I park, after some hesitation, twenty miles west of that artificial megalopolis, a street hyper-urbanized for its appeal to sin-seeking tourists (and not, as defenders claim, to clean, green living).
It takes me nearly an hour of suburban navigation, red-light, green-light, to get this far, and now a family of Spanish-speaking neocolonialists falls out of a Chevy beside me, with--of all clichés--an unleashed chihuahua and five children similarly free. The parents unload peekneek baskets, and a grandfather, viejo hombre renuente, takes his place in the back of the line, his thick fingers engaged in a tug-o-war with something lodged behind his molars.
So I don't know... I don't know if I want to hang around here, at the end of a week of work away from home. I suffer a particular consternation when faced with large families and the crescendo of their jubilance, their indifference to the public space they occupy. But what choice do I have? This is the option afforded stubborn 21st-century American single men with day jobs. We can't get very far before we have to return, and we are too tired, too cynical, to take this kind of amateur exploration seriously anymore. Small wonder.
The mountains rise high toward the same blue sky that ceilings the Venetian and the new-and-absurd Caesars Palace, Mandalay Bay and Bellagio. These mountains, not supervised by engineers or even built by cheap labor--merely deposited, composited and then revealed, over time, by all the processes that continue on despite everything--will last longer, almost certainly, than that trash heap of metal and sewage down the hill.
I succeed in hightailing it away from our neighbors among us, and I follow a steep embankment equidistant from two rock climbers. They stop to unpack their clanking equipment, and I descend what appears to be the "designated trail" indicated by a small sign placed obscurely on a post beside a stunted Joshua tree. Boot prints seem concurrent, and the scarce vegetation not trampled elsewhere assures me, somewhat, that I won't defy the limited direction implied by fine print: "Area of Ecological Concern."
The east wing of Red Rock Canyon "National Conservation Area" has a name, too, "Calico Hills," and numerous other assignations historically significant to no one in particular--the Paiute and Patayan, the inestimable numbers of wanderers before that--people long dead. Lucky for them, they had the place to themselves and could whoop it up, they could chase around on the rocks and score pictures of fauna and flora into the desert varnish without the consequences of a misdemeanor charge or my irrelevant frown. But the prehistoric marks of man yield less fascination than the geological casualties I find: fallen pieces of uplift collected at the bottom of the cliff like soldiers thrown off a battlement, their contusions caused by eroded iron ore collected within the sandstone.
For at least a mile I wade through this carnage until the "trail" joins up with a dry wash, again designated only by the evidence of other hikers; the brand insignia of their heels in the sand, discarded wrappers, water-bottle caps. Then a stout, sturdy American Pit Bull Terrier, glistening brown, rises up and freezes on the jut of a white boulder ten yards ahead of me. That puts me at a standstill, too, until its owner calls out the beast's name and appears--a young man in camouflage shorts and a tan shirt, dog tags, with a lithe girl who says something; I can't remember the words. They grab hold of their pet's collar and hold it tight to their bare knees, but the animal still growls and barks something unintelligible that echoes like mortar fire; it flings pebbles from the pads of its strong feet and lurches, strains, a muscular mass of fury, made-to-order to mangle passersby.
I ask, "The trail continues on this way?" Internal alarms swirl and sound; external mechanisms remain somehow unresponsive. "Yeah, but you need to know the mountains." I take unexpressed offense at the boy's response, for this isn't his wilderness. To whom does it belong but everyone? Families out for lunch, enthusiasts who cling to the smooth cliff and gingerly hand each other ropes and metal pitons as they raise themselves higher toward the sun, soldiers on leave with their girlfriends, interrupted.
This place doesn't belong to me, anyway, not in the least. I continue on, and the trail, I think, disappears into a disarray of stones, none of which match, like a drawer full of buttons. I scrabble at my own pace and make it into a ravine of sorts, where I'm sure once or twice a year a good flash flood wells up and pours through like a jungle river. I see evidence of horrific torrents in the twisted cactus roots exposed, the way everything seems upside down and forced against will into an aggregate dump.
For now, all remains still, holds tight and crisp in the autumn heat and waits to see what I will do. The whole Earth waits.