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My Rock Between Two Worlds

Photo by Christopher Smith

THERE ARE NO great city parks. There are no urban rambles. There are no grand public squares or plazas. So here, in this inhospitable place, we make our own. The filigree of trails traced across the city’s literal edges, where master-planned homes meet the desert, where talus slopes rise just past the last road or power line. These trails meander through the landscape, bending through the foothills, or cresting over them, weaving through small canyons and ravines and hidden spaces, offering room for long walks and longer flights of fancy.

Las Vegas doesn't really envelope you the way other cities do with their horizons hemmed in by trees and buildings. Las Vegas only ever unfurls itself before you, from any angle in town, from any place, at any time of day. Take me all. Or don't.

My desert — my city, really — are the hills on the southwest end of town; the Desert Hills (or Gypsum Ridge). Up by the caves. Striding across the top of Las Vegas. Always looking down or looking out or looking across, taking it all in. At dawn, before the sun pole-vaults into the sky, when the city looks calm. Or at sunset, bathed in shadow while the eastern side of the city lounges in pink-tipped light. At night the planes stair-step their way down into McCarran, the city stirs like a bed of jewels. All times of days there’s the wild variety of purples and browns and tans are on display mountains carved with a sculptor’s chisel or applied on the horizon with a painter’s brush. (Well, except during the harsh, unforgiving light of noon),

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Always there’s the blunt, miraculous strength of the skyline — from the Strat to the Mandalay Bay, that long and improbable fortress of towers. This spectacular valley; good sight lines all around the arena.

Never quite alone. That’s okay. Fellow travelers of the urban periphery. Hikers. ATVs and motorbikes, 4x4s, mountain bikes. Occasional police helicopters zooming overhead in search of … some buried body? Once rode to the top of a steep hill with an Iraq War vet in his pickup truck. He was a Marine who’d done two tours and was trying to readjust to civilian life. He had a girlfriend who loved him. I wanted a simple girl, he said, and that’s what I got. What’d he want to do, I asked. Mechanic. That was his true love. Working with his hands, with wrenches, tools, lathes. He knew how to work with iron. I gathered he didn’t get a chance to talk very much to anybody.

There’s a large rock just 10 minutes from the house, just 30 steps or so up the base of the Desert Hills. I sit on this rock. In one direction, the sweep of nearly the whole city, blooming beyond the roofs of my neighborhood. In the other, Potosi Mountain and the massive concrete detention basins, which look like Roman ruins and guard against rain that never comes. Behind me the hills climb steeply. Before me, new homes, tightly packed, the elementary school. I'm out of the city, in the city, above the city, at the edge of the city, beyond the city, still held in its thrall.

You'll find me at my rock a few times a week. Recharging. Suspended here, my preferred state of mind, I guess, between sky and earth, between sacred and profane, between people and solitude, between the restlessness of my imagination and the fleeting pleasure of not thinking about anything, between all these cliches and a vision of world where I am some kind of fleeting free.


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