The flight comes in as the sun is going down, catching peaks in gold and highlighting the ring of mineral deposits that finish the shoreline like a ruffled bedskirt. We land and come into a concourse with its early-warning array of slot machines. Then down an escalator facing an enormous picture of Bobby Flay and into the baggage claim area where there are more carousels than I have ever seen in any airport and everything is pounding music and flashing advertisements for shows and spouting cascades of lights and rings and clatters and I think, Come on, Las Vegas. You are being a parody of yourself!
But it doesn’t stop.
Outside the arrivals door is a view of everything I had heard was there but maybe couldn’t believe. I try to take pictures but they all come out blurred and full of reflections and perhaps those are the most accurate record of my sensorially overloaded mind. There’s the Bellagio, which makes me think of Ocean’s Eleven, and in front is a cab with Gordon Ramsey’s picture on it, and later the Sands, and a billboard for the Osmonds and I didn’t even know they were still performing. But it all seems like a device to transport me as far as possible from my beloved Finger Lakes, a kind of wormhole experience that deposits me where my real journey lies – in the desert.
I could never live in the desert, but I have to go there from time to time. I need the fantastic, the utterly bizarre. I need rock formations so strange and enormous that my mind reaches and falls short and reaches again and grows still in bewildered awe. It is no surprise there are stories of extraterrestrial landings in this landscape: anything is believable here, anything at all.
In the Valley of Fire, I walk in sand until my legs ache to see where a renegade Indian named Mouse holed up by a natural cistern called a tank. I see a hummingbird that just sits still long enough to be photographed (it is the tiny dot in the middle, between the fork of branches), and search frantically for a fat-bodied lizard called a Chuckwalla while it is being repeatedly pointed out to me until my perception shifts and there it is, sunning itself on a little ledge.
I clamber down a rocky trail, inspecting little blossoms, to get to a slot passage between gigantic boulders that pile above me into the bright blue sky. I think I have walked as far as I can on my first day out of winter but there is a sign to petrified logs and I have to see those and, as a bonus, 50 or more black beetles with two red beads on their necks, that maybe are Desert Blister Beetles.
I gamely take a picture, and then another, for two women in their mismatched hiking get-up who nevertheless wish it to be known that they were here and I wonder if I myself will need some proof because it is all so hard to believe.