Las Vegas loves an unnatural wonder—there’s a a faux-New York skyline along Las Vegas Boulevard, a replication of the Eiffel Tower, and a giant Sphinx outside of the Luxor Hotel modeled after Egypt’s original. People take photos in front of them, though it’s hard to know what, exactly, they’re trying to remember through photographs of phony statues. Or are they phony? These monuments actually do exist, some as large as the original. If all anyone ever wants is a photo in front of something famous, a visual representation that they were in front of an icon, perhaps a cardboard relic is perfect. Does it even matter anymore where in the world you are? If not, anyone who stays at Ceasar’s Palace has no need to go see the Greek sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum. That could be a beautiful thing, depending upon how you look at it.
Just 20 miles or so outside of Vegas, west down Charleston Avenue, is one of the most impressive, and quite authentic, natural wonders in the United States. At the border of the North American tectonic plate where it crashed into the Pacific plate around 180 million years ago are dunes of red sandstone called the Red Rocks Canyons. No one in Las Vegas at the hotels seemed to know how to veer too far off of Dean Martin Boulevard, so, stopping for shrimp cocktail at a nouveau bistro, we asked a waitress for directions. She didn’t know the exact way, but she pointed us in the right direction: you drive down a desolate highway, past communities of Spanish-style housing developments and unfinished condominium projects. By the time you reach the canyons, you’re far enough away that you can no longer see the enormous fake Seattle Space Needle that sits at the Stratosphere Hotel on the Strip. We listened to pop music from an iPod in our rented Mazda the whole way out—Kylie Minogue’s Fever album and New Order.
It’s $7 to enter the conservation area, which is about half the price of a cocktail at any Las Vegas hotel. Spread across almost 200,000 acres, walls and walls of mountainous ranges reach out of barren tundra covered in grey shrubs. You can drive on a 13-mile road called a “scenic drive” through the hills, stopping along the way at various designated parking spots they’ve built. We stopped at a marker called “Calico II” and once you’re out of your car, you have free range to walk anywhere you’d like. We climbed down a dusty trail towards one of the redder hills and around a shadowed bend out of range from any cars. There weren’t many people in the park as it was one of the hottest days of the summer, clocking in, at various times, at 112 degrees. We sat in the shade, hands clasped around our knees while horse flies bit us on our arms. All you could hear were birds crowing and some of the westerly winds hitting the rocks with a slap. You aren’t supposed to smoke cigarettes because the ground is so dry it’s like tinder, and we were told by an official brochure to watch out for rattle snakes and drink at least a half of gallon of water during our stay at the park.
Much of our previous time in Vegas had been spent in intricately climate-controlled buildings, structures so big you forget there is even a real world with real weather outside of the air conditioned confines, so we enjoyed our time at Red Rocks, putting our hands in the Pueblo-style holes in the sandstone walls, getting our shoes dirty in the mud and sand and spending a long stretch breathing in fresh air even if it was stiflingly hot. Throughout our time in Nevada, we kept getting asked, rhetorically, if we’d been outside and noticed how hot it was, as if it were possible that we had not, in fact, even stepped into Earth’s atmosphere that day. As if Earth’s atmosphere could not even be believed. It is hot, sure, but it felt practically political to stroke, instead of the smooth marble of our hotel room’s his-and-hers sink, the grit of crumbling red sandstone that eroded at even our most delicate touch.
In these hills lived the Anasazi Indians, a group extinct hundreds of year before Europeans had even come to the New World. An exonym meaning ‘ancestral enemies,’ the Anasazi are a mysterious bunch. Although many modern Pueblo people claim ancestry with the Anasazi, little is known about them and much of the facts of their existence are disputed, especially the claim that they were cannibals, a theory put forth after teeth marks were found on bones in the area. And if, in fact, they were cannibals, it is unknown whether it was done for religious reasons or because the harsh circumstances of desert life meant food was so scarce that humans had to be eaten. Many archaeologists believe that the Anasazi might have practiced intra-tribal cannibalism, meaning they ate members of their own communal group. They lived in the hills, life was hard and they were probably migratory, roaming around looking for food. The only thing wholly known about them is that they vanished, largely without a trace. Mere miles from the Las Vegas strip of air-conditioned hotels and artificially constructed Little Italys complete with Venetian canals, where bottled water is practically mandatory and it’s impossible to tell where “fresh” food comes from because advertising protraits of Emeril Lagasse and Mario Battali promise authentic artisinal cuisine, there is a place so harsh that it didn’t even need the white man to kill its indigineous inhabitants—they just left or died.
And so it’s just ghosts. Though the Red Rocks’ brochure claimed that over 1,000,000 people visit the canyons every year, that day it was just us and a few others walking around in the thick quiet right outside of America’s entertainment capitol. Hundreds of years after the Anasazi indians abandoned Red Rock Canyons, people still don’t seem to come out here much.