “There’s a plane in the yard!” She and Allen laughed at the memory.

Over the years, they’ve watched the Kidwells add a community center that hosts bingo nights, an RV park with a one-hole putting green, and the 10-unit Blue Sky Motel — named for, Nancy said, Slim’s “blue sky dreams.” Hundreds of acres remain as barren as they were when he first sailed over them.

Now, it’s all for sale.

Nancy has no plans to leave Cal-Nev-Ari. She just can’t care for it any longer.

“It’s like raising a kid,” Johnson said. “The kids are grown now, and it’s time for you to let go and do your thing.”

On a recent morning, Nancy worked through a plate-size pancake and decaf coffee at the casino diner, trying to explain. Slim died in the 1980s after battling Alzheimer’s. His son from another marriage, Ace, had helped care for him. Years later, Ace and Nancy married. Now Ace, 86, is ill and Nancy can’t shoulder all the town responsibilities, even with paid help.

Nancy is a slender 72-year-old with a blondish bouffant hairdo; her blue eyes grew sad as she talked about the town. Her asking price: $17 million.

Until it’s sold, Cal-Nev-Ari is somewhat stuck in limbo. Locals don’t necessarily mind. A new owner could build an outlet mall or apartments — or, perish the thought, pave the roads.

Anna Marie Savko, 49, moved here from the Las Vegas suburbs to raise her two boys. On her first weekend in town, desert gusts ripped down enough tree branches to block her driveway. She headed to the de facto town center — the casino — hoping someone might have a chainsaw. When she returned, a neighbor had already cleared her yard.

The boys initially complained they were bored. “But once they got their BB guns, they were OK,” said Savko, who waits tables at the diner. When her husband was laid off from his construction job, she didn’t need to beg for more shifts: Nancy offered them.

“I think she’ll do her best to keep the spirit of the town as is,” said Savko, taking a smoke break in the hushed casino. Locals crossed the gaming floor, past a bar glowing with Christmas lights, to a cubbyhole that serves as the town post office. Nancy knew most of them by name.