VALLEY OF FIRE: Random Discoveries of Gigantic Sandstone Pachyderms and Other Geo-Oddities During A Short Walkabout in Nevada's Oldest State Park
"Gambolin' Man, where's New York, New York? I miss Paris and Luxor! Andale-buey! Take me back to Mandalay Bay!"
"Cabron, this is the desert we're in, not the Desert Inn! Dig the sand dunes here, not the Dunes there,” I say, back-thumbing with a histrionic gesture toward Sin City 60 miles to the southwest. "Besides, mi rey, we haven't even seen the petroglyphs yet."
On this "bitter cold" afternoon, my amigo tropical is cold, tired and hungry. For the past few hours, after convincing him of the mental and soul cleansing effect, we'd been tromping up and down a jumbled staircase of boulders, making our careful way across overhanging ledges, and scrambling up precarious promontories for superb views all around, in search of nothing more than a bit of peace and quiet. After thirty-six straight hours of brain melt / sensory overload, of kitschy artificiality, torpor inducing gourmand excesses, garish shows - "Phantom of the Opera" blew me mind! -- and your basic non-stop 20 hour (guys away from their wives) party scene -- a distortion of reality and severe obfuscation of time in which sleep is definitely overrated. On this "bitter cold" day, devoid of cars and humans for the most part, we're reveling in our freedom, soaking up the magical vibes of desert energy, here, deep in the heart of the aptly named Valley of Fire, a mere hours' drive north of Las Vegas. In this 36,000 acre "Canyonlands" like area, great escapes, scenic drives, and hiking / bushwhacking forays are readily at hand - or afoot -- providing several entry points into the "park". Long a magnet for nature lovers, artists, scholars, researchers, and spiritual types, Valley of Fire is considered one of the most scenic, colorful locales in the American Southwest, and is but a stone's throw from the Virgin River watershed (of Zion fame), Lake Mead in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and of course, the bright lights and big city of Laaaaaaaas Vegaaaaaaaas, Nevaaaaaaaada!
"Petrogleeps!? C'maan, Gambolin' Maan!" he mocks me in an exaggerated gringo Chicagoan accent honed to perfection.
Look, 'ombre, I explain, before us, there was them -- the (largely unknown about) ancestral Pueblo, the "original people" - are you listening, 'ombre? - who lived here seasonally as hunters and gathers 2000 years ago, thriving up to a couple hundred years before the onset of the European invasion / holocaust of millions of native Americans (I know you heard that, 'ombre!). As for the Pueblo -- aka, in derogatory Navajo, "Anasazi" (meaning "ancient enemy"); aka, in the more gracious Hopi tongue, "Hisatsinom" (meaning "ancestors") -- well, the Pueblo culture "mysteriously" "disappeared" around 800 years ago. (Google or Wiki all about the various theories to account for the demise of cultural centers throughout the Southwest around this time; my anthropological studies at Indiana University trained me properly to believe in an intersection of causal variables that direly, indeed, conspired to do them in - any lessons learned here, Uncle Sam?. . ..) Look, 'ombre - are you listening? -- archaic artists / shamans / (graffitists?) left indelible markings on rock walls, cave ceilings, and boulders, a widespread, unique "New World" cuneiform characterized by (probably largely) indecipherable carved symbols and painted images, highly artistic picto and petro renderings of a mytho-magico-cosmo interpretation of a long-vanquished world we can only speculate about. Because, 'ombre - are you listening? - it is our holy duty to pay homage and respect as we walk in their footsteps. "Pinche Las Vegas can wait another hour."
So before we charge back to the god forbidden glitz and glamor, we detour to check out the intriguing rock art found in Petroglyph Canyon, at "Mouse Tank", a popular and easy half-hour walk. The tank part refers to the natural tinajas, or wells - depressions in the rock - that collect and hold seasonal (but unpalatable) storages of water. The Mouse part of the name comes from the renegade Southern Paiute, Little Mouse, an alleged drunk and ne'er-do-well, outlaw bandito, and finally branded a murderer. But really, who was he? Why such a bad rap? (Same raw deal with the Robin Hood of his Gold Rush era, Joaquin Murietta? Probably, there's some truth to their popularity as legendary personae, feared thugs - cum - beloved saviors.)
