Perhaps it was fate. During the first week of January, we left cold, rainy Seattle behind for some Las Vegas sun. The desert city had not had any rain for 116 days, and for a few more pleasant days, the dry spell continued. Then the clouds arrived, and by our last day there was so much rain that the streets were flooding and our flight out was delayed. But, you work with what you have, so that’s what we did.
Rain and mist have drained the color from Red Rock Canyon
Besides the vagaries of weather and fate, travel photography has been on my mind – no wonder! It has its own pitfalls, doesn’t it? We take pictures to document our experience, and for many of us, to share it later online. That can create pressure to perform, which in turn can dilute our ability to fully enjoy the experience itself. There can be many layers of removal from feeling alive in the moment when you travel. There you were, in the dry desert, gazing at scenery that was stunning, amazing, and just plain beautiful. You know that you appreciated the sights, but can you remember what you heard, smelled, touched or felt?
Chances are, I can’t tell you very much about the moment I took any of the photos below. Time has passed since I took them, of course. I may have been a bit sleep-deprived at the time. And that wonderful little black box, the one that helps me make images and memories, it tends to get in the way. No doubt, an insistent inner voice urged me to make the best pictures I possibly could, and reminded me that I only had one day there, I may never come back and even if I did, the light wouldn’t be the same, etc. etc. A perfect recipe for dulling the experience! Even the changes I make to my photographs later – the choices to highlight, sharpen edges, soften color, crop, whatever – can put distance between me and the original experience.
So we’re at a remove when we photograph our world, and sometimes more so when we’re traveling. That realization could call the whole process into question, but I haven’t given up on it.
I just wanted to note the pitfalls before diving in.
Three views from the plane, taken as we approached Las Vegas. You can see how bare the earth is. The body of water is Lake Mead, created in the 1930’s by damming the Colorado River, to provide hydroelectric power and water for agriculture in nearby California. The dam made it possible for Las Vegas to bloom straight out of that rocky soil.
Red Rock Canyon, from the highway
We landed in Las Vegas with enough time for a quick run over to Red Rock Canyon, a beautiful national conservation area that’s only 15 miles from the center of town. The sandstone mountains and canyons are popular for hiking and rock climbing. The land supports desert bighorn sheep and a destructive, if cute population of non-native wild burros. We heard most of the burros were in another area so sadly, we didn’t see any.
As the winter sun sunk behind the mountains, we made a few stops on the side of the road to drink in the desert landscape, then headed back to our hotel in Las Vegas.
The contrast between the Mohave desert’s spare beauty and the incessant chaos of lights and noise that is Las Vegas hit me hard. I imagine the locals are used to the abrupt shift from the quiet, monochrome desert landscape to the gaudy, blaring city. It was difficult to comprehend how such a place, with its extreme investment in artifice, rose out of what is probably the most subtle landscape I’ve ever seen.
Nighttime in Las Vegas
The view out the hotel window, 26th floor
On our first full day we explored Valley Of Fire State Park – more about that later. The next two days we spent seeing a so-called ghost town, and driving over to Death Valley. We planned to spend one more day in Death Valley, but after almost three months without precipitation, it seems we brought the rain from Seattle to southern Nevada. There is precious little shelter in Death Valley. The monochromatic landscape was likely to be even grayer in the rain, so we decided to return to Red Rock Canyon, where we’d be closer to civilization and have the benefit of some tree cover. These photos are from our day at Red Rock Canyon, a day that started out partly cloudy but ended fully misty.
Red Rock Canyon Photos:
- Mt. Wilson, elev. 7070 ft./2155 m., is about 25 miles by road from Las Vegas. Want to try climbing it? Here are directions, from Backpacker magazine. Just out of sight is Blue Diamond Hill, a privately owned parcel of land at the edge of the conservation area. The owners want to build a 5,000 home development there. The largest gypsum mine in the state is just down the road; BDGH Gypsum makes agricultural gypsum and wallboard at a large plant there. The 5,000 home development is opposed by locals for a host of reasons, from increased traffic and light at night (the area outside Las Vegas boasts very dark night skies) to the possibility of houses falling into mine sinkholes.
- This landscape is interesting in any weather, with so many different textures and shapes. Adding to the plethora of patterns in the rocks here, is a group of Mohave yucca plants (Yucca schidigera), whose stark silhouettes dot the desert floor. Southern Paiute people used yucca extensively, making food, clothing, baskets, soap and other useful things from all of its parts.
- A desert wash at Willow Springs, where pink and gold rocks glow, even on a dreary winter day.
- Four close-ups of interesting sandstone patterns at Willow Springs.
- Numerous sandstone crevices have created microclimates for plants to grow in; note all the shrubs nestled in cracks and crannies, where extra moisture collects, and there may be a bit of shade on summer days, when temperatures can reach 110° F/44° C in summer.
- The rocks are beautiful to look at, and yield their secrets slowly. Recently, dinosaur tracks were identified in the rocks in a remote part of Red Rock Canyon.
- After much searching I think this is the Three-leaf sumac (Rhus triloba), aka Skunkbush. Those tightly packed buds will bloom into little yellow flowers in Spring. The berries that develop later are supposedly edible but tart. Indigenous people used the twigs in basketmaking (see the second paragraph).
- Raindrops on the Tulip prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaeacantha). There are four species of prickly pear cactus at Red Rock.
- The distinctive stems of Ephedra have draped over a prickly pear pad at surprisingly lush Willow Springs. This is probably E. viridis, or Mormon tea, used for medicinal teas. The important drug ephedrine is derived from a related Asian Ephedra species, E. sinica, which has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2000 years. Maybe the local Ephedra plant was used that long ago too, but since knowledge was transmitted verbally by indigenous people, records are sparse.
- Buckhorn cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa), one of several cholla cacti that thrive here.
- The Desert willow tree (Chilopsis linearis) is not a true willow, but is in the Bignonia family. It was still dropping leaves on the gravely ground at Willow Springs when we visited. The elegantly curved, straw-colored leaves contrast nicely with the wet rocks, and as the rain continued I was glad my camera is weather resistant, but at a certain point, you just need to get out of the rain!
- Two closeups of Mohave yucca leaves and fibers.
- Storm clouds hang heavy in the distance and the cacti are ready to drink up the rain. The yucca’s stiff leaves can funnel rain right down to the roots.
- Rain clouds conceal the mountaintop above a steep divide in the rocks.
- A withered old Pinyon pine tree frames a distant view. i found one pine cone on the ground that still had a few pine nuts in it so I eagerly put one in my mouth, but I should have known, it was a “dead” one – an empty nut that was nothing but hull. I’m sure the animals have eaten all of this year’s viable nuts long ago.
- A dried seed head stands sentinel over the view of a rocky precipice that is almost lost in the mist.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the tragedy in Las Vegas three months ago, when 58 people were killed and over 500 people were injured at an outdoor concert. One man shooting a modified semi-automatic rifle from a high rise hotel room caused all that suffering. I saw “Vegas Strong” signs scattered about the city, but for the most part, the pain seemed to be buried. Later, I heard that fundraising to help families of the dead, injured and traumatized has fallen below expectations, in part due to a kind of disaster fatigue that seemed to set in after the US experienced three major hurricanes just before the shooting, and intense, destructive wildfires just after it. In any case, I wish the people who were injured and traumatized, and those who lost family and friends, a much better year in 2018, and all the help and healing that they deserve.