To Las Vegas (Days 22, 23, 24)

5.31.2013

I awoke the next morning feeling hungover, body and mind a mush from yesterday's Grand Canyon climb, and I didn't manage to get back on the road until after noon. When I did, I worked my way east, bouncing up against the canyon's rim at various points, then turned north, and then back west, to the other side of the canyon, the north side, and then north of that, back into Utah, Bryce National Park. The late start and the long drive left me not arriving until dark, and campsite full, I found a small piece of land within the campgrounds to place my fifteen square-foot imprint upon the earth, and there I slept.

High on the Colorado Plateau, which stretches far into Utah, I spent a cold night followed by a frigid morning at nearly 9,000 feet, cold but not cold enough to stop me from taking in some of Bryce's terrific canyon views before departing. At sunrise, I headed out to Bryce Overlook, a magnificent vista peering out at Bryce's hundreds of spindly hoodoo spires, and was surprised to already find throngs of spectators crowding the platform upon my arrival, waiting for the sun to emerge from over the canyon's far wall, which it soon did, and when it did it cast the most otherwordly of glows upon the valley's red rock, a glow so deep and rich it create a luminance that seemed to seep out from within the rock itself. I marveled, working to poke my head over the sea of onlookers, onlookers and their cameras.

A futile effort it was, and so while waiting for the crowds of Bryce Overlook to clear, I sat atop a rock and conducted a simple study, flawed, perhaps, by a small sample size and lack of a quality research assistant, but with fascinating results nonetheless. From my perch on the rock, I counted 46 spectators at the overlook that morning. Of them, 21 had DSLRs, big bulky cameras like my own, 14 had smaller, lighter models, 10 used their phones for photographing, and only one, only a singular individual, was there "just to look," as she told me later. From these 46 individuals, I selected three of them randomly, and I did my best to track the three during their time on the overlook, and to the best of my ability and the reliability of my stopwatch, I captured the average time of their presence at 8 minutes and 45 seconds, and the average time in which they seemed to be seeing the canyons before them, instead of merely composing an image or looking from behind a viewfinder, was a troubling 1 minute and 3 seconds.

"Excuse me, you're in my shot," a man had said curtly to me some time later, when I was leaned over the railing, awestruck by the depths of the canyon below.

"Excuse me," I wanted to reply, his tripod jutting up against my leg, "you're in my view."

I often long to live in a time before the ubiquity of film, before it became so simple for someone, anyone, to become a documentation. How lovely it must have been to look out at a beautiful scene and experience a moment of collective appreciation, unitary awe! How peaceful it must have been to be moved emotionally and not physically, pushed mentally but not out of the way, to gaze at a park's flagship view through one's unobstructed eyes and not the eyepiece of an optical viewfinder. I am a man of the camera myself, and so I knowingly speak with some hypocrisy here, but I hope to never become enslaved by that device in the grave ways my fellow citizens have fallen victims to theirs. There at Bryce Overlook, I saw no enjoyment, no sincere appreciation, no communion with nature; I saw stress, worry about getting the right shot, the literal injection of a manmade object between oneself and the nature in front of their very eyes. Arms flying wildly over each other, an endless game of offense to get one's camera the highest, the closest, the best framed ... and to what purpose? No amateur photographer will do better what Ansel Adams did so well decades ago, what the National Park Service still does to this day, which is to capture the parks in all their technical and natural glory, shot and processed by professionals of the trade. Are these photos, then, nothing but proof that one was "there"? Proof to whom? And why?

And then, were this mongering not offensive enough to nature, the seeming need to place oneself within those photographs, to stand in front of the canyon, or the cliff, or the edifice, hands resting proudly on hips, or arms stretched out to the sides, or subtle smile, composed countenance, this I found, and do find, even more flabbergasting. Landscape photography is an art, indeed, and portraiture just as so, but to force the two together, to produce a bastardized chimera of the two, that, I feel, is a crime again all aesthetic sensibility. If your intent be art, then photograph as such, and capture images of unique context and viewpoint, and strip away all identifying markers, for identifying markers are not important in that world. And if your intent be to document, to say "I was there," then be there, experience the place, wherever it may be, and the passion with which you speak of it to others later on, then, will be all the proof they, whomever they be, need to take your word for it that it not just happened, but that it happened and that its effect was profound.

Alas, Bryce Overlook remained a hazard of tripods and aggressive arms all morning, and there was no peace to be found there, satiated photographers replaced quickly by hungry ones, and so I left Bryce and headed northeast along Highway 12, a lovely scenic byway, to Capitol Reef National Park, an even lovelier park of rainbow mountains, layers of rock blue atop red, purple over orange, stained chapters of natural history on ripe, raw display. An out-and-back trip, I made the return later that evening, back through the many small towns and villages connecting Capitol Reef to Bryce.