We're blessed to catch the canyon at a time when few people are around - doubtlessly owing to the "miserable cold overcast" weather -- and what a true luxury to have this wilderness Louvre gallery stroll all to ourselves! (With the exception of a German couple we encounter; and isn't there always a German couple somewhere!) At a bend in the canyon, we stop to inspect some obscure scratchings and peckings twenty feet up on the rock face. We're just standing there, in silent reflection, speculating on their epistemological significance - eternity symbols? astronomical markings? hunting magic? -- when a vision of this Little Mouse dude suddenly brings it all into perspective - no mere desperado, but a proud and defiant, "today's a damn good day to die" warrior to the end. Yet mischaracterized and scapegoated, labeled a malingering thief and cold-blooded murderer, Little Mouse was ambushed and killed in the 1890s at nearby Muddy River (details are sketchy as to who ambushed and killed him, but probably some vengeful posse on a righteous mission of ethnic cleansing). Javier, part Indian himself (as well as part black), finds my sordid interpretation of the underdog Little Mouse, hiding out in this remote, twisty canyon, defiant to the bloody end, almost a religious allegory. He thanks me profusely for bringing him here and turning him onto the history of Little Mouse and Petroglyph Canyon before bee-lining it back to the geographical fantasy lands of Vegas World.
Rewind: Do we ever need a break from cynical dealers and smart Vegas remark pit bosses! We'd been enduring a supernatural barrage of 21's, but couldn't get away, couldn't break the spell. Finally, though, I get fed up and go out and rent a big ol' honkin’ Dodge Charger, and we load up with provender and provisions, and set off to chart unknown territory - at least for Javier - amateurishly re-enacting the legendary excessive road adventures of Hunter and Raoul in our own little escape from "fear and loathing". On arrival - a 17 mile winding drive through a Martian landscape -- the contrast of the jingly-jangly velvet jungle vs. the rich, raw, red, rocky, remote, rugged range confronting and enveloping us in this sprawling, lonesome, colorful desert, has an immediate, and way overdue, sobering effect on the two of us - me and my gambolin' and gamblin’ partner, long-time amigo from Acapulco, Mexico, Javier Ruiz Gutierrez.
Javier is a shrewd, but fair and honest, barrister (which explains why he's not yet a millionaire), bon vivant, scholar, entrepreneurial businessman, cosmopolitan sophisticate (when he wants to be), part-time fakir, paramour, gourmand, wine connoisseur, and very well-traveled, but never before has he seen such earthly splendor as a redrock wilderness, up close and personal. The daffy geological formations - so called bee hives, silica domes, petrified logs, skulls, stupas, elephantine figures, and natural bridges and arches - to him must seem like weirdly sculptured anthropomorphic representations of a mysterious paleoart form. Or maybe he sees them for what they are (?) - plain old dead, soulless rocks, a chaos of hardened earth, albeit pretty interesting hardened chaos. I suspect the former, for Javier definitely thinks "outside the box" (a new term he'd just learned and overused to comic effect in our time together). I catch him studying the rocks as though inspecting museum pieces. He calls me over to check out an impeccably carved piece de resistance rock, remarkably resembling a petrified Victorian era antique table. "Gambolin' Man," he says, "I have never seen anything like this. This could be the most amazing place I've ever seen in my life!"
Don't get me wrong! This little jaunt is but a mere few hours' distraction, and no mere penance, either . .just a breath of fresh air, a cool-off / chill out period, a chance of renewal, of redemption, to cleanse our "salty" selves, and re-connect with our spirits, in a sacred, ancient place. We owe ourselves - and this place - that much. So here we are, squeezing in several hours' of "diversion", just wandering around, doing nothing more than staring out into infinity with blank expressions, reflecting in silence, lost in our non-thoughts, entranced in deep awe, flush with profound admiration, and, in my mind, greatly relieved to be getting some exercise . . . of course, Javier reminds me, we get plenty of that on the Strip, averaging five miles a day of pavement pounding racing from one casino to the next. (Gambolin' Man's poor f**king ankle! No, correct that -- Gamblin’ Man's poor f**king pocketbook!)
