6 a.m. is a special kind of witching hour on the edge of Vegas proper. The clubs and casinos are technically still open, sure, their subwoofers still thrumming away to Tiësto and Khaled. There’s a bachelorette party still going strong downstairs at Gold Spike when I emerge from the elevator, and the cumulonimbus cloud of smoke I left on the roof the night before. Everything at the bar downstairs is still going at full blast, but the overhead lights are on so the cleaning crew can see where they’re going, and shit looks weird. I try hard not too look at the suddenly illuminated corners as I make my way to the Nissan.
I get breakfast and gas from the McDonalds/Chevron on Las Vegas Boulevard and East Lake Mead in North Vegas, on the edge of the Vegas sprawl, where the stripmalls fade out into the desert. The parking lot and gas pumps are crowded, but there are no cars; just the perpetually destitute, covered in rags, hands out for change as I walk past. There were nineteen of them. I counted from the cash register. Seven of them were children.
Las Vegas and Clark County have the tenth-highest homeless population in the United States, according to a HUD study in 2017. What’s more, the Vegas/Clark territory is the smallest among the top ten– that means the problem is actually worse when comparing homeless population to the population size. It’s easy to forget the byproduct of a town built chiefly on gambling, drinking, and avarice, especially when that town bends over backwards to hide it. At 6am on the edge of town, though, the seams are plain as day.
I drive North, out Nevada, into Arizona by 8 a.m.
Because of the way the Virgin RIver cut its way over millions of years through the hills North of the Grand Canyon, I-15 is a winding band of shimmering asphalt, snaking through the gorge. For the 35 minutes or so it took to drive through the Northwest corner of Arizona, the car was swallowed by the walls and cliffs of the mountain pass. The road weaves through the rock, and canyon starts to look like a massive labyrinth I’ll never escape. Suddenly, the cliffs part, the mountains split, and the Virgin River spills out into the open sunlight of Utah. I’m beginning to see why the Mormons consider this place paradise.
The drive continued on through the town of St. George, around low hills and pitted, ragged desert plains. It’s impossibly beautiful out here, especially on a clear morning at the tail end of Fall. Most of the leaves are gone from what few deciduous trees dot the landscape, so the view from highway to canyons and cliffs beyond the valley is uninterrupted. It is endless, and it is gorgeous.
Zion is Utah’s very first National Park, and the community around it seems to have grown in tandem with the park’s popularity. Driving through the town of Springdale, and through most of Washington County, most of the businesses appear to cater to the swaths of tourists coming from all over the world. It’s not altogether unpleasant, either; the stores, hotels, bed & breakfast, outdoor outfitters, and restaurants are mostly standalone businesses, not strip malls. There’s also blissfully few chain or franchise operations out here, likely because the mountains are treacherous for 18-wheelers.
Zion National Park covers the floor for much of Zion Canyon, the gorge cut into the Navajo sandstone by the Virgin River. In the brilliant morning sunlight, the lush, green canyon floor gives way to crimson cliffs, then muted tan undulating mountain walls, then bone-white sun-bleached peaks above the canyon floor. The early winter air leaves the skyline clear of fog; nothing but bright blue, and the odd jet trail.
William Howard Taft established the area in 1909 as the Mukuntuweap National Monument, naming it after the Southern Paiute name for the canyon. Nine years later, Horace Albright, head of the newly-formed National Park Service, changed the name to “Zion,” which he felt might resonate better with the prevalent Mormon population. The area was officially established as Zion National Park in 1919 by Woodrow Wilson.
The ranger station heading into the canyon is quiet. A few families pull into the parking lot, un-folding strollers from the backs of minivans. A handful of hikers start wrapping ropes around their packs, preparing for the day’s climb. The ranger, a stooped, hunched old guy props the door open to the ranger station, and shouts “We’re open!” from the stoop. I decide that’s definitely the guy to ask for directions.
We talk over the route to Angel’s Landing, the most-strenuous-yet-most-popular site in Zion. He explains I really shouldn’t underestimate how much the climb will kick my ass. The trail is just over 2.5 miles long, but has an elevation gain of 1,500 ft. (roughly a quarter mile into the air). It’s a rough climb.
“The downside,” he says, “is that you’ll spend two hours climbing the thing, get exhausted, and not want to come down; you’re going to spend your whole day up there. The upside is that you’ll spend your whole day on the prettiest peak in the park.”
I drove another four miles up the road, toward a bend in the trickling stream, turning into the Grotto parking lot. During the summer months, a shuttle bus runs the length of the 25mph-only two-lane strip of pavement winding in tandem with the Virgin river, ferrying hikers and park visitors to various trailheads throughout the park. Today, it’s relatively quiet, with maybe only a dozen cars or so parked on the gravel. No bus, no big groups. Just a quiet wind through the last yellow birch leaves, refusing to quit in the December morning.
