Leaving Las Vegas

Feb 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

One day in Las Vegas is enough to explain why Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t face it without a belly full of pills.

Having watched the tacky light and water “volcano” at the Mirage, Disney-style pirates sinking the Brits at Treasure Island, and a gaudy replica of the New York skyline, there was only one way Suzanne — my travel and life partner — and I wanted to face Las Vegas.

From the outside.

Las Vegas is surrounded by desert, and from the Strip you can see low mountains in all directions. But tourist and bus maps of the city don’t mark the desert and mountains. We asked around the hostel we were staying at for directions.

“You want to do what?” said the warden, a tanned, muscular, outdoorsy-looking guy. “I don’t know where you’d find any nature around here.”

Realizing we were on our own, we picked a direction at random. Near the Stratosphere, a tall tower-like building with a roller coaster on top, we caught the city bus west on Sahara Avenue ($1).

At first we passed pawn, gun and liquor shops — businesses that thrive on the fringes of the Strip. As we eased into the burbs, fast-food joints and car dealerships dominated. A second bus took us through fresh subdivisions to the edge of town.

Suzanne and I stood for a moment where the sidewalk ends. All we could see of the Strip behind us was the very top of the Stratosphere.

Ahead, a dry, sandy plain stretched to a distant ridge, interrupted only by the machinery in place to add the next layer of suburbs. We agreed to walk toward the ridge and see how far we got, though I was already thinking about the view from the top.

After about 15 minutes we crossed the pipes that would carry sewage from the future houses, and entered what we hoped would be untouched desert.

It was desertlike: The ground was reddish and sandy, with scrubby desert bushes and the occasional prickly pear cactus.

It was, however, not untouched. There were dirt bike trails everywhere, one of which we followed, and strewn among the flora were shotgun shells, shards of beer bottles, sheets of metal and major appliances full of bullet holes. The remnants of target practice, we imagined. Unsettling, but less grisly a scenario than the one suggested in the movie Casino: “There’s a lotta holes in the desert, and a lotta problems are buried in those holes.”

A little further along, we came to the 5-foot-high bank of a wash, an area that would be full of water on a rainy day. A gray cloud had drifted a little closer, but there was no sign of flood, so we climbed down.

There, the bushes were a little taller, the vegetation more densely packed. I’ve read that washes, especially during storms, are the best places to see desert animals. A few drops of rain promised an imminent downpour, but it never came. All we saw was a single black cricket.

As we climbed farther, more and more of the Las Vegas skyline — the city we were escaping — appeared behind us. Where the dirt bike trail ended, we began to see barrel cacti with pinkish needles, healthier-looking prickly pears than on the plain, and yuccas. Two dozen pairs of women’s underwear and a wallet full of identification cards lay in the dirt.

From there, the ascent became steep, and relations with my companion became rocky. Despite being raised in the mountains, Suzanne does not like heights. The footing was mainly loose gravel, and she was afraid of falling. Add in the noise of gunshots coming from behind the ridge, and we had compelling reasons to turn around.

Besides, argued Suzanne, we’d already accomplished what we set out to do. We’d found a view of Las Vegas that put the city in perspective.

It was true, the casinos on the Strip looked tiny in the middle of the broad desert circled by mountains. The gaudy city looked reassuringly impermanent.

But I still wanted to know what was on the other side of the ridge. The top wasn’t much farther, so I offered to continue alone and rejoin her on the way down.

Not wanting to be left alone even briefly in the desert dusk with gunshots cracking, Suzanne agreed to continue, but only after pointing out, “I hate this, I hate Las Vegas, and right now I hate you.”

Not talking, we scrambled the rest of the way to the top. By the time we got there the gunfire had stopped. In the quiet, we looked up through a canyon with sharply pointed, dusty-brown mountains on both sides. In the distance were the ochre-colored rocks of Red Rock canyon. It was magnificent in the late afternoon light.

We sat with our backs to the tackiest city on earth, and enjoyed the view. We ate a couple of apples pocketed from a buffet at one of the casinos, and though Suzanne didn’t say, I think the view was almost nice enough for her to forgive my stubbornness.

Later, on the way down, Suzanne noticed a small shell fossilized in a rock. When we began looking, we found more: mostly small, clamlike brachiopods and segmented sections of ancient sea creatures — evidence of a time when a shallow sea filled the valley. Las Vegas would have been submerged.

While we looked for fossils, a pickup truck pulled up on the far side of the wash below us. Two men in black bomber jackets got out and punctured the evening silence with gunfire.

We considered waiting, but the sun was going down, so we began walking. To our relief the men departed, leaving only the occasional dirt bike to disrupt the twilight peace.

As we crossed the plain, steering toward the Stratosphere tower, the sun descended, sending mauve and pink bands across the sky. Long before any planets or stars became visible, the lights of the Strip began to appear in the distance.

Where the desert met the future suburb, we stopped to chat with a tall man out walking his dog. He does public relations work for casinos, and was full of stories about the city, but confessed he couldn’t wait to leave it.

“Las Vegas isn’t a real city,” he said.

Maybe not, but we were happy to take the bus back to the Sahara for a hearty burrito dinner and frozen margarita ($4.95 total, each).