Leaving Las Vegas

It's just a few short miles from the neon strip to the inky desert beyond. But to a solitary walker on her way out of town, the worlds of casino palaces and redrock spires might as well be galaxies apart.

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
When the twilight outside finally matched the eternal twilight inside the casinos, I called it a hike and went to meet up with Pat. "This place is a maze," he immediately grumbled (confirming my thoughts about the place) wwhen he turned up a little late at our rendezvous spot in Caesars Forum, the arcade attached to the casino. The Forum's arched ceiling is painted to look like the sky, and recessed lighting changes from day to twilight and back every 20 minutes or so. Its curving "streets" are full of distractions: the stores packed with clothes, perfumes, toys, knickknacks, a fountain with a backing glass wall full of tropical fish, the famous fountain of nubile gods and goddesses who periodically "come to life" in a simulated thunderstorm with laser lightning snaking across the skylike dome. Caesars Forum is constantly thronged, as much for its simulations of live and natural phenomena as for its shopping.

We found Pat's van, and he drove back toward Red Rocks on Charleston Boulevard, out one of the westbound streets I'd been looking down all day. As we entered the desert, the streetlights grew progressively dimmer and farther apart, but the sky never lost its star-obscuring glow.

In defense of his adopted hometown, the art critic Dave Hickey, who lives in Las Vegas, once wrote, "Just the other day, I took down my grandfather's Cicero and read for nearly an hour without anyone breaking down my door and forcing me to listen to Wayne Newton." No one is forcing tens of thousands of people to wander the Strip either, but they're a lot more likely to do that than to head 20 miles west of it to the 307-square-mile Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, whose spires and buttresses are far taller and more spectacular than any casino. Many people only drive through or step out long enough to take a photograph, unwilling to surrender to the slower pace. Walk away from your car, however, and you'll find that twilight comes only once a day, and wildlife does as it pleases. It's a place with nothing to structure one's pleasure but a few trails, bolts on the rocks, maps, and an entrenched tradition of nature-worship. Nothing happens here most of the time, except seasons, light, and the slow parade of your own thoughts.

I think that the time one spends musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been plowed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use. Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don't produce a market crop. The same is true of the meadowlands of the imagination. The fight for free space—for wilderness and for public space—should be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend in that space, wandering, for it is in this wandering afoot that one best reaches the wildlands of the imagination. Vegas has not yet decided whether to pave over or encourage that space; fake volcanoes and long boulevards do a little of both.

That night we slept out by the quarry near Red Rocks, in an unofficial campground with figures silhouetted against the small fires burning here and there under the starry sky and the glow of Vegas visible over the hill. In the morning, we met up with Pat's climbing partner for the day, a young guide named Paul who often drives out here from Utah. Paul led us along a trail, snaking up and down across small arroyos and a dry streambed, past gorgeous foliage, junipers with desert mistletoe, tiny-leafed desert oaks, yuccas, manzanitas, and an occasional barrel cactus—all stunted by the rocky soil and lack of rain into small, twisted, and elegantly spaced plantings that, with the large rocks strewn so elegantly here and there, make Red Rock Canyon look like a giant Japanese garden. When I turned back to look at Las Vegas, as I had so often looked toward Red Rocks the day before, Paul said, "Don't look back," and then, "I'm waiting for them to put a dome over it so it can always be night there." But I stared, amazed by how thick the city's smog was, a brown cloud with only a few building spires murkily visible within it. That the wilderness could be seen clearly from the city but not the other way round seemed as neat an allegory as I'd ever met. As though one could look back from the future to the past but not forward from this ancient geologic and natural place to a future shrouded in trouble, contradictions, and fumes.

Paul led us off the trail into the brush that climbed narrow Juniper Canyon, and I managed to heave myself up the various shelves where the rock was sometimes striped red and beige in thin layers, sometimes covered with spots the size of coins, until we were at the foot of the climbing route Olive Oil. According to Pat's battered American Alpine Club Climber's Guide, "This route ascends obvious crack systems for 700 feet up the south side of the Rose Tower." I lounged about and watched Pat and Paul climb up the first few hundred feet with ease, and watched scurrying mice who were less dramatic than the white tigers and dolphins of the Mirage, but livelier. Afterward, as the day wore on, I wandered along the few trails to the clear rushing water of Pine Creek, explored another canyon, and turned back to watch the shadows over the hills grow longer and the light thicker and more golden, as though air could turn to honey, honey that would dissolve into the returning night.