Mini-marathon: grin city
In 1941, you came to this desert valley dreaming of building a gambling paradise to fleece tourists, celebrate excess and promote decadence. Now I drift into your town ignoring the exploding fountains, the blinding neon lights and the gaudy theme hotels. No offense, Mr. Siegel, but I’m here to snub your memory and disparage your dreams. I’ve come to get my thrills without dropping a dime in the casinos.
Now, you probably never noticed it, but the valley is actually green and the surrounding sandstone canyons are stunning. But who’s to blame you? You were too busy launching a modern-day Sodom and laundering a lot of mob money in the process (or so I’ve heard). That’s gotta be a lot of work. But trust me, beyond the glare of the Strip lies an outdoor playground -- a rock-climbing, mountain-biking, kayak-paddling amusement park, 225 million years in the making.
So don’t mind me as I roll into town and unpack my lug-sole hiking boots, dual-suspension bike and weather-worn tent with plans to cram as much outdoor fun into 24 hours as I possibly can. Based on the crowd reports from Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and Mt. Charleston, I won’t be alone.
And to think that it all takes place within an hour’s drive of that bronze Siegfried and Roy statue on Las Vegas Boulevard. Why, it’s enough to make me rethink the town’s heroes. So, thanks Bugsy. I don’t think I could have done it without you, but then again, maybe I could have. 9 a.m.: rock climbing
The Nevada desert stretches to the east under a bright blue morning sky. Chaparral, Joshua trees and creosote bushes freckle the flat honey-colored sand beyond the rust red and gray sandstone of the Calico Hills, 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip in the Red Rock National Conservation Area.
It’s a gorgeous sight, but I’m in no position to soak it in. I’m 80 feet off the ground, clinging to a rock face, focused on the 2 feet around me. Somewhere near me on this blackened vertical wall is a crevice that will save me from a hairy fall, a belaying rope attached to my waist notwithstanding. I just have to find it.
And to think these canyons and boulders are just an accident of nature from 225 million years ago when the Earth’s crust began to rise in what was then an ocean. Sand and mud hardened, and some of it, pushed up by thrusting faults, oxidized and turned red.
Now this stone empire is a world-renowned rock-climbing playing field, featuring more than 2,000 climbing routes from easy boulder hops to insane Spider-Man adventures. Best to avoid it on weekends and holidays, though. The parking lots are usually full of climbers, ropes and gear in tow, heading out to these monoliths.
My guide, Mike Ward, is a burly ball of energy with a soul patch and short gray hair. His hands are thick and calloused from about 30 years of rock climbing in the area. He has worked as a guide for bored tourists, twentysomething thrill seekers and even a few casino entertainers. And now he’s working for me.
“Keep going. You’re doing fine,” he says. I don’t respond because that would require looking down. Bad idea. Keep looking up, I think.
“There’s a small ledge for your foot just below your right hand,” Ward hollers as I scale the “Magic Bus.” I’m about halfway to the top, and I see the ledge. It’s little more than a dent, a pock, really, on the face of a red and black sandstone slab. Like I’ll have any chance with that. Fear and loathing, indeed.
This is my third try, ever, at rock climbing, and Ward has started me on a 5.8. That’s climber talk for a fairly gnarly scramble. On a scale of 5 to 5.15 (a scale that’s not a numeric progression and thus seems illogical), 5 is an easy hike and 5.15 is the kind of vertical terrain that only a few experts might try.
“Trust the shoes,” he tells me of the rubber-soled climbing shoes I’m wearing. “They were designed to grip the rock. It’s called friction.”
Friction. Yeah, right.
I make my move and scramble to the next hold. The rocks feel like 20-grit sandpaper.
Surprisingly, my shoes hold, and I make it to the top.
11 a.m.: mountain biking
I’m alone in the hot desert with no one to hear my cursing but the rocks, cactuses and the Joshuas. I drive to the tiny community of Blue Diamond, six miles south of Red Rock Canyon, to do some mountain biking through a series of single-track trails around sand-strewn desert canyons and foothills.
My ride starts at a tree-shaded burg of modest wood-frame homes. Blue Diamond took root in the 1800s when travelers on the Old Spanish Trail stopped at what was then called the Cottonwood Spring. The community of about 300 people later took the name from the town’s mining company. The spring still flows, and the Old Spanish Trail is now a hiking and biking path.
I choose the 13-mile loop that starts out dusty and rocky and only gets worse from there. It was recommended to me by the bike mechanic at McGhie’s Bike Outpost, and when they say outpost, they’re not kidding. Still, the guy with the greasy hands behind the counter knows the terrain; he points to this track without hesitating.
The loop circles through a rugged landscape, interlaced by a spider web of single-track trails and Jeep roads. This place is amazing, really. Trail heads are everywhere, and back in town the center of activity consists of a gas station, a small school -- and that mountain-bike rental shop.
Halfway around the loop, I find myself bogged down in a sandy Jeep road. The red sand swallows my knobby tires. I pedal hard but can’t gain momentum. I climb off and carry my bike out of the sand, cursing and searching for the bike trail among the creosote shrubs.
That’s when I realize I’m being watched.
Three wild burros, their ears perked up, eye me from about 50 yards away, and wisely they keep their distance.
I find my way back to the single-track path, and talk about a sweet payoff. I begin a fast descent to Blue Diamond. My iPod is blasting “Life During Wartime,” by Talking Heads, and I’m flying past those beautiful Joshuas and creosote shrubs, a cloud of dust and a team of wild burros in my wake.
