April 15, 2006

Valley of Fire

Las Vegas, while ecologically criminal, is a great vacation destination for those seeking a temporary suspension of reality. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but Vegas was great fun. We gambled, up to a limit we'd established before leaving home: Mike put 25 cents in a slot machine at the Mirage. When we got home, we told people we’d lost everything we'd bet.

Vegas is weird and unnatural, and that’s its appeal. Some of my favorite moments came during dawn runs down the Strip. The megawattage of round-the-clock casinos lit the way through the 6 a.m. still-dark, and I noted that, save for the homeless and a few locals on their way to work, I was pretty much the only person in Vegas up for the new day at that hour. Lots of people were still working on yesterday and hadn’t been to bed yet. Limo drivers ferrying all-night partyers back to their hotels tooted and waved, often through the din of inebriated passengers shooting through the cars' sunrooves, arms in the air, mouths casting loud, happy, unintelligible mumbles into the pre-dawn.

When you need a break from Vegas’s bright lights, buffets and bacchanalia, rent a car and head for the Valley of Fire, a remarkable state park one hour northeast of the Strip . This compact, beautiful place serves up the full spectrum of Mojave Desert scenery and topography in one short road trip. A six dollar entrance fee puts you on a series of roads that run through the park and past a visual feast of red rock, sandstone formations, cactus and desert scrub, fields of petrified wood, magenta mountains and ancient petroglyphs.

At massive Atlatl Rock, a wooden staircase takes you to a high viewing platform built next to a magnificent collection of 1,500 to 3,000 year-old petroglyphs carved into the stone face. At the Beehives (photo), orange sandstone mounds eroded into busty, elegant swirls, the kids did some rock climbing and hid from the hot sun in cool niches worn into the formations' sides.

Park your car at Arch Rock and walk around to its back side, where nature over eons has carved two stories of rooms into the monolith the arch rests on. A giant stone condo. We sat inside and thought about the Fremont and Anasazi people believed to have spent time in this valley and thought to be the artists of the Artlatl petroglyophs. They probably rested, perhaps lived, where we sat. Today, you can get married at Arch Rock. For about a grand, Las Vegas Weddings 4 You will transport you from Vegas, get you hitched, and broadcast your wedding video over the Internet. (What would the Fremont think?)

When you’ve had your fill of this beautiful place, head back to Vegas the way you came, or continue up to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam before returning to the Strip. The road through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area yields views of the biggest, bluest desert sky you’ve ever seen, mountain goats standing atop great ridges covered in scrub, oases of wild palms nurtured by natural springs, gentle curves and undulations falling away from the road down to Lake Mead, which shimmers in the distance. Stop at boat put-ins like Callville Bay to ogle the seriously tricked-out houseboats (they're for rent) tied up at the marina.

We made a quick visit to Hoover Dam. You can take the expensive Visitor Center tour into the bowels of the dam, but we skipped that, opting instead to stand, for free, on the road that runs atop the mighty dam and connects Nevada to Arizona. Mountain and Pacific time zones meet atop Hoover, and one clock tower tells "Nevada Time," the other, "Arizona Time," an hour later. We took in the powerful view – Lake Mead on one side, the Colorado River on the other.

Hoover Dam is 25 miles from Vegas. We were back in time for happy hour.