It is difficult to imagine a contrast greater than the Colorado River as it roars through the Grand Canyon and that same river a hundred miles downstream as it flows tamely past Bullhead City and Laughlin.

Within the Grand Canyon, the Colorado has an almost religious presence, as if it was the manifestation of some potent deity.

Seen from the balcony of a Laughlin casino, however, the Colorado River is part of the entertainment, better than a lounge comedian but not as exciting as, say, Willie Nelson.

The real action along the Colorado these days is in the twin boomtowns of Bullhead City and Laughlin. There, jammed into 25 square miles of bleak, hot northwestern Arizona, is a late-twentieth-century version of the Gold Rush.

To people attuned to the stampede of new development centered on the embryonic gambling-entertainment empire, the harsh, dun-colored vegas (Spanish for "plains") sweeping back from the river might as well be gold.

Like its nineteenth-century precursors, this new Gold Rush is populated with hustlers as well as innocents, each pursuing their dreams guiltlessly.

For people like Walter Biewer, a 66-year-old retiree-turned-entrepreneur, those dreams revolve around land. Not a little patch on which to park an RV, but big chunks of raw land, dangled enticingly in a marketplace that, for a while at least, seemed to have no ceiling.

Biewer, a former military fighter pilot who says he got into the land business by a fluke, sells hundreds of acres at a time, obtained through trades with the federal Bureau of Land Management. He is one of perhaps half a dozen individuals who have what is known in the trade as "rapport" with the BLM.

Indeed, Bullhead City's expansion has been made possible by people like Walter Biewer and the complex trading system known as the federal land-exchange program.

Over the past three years--years in which federal land exchanges were under intense scrutiny by government investigators--Biewer and others have made millions in profits off land swaps in the Bullhead City area.

The profits were made when the traders, called "proponents" in federal jargon, sold land--sometimes within months of acquiring it in trade from the BLM--for far more money than the per-acre trade value assigned to it by the public agency.

The BLM can swap land but isn't allowed to sell land outright. So, most of the profits from sales of public lands flow not into public coffers, but into the pockets of the entrepreneurs who set them up. (State land traders have no such restrictions and can sell land directly to developers, and the money goes into state coffers.)

When questions about profiteering arose because of federal land exchanges in Phoenix, and the national investigation brought the federal land-exchange program to a screeching halt, Bullhead City's frenzied trading barely slowed. It's almost as if Bullhead City and Laughlin are on another planet.

IN LAUGHLIN, a solitary gas station in the desert only ten years ago, casinos go up at a rate of one every few months.

With them come high-rise hotels to accommodate the players. The buildings are deliberately garish, like something conceived in a child's imagination. They crowd together in a narrow band on the Nevada side of the riverbank, as if consciously ignoring the immutable emptiness unfolding behind them less than half a mile beyond.

Laughlin can sleep 8,200 visitors a night, but not a square foot of privately owned land is zoned for single-family homes. That's where Bullhead City and the federal land hemming its eastern edge come into the picture.

Bullhead City doesn't have gambling, but it is rich in the creature comforts sought by boomers gravitating toward Laughlin. It is one long, brawling, dusty stretch of franchise food outlets, discount marts and mobile-home parks. As in Laughlin, the town is elongated and close to the river. However, east of Highway 95, the main drag, residential construction is occurring at a rate unparalleled elsewhere in Arizona's somnambulant economy.

The land this is occurring on is "just junk" in some ways. That's how BLM real-estate expert Bill Ruddick describes the sere, almost featureless land. "There's nothing out there but creosote and desert pavement," Ruddick says. "The resource value is very low."

Except in a boomtown.
Where bluffs exist, formed from the soft alluvial fill, the preferred form of land preparation is to blade off the top, pushing the excess over the side, where it buries what little vegetation has managed to take root there. The effect is much like strip mining as it was done in the days before Mo Udall.

The freshly crewcut mesas sprout stucco-and-tile subdivisions that overlook the 24-hour traffic jam on Highway 95 and the casinos on the other side of the canal-like river. At twilight, when the casinos are backlighted by turquoise and violet, their lights glittering off the river at their feet, the view is romantic, even beautiful.