There’s more than one way to dig a hole in Las Vegas. Sure, you simply could lose money. Or you literally could dig a hole with operate heavy equipment.
I spent 90 minutes on a Caterpillar 315C excavator in the desert sands and came away richer for the experience.
My mid-February experience was courtesy of Dig This, a 10-year-old company that organized five acres in the desert into an adult sandbox. There, any sober person over age 8 can spend an hour or more playing in the soil.
The idea had its roots in 2002, when owner Ed Mumm was building a house in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. A hands-on guy with heavy-equipment experience, the New Zealand native rented an excavator and, with a friend’s help, dug a basement. He enjoyed the activity and thought others might find it entertaining.
To skeptics, he says, “60,000.” That’s how many visitors have operated Dig This equipment. (And 50 percent of them have been women. The instructors, by the way, agree women complete the tasks more successfully because they listen better.)
Today the company has nine machines — five excavators, two bulldozers and two small loaders — with more planned. A location in New Zealand offers 14 machines. And two more sites are scheduled for the United States.
My day started at 9:30 a.m., with an Uber ride from a campground on the east side of the Las Vegas Strip to an industrial site on the west side. Enroute, my insecurities grew. What if I made mistakes? What if I broke something? What if I looked stupid? What if I got hurt?
Within five minutes of arrival, Operations Manager Walt Logan — who’s been operating machinery since 1965 — had me ready to letter my hands “L” and “R.” He made me practice inhaling and exhaling to come back to a calm center. He taught me the language — lever, joystick.
I was ready.
I layered a loose highlighter-yellow mesh safety vest over my clothes. Instructor Josh Crow, garbed in a safety-orange jacket, led me into the bright winter sunshine and handed over wireless yellow headphones.
Up the dusty tracks and into the cab of the mustard-yellow machine, I climbed. After adjusting the seat, pointing to temperature controls and reviewing safety measures, Crow shut the cab. I was alone with his voice coming through the headphones.
The first activity demolished my comfort zone. I’d been scrambled on amusement-park rides but never taken charge of a 32,000-pound metal monster. My first trick after releasing the parking brake was to plant the bucket and force the monster’s body into an angle, resting it on the back edges of the track so I felt somewhat horizontal in the driver’s seat.
With adrenaline to spare, I returned to center, pushed both levers forward and crawled to the next station. Crow’s voice through headphones: “Push the right joystick forward. Now, right joystick to the left … . Close the bucket.”
I scooped about one cubic yard — about 1.5 tons or 14 average wheelbarrows — of red-brown soil, rotated the cab and dumped. We repeated the exercise until I didn’t need instruction. Competitive by nature, I found myself turning each scoop into a contest. I’d point the bucket’s five metal teeth at the earth, lower it hard and gather more soil each time. Then, I’d gently spin the arm left so I wouldn’t spill soil until ready.
By scoop eight, I had a Zen moment. Without thinking, without Crow radioing commands, I used the joysticks to dance through the movements. All by myself. It was like an old video game, and I won.
Crow kept me humble. The next task was moving a pyramid of four 2,000-pound industrial tires 200 feet from one end of the lane to the other end. Tire-by-tire, I mastered the movements.
The final challenge was excavator basketball. I climbed a ramp and played from a slight angle. Before we started, Crow told me to spin the cab four to six times. Yee-haw. It was like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at Chardon’s Maple Festival.
Once I was dizzy enough, I had to pluck the balls one at a time and deposit them in yet another tire. I’m better at excavator-basketball than in the gym. Score, score, miss.
The final amusement was crawling 5 mph while spinning the cab, another disorienting and exhilarating ride.
I came away with feelings of relief, accomplishment, surprise, excitement, confidence and respect for operators. As Logan predicted, I couldn’t stop smiling.