Often portrayed as exceptional, Vegas is instead merely extreme, an extreme version of America, an unrestrained attempt to satisfy public desire. Nowhere did the car triumph more spectacularly than along the neon-splashed asphalt of Las Vegas. Few remember that when the place began to flourish more than half a century ago, people walked everywhere. The train deposited visitors on Fremont Street, where they could stroll to and from a number of nearby casinos. But that was before bigger and more fantastic resort-casinos began to migrate south out Highway 91, toward Los Angeles. Fremont Street began its long decline, and Highway 91 became the Strip, like automotive strips everywhere, only more so—more effervescently, seductively, gargantuanly so. Then, in the last several years, something utterly unexpected happened. This Strip of Strips started luring pedestrians.
Like those islands where an introduced species reproduces so successfully that its teeming hordes devastate their surroundings and starve en masse, the Strip has attracted so many cars that its eight lanes of traffic are now in almost continual gridlock. Now that the once-scattered casinos have grown together into a boulevard of fantasies and lures, tourists can park in one casino's behemoth parking lot and wander the Strip on foot for days, and they do, by the millions—more than 34 million a year, upward of 200,000 at once on the busiest weekends. Even in August, when the temperature hovers around 100 degrees after dark, I have seen the throngs streaming slowly up and down, though not more slowly than the cars.
Years ago, after falling asleep in the black velvet of a desert night in a car heading from California to an antinuclear gathering at the Nevada Test Site, I woke up when we came to a halt at a traffic light on Las Vegas Boulevard. The sky was a jungle of neon vines and flowers and words bubbling and exploding. I still remember the shock of that spectacle, heavenly and hellish in equal measure.
That bright neon was only a mile or two from the inky desert then. Even now, the east-west avenues of Las Vegas run straight as latitude lines, and looking west down most of them you can see the 13-mile-long escarpment of Red Rocks and, behind that ruddy sandstone wall, the 8,500-foot-high gray peaks of the Spring Range. Of course, despite mountain ranges on three sides—the Spring Range to the west, the Sheep Mountains to the north, and the Black Mountains to the east—and glorious desert light, this amnesiac boomtown has never been about nature appreciation. Not in 1900, when the tiny railroad stop had a population of five. And not now, swollen with 1.25 million residents. Between the glamorous Strip and the desert now lies a colossal sprawl of trailer parks, golf courses, gated communities, and generic subdivisions.
I had planned to walk from the Strip all the way to the desert, but the desert was miles farther away than I remembered. When I telephoned the local cartographic company for clues, I was told that the city was growing so fast that they had to put out a new map every month. They recommended some of the shortest routes between the Strip and the city edge, but I drove them and saw they were terrifying places for a solitary walker—miles of warehouses, light industrial sites, and vacant lots in which only cars and hoboes stirred.
It was too late—by a matter of years—to walk all the way out of Las Vegas, but by beginning from the city's pedestrian heart I could at least trace its main artery. And so, on a room-temperature December morning, I stepped out of my friend Pat's van onto Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, and he set off to spend the day climbing in Red Rock Canyon.