and drink the place dry at various establishments, from the MGM Grand to the Monte Carlo to Mandalay Bay. You ask yourself, why there and why not Wynn, Luxor, Bellagio, Ceasar’s, Planet Hollywood, Hooters, Circus Circus, Harrah’s, Excalibur, New York New York, The Venetian, Bob Stupak’s Stratosphere, or a hundred other equally compelling places? How can so much competition stay ahead of the curve, above the fray, in the never ending battle to win customers. In the calculus of gambler’s math, attracting and retaining customers is all about the spin, the hook, the candy coated glamour of being comped, pamp ered, etc to make you think you’re a V.I.P. (which the Indio has always called Gambolin’ Man, but with a twist – Very Important Pendejo!) while you’re really getting fleeced.
Still, today Las Vegas is a family-friendly destination, all the sleaze and immorality made to seem like everyday bread and circus. "Nevada casinos," Bruce Sterling wrote in Wired back in'96, "have become American family values now. It's considered just fine to go into one of these windowless scary gambling-malls, drink yourself silly, lose your ass at roulette, and then go ogle showgirls with breast implants. Republicans do this now. Working-class folks do it in polyester stretch pants. It's normal." (How reassuring.)
Your debauched itinerary unfolds haphazardly; plans schmans, you say. You’re constantly on the prowl looking for the next cool thing, perambulating here and there in sensory overload mode. Lots of pained feet shuffling from the Cosmopolitan’s swanky bars, restaurants and nightclubs to even more ostentatious places, connected via high-end throughways with spiraling staircases and big smoke-free spac es (nice!), showcasing dazzling hip Vegas venues – casinos are the easiest place in the world to get lost in! - with their labyrinthine interior galleries and flashy promenades. The architecture is uber-moderne. You feel like such a rube! (Speak for yerself, Gambolin’ Man!) A parade of chic humanity, young beauties and cougars alike, quicken your pulse in the sensually charged atmosphere. Gambolin’ Man and the Indio leave that department to Brock and the Perfesser, for the time being, while they go try their luck at the blac kjack tables for a break-even stretch at the accursed game. (Wise pundit: "If you aim to leave Las Vegas with a small fortune, go there with a large one.") Later, having tallied all the what-ifs / shouldas, wouldas and couldas of their frustrating session, they return to a designated watering hole to find Brock and the Perfesser nursing nepenthe-inducing cocktails in a faux glam eye candy bar, mightily enjoying themselves and each other’s company. The Perfesser has convened this trip in celebration of a hard-earned birthday milestone – the half-century Mark of Life! Happy Fiddieth, ol’ buddy – we’re here to party with you, bro, because you never know when you might turn 50 again. But before we can hoist one, off you go on a hair up your butt jag to check out God knows what! During many such crazed moments of devil-may-care sans souci, the Boys let all caution and probity fly to the wind in shameless abandonment, as pent-up boys are wont to do when reprieved temporarily from the workaday world of responsibility and matrimonial fidelity (speak for yerself, Gambolin’ Man!).
Seeing ho w it is already, or still, morning, you have maybe two, three hours of good REM sleep to recharge your batteries. Your bleary-eyed sights are firmly and ambitiously set on getting out of the city asap, say, at the reasonable hour of eight. How exciting! – Westward Ho! - to Death Valley, the hottest spot on the planet! On July 10, 1913, temperatures hit an infernal 134 degrees! Not a place you want to be caught with your pants down exposed to the elements – you could also die from hypothermia during cruelly cold nocturnal spells. With this in mind, you check your hubris for the kick-butt drive though Titus Canyon. The National Park Service website warns of this famed 27-mile one-way a nfractuous artery, “Don’t expect solitude.” Your timing is good, coming upon only two other vehicles during the five hour canyon crawl.