1:30 p.m.: skydiving (sort of)
So this is what it feels like to fly, I think, as I hover above the spinning blades of a giant fan in a vertical wind tunnel just a few blocks from the Strip.
I’m inside Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, and yeah, I know this isn’t technically an outdoor adventure, but it’s the closest I could get to skydiving and stick to my 24-hour schedule.
Before I enter the wind tunnel, I meet my instructor, a tall, lanky kid named Brett Butler, who shows me how to arch my back and bend my legs and arms to form a “U” shape. This allows the wind to lift me, like a leaf on a breeze. Once inside, the giant fan slowly begins to turn. A trampoline net keeps me from falling into the fan, which is driven by a 1,200-horsepower motor that can create a 120-mph gale.
Indoor sky diving has been gaining converts since a skydiver named Jack Tiffany jumped into a similar wind tunnel that was designed to test model aircraft and parachutes. That was in 1964 at an Air Force base in Ohio. Who knows what prompted him to try a stunt like that, but whatever the reason, his little gamble became a sport that was even featured at the closing ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Flyaway Indoor Skydiving has been around for almost 25 years, teaching the art of flying to tourists, including Daryl Hannah, Howie Mandel and Rachael Ray. No luminaries are around while I’m there. It’s just me and two nervous-looking sisters from New Jersey.
As the fan picks up speed, I begin to levitate. I have no choice. My dreams of flying were never this noisy. The wind whistles past my ears, flapping the one-piece Devo-like flight suit that swells up like the Michelin man. I’m just glad I have earplugs.
Floating on a thunderous wind stream, I drift higher and higher over the trampoline. Butler is standing on the net, holding me to keep me from spinning. I keep my head tilted back, just the way he taught me, until I look down and realize I’ve floated 12 feet high, and Butler is missing. Where is he? I look up. He’s next to me. We are both airborne, floating on a blast of air. In those seconds that we’re defying gravity, I get a wide-eyed, blood-pumping feeling that’s hard to describe.
My spree into the domain of birds and butterflies lasts only a few seconds. As the fan slows down, I roll to the padded cushions that border the trampoline.
Butler can’t see my face behind the protective helmet, but I’m smiling from ear to ear. Over the roar of the electric fan, he can’t hear me holler, “Awesome! Awesome!” So I give him a “thumbs up” and climb to my feet.
4 p.m.: kayaking
It’s a little unnerving to be on the Colorado River about 14 miles downstream from the Hoover Dam knowing that this 71-year-old barrier holds back enough water to flood the entire state of Pennsylvania. But who cares?
Afternoon temperatures are creeping over 90 degrees, and the conditions for kayaking are ideal. The Colorado River has a greenish tint. Overhead, the sky is slate blue. The towering canyon walls are a patchwork of beige and copper.
I launch my kayak from a dock at Willow Beach Marina, just across the Arizona border. Accompanying me are Briana Finlay and Darren Clarke, two guides from an outfit called Kayak Lake Mead. Our plan is to paddle upriver 8 1/2 miles to an area known as Black Canyon, where super-heated water pours from the rocks, forming natural hot tubs in the sandstone canyons.
It’s quiet, the only sounds coming from our paddles dipping into the river and from the sparrows, mallards and cormorants chirping and squawking along the banks. We pass three or four other kayakers and anglers, most of whom are cruising downstream to go ashore at the marina.
Finlay and Clarke are world-class competitive kayakers so 8 1/2 miles upstream is a warmup for them. But I’m struggling. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to go rock climbing, mountain biking and skydiving beforehand.
Finlay offers tips on improving my paddling technique. “Straighten your arms and use your oblique muscles to get more out of your stroke.” I’m not sure I have oblique muscles.
About 7 p.m., darkness falls. The canyon’s shadows swallow the river. Tiny bats the size of hummingbirds dart overhead like wild fighter pilots.
8 p.m.: stargazing
Out here on the banks of the Colorado River, in a pebble-blanketed canyon, I feel as if we have dropped off the world’s radar. We beach our kayaks and hike into Ringbolt Canyon, a small gorge of red rocks and cat claw shrubs. Clarke makes a campfire while I unwrap a sandwich from my backpack.
After dinner, the pair leads me into an adjoining canyon where hot water seeps from the wet sandstone walls and trickles to the floor. The water at our feet is cool, but as we hike farther into the canyon, it gets deeper and hotter. The walls close in, until the canyon seems to end at a vertical rock wall, where hot water splashes down a rusty metal ladder that reaches up into the downpour.
With flashlights and headlamps, we climb the ladder to another rock shelf, where the canyon continues. The walls up here are about 15 feet apart, a good place for a knee-deep pool, which someone has created by stacking sandbags along the width.
We sink into the hot water and turn off our lights. It’s pitch black except for the stars that shine down directly overhead. A satellite drifts across the sky.
Finlay wonders why no one thought to bring wine. The night air is warm, the spring water is steaming hot, and the lights of Ursa Major sparkle from above. That’s intoxicating enough.
I wake in my tent early the next morning to the sound of two mallards waddling on the gravel around my tent. Finlay and Clarke make instant coffee on a portable stove. After breakfast, we stuff our gear into the hulls of our kayaks and slip into the water.
By 9 a.m., we are coasting down the Colorado River toward Willow Beach. The going is easy. The sun peaks over the copper canyons, and I know when I get back to my hotel, I’ll look ragged, worn out and unshowered -- just like all the other revelers in Vegas.