Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas. Where half a million people will walk down the Strip in one night to kiss 2011 good-bye. Las Vegas, that oasis of sin in the desert (a biome where sin is otherwise hard to come by), where the lights are so persistent they don’t even flicker. This city that, when seen from space, appears to astronaut eyes as the brightest dot. “The third biggest party city in the world,” we’re told, “not the US, but the world.” Las Vegas, Nevada. A state 50th in the nation for education, we hear, but first for poverty and crime. Where the lights never stop shining, where the fountains never stop flowing. For now.
These are some the rumors that come drifting down to Will and I beneath the Hoover Dam and the Mead Reservoir. We sit for several days at the end of December soaking in hot springs in the Colorado River’s Black Canyon and listen to the people we meet tell us these tales of the city 25 miles to the northwest. We listen, sit, and then hike back to our crowded campsite and complain. We complain about the crowds--maybe 40 boaters and hikers we’ve seen over the course of two days in the canyon. We complain about the noise—the constant drone of sightseeing helicopters flying overhead and boats navigating the river that we wake to each morning. And we complain about the lights—the glow of Vegas that blots the now-familiar stars in half of the night sky.
Three months of paddling through sparsely populated country and wilderness canyons has spoiled us. When the big reservoirs—Flaming Gorge, Powell, and Mead—proved, against expectations, to be more or less deserted, we forgot to brace ourselves for the return to crowds, noise, and lights, that trinity of everyday dullness civilization learns to ignore. And we were on the periphery of civilization still. The people hiking down to the hot springs reminded us how much more there was out there. At the heart of the glow, towards the source of the helicopters, there was, it was said, the city.
When we ran out of fresh complaints, we surveyed the situation. Half the flow of the river we rode through the Grand Canyon had disappeared into Mead storage for years to come, the first major decrease in the water since Wyoming. We speculated that the desert city, in its many forms, had something to do with this abrupt change. The river seemed stunned to find itself cool and clear again after finally picking up a healthy sediment load from side canyons in the Grand. Despite these changes, I failed to conjure up the anger towards Mead I had felt towards Powell. Mead’s history seemed more benign. Built in the 1930’s, the Hoover Dam felt like a more understandable mistake that should have taught important lessons before the Glen Canyon Dam began to fill Powell, and should make us consider alternatives to Powell today. Plus, it was warm on Mead. And calm. And we didn’t feel stirred. We began to call it Lake Meadiocre.
Perhaps part of the difference was in our moods. 25 days floating the Grand with good friends while eating good food was too much fun to get caught up in dam-angst. And Christmas with our families on the top of Mead was equally relaxing. We waited for the rage to return, but found only the expected: another desert sea, another barrier wall behind the dam, another car-assisted portage thanks to Will’s mom. The Black Canyon below with its hot creeks and slot canyons is easily as unique and spectacular as any upstream section of river, but the joys of running a wild canyon did not return. We had left the wilderness, that much was clear. The water was more a resource than a river here. And we only came up with banal complaints in response. That night, the Vegas rumors got under our skin. We need something to wake us up, we decide. We need action. We need to be traumatized. And having seen no more than 20 people in one place for over three months, the promise of 500,000 people in the street sounded like a fail-proof ticket to that trauma.
Strange as it may sound, the quest for a traumatic experience may have been one of the reasons I agreed to come along on this trip in the first place. When Will first suggested it over a year ago, I quickly replied that there was no way I wanted to paddle across all those reservoirs. But some time passed, and the more I thought about it, the more appealing I found the idea of seeing where the creek I grew up next to in Glenwood Springs, Colorado ended up. The trip represented the fulfillment of many Huck Finn influenced day dreams. Looking back, however, it’s clear there were other factors at play. My initial rejection of the expedition for fear paddling the less enjoyable sections of river was a common one. It’s no mystery why people tend to make their raft trips as long as roadless sections of canyon ranging from 18 miles in Westwater to 280 miles in the Grand. These sections are the less spoiled places to raft: more attractive, pleasant, and—thanks to the permitting system—relatively uncrowded. So what is it that would make fellow source-to-seers and other extended expedition paddlers think going past the end of the remote scenic canyons is a good idea? One answer, is to see the river in its entirety, to see where it goes beyond the usual take-outs. Another, it seems, is the desire to be a little uncomfortable, to move past the known and ideally to be shaken up—to be changed. In other words, it’s a desire for trauma. Being a sucker for theory, I find this strange desire worth dwelling on for a moment. Used in the psychological sense, it carries with it a whole lot of theoretical baggage. Good fodder for speculation. Usually to be traumatized means to live out the structure of a story told by a gloomy fellow about a century ago whose name makes many people scoff or cringe. Freud. Freud, or his interpreters, told the story of trauma along these lines. The subject experiences an event so intense or out of the ordinary that it exceeds his or her ability to be able to make any sense of it. The attempt to assign meaning to the memory blazes a pathway through the wilderness of the psyche, it makes a new area accessible, but it does not guarantee its navigability until a meaning can be assigned to the event. Trauma is how we grow or change psychologically. In the worst cases, the trauma is so overwhelming that it takes over. Trying to understand the senseless event becomes an obsession, consumes life, becomes sickness. In the best cases, trauma shakes up life in such a way that pathways are created towards more possibilities, towards growth and the expansion of life. Both overflow the realm of the meaningful, but they move in different directions. The first is call neurosis and enough has been said on that subject to give any sane person a complex. I’m not sure what the second is referred to today, but there’s a good chance it’s what was once called a “spiritual experience.”