Death Valley’s geologic grandeur is showcased on a macro scale out here in this unbeknownst speck in southeastern California where the thin crisp desert air distorts proportions and telescopes distances of big sky country over painted badlands. Off to the far south, threatening cumulus clouds look ready to unload. You get a late start out of Beatty, Nevada, and figure you’ll be pitching camp somewhere off lonesome Highway 374, where you find a perfectly unlevel spot to crash for the night in the ghostly shadows of Rhyolite, Population Zero. Tentless, you’re in your bags fairly early, gazing up and wishing upon each sparkling star until the firmament fills with them, and the Milky Way is clearly visible, as is the Big Dipper and Arcturus to the low, low south. Settling in snugly to watch shooting stars and listen to plaintive coyote howling before, unnoticed, dropping into a few hours of fitful sleep punctuated by the Boys gross bodily expectorations - farting, belching, sn oring, wheezing and sneezing the night through. You’re happy as hell to break camp and get a move on after a surprisingly brisk round of joe, taking care of number two duties (tough go of it in Kansas flat sagebrush land), and playing a round of Frisbee in the lightening shadows of the surrounding desert, as soft morning alpenglow sets a small natural pyramid ablaze in this singular gilded light of dawn. You’re so excited, bright eyed and bushy tailed, you are, setting off across the Timbuktu-looking Sarcobatus Flat / Amargosa Valley, heading through endless tracts of bitterbrush rolling all the way to the stark Grapevine Mountains ahead. At White Pass summit, you get out and stretch, taking in the big spread of unspoilt land. You can’t help but exult over being in this remote part of Death Valley, whose 3000 square miles of desert back country would take a lifetime to explore. Not a half-bad place to be. Unless you’re stranded. But even then plenty of people find their way here – this little outing happens to be one of Death Valley’s most popular excursions.
Next, you drop into fossil-rich Titanothere Canyon, where the skull of a thirty million year old rhino like creature was found some decades ago, transforming our understanding of evolutionary paleontology. (Oh, really?) At 5300 ft., on a subtle approach to Red Pass, you hop out for another ten minute gander to relieve yourselves and take in dizzying views, the 6381 footer Thimble Peak nowhere to be seen. The wind is whipping up fiercely and clouds are obscuring views, so Gambolin’ Man revs ‘er up to continue down the winding road, in optimal caution mode to safely pass deadly escarpments off to the passenger side, Slowly, you press on, 15 miles per hour, certainly no hurry through these stunning pink, orange, alabaster, red and green mountains, with the weather getting nicer by the mile.
At the ghost town of Leadfield, you stop to check the weird place out. In just six months (1926-27), this relic of human folly boomed and went bust, but not before a Post Office and other edifices were constructed. The informational sign reads: “This was a mining boom town founded on wild and distorted advertisin g 300 hopeful people swarmed here.” Sounds like a GRQS. . .You wonder which pre-Crash manipulative speculators were behind that Get Rich Quick Scam? All in all, not much to see, but it is historic and interesting for what it represents - an abandoned monument to human greed and shot-down American dreams. It makes for a nice break to toss the Frisbee among the tumbleweeds and get your juices flowing.
At Klare Spring, you stop to check out this underappreciated oasis – not if you’re a native critter or a naturalist perhaps. Its humble bosom sustains much life in the desert. Your eyeballs are peeled for Bighorn Sheep and other animals and plants, as well as for Native American rock art. You spot some quasi-legible petroglyphs buried in profane scribbling of - vandals. Nothing to write home about in the grand scheme of Southwest rock art. Still. You feel the Sacred onda, don’t you. Hoping to espy a big cabron, you scan rocky cliffs and high escarps. Nothing. Or everything, depending on how you look at it. Suddenly, it’s quiet, the constant yammering surceases during a few moments of stopping, looking, listening, paying attention, praying, invoking, whatever – just taking in the pristine splendor of this world, so serene you can hear it hum with vibrational energy, so still that you can feel it pulsating in your bones – the kind of world where Ed Abbey said “the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized," where Jim Morrison no doubt got strange.
Next up, the crown jewel of Titus Canyon – t he Narrows. The wash board road is passable, probably a Ford Focus could manage. The marbled canyon walls gradually begin to constrict, squeezing you between neck craning slots just 20 ft. across in places, slick walls soaring too high to see their sky-kissing ramparts. You do plenty of marveling at the ingenious engineering feat entailed in blasting a road through this twisting labyrinth of high limestone cliffs millions of years old - a richly textured arras of sculptural rock revealing, if you know how to interpret it, the geologic history of the planet. So much for lifeless rocks without a story to tell.
