November 11, 2012
Our first night in Las Vegas we spent outside of town. After seeing Ajahn Brahm in the evening, we drove west on Route 160 to camp in the desert. Although Las Vegas is large and sprawling, when it ends, it just ends, and you have easy access to open lands and national forest.
After one day, I was already overwhelmed by trying to maneuver through the big city. Our GPS took us in circles, on and off freeways, as we headed to Ajahn Brahm’s talk and we were 40 minutes late. At one point, I had three GPS’s (a Magellan and two iPhones) balanced in my lap, two of them barking orders, hoping that one of them would get us to where we wanted to be. All three kept instructing us to take an exit that didn’t seem to exist.
We frequently stop to spend the night along dirt roads in public lands (rather than finding developed campgrounds.) Although Chris has no qualms about wandering around in the dark, I dislike searching for places to camp after nightfall. This has become an area of contention between us. In complete darkness, it can be impossible to tell where you are, much less where you are going or what might be around the next corner.
The first few miles of the dirt road we found off 160 went through privately owned camps belonging to the Boy Scouts, the Methodist Church, and other groups. Eventually, the road entered national forest. It got more and more mountainous and the road climbed ceaselessly, higher and higher with no level ground to park on. After some concern that we’d never find any place suitable, we spotted a side road just wide enough and flat enough to pull over. I had no clear sense of the surrounding landscape except for the steep drive and the low trees illuminated by our headlights. In the morning, we woke up to discover we were surrounded by rocky cliffs and forested mountains, a beautiful sight.
Heading down the mountain again toward Las Vegas, we saw several desert bighorn sheep ewes by the road. We turned around to get a better look and to take a few fleeting photos.
Closer to town, we reached the southern portion of Red Rock Canyon, a well-known park that abuts the big city. Its name derives from the large rock formations of deep red at the northern end. The red stands out in isolation against the grayer, tanner, greener earth and vegetation around it. I have spotted these formations from the plane when landing in Las vegas.
The southern end has a variety of trails through the desert. Chris had ridden his mountain bike here on a previous trip and was excited to try it again. By the looks of all the car bike racks in the parking lot, this was indeed a popular spot for bikers. At least, there would be other people on the trails to help Chris if he got lost or hurt.
While Chris rode, I took a slow hike on the less-used flatter trails heading north. Not interested in walking quickly or getting anywhere, I just meandered and breathed in my surroundings, looking, listening, smelling the desert and its inhabitants, being present for what presented itself.
Surprisingly, a few flowers were blooming; I was happy to see them. There were many cactus dotting the landscape, more varieties than we had seen on this trip. I was particularly drawn to the stout barrel cactus. They were covered in a tangle of large pinkish thorns that created a prickly protective cage around them. Many of the barrel cactus appeared to sprout directly from shear rock as if the stone itself was bulging into plant life. Large yuccas and joshua trees added vertical height to the desert floor. The joshua trees had the most personality. Each tree had a unique form with the trunk and branches jutting out at strange angles. At the end of each arm was a green starburst of new spiny leaves, the old dried leaves collapsed against the limbs, covering the tree in a tan fur.
The air was still; little moved in the desert. As the sound of the traffic receded, a deep pervading quiet emerged. The sky was limitless blue. The sun was a kind companion, illuminating the beauty and offering a soothing warmth. This day the desert was gentle, allowing everything, including myself, to be bathed in spaciousness and tranquility. No wonder people through the ages have gone to the desert for prayer and revelation.
I am well aware that the desert is also a place where the elements express themselves in dangerous extremes, where every stone, creature and plant can seems sharp and jagged. I will continue to go to the desert for exploration and sanctuary, but I don’t think I will live here. Perhaps too accustomed to abundant water and greenery, I like the redwood forests and the woods of the north.
Chris returned smiling and exhilarated by his ride and, as is common in mountain biking, he made what he calls, “a blood offering”, his shin scraped and bleeding from a fall.