In entering one such town, I noticed a commotion in the street up ahead; a dog was running in the center of traffic, cars braking and swerving out of the way, the mutt not breaking stride but courageously bounding forward, past me and out the way I had come. That dog, I knew, was sure to be roadkill if he didn't stop, and so I turned Rousseau around, and followed after him, cutting him off by about fifty yards and dismounting, putting myself in his way, throwing some almonds to the ground so he would take a short break. But as he approached nearer, he seemed to increase his speed, running right past me into the distance. I don't know where that canine was racing to with such determination, but I do hope, wherever he ended up, that he found what he was looking for.

Zion National Park was the epic conclusion to my Utah chapter, I had decided, and it felt incredible to finally make it there a few hours later. Zion is a place unlike any I've ever seen, a ridiculous sort of place, a canyon in a funhouse mirror or a canyon in a microwave, its walls all sloped and melted and congealed in a countless combinations. Zion is not, in my opinion, a beautiful place; its screaming landscape and vibrant forests sorely lack the subtle beauty and peace of calmer canyons. No, Zion is not pretty to look at; it is stunning to look at, for what it sacrifices in aesthetic it makes up for in geographic absurdity. Zion looks like the product a god who got a bit carried away with her options for transforming a landscape, a little too much flourish in an enthusiastic moment of creation, so much crammed into so small an area. And all throughout it, the winding roads on the canyon floor, life not seen in Utah's western regions: bighorn sheep and juniper trees and birds aplenty.

I slept in Zion as I had in Bryce, squeezed in between legitimate campsites, and was not bothered there amidst the sea of laughter and play that accompanied children and families to the park on that holiday weekend. I hit the trails early the next morning, my first hike of the day called Angel's Landing, a legendary climb up the steep face of a canyon wall with a harrowing scramble at the end, balance and safety aided only by a small chain snaking along the last leg of the ascent. Again, I climbed barefoot, and again, I relished the feel of the smooth earth beneath my feet.

As I began my descent, a female voice from behind me called "Hey, nice shoes," and I turned and smiled politely, having heard that comment many times before. But then, looking down, I noticed that she too was wearing no shoes, the very first barefoot hiker I'd seen on my trip! Her friend, who was sporting sandals, didn't take much convincing to lose her shoes as well, and soon all three of us were barefoot, walking proudly down the canyon's switchbacks, a naturalist contingent turning heads as we walked. Their names were Barbie and Frankie, and they introduced themselves as "'She's Barbie,' and 'She's Frankie,'" each the other like a rehearsed routine, and on our way down the mountain we spoke of San Diego, where Barbie was from, and St. George, where they both now lived, and then we parted ways, them off to another canyon hike and me to the Narrows, lives intersecting for just a brief but appreciated moment.

The Narrows, my second and final hike at Zion, was less a hike and more a riverwalk, a delicate cautious trudge through the thigh-deep Virgin River. Still barefoot, and absent walking stick, I struggled to stay upright against the slippery rocks of the riverbed, often hugging the canyon wall for support. Those walls, indeed, are what make the trek so special, what give the Narrows its name. The further upstream one walks, the narrower the walls get and the deeper the canyon draws, gorgeous bends and curves of black stone, dizzying proportions all around.

I had forgotten to fill my water pack before heading into the Narrows, and so I aimed to make my trip a short one, but how difficult it was to turn around with each subsequent bend in the river so much more marvelous than the last! Like a siren song, the Virgin River drew me in further, deeper into her walls, knowing but not wanting to turn back. Only a few miles in, the canyon drew so tight that sun would not pass to the bottom, river too black to reveal what lay underneath, and no longer able to walk with any certainty that I would not fall, pack and all into the water, I reluctantly made an about-face and began the slow retreat downstream, back the way I had come.

By late afternoon, I left Zion, carrying myself along a dreary stretch of interstate for some fifty miles before passing into Nevada and turning off toward Lake Mead, a surprising gem of beauty in an otherwise desolate Nevada landscape. Approaching Lake Mead, I was taken aback by just how vibrant the reservoir was, a glowing, brilliant turquoise with a backdrop of gentle mountains, purple in that twilight hour, at its far end. And on the lake stretched, a hundred miles westward toward Las Vegas, and I felt it a privilege to follow its shores, some of the most glorious I'd encountered on my trip, to the outskirts of the city.