Tough to just drive right on through the Narrows, but grander sights await, and there are only so many hours in the day. Down in Mesquite Flats, at the juncture of Hwy. 190 – Death Valley’s main road – Gambolin’ Man recognizes the “black and red” approaches to Titus’ adjacent side canyons, Fall and Red Wall - identifiable by the sharp dividing line created by reddish, inviting mountains on the left and black, foreboding mountains on the right, the crack between two worlds, where he and his sisters once ventured into the mystical beyond of Red Wall Canyon – a strenuous little trek, it was, to a sparsely visited and beautiful place, a sinuous cleft through the Grapevine Mountains that may be the least experienced of all Death Valley's well-known canyon hikes. No time for that now, darnit, since you’ve been talkin’ up Eureka Dunes so much, that’s your de facto destinati on, and you’re still three, four hours away from a 5-star destination. But, dammit, you’re rudely forced to alter plans owing to a road closure, which was not, you let it be known, noted on the NPS website. Now what? Now what!? You’re in Death Valley for cryin’ out loud! A million varied and enticing choices await for you to get your ass kicked in - the Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater, Eagle Borax Works, Charcoal Kilns, Marble Canyon, Zabriskie Point, Wildrose Peak, the Race Track, Ubehebe Crater, Telescope Peak, remote places you can’t even imagine where giant Cottonwoods grow along perennial streams in petroglyph canyons, and a foot of snow might fall or a Noachian drenching to bring back to life once-perennial lakes and bogs, flooding a thousand acres of salt pans. So much, too much! All you can do at this second is commit to a day hike, right where you happen to be, which isn’t half-bad since Ubehebe Crater is within eye shot, a nice consolation prize.
Between 2000 and 7000 years ago, a blip of time, churning forces in the earth’s core unleashed what’s called a hydrovolcanic steam explosion, instantly creating this Mother of all Holes – not by a meteorite crashing into the earth, as Gambolin’ Man erroneously insisted to Brock Stoker prior to educating themselves at the diorama. (It was a grand narrative while it lasted.) The humongous blast surely must have rattled the socks off a few shaken up Timbisha and Paiute roaming the back country. The result: a half-mile wide crater, one of Death Valley’s premier attractions. But hardly anyone is here today. With nippy 30 mile per hour winds pasting you, though, you’re pretty much braving the elements all alone in this remote outpost of geologi cal wonder. You strap on gear for an extended foray to the pit – by some estimates 750 feet down a steep incline of sandy, crumbly soil. As with most things of this nature, the way down is trampoline fun, but coming up ever the Sisyphean Struggle.
The stripped out bowels of Ubehebe Crater appear as a phantasmagoric moonscape, were that it not sunny and temperate and downright beautiful! A windless, noise-free world that compels you to gambol about investigating the many intriguing oddities and curiosities you come upon deep down in the earth at the bottom of this seemingly lifeless pit. Football field sized swathes of hardened mud caked surface break apart into octa / hexa / dodecagonal terra cotta baked tiles. Sparse vegetation clings here and hangs on there. It’s a bird’s domain, to be sure. Sharp demarcations of life and lifelessness. The blasted apart seams of the volcano’s inner ribbing rise from the pit floor like monstrous Griffin legs. You enjoy a kicked-back picnic, and cap the day’s activities with an hour of strenuous fun tossing the Frisbee around like little boys set loose in th e Twilight Zone.
The day exhausted, it’s time to climb up and out of the Crater. A vivid memory overcomes Gambolin’ Man again, being here with his twin sisters in ‘05, one of them, feverish and weak, insisting on going down to the pit, easy enough, but on the climb out, in sapping heat, she barely made it, Gambolin’ Man having to support her every step of the way, while people watched with concern from the lookout point. We made it then, and you’ll make it now, even though you’re having to work hard, sinking up to your ankles in the crumbly unstable soil, each step a grunt and a grind, a thigh burner and lung buster, with the Perfesser out front kickin butt, leading the charge, and sending up great clouds of dust in his wake. Eventually, you make it topside, energized enough to add on another half-mile to check out Little Ubehebe Crater, a much smaller but nontheless impressive blasted hole in the ground.
As for evening plans. . .you’re leaning toward camping somewhere along Racetrack Road. At the fossil lake bed known as The Playa, 20 some miles in, boulders eerily move long distances across the surface. No one has seen them move, or stealth videoed them, but move they do with a kinetic supernatural energy. With just the right mix of elements and conditions – thin layers or collars of ice, 90 MPH wind generation, and minimal friction - irregular boulders are pushed, or they slide, or sail, across the perfectly level Playa. According to Wiki-experts, a boulder sails about once every three or four years only.
