My first day at the Nevada Appeal, in 1996, I was sitting casually in the news staff's afternoon meeting when one of the reporters informed me we would be having a story on the campaign to rename one of the state's roads as "The Extraterrestrial Highway."
"I interviewed Merlin this afternoon for the story," the reporter said.
"Who's Merlin?" I asked.
"That would be Ambassador Merlin II, who believes he's an alien from another galaxy," the reporter replied, matter of factly. "He's a lobbyist at the Legislature."
OK, I admit to having had some preconceptions about Nevada, fueled by the "X-Files," Area 51 and my previous trips to Las Vegas, which promotes itself as being - more or less - on some other planet.
Still, my skeptical newsman instincts were piqued.
"You're kidding, right?"
"No. Everybody knows Merlin. He's a registered lobbyist," the reporter said. "He's actually quite intelligent, and he testifies on bills pretty regularly. It's just that he believes he represents the Embassy of the Saucerians, or something like that, and gets his instructions from outer space. The Extraterrestrial Highway is his pet project."
"Hmmm," I said. "Sounds like a good story to me. You say he was in the office this afternoon? I would have liked to meet him."
"So," I continued, "I assume we have a photo of Merlin to go with the story ...."
"Don't tell me we had an ambassador from another galaxy in our newsroom this afternoon, and nobody took a photo," I said, looking around at the reporters and editors.
Several sets of eyes were averted from those of their new boss, me.
Well, I thought to myself, either I've got to adjust my own news instincts, or else I've got to begin adjusting the instincts of the folks in the Appeal's newsroom. Because, where I'm from, legislative lobbyists who work for embassies in other galaxies are still news.
It turns out they're news in Nevada, too. Just not quite as big of news as they might be elsewhere.
Why? Because Nevada has more than its fair share of "characters." It was founded by characters. It attracts characters. And, as I've written before, it tolerates characters.
In fact, the people in Nevada often are rather proud of their characters. Hank Monk, the wild stagecoach driver of the Sierra Nevada. Adolph Sutro, who dug the tunnel from Dayton to Virginia City. James "Old Virginny" Finney, for whom Virginia City supposedly was named.
Gardnerville character Stew Carnall, at whose funeral Merle Haggard sang. Pro-Life Andy Anderson, who changed his name for his cause.
Dan DeQuille, Alf Doten and Mark Twain, who were as much characters as the people they wrote about. Julia Bulette, the murdered Virginia City prostitute.
The list could go on and on. These are just a few of the names off the top of my head. And, of course, there was Bob McKinney, the Virginia City character shot to death last month. He may not have been famous, but he was known by everyone in his hometown.
Ambassador Merlin, whose real name was David Solomon, had achieved a certain measure of fame. He's been written about in books, magazine articles and is cited frequently on Web sites exploring the weirdness of The Extraterrestrial Highway.
I sat and talked to Merlin one day, because he came into the Nevada Appeal frequently during the 1997 legislative session. He could sound as rational as the next person - believe me, less rational people have walked in the front door of the Appeal - until he started talking about the galaxy he represented.
He told me he didn't claim to be alien himself; he was only acting as the representative for beings from outer space.
"Can I meet them?" I asked. "Because I'm having a really hard time believing this."
"Oh, they're not here," he assured me. "But they're coming."
"Then how do you know what they want you to say when you testify in front of the Legislature? Do they have positions on the issues in Nevada?"
I was obviously trying to trap him, trying to inject some logic into the conversation that would reveal whether he was just pulling my leg over the whole space-aliens thing. And, I have to admit, I was amusing myself. Seeing where it would go.
But Merlin was serious. "They contact me," he said. "That's why I do this."
So I told Merlin to have the aliens give me a call sometime, shooed him out the door and didn't think too much about him. Eventually, we told Merlin to quit hanging around the Appeal because he was bothering some people. Other places, including the Legislative Building, told him the same thing.
To tell you the truth, over the years, I've talked to many people whose grip on reality was just as tenuous. Why are we fascinated by such people?
Because there's such a fine line between genius and madness. Because faith, conviction and will can be the most powerful forces in the universe. Because extraordinary people sometimes do extraordinary things.
I'm sorry David Solomon died out in the weeds at the end of Kit Kat Road. I don't care if he was ambassador for anybody other than himself, he deserved better than that.
Though I didn't know him well, there's a stretch of open road in Southern Nevada that will remind me of him for a long time.
Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.