On those outskirts sat another aquatic wonder, the Hoover Dam, creator and lifeblood of the lake. As perhaps the most massive architectural undertaking of its time, and so close to my route, I opted for a brief detour to the dam, hoping to take a brief gander of its splendor before making it to Vegas by nightfall. Rousseau, deemed nonthreatening in size or bomb-carrying capacity, was casually waved through the security checkpoint, and leisurely I winded about the dam's outer roads before passing underneath the Memorial Bridge, a lovely stone structure towering over the Hoover Dam and its Colorado waters.

Having a genuine and long-lived habit of photographing the underside of bridges, which I have always found more intriguing than the tops, I pulled to the shoulder of the road for a quick photograph of that bridge's imposing arch. Engine still running, scooter steadied between my legs, I hastily removed my camera from my pack, framed and snapped a short flurry of shots, and then, as I worked to stuff my equipment back into my bag, Rosseau's side mirrors lit up in a strobe of blue and red.

I turned and smiled apologetically to the officer who had pulled behind me. "Sorry!" I shouted back, "just taking a quick photograph. I'll be on my way now!"

"Sir, please turn off your engine," he growled.

Annoyed, I obeyed, handing him my license and registration when prompted. "When's the last time you've had contact with a police officer?" he interrogated.

"Uh, pretty recently," I vaguely retorted, recalling my speeding ticket in Colorado just days earlier. "On my way out here, back in Colorado."

He frowned, face contorting, and climbed into his vehicle to determine whether I was worthy of an arrest, seemingly eager to find an unpaid parking ticket or bench warrant on my record. Fortunately for me, unfortunately for him, I was clean, and he emerged from the car after some time looking even more vexed.

"Do you see this sign right here?" he shouted, pointing to a conspicuous "No Parking" sign along the shoulder.

"I do, sir," I responded, "but I wasn't intending to park. I was just stopping for a minute to take a photograph."

"And what do you think that's called?"

"Sir?"

"What do you think it's called when you stop like that?"

I looked at him quizzically, unsure of how to best respond without sounding argumentative. "Well, sir, I'd call it stopping. Parking is when you turn your engine off and walk away from the vehicle."

My answer didn't appear to help matters. "Your engine is off, isn't it?"

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "Well, yes, but it was running until you, well, told me to turn it off."

Our conversation had run into a dead end, and the officer switched lanes for a different approach. "You see that sign over there?" he asked, pointing to a placard twenty feet down the road, above the opposite shoulder. "What's that say?"

"That says 'No Stopping.'"

"Right, and yet here you are, stopped."

My patience began to wear thin. "Sir," I pleaded, "that sign is over there, which is why I wasn't stopped over there. The sign over here says 'No Parking,' which I took to mean something different than 'No Stopping.' If both sides of the road prohibited stopping of any sort, wouldn't the signs just say the same thing?"

The officer was stumped. He inspected my license, still clutched in his hand, yet again. "You're from DC, so you should know all about security of government facilities, y'know. Listen, I'm going to let you move along, but here's the deal: we have signs here, and they actually mean something, got it? So I don't want to catch you again not following exactly what a sign says."

"Yessir," I nodded, "Won't happen again. Thank you."

And off I went, officer following behind, and upon coming to a turnoff with a sign advertising parking on the left, blocked by a row of cones, I had half a mind to do exactly what the sign said and plow through those mysteriously silent orange pylons in a smug act of civil disobedience in the form of civil overobedience. But with the moon already high in the sky, I thought better of testing my luck, and instead carried on over the Hoover Dam, stopping on the other side, legally, for a quick glance, before continuing on toward the city of blinding lights.

Las Vegas is a tremendously fascinating place. It is, in every way, a carnival for adults: slot machines in place of the arcade, prime rib in place of funnel cake, Cirque du Soleil in place of the funhouse. Its sequined girls are Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny for adults, mascots to pose with, and its plastic replicas of multicultural marvels are merely bigger, glitsier versions of the pirate ships and dragons of juvenile theme parks. There are gift shops everywhere, items carefully marketed toward simple minds, and the slushies haven't changed much, spare a few added shots of rum. And then some things never change: the lines, the puddles of bile, the pervasive scent of willing exploitation, all hearkening back to a nostalgia of teenage romance and childhood adventure, all the same but only a touch more grown-up.

Wary in entering Vegas after my tough time in America's other leading center of debauchery, New Orleans, I was pleased to find my pleasant mood unmoored by the social crowds around me. Incidentally, I found Las Vegas to be just the opposite of the Big Easy; rather than walk past throngs of happy people and feel unhappy for knowing none of them, there in Vegas I found myself parting my way through a sea of forlorn, unsmiling faces and feeling happy, buoyed, for being apart from that negative energy. Indeed, I speak in generalizations here,, but I did not find the people of Las Vegas to be a happy bunch. On the streets, in the casinos, I found everyone to appear stressed, anxious, and the only visitors I saw smiling, laughing, jovial were those who were so deeply inebriated they didn't know any better.