With your fake SUV, you’ll never make it to the Playa, so instead you opt to car camp two miles in, driving a sane man’s pace on the rutted out gravel road though trackless desert, grooving to timeless tunes loaded up on Brock Stoker’s Pandora, and animated by dramatic sunset vistas. This is the Death Valley you’ve always imagined – no sign of civilization, no one in sight, no one to rescue you should you need rescuing. Luckily, you don’t, despite flash flood warnings issued for the next few hours. At your tin bivouac next to an arroyo, it becomes clear the Boys won’t see the night through. You’re shivering in the vast loneliness of the fading light, staggering like zombies trying to keep warm as temperatures plummet. The exquisite sunset temporarily distracts, but ultimately, admit it, you wuss out. A vote is taken and you unanimously agree you’d all be better off by heading back to the bright lights of the big cit y – can you believe the Boys! - to get warm and comfortable, and – why not? Enjoy what Vegas has to offer. What the hell. But no regretting it later, hear now! You made the decision, you trusted, and now it’s time to verify.
Your time in Las Vegas is plagued by a series of laughable (if they were not so pathetic) contretemps which unfold beyond your collective control - lost credit cards, misplaced cell phones, lapses in communication, one zany pratfall and bizarre loop of logic after another, perhaps the result of too many wormwood cocktails. You often find yourselves separated, stranded, in limbo, missing in action, incapacitated, hornswoggled, totally untethered to reality. But, no harm, no foul, you got to keep the party rolling, because, after all – you’re in LAAAAAAS VEGAAAAAAS where there are not enough hours in the day (or night) to have all the fun you want (and deserve!) to have. Your basic distortion of reality and obfuscation of time in which sleep is highly overrated but badly needed. Around 3 am, the buzzkill smoke (and wallet fatigue) signals bedtime. . .got to be fresh for today’s adventure to the local pride and joy - Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. (Somehow, what used to take 45 minutes to get there from the Strip, now takes twice that.)
Breakfast is a leisurely affair, given time constraints, and of course some other important item of business comes up after that, and there’s something someone forgot back in the room, but finally, a tad later than you’d hoped, with another half hour pissed away j ust trundling to the car with another half hour pissed away getting lost trying to find it in some distant 10th story parking garage stall, you pile in and head out to the far burbs where uncontained sprawl is desperately trying to abut your wilderness destination. Of course, before arriving, you first get insanely lost on the way, owing to the Perfesser’s i-Phone GPS app on the blink. Gambolin’ Man pulls in for gas and directions, and, comically, before you know it, he’s driving off without the Perfesser, not even realizing he’s still back at the gas station confabulating with the Indian attendant about Lord Shiva knows what. And for a half mile, neither passenger in the car says a word! A half mile! Finally, a qu izzical Brock Stoker manages, “Say, are we missing the Perfesser by any chance?” Slap on forehead! What subliminal abandonment impulse must have gotten ahold of Gambolin’ Man to veer right on out of that gas station like that without the Perfesser?
Praise be for these 200,000 pristine acres of canyons, mountains, ridges, and twisted rock formations attracting climbers, hikers and outdoor lovers from around the world. This colorful slice of the Mojave Desert is such a contrast from the jingle-jangle madness of Vegas - couldn’t be more stark, nor welcome! Because o f all the dilly-dallying and shenanigans in getting here (traffic out of Vegas took up 45 minutes, leaving the Perfesser behind), you’re sulking over having wasted precious moments, but all’s good when you finally pull in the parking area, with just barely enough time to get semi-turned around in the Red Springs area of the Calico Hills. It’s quick, hurry, out of the car, strap things on and off you go to indulge your irrepressible little boy natures. You scramble high atop jumbles of layer-caked boulders, easy cli mbing to ever higher vantage points in this colorful sandstone world of candy rock, peppermint-striped, zebra-coated, polka-dotted maculated rock. It’s fun and energizing maneuvering up and over these anthropomorphic sculpted boulders, where you eventually attain purchase several hundred feet above the valley floor, rewarded with inspiring vistas of truly classic desert scenery – what you came here for!
