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Claiming my spot among the original Believers

Courtesy Black Mountain Institute

All eyes on Joshua Wolf Shenk, BMI director, as he opens the American Dreams literary festival with a series of readings in the amphitheater in Red Rock.

I want to document for the record that I was at the first Believer-Fest, as I’m calling it, though it was officially American Dreams: A Festival. (It was produced by Black Mountain Institute and The Believer magazine, which BMI recently bought, and of all the possible hammerings of those names and acronyms into a title, Believer-Fest is the least pretentious and bodily-function sounding, so I’m sticking with it.) It was April 21-22 in Las Vegas, opening Friday evening at the Red Rock Canyon amphitheater and rotating Saturday through three Downtown venues: the Mob Museum, Place on 7 th, and Bunkhouse Saloon. I missed the Saturday morning session at the Mob Museum, but otherwise I got to be there for the whole, historic thing.

I’m getting this in writing now, because sometime Saturday afternoon, between Dave Eggers interviewing Carrie Brownstein and Miranda July reading her short story about a woman who really, really (ahem!) loved her dog, I looked around and thought, “In 10 years, when Believer-Fest will be teetering between festival stardom (such as it is, in the literary world) and jumping the shark, people will look back and say, ‘It was okay this year, but nowhere near as cool as the first one. Remember Jim James singing an acoustic version of “Changing World” to an intimate crowd with the sunset reflecting on Calico Basin in the background?’ We’ll sigh, ‘Yeah. It’ll never be like that again. It’s too big now. Too … sceney.’ Those will be the days."

For future reference, here’s a list of other nostalgia-invoking moments, with geographical and historical tags thrown in for authenticity:

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  • Heidi Julavits’ short story about her and two friends being abducted by the “new president” and forced to have sex with him in front of his 12-year-old son and two secret servicemen in a hotel room.
  • Luis Alberto Urrea reciting his American Psalm, addressed to God (get it?), from memory, thumb-marked notebook in hand just in case he forgot any lines. He didn’t.
  • Carrie Brownstein greeting the audience with, “My dad lives in Las Vegas. (Cheers) I’ve never visited him here. (Laughs) But I like Las Vegas. It seems like a really great place to cry alone in your car.”
  • She and Dave Eggers concluding their conversation about Portlandia with, “It exists anywhere that good intentions are divorced from common sense.”
  • Miranda July reading 30 pre-solicited submissions from female audience members describing their ultimate sexual fantasy, the one that “always works to get them off,” and finishing by pointing out that it was an emotional experience — even for “that guy” (pointing to resident of adjacent apartment complex, who heard all 30 fantasies from his balcony). That guy shook his head in disbelief.

You should add your own favorites, so we can all prepare our future selves for smug superiority over those who missed it. Cheers to then!


Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.