Monday, February 06, 2006

Las Vegas 1/06: I'm-a Riiiiidin' for Red Rock

UPON AWAKENING TO MY first full day in Las Vegas, I headed west on Charleston away from the Strip, toward the town's Whole Foods Market. My parents had given me two of their gift cards for Christmas, and I figured I would snag some healthful food to buffer the buffets. The distance on the map was deceptive; by the time I reached the market, I was closer to the edge of the city than its center and well above the level of the valley. It was worth it, though, because this is a huge and well-stocked Whole Foods, featuring a hot-breakfast area in addition to the many baked and packaged temptations available for those greeting the Vegas sun. I shopped for snacks and fruit, then assembled a solid hot breakfast that I ate at a gloriously leisurely pace (definitely not a work-week option).

When I headed back to the car, I again noticed how close I was to the city limits, and the desert and mountains beyond. There they stood, glowing in the morning sun in stunning ochre, russet, and red. (It took a supreme effort not to buy my first digital camera at the Best Buy near the Whole Foods in order to do true justice to the mountains.) Though I had packed up for a day out gambling, I decided that the nonstop poker action could wait a couple of hours, and continued west on Charleston, past the last fringes of new condo developments and the shell of a nearly completed casino, into the open desert of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

I had visited the park on my first visit, driving the long loop of Route 159 past the various and gorgeous scenic rock formations, I didn't recall visiting this particular part of it before. Perhaps I took a different turn. When you leave Las Vegas via this route, the changeover to desert is quite abrupt. One minute you're passing corporate parks and cloned condos, and then you're bumping over a metal grid set in the road to deter the native burros from leaving. Yes, Red Rock and the tiny neighboring community of Blue Diamond are home to wild burros, and there are signs around warning visitors not to get too close, as they bite. I saw no burros on either trip, though I did hear a rooster crowing from the yard of one of the houses in the arid town just outside my destination.

I drove along blacktop bordered on either side by sand and scrub, following signs and marveling at the crystal-clear blue skies, until I stopped in a largely empty and new-looking parking lot at the base of the mountains. I was as far out as I could drive at this point, and short of the few streets and the houses sparsely set along them, and the signs indicating the rules of the rest area and the beginning of the self-guided nature walk, I was entirely alone. Dead silent, the only sound a flock of birds that took off and landed in a body from one part of the rock face above to the other. As I watched them, a Hummer pulled up, and two young women disembarked and started up a trail toward the mountains. Red Rock features numerous trails of varying difficulty, but I am suited to none of them, so I contented myself with watching this duo ascend for a spell.

This particular corner of Red Rock used to be part of a ranch, which was granted back to the state to maintain and protect from development. It features a nature walk around a spring-fed meadow, which is circled by a boardwalk trail with signs describing the wildlife and geological formations in the area. I followed this trail around the meadow, a broad expanse of yellow grass with a couple of trees set along the course of the spring runoff, until I reached the source of the spring itself, pouring with a loud gurgle in the silent desert air from a recess in the sandstone into a swampy pond. This pond, in turn, filtered into the meadow, which apparently hosted a wide variety of greenery and animals in the warm season, all adapted to steal what moisture they could in the wet times to better resist the brutal Las Vegas summer. While walking along, I saw sandy-brown birds hopping in the sparse, defoliated bushes, and once I surprised a hidden rabbit, which bounded out of a thicket and disappeared behind rocks.

The only other sounds I heard came from far above me, from the Tatooine-like rock face rising hundreds of feet above me as I sat writing at the meadow's edge. I had forgotten about the two hikers while walking along the nature tour. When I heard distant voices, I looked up, there to see two tiny dots of color moving along the rusty rock face. There were the two women, ascending even further with careful yet confident strides up the trail!

I imagine there are diehard Vegas visitors, and not a small number of locals, who never come out here. I find that sad. When the women finally came back down and returned to their truck, I felt a great surge of envy. New Jersey has natural wonders, certainly, but those mountains against that sapphire sky had temporary possession of my heart. What a wonderful natural resource to have, with such stark beauty, and what an opportunity to be able to hike across the park's trails, or simply to come to this little park to read or barbecue or simply watch the sun rise against the stone. Funny that the park, and not the casinos, should inspire such envy of the locals in me.

From the edge of this park, the mighty Las Vegas Strip is a grey line of shadowed sculpture, millions of times younger than the walls of ancient rock that lower down upon it. The problems of so many people would ease themselves if folks took the opportunity to visit this park, or the Valley of Fire north of Vegas, or even the Grand Canyon a day-trip's distance away. Just to absorb the raw beauty surrounding the city. Thankfully, this whole area is a Federally protected enclave, and the few residents who came in before this mandate seem devoted to repelling any development by the rapacious condo or casino companies. I saw a couple of Red Rock locals while driving around, working in their xericultured yards, riding horseback in the gentle winter morning, or jogging along. They seem happy to have no neighbors in great numbers, and I suspect most of them understand what a precious treasure they live near.

I decided at that point, as I headed back to the car, that I could get my ass handed to me at the tables, my bankroll crushed, but at least I would have this beautiful natural resource waiting for me.

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