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Lighting up the Sky at the Launching Pad: The Moapa Paiute Indian Reservation's Fireworks

At the Moapa Paiute Indian Reservation in Nevada, Alex Gonzalez, 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 your ordinance 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 4th, the store is open 24/7 year round and had a steady stream of customers on an August evening.

While all this noisy excitement was going on, truckers on their way north or south on 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 — from sandwiches to burger and pot roast dinners to fajitas — were not just tasty, but lighter and more vegetable-centric than you might expect at a truck stop.

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Long-time Tohono O'odham cactus harvester Stella Tucker points out cactus fruit to a youngster. (By Lee Allen/ARIZONA FREELANCE)

Valley of Fire

A do-not-miss: Just 11 miles down a local highway exiting the travel plaza, you’ll find the 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 the Valley of Fire state park site here, for more on hiking, camping and enjoying the area.

Back at the 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.