At the outset, the colors of the journey are gray on gray—the gunmetal shade of the Audi Q5 and the dusty silver of a late March desert sky. The roads southeast of town are empty; the burst of palm-green at the entrance to Lake Las Vegas flashes by. Wheels, pavement, sky, sand, stone—early on a Sunday, a lullaby road, a silent ride. At a low brown hut I reach out the window, put $10 in the park ranger’s hand, and cross over into deep nostalgia. This was the setting for my earliest, half-imagined, memories. I seem to recall that my father once backed a tan Ford into Lake Mead with me still in the backseat. The recollection, strangely enough, is pleasant—the water rising green and brackish on the other side of the window. Never happened, they say. But I smell the moment in the air. I have not been here for a long, long time.
I am driving with my wife and my 10-year-old son. I am driving too fast. Some kind of internal music hurls me down Northshore Drive; the curves are tight, but the ride is smooth—crest to dip to crest; the joy of low-gravity, the memory of old laughter. I half expect to fly, to look down at water and stone and the ghost of Dad’s old motorboat, which my sister dubbed the “Peace Chief” one inspired day in the mid-1970s, before the Peace Chief was sold and the lake passed from our busy lives. Later, during our pragmatic and boat-less ’80s, we would learn that the Peace Chief had broken down and sunk to the bottom of Lake Mead, its erstwhile passengers safe, but cold and wet.
The palette changes at Redstone: A yellow backhoe, some orange plastic fencing—the birth shades of an unfinished picnic stop. Behind the fence—the spectacle of scarlet stone, sculpted by eternity. We hop out; my son scrambles up a mound, disappears through a portal, returns with an awed expression that he does not translate into words. The moment is a postcard from my distant past and his very near future, farther down the road, at the Valley of Fire.
I cannot remember ever having seen Elephant Rock, the sentry at the eastern entrance to Valley of Fire State Park. I’m told that I’ve been there, but that day seems to have slipped into a space beyond myth. It’s the brochures that have haunted me, the knowledge that there is a miracle 60 miles from my hometown and I cannot recall having set eyes on it. We walk the rocks, lay hands on them. A loud group hikes up behind us. A full-grown man asks who sculpted this beast. I detect neither irony nor religious awe. Nobody answers him.
Who indeed? My son picks up a flat slab of ketchup-red sandstone. “This is a million years old,” he says. I let the number settle. It is large enough for him to ponder. I do not tell him that what he has in his hand is closer to 150 million years old. Who indeed? What unseen hand, working with wind and water and time, readied this place for our gaze?
We drive deeper into the Valley, to the formation known as Mouse’s Tank. The sky is still gray, but the world has awakened. In the Q5, the morning acquires sound: Springsteen sings of a long-lost friend out on that road somewhere, driving along; Kerry Candaele sings of the gas money his mother once gave him. At Mouse’s Tank, we hike deep into a canyon. The red sand at our feet is fine as baby powder; at the base of the rocks are improbably green bushes and tall stands of grass. High on the hillsides, the art of the ancients: a human figure, a dancing family, a handprint.
I look at that handprint for a long time. Many, many years ago, someone took the time to wave at me.
I wave back.
The Place: Valley of Fire State Park.
The Way: Via Northshore Drive to east entrance: Lake Mead Parkway to Northshore Drive, turn left. Turn left again into Valley of Fire State Park at Highway 169 (60 miles). Via Interstate 15 to west entrance: I-15 to Route 169, turn right (55 miles).
The Wheels: Audi Q5 3.2 Quattro from Desert Audi; $47,700 with leather interior, satellite navigation, Bang & Olafson sound system and Sirius XM Radio; 18 mpg city, 23 highway. The assessment: I want one.
The Sound: Kerry Candaele, Gas Money; Springsteen on Sirius E-Street Radio.
The Eats: No food sold in the park itself, but stop by the Inside Scoop (395 S. Moapa Valley Blvd.) seven miles up the road in Overton for terrific sandwiches and ice-cream cones in an old-school all-American sandwich shop.
While You’re at It: Don’t miss Overton’s Lost City Museum (721 S. Moapa Valley Blvd., 397-2193). Located on a site once inhabited by Ancestral Puebloan Indians, the museum is the perfect place to explore the history of the peoples who have lived in the area for more than 2,000 years. It’s open 8:30-4:30 Thu-Sun. Admission: $5, under 18 free.