Sitting inside the air-conditioned cab of a Caterpillar D5G bulldozer, I glance east across Interstate 15 toward the Strip. The idling engine purrs as I catch sight of the dormant Echelon hotel-casino project, its exposed skeleton now abandoned for three years. The structure sits as a stark monument of the suddenness with which construction in Las Vegas all but stopped in 2008 after an unrivaled 20-year boom during which dozers and excavators ruled the land. Those machines, and the workers who ran them, helped transform countless desert lots into residential and commercial developments. It seemed like it would never end. Until it did.
I’m digging a deep, long trench on a five-acre plot of land just west of the Interstate. The property is part of Dig This, a “heavy equipment playground” that opened in May on the site of the former Scandia Family Fun Center. On a lot where teenagers once raced go-karts and played miniature golf, you now can pay $400 for the opportunity to operate a 10-ton bulldozer or 15-ton excavator for two hours. Las Vegans used to operate these things for good money—now we pay good money for it. Nobody wants to build much of anything here these days, but it turns out it’s fun to move dirt.
Since opening, Dig This has had about 25 customers per week. Most patrons (who have to be at least 14 years old) have little to no construction experience, and operations manager Amber Smith says nearly half of them are women. The ever-instructive rankings at TripAdvisor.com—which are, granted, easily skewed by a few enthusiasts—place Dig This third among 469 Las Vegas attractions, ahead of such Top-10 heavyweights as Carrot Top (No. 5) and Wee Kirk O’ the Heather Wedding Chapel (No. 4).
Customers receive about 20 minutes of instruction before being turned loose on the playground. My instructor, Jerry Wheeler, tells me he worked in sales before getting hired at Dig This and has no construction experience. With so many unemployed construction workers in the Valley, this strikes me as peculiar, but Wheeler seems to have a firm knowledge of the equipment. Upon climbing into the bulldozer’s cab, I first buckle my seatbelt before putting on a wireless headset so Wheeler and I can communicate during my ride.
Even though my heavy-equipment background consists mainly of operating a fleet of Tonka trucks and tractors as a child, I am intent on mastering the dozer on my maiden voyage. Armed with a ripper attachment on the back of the bulldozer and a 10-foot-wide blade on the front, I let off of the decelerator and begin picking up speed. My assigned tasks: dig a trench and create a sizable earthen mound at the end of it, drive over the mound and then back again, and guide a large boulder through a line of traffic cones using the dozer’s blade.
For this story, I initially intended to have a seasoned construction worker accompany me to Dig This, partly to get some feedback on the authenticity of the experience, but also so I could measure my performance alongside a professional. After living here for more than 35 years and with many longtime friends and acquaintances having blue-collar backgrounds, I still came up empty after a two-week search. I began to wonder if every unemployed heavy-equipment operator had left town.
Here’s the ultimate irony of Dig This: With so much heavy equipment sitting idle throughout the Valley, and with so many local construction workers having to move away or find new career paths in order to earn a living, it is an outsider who created the business. New Zealand native Ed Mumm developed the idea after renting an excavator for a home construction project in Colorado. He enjoyed operating the machine so much that he launched Dig This in Steamboat Springs, Colo., in 2008 before moving the attraction to Las Vegas in search of a wider audience.
My two hours on the bulldozer fly by. The most thrilling moment comes when I traverse the 10-foot-high mound I have created. As I reach the crest, the bulldozer feels like it’s going to flip over backward, and I see nothing but blue sky before me. Suddenly the dozer does a nosedive and my blade is the first thing to hit the ground on my descent. The landing thrashes me about, and only my seatbelt keeps me from sprawling across the cab.
After receiving my official Dig This certificate of completion, I now feel prepared to offer my services to the crews working on the I-15 South expansion project. At least that’s one part of the Valley where construction vehicles are still being used to create something more than good times.