The casinos of Vegas were another matter to wrap my head around, complexes of mind-boggling scale, each a neighborhood in its own right, with lodging and eateries and shopping centers and parking for a small city. Upon arriving in the city, I parked at the Aria, toward the end of the strip, and then walked around aimlessly, exploring a few of these sprawling casinos, the Bellagios and the Palaces and the Balleys, before hitting a wall of fatigue and giving some thought to sleeping arrangements for the night.

Feeling particularly liberated after my night in the University of Colorado's chemistry lab, feeling as though all I needed for survival and comfort was a tiny piece of land and a bag on which to rest my head,, I smiled at the notion of simply curling up next to Rousseau on the rooftop of the Aria parking garage. The desert climate was just perfect that night, after all, and with so few cars parked in the garage, I recalled the highest level being particularly empty. Plus, it was an adventure to be had, and I relished any chance for an adventure, the Don Quixote of my soul applauding wildly in approval, and so I made for the Aria with haste, afraid I might collapse in a fit of exhaustion at any moment.

The rooftop was just as tranquil as I had remembered it, and after moving Rousseau to a far corner shielded by prying security cameras, I leaned my pack against a pillar and leaned my head against the pack and, arms folded neatly over my chest, I drifted to sleep under the hazy neon glow of Las Vegas skies.

Forty minutes later, my peaceful slumber was disturbed by strong winds hammering away at the rooftop. I aimed to pass the time reading, but the gusts did not let up, so I ambled down to the strip with sleepy eyes to rethink my options. Truthfully, there weren't many options to rethink, either a night at the Bellagio or a night on a patch of Vegas concrete, and I recommitted to the latter and took myself back up to the Aria parking garage but this time only to the sixth floor, where the walls promised to provide a bit more cover from the wind.

On that floor I found a small alcove by the stairway, largely blocked by a rhinoceros of a sports utility vehicle. Thankful for the truck's cover of privacy, I sidled
past it and set my body on the hard ground, ignoring the faint scent of urine, for a second attempt at sleep.

I did get some sleep, squeezing in a solid two hours of shuteye, before the driver of that big white machine stumbled back to the garage and drove it away, taking with it my shield from the expansive garage. Too exposed to remain, I sighed and lifted my weary self from the concrete, surrendering rest and agreeing to pace the remainder of the night in a casino's twentyfour-hour Starbucks.

I was amazed to find patrons still gambling at that late hour, vacant eyes and mouths agape, dried fingers pressing oiled buttons, all routine, all seemingly automatic, so little life and agency apparent on the casino floor. The coffee shop was equally desolate, but I was grateful for it, and sipped a soy chai latte in a cozy booth with a good book open before me, a worthy way to spend my time until dawn, I thought.

Only minutes in, my mind began to drift, to lose touch with reality, to question the very authenticity of time. The mountains of Zion, which I had climbed just twelve hours earlier, seemed a world and a lifetime away, my two partitioning slumbers of Vegas, meanwhile, doing cruel work of stretching time into infinite threads of seconds and minutes and lights and strobes and casinos, so many casinos, and the familiar clinking and chirps of coins and machines in the distance ...

I woke several hours later, head leaned at an uncomfortable angle against the wall of a coffee shop booth, and I quickly regained my surroundings: Starbucks. Aria. Las Vegas. Cold latte in front of me, book splayed in my lap, I looked around and was pleased to find that I hadn't become a spectacle, the strange man asleep at a Starbucks before dawn, for while that would be out of place anywhere else, there in Vegas, in the windowless basement of a building designed for disorientation, a nap on the sidelines was a perfectly appropriate way to pass the wee hours of the morning. And how good it felt to have slept! Rested, I ordered a tea and read some more, wrote a little, and then got on the road, the ending to a long night in Las Vegas. Off I went to Joshua Tree, off to the great state of California.

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  2. My dance teacher in middle school had a really strict rule against video cameras during performances because she wanted friends and family to be actually watching the show, not watching it through a tiny lens. Personally I acquired my first camera just a year ago (before a trip to Cuba which is something few Americans can do, much less document, so I thought it was a worthy investment). I'm still not in the habit of stepping out of my experiences in order to photograph them, but I also feel fortunate that there are usually other people around me photographing important things. So, I hear you on the photography comment.

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