One day, a historian will write a book about our slice of the twenty-first century and will identify right now as the moment when people lost any sense of a nuanced approach to their dealings. It does not matter if it’s an opinion about the president, or a Yelp review of Moons Over My Hammy, the best we can manage is to say that things are either entirely great, or wretchedly terrible. The majority of people are only carrying two crayons in their boxes. One is black and the other one is white. While I am busy throwing stones at the rest of humanity, I will go ahead and plead guilty of the same binary approach to thinking.
Take my thoughts about the city of Las Vegas, for example. I have been more than content to shrug that city off based on my limited interactions with it. To me, Las Vegas is nothing more than a town built to dispense little units of pre-programmed joy. Every day, swarms descend looking for a recharge and the machinery running Las Vegas provides exactly what the robots need to be happy. A wonderland covered in sparkle and light, Las Vegas is a city that specializes in too much drink, too much food, and too much gaming. Thankfully, my wife convinced me to look past the obvious Las Vegas offerings on our latest outing. If I would have relied on my own lazy thinking, we would have missed a chance to see the marvel that is Valley of Fire State Park.
The Valley of Fire is a remarkable contrast to the obvious Las Vegas fare. Don’t look for smoky casinos filled with people who failed math as they bet it all on black. Starting with the hour long drive north, all the trappings of a major city slip away. Despite its close proximity to endless jumbo shrimp cocktails, there was little more that endless blue skies without a cell phone tower or powerline in sight. Entry into the park is only ten dollars per carload making it one of the best values around. Valley of Fire Highway snakes through the park and offers several places to turn out and explore.
While the Ancestral Puebloan people who once claimed it have moved on in the shuffle of history, they left their mark on the land in the form of the petroglyphs they left behind. There are several locations to see them but the most accessible is at Atlatl Rock near the entrance of the park. Ringed by a parking lot and an RV campground, Atlatl Rock is a monolith jutting up from the dry, red sand and features 3000 year old petroglyphs. High atop the rock, carved into the face of the red stone, there are pictures of people and long horned sheep. They are also supposed to include the depiction of an atlatl, a hunting tool that predates the bow and arrow. It is a staggering thing to see and still I am moved by the gravity of being able to show them to my kids. I could see these markings being left by a party of hunters as they bided their time, waiting for a herd of sheep to pass through the valley. For the convenience of visitors, the park offers a staircase directly to the rocks. Aside from the petroglyphs, the observation stand also offers commanding view of the park. While the access to the carvings is remarkable, it has had its price. While the stairs allow curious people to take in the wonder of the artifacts, they have been damaged by visitors over time.
Only a few miles down the road from Atlatl Rock lay the Seven Sisters. Once again, the Nevada State Park Service does a tremendous job of accommodating visitors with parking and picnic tables. The Seven Sisters, a group of red rock formations is an ideal place to bring kids and let them run wild. The formations became castles and cathedrals for my kids as they climbed and played. It was absolute rocket fuel for imagination. The Seven Sisters was the antithesis to the obvious pleasure center activities in the Strip. Only 54 miles away, a giant jumbotron flashed advertisement for French Canadian acrobats and buffets, my kids were lost in a world of their own creation.
All totaled, we were only able to spend a few hours in the park. Our stops and simple hikes amounted to us seeing only a fraction of the Valley of Fire. Weather permitting, I could see returning many more times in the future. My enthusiasm for the park made me reconsider my opinions about Las Vegas as a vacation destination. While I may still not be excited about the bright lights and wretched excess of the Strip, I would say that I am now more included to seek out some of the quieter, more subtle places in Nevada.
Anyone considering a trip out to the Valley of Fire should plan head. Bring food and water because there are no concessions inside the park. The only place to get food is at a truckstop just outside the entrance.
This entry was based on a visit to the Valley of Fire on December 27, 2019