For strict Freudians, the story would need to have a standard setting—childhood—and the company of other people. The outcome in the typical stories told by analysts is fairly bleak, mostly because the problems tend to get the press. But the traumas that move us towards life are just as real as the ones that lead to analysis, and they can be sought out. I believe it is possible to be traumatized in the positive sense by a wild place. One memory in particular comes to mind. It was towards the end of an 18 day raft trip on the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories of Canada where I first met Will. One day, well after midnight while the sun was in the midst of its 4 hour setting process, I walked away from the fire where the rest of the group sat to get some water from the river. As I leaned off the back of the raft to dip my pot in the river, I was struck, suddenly, by the vastness of the land around us. I’d thought about it abstractly before, but now it shook me deeply. It seemed as if we were carrying not only a shelter of food and warmth down the river with us but that we had an equally protective shelter of language, of meaning as well. Out beyond the end of the water pot was a world that was incapable of being greeted without first passing through our meaningful bubble. Out there were grizzlies, wolves, and hundreds of miles of unbroken forest. A wild world. Around the fire in the evening and on the rafts during the day, we carried with us a barrier against this looming, dense, inchoate space. The barrier made passing through this wilderness safe and understandable. But that night, walking away from the group, I felt the membrane between myself and the woods stretch, thin out for a moment, almost give way. Just the possibility of losing the coherence behind the barrier was traumatizing. I hurried back to the fire.
Since then, I’ve tried to be aware of the thickness of the language-wall each time I travel away from asphalt. Just few seconds of feeling it tremble is enough to make any trip worthwhile. A law of sorts has emerged: the breadth of the barrier is registered in the pulse of awe. As the first thins, the other races.
On this trip the barrier was relatively thin from the source to Powell, and at some moments--to recent to be interpreted--there was trauma. On the Grand, the large group made the wall thick again, and I was having too good of a time to worry about such matters. But when it was back to just Will and I after Christmas and we moved into a section of river that neither of us knew much about, it became clear that trying to be shaken by the canyons was hopeless among the motors and crowds. So we decide to head for a different kind of trauma, where language, people, structures, time have all the power they lack in solitary canyon floats. On New Year’s Eve, we stash our boats on the river bank and head for the heartless heart of it. Vegas.
We hike up a side canyon and climb up to the rim on old ropes left behind by boy scouts. Five hours of wrong turns and trudging up sand washes later, we find the river again, this time in the form of two gigantic steel electric lines headed from the Hoover Dam towards town. We walk on a road between them for over a mile past small mesquite, scattered bushes, and an old dump. Eventually we hit pavement, and the pavement leads us to more Colorado River, where the sand suddenly gives way to lawns and palm trees in suburbia. We’d entered Boulder City, Nevada. Seven miles and a few thousand feet above the historic river channel, we found the river in the form of hydro-powered lights and well watered lawns. A new sea.
A bus carries us away from the sandy shore and down into the glowing basin. Our eyes widen upon a scene that flashes by in discontinuous snippets. A bit of conversation, people getting on and off, signs speeding past, cars, music--all rarities for the last three months now in excess. We meet locals on the ride who show us the way downtown, careful to point out the places they’ve been mugged. We wander, eat pizza, drift towards the casinos and midnight in a subdued haze, too tired and confused after a full day of hiking to to absorb much of the scene. At the first major casinos, the crowd thickens. We wade through families pushing strollers into clouds of cologne, shampoo, and general cleanliness, becoming more and more self conscious of our stained down coats. Midnight arrives without much warning. Streams of fireworks go off from the roof of each casino. I watch as a hundred cell phones are lifted above the crowd, each screen reflecting the streams of color in the sky. A burst of lights and noise and the people quickly file out.
It becomes increasingly apparent that even among half a million people we stand out. We lean on a fence watching people move out and endure reminders of this fact. Our greasy clothing, unwashed hair, and untrimmed beards draw remarks: “Are you twins?” “Are you from Camping World?” and the more direct call to “Shave!” The first bus back to Boulder City at 5 AM seems unimaginably far off. Later, we stand below a tower of faceless windows accompanied by a grand announcement in neon: “The Mirage,” it reads. Below it cascading waterfalls fill pools out of which bronzed dolphins are leaping. For now, this is a sea for the Colorado, but when the dams have silted in and the pumps hang in dry air, this sign will prove prophetic--a mirage indeed.
On our way to the bus stop, we walk past a sign advertising “The Grand Canyon Experience.” A collection of styrofoam cups, fliers for dancers, McDonald’s bags and other trash has blown into a mound outside the door. The first fellow beard we’ve seen in Vegas hides a snoring face leaned against the curb outside. In the building, the walls have been made to look like rock and a video of helicopter shots of the Grand plays. We stare through the window for a moment, exhausted.
The night passes like a jumbled but not particularly memorable dream. On the bus back to the trail and our canyon, it remains unclear whether or not we’ve found the trauma we were seeking. It’s unclear if we’ve sustained serious psychological damage or if we’ve opened up pathways for new growth. But it does seem as if, while we’re riding the disappearing river towards Mexico, that the helicopters will offer less valid reasons to complain.