I’m not cold, but I can tell I’ll be freezing when I get down. I stuff my jacket and scarf, granola bars, a banana, and my trail map into my bag, sling my camera over my shoulder, tie up my boots, and step across the stones in the river, and onto the trailhead.
The route is simple enough– there are no twists and turns, no dangerous chasms to swing over with a rope. It’s a well-worn path, almost impossible to get lost on, and gently climbs up the side of Angel’s Landing.
The trail then turns into a series of switchbacks, jagged little staircases, and hand-over-foot boulders. Huffing and puffing after the first half-hour, I lean on a pile of rocks, regaining my breath, and looking at the trail. The hikers on the trail ahead of me show just how far I’ll be going, and the sense of scale slows me down. This will not be a quick-and-easy hop up the mountain.
The switchbacks zig-zag their way up the cliffs, the canyon walls, the sandstone and granite, until the tree trunks become treetops, and the birds get quieter. The wind picks up a little, but doesn’t get any louder. The sun is at high Noon, and everything in the valley below the mountainside is alight. I keep climbing.
The first summit spits me out on a ledge next to an ancient, towering Joshua Tree, still growing, stretching its needles into the sun. The trail continues down the top ridge of Angel’s Landing, weaving around the sandstone footholds with lengths of massive steel chains on poles, driven straight into the rock. I see the hikers ahead of me using the chains as a handrails while climbing up the next set of boulders.
When I get to the chain-rail, my shoulder against the cliff wall, and step over a bush for the next foothold, my camera slides off my shoulder. I re-adjust, but lose my footing, and unable to lean in any direction to compensate, I immediately wrap an arm around the chain, stopping myself. Everyone ahead of me holding the chain stopped on the trail, and looked back at me.
“Yeah, but you looked cool doing it,” said a London-sounding voice behind me. Luke, an English hiker who’s spending a solid three months trekking through the National Parks of the American Southwest, had reached an arm out to grab me if I fell. We turned off the trail for lunch, and talked about travel, National Parks.
The final stretch over the last ridge is the single-most terrifying hike I’ve ever taken. While the footholds are firm, and the chain-rails are taught, the trail still leads out into thin air. It’s quiet over the valley. When the path finally evens out at the last stretch of Angel’s landing, the peak, leading straight out into the Valley, the view is extraordinary. It’s a vivid palette, with a terrifying sense of scale. It’s otherworldly, alien, but ancient, and immortal. Angel’s Landing is beautiful.
Over a cigarette, while talking about music festivals, just before our climb down, we’re joined by Two Australians, Julie and Sarah, both heading to Vegas after the hike. We share the food we have left, and start discussing different parks and attractions nearby. Luke mentions he’s never been to Vegas, and the Australians mention they’ve never been to a proper American buffet before, so we naturally decide to take the city of Vegas by storm that night.
The climb down was spent debating over whose accent is goofier; Coventry or Georgia. As the sun dipped behind the canyon walls, casting long, dramatic shadows into the valley, we arrive at the gravel parking lots at the foot of Angel’s Landing, turning around every few hundred yards, looking over our shoulders at the summit we climbed. All the miles we walked, and all the stones we touched. We agree to meet outside the El Cortez at Midnight.
The drive back into Vegas is quiet. Clouds billow around the cliffs and bluffs on the Utah skyline, and the tiniest pinpricks of stars shine through. Headlights on the highway before me weave in and around the hills outside Zion, leading me back West, onto I-15, into the heart of the throbbing neon gulley and wasteland of Fremont Street, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Luke, Julie, Sarah, and I have dinner at the Golden Nugget buffet, an elderly statesman of the Vegas buffet scene– pot roast, whipped mashed potatoes, various american home-style classics, and thirteen kinds of pie (five of them sugar-free). With a massive, baseball bat-sized joint, we walk on Las Vegas Boulevard toward the a cluster of forgotten buildings in the sleepy downtown business district. What must have been a small-ish motel is boarded up, fenced off, guarded with barbed wire, but covered in graffiti.
We find an entrance to the structure in the alley behind the complex, and have time for exactly one picture before a Vegas PD squadcar rolls down the alley. I left the shutter open for 30 seconds, hoping to capture as much of Vegas, and the air around me into the frame as I could.
The Coupe is currently hosting the Into the Desert photo show by Jonny Grave. It also features work from BYT’s Nicholas Karlin and Clarissa Villondo.