Fuggedaboutit. We clamber high up, 100 ft. to attain perch on a ledge, a layered strip of rock sanded and sculpted into an airplane wing. Javier finds a reliquary niche in the adjacent wall - what he calls a "recapitulation chamber" - a sheltering altar space carved in the face of the rock - and assumes the position of the "flying astronaut" decorating the Mayan sarcophagus lid of Pacal’s crypt in the deep dark interior of the main pyramid at Palenque - Templo de las Inscripciones - in Chiapas, Mexico. Motionless, entranced, Javier seems to be in another orbit. I let him be. The silence is deafening, except for the noisy static in my brain. . .now rescued by the screeching of a raven.
Sandstone walls soar skyward, and scattered geological oddities, dating to the Jurassic Period (150,000,00 million years ago), provide eyefuls of bizarre gawdy, Gaudi-esque architectural creations to ponder, ruminate over, wonder about. We tear ourselves away from an wonderland of shapely formations, and continue (off-trail, there is no trail) through a narrow corridor with ornate protuberances jutting off opposing walls - sculptured in stony renderings - of elephant deities, pharaoh and mummy heads, gnomes and skulls, aglow in fiery vermillion tones, framed by jumbled boulders and stones, a petrified panorama of this great Mother Earth's exposed red bones. We are stalled in our tracks at every turn, every view, all directions. Tearing ourselves away again, we move on, navigating a short descent to the valley floor. to a spacious and beautiful open space, surrounded on all sides by purple and black mountain ranges, and the deep blue finger inlets of Lake Mead's upper (and severely drying) shores where the Virgin River empties in. It's easy to get lost, or lose yourself, to the silence, the void, the nothingness, the power, charisma and magnetism of the still desert. .
. . .although quiet, seemingly inert, the "sparse" desert hums and resonates with life – a burst of wind, a track of deer prints, messes of scat, cackling ravens and twittering desert song birds; but alas, we are not much privy to our animal friends' comings and goings today - not the lumbering progress of the threatened desert tortoise; not the hoppity hop hop of the black-tailed jackrabbit; not the playful stealth of ol' coyt'l; not the innocent prowling of kit fox, skunk, and ground squirrel; not a single lizard or snake, nor scorpion or spider, hidden away under rocks and in dens; but it is enough to just be here and know they're there!
Javier is now ensconced in another perfect recapitulation chamber, his tonal exposed, his nagual under assault; opening up to his "solitary eagle" consciousness. (At least that's what I perceive, watching my friend, eyes closed, body relaxed, and our conversation of Carlos Castaneda fresh in my mind.) We move about in aimless circles and mobius strip loops - just wonderstruck at the desolate beauty of this "wasteland" engulfing us - a vast "nothingness" of rock, creosote bush, brittle bush, sagebrush and cactus. It could be Sonora, don Juan's desert, where Javier spent several years earning his law degree. It could be Canyonlands National Park. It could be the interior of Australia. But, hold your horses, it's right here, less than three hours away by plane and car from Oakland, California!
For a final brief stop, we pull over to check out a display of petrified logs. These purplish specimens are beguilingly prosaic 225,000.000 year old pine tree trunks! Tough to grok something so unimaginably old that its plant material was able to turn into solid rock over time and with the right conditions. . . ! . . . that's what happened to an ancient forest in these parts, where fossilized trees have been preserved at two locations, now protected in fenced enclosures, lying exposed like upturned headstones, 10 ft. long, 3 ft. wide petrified trunks, a noble definition of eternity, but also a definitive epitaph, empirical evidence, of a dynamic and violent earth in constant change and upheaval.
Hold the presses! - my boy is crying, he's dying, he’s hungry . . . to return to the action, suck down a Scotch and win back his pesos. Time to move on. And so, for now, adios slot canyons; hola slot machines! Hasta luego paradise; que tal pair 'o dice! Hasta la vista desert table lands! Bienvenido Sahara blackjack tables! So long for now, Valley of Fire, we need to get on fire ourselves . .it's been good to know you, see another side of you . . . and you know, we will be back . . . "we" because Javier, once again, no doubt, will provide sufficient incentive to easily lure me to meet him for yet more episodic merriment and saturnalia in Las Vegas. . .where, once again, no doubt, we will perforce escape our mad pursuits for a few painfully short but precious few hours in capricious search of a different kind of fun, adventure, gamboling, camaraderie, and, hopefully, an infusion of higher consciousness.