Gotta love Red Springs, whose desert blooms attract hummingbirds, owls, woodpeckers, towhees, quail, and the long-tailed Phainopepla. A boardwalk loop takes in the grandeur of the surrounding Spring Mountains. Dioramas posted along the way offer up interesting and unusual facts about the history, geology, and ecology of this special place. A small trickle of a stream flows out of a crevice in the rock, the miracle of water collecting deep within the bosom of the mountain, manifesting the wellspring of abundance which enables so much life to thrive amidst such harshness. Aboriginal Paiutes, their kin, and their mysterious predecessors knew and loved this place well, as archaeological evidence attests to a long settlemen
t period of thousands of years, perhaps dating back 10,000 years ago, or, boldly, 50,000. Current residents also take refuge here - snakes and lizards, and, surprisingly, more than 45 species of mammals, including coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, kit and grey fox, mule deer, burro, bighorn sheep, rodents, rabbits, hares, kangaroo rat, bats and shrews. These elusive creatures – none of whom you come close to spotting - are able to survive and thrive due to the region’s cool temperatures, perennial water sources, and abundant plant life. Again, so much for the desert being a “wasteland” and a "lifeless" place.
Inevitably, though, you succumb to the steamy allure of Vegas’ gravitational pull, its bright lights and non-stop hot action – not a totally unwelcome scenario, you must admit. Back at – where this time? – The Mirage? Hard Rock? Rio? Palace Station? The Nugget? - you find a cool bar to belly up to, just missing happy hour. Oh, well, that doesn’t stop you from stuffing hungry faces for a good two hours before you go off wandering around looking for another bar scene to check out all the hotties left, right and center, and then another one, and another, buying each other rounds in celebration of the Perfesser’s half-century attainment. More wormwood cocktails! Bring on the boutique mescal! Have a little Hoppy IPA! And a special bottle of Pinot Noir for the Indio! I mean, c’mon, you’re in Vegas, this is what you’re supposed to do, ain’t it. The Indio and Gambolin’ Man go try their luck again at vingt et un and actually win some dough, how about that, while Brock Stoker and the Perfesser are off on some cerebral Mobius s trip loop and assorted bizarre tangents lasting well into the night. Thankfully, you have enough sense to lapse into a semi-sound comatose state for a few hours, to be up and at ‘em, eager beaver Boy Scouts ready to roll, primed and pumped and psyched for your next outdoor gem adventure – Nevada’s famous Valley of Fire State Park.
It’s hard to be alone here, you would think, given the legions who visit each year to enjoy easy strolls along interpretative nature trails, leisurely jaunts to premier rock art sites, wheelchair access loops to petrified wood specimens, drive up window views of unique rock assemblages, towering sandstone crags, and bizarre Rorschach features in the jumble of boulders. Fear not, it is quite possible to leave the hoi polloi behind. Just pick a high point – say a ridge 500 ft. up – and go for it. That’s just what the boys do. With a brisk step for such creaky bones, and flush with adrenaline at the prospect of a righteous scramble, you chart a pathless course leading up and over refrigerator sized boulders, ‘neath overhanging rock eaves, past what looks like a Grand Piano thrusting into the air, through pretty sagebrush, prickly pear and cholla cactus gardens, every rock assemblage a work of art, every aggregation of boulders a sculptural masterpiece. You quickly (for old boys, now) attain a most commanding view of your surro undings – a redrock landscape with dark arêtes on far horizons. You’re drawn to an unusual feature – an elongated bridge in the sky, a long narrow slab of floating ridge that peters out after 100 feet at a sheer precipice overlooking domes and tors and stupa-like features in this king’s garden at heaven’s doorstep.
With time winding down, that’s all she wrote - the Boy’s trip comes to an end. The fun is over, it’s time to depart. Back to reality, routine and responsibility. Back to being menschen. Back to Memphis, Acapulco and Berkeley. Back to “real life”. But not without first, of course, a final stop for some final fun in the unreal playground of Las Vegas. There is one bit of unfinished business, you keep telling yourselves, but frankly, you've had it. As Hunter S. Thompson put it, "A little bit of this town goes a very long way. After five days in Vegas you feel like you've been here for five years.”
Until the next time, it’s adios amigos, it’s been good to know you. Let the good times roll. Once more with feeling.
Check out more of Gambolin' Man's "in and around Las Vegas" posts:
Valley of Fire with Indio Prieto:
Colorado River (Below Hoover Dam) canoe trip with Brock Stoker, Gambolin' Man, and The Perfesser:
Death Valley with Twin Sisters in 2005:
Red Rock Canyon bush rap:
Boys drivin' 'n yammerin' in Titus Canyon, Death Valley:
Ubehebe Crater rap approaching the pit floor
Frisbee play, why not, in pit of Ubehebe Crater
Bird over Ubehebe Crater
Bellagio water show, WOW!
The Zombie's "Time of the Season" Psychedelia, Fremont Street Experience, Las Vegas