The giant sun that scorched me four hours earlier is shrinking behind the ragged hills of Red Rock Canyon. Five miles away from where I’m climbing down, the National Park’s Western edge is swallowing the last feeble flickers of sunlight from the sky. It’s cold, I’m not even halfway down the blood-red sandstone ridge above Calico Basin, it will be dark very soon, and like a definitive asshat, I didn’t bring a flashlight.
I pause a few times on the steep ledges hopping down them in the dark, reminding myself that, yes, I have done dumber things in my life than climb down the dark side of a short mountain during twilight, but really, I can’t think of any.
The desert doesn’t care, though. This is an uncompromising landscape, immediately outside of the screaming streets of Las Vegas, in one of the most inhospitable environments on the earth. Though the gorgeous hills, valleys, forests, and mountains of Red Rock Canyon are a popular destination for visitors and locals alike, it is still very much a desert. It only rewards those who approach it with some kind of reverence.
Historically, this kind of landscape makes for great vision quest material, which is exactly why I wanted to to head out there for a week with a camera. I played a ton of gigs 2017, ranging from hotel lobbies to bluegrass festivals. I toured, I worked, I led guided tours on the Mall to make up for gigs that shorted me, and I repaired guitars for some friends who needed work done cheap. By the end of November, I desperately needed a hard-reset.
That’s why I went into the desert for seven days and seven nights, with a giant backpack full of camera gear, a compass, and a canteen. My goal was to go to a different National Park every day, and a different cannabis dispensary every night.
Reefer is no longer a shady Strip-side transaction in Las Vegas; it’s an over-the-marble-countertop exchange with a knowledgeable Bud-Tender, walking you through the various flowers available at their shop. From in-the-couch indica, to the giddiest strain of sativa, all the psychoactive flavors of THC are coursing through the dispensaries of Nevada. If smoking isn’t your thing, edibles like cookies, brownies, gummies, and I swear to christ, granola bars are widely available. If you’re a heavy-hitter, there’s a hand-blown double-chambered dab rig for just $200, and the shop throws in a free hunk of wax to go with.
The most curious thing about these brand-new dispensaries, though, is how they’ll inevitably impact the Vegas economy; Sure, weed will play a role in tourism here, but at what expense to the casino owners who make their money from gambling and booze? Partner this curious dynamic to an already turbulent and constantly re-developing city, and the results are simply unpredictable. All the more reason to visit, take pictures, and hear some stories. And smoke pounds of grass.
I forget about all of this as I hop down the steep mountain in the failing light. What I’m smoking this evening, where I’m eating, what I’ll see on Fremont just doesn’t matter. All that matters is finding the next arrow gruesomely hewn into the rocks on the way down, and following what I’m praying is a path.
PART ONE: McCarran, Gold Spike, Red Rock, and Fremont East
Spirit Airlines is the stuff of sociopaths, and I mean that with all of my heart. There is no other explanation for the inhuman treatment of their passengers than a cold-hearted, unfeeling, and remorseless ownership. Who let these people design seats this way? They don’t even fucking recline. I arrive with a hunch in my back, and a half-numb buttcheek.
The plane touches down at McCarran International Airport on November 27, 2017, just before noon. The smell of fried food, the flashing lights of the slot machines, the screams of babies in strollers, and the stratified layers of two generations’ cigarette-smoke-taste in the air all hit me at once. A Spirit gate agent made direct eye contact with me the moment I came off the gangplank, almost whispering under his breath “Welcome to Vegas.”
My backpack cinched to my back, I find my way out of the terminal, heading for the sprawling car rental plaza. From across the street, the lots of SUVs upon compacts upon Jeeps upon hatchbacks looks to be ten times more massive than the airport behind it. The noon sun beaming directly overhead is reflected by the acres of windshields. I pick up a silver 2016 Nissan Sentra, signed and paid, then made a beeline for the oldest part of town.
Fremont Street was once the heart and soul of Las Vegas. The overabundance of neon and casinos helped set Vegas’ image for much of the 20th Century. After the late 90’s, and the rise of super-sized casinos and resorts, attention shifted from Fremont to Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as the Strip.
The Strip is now what most people think of when they think of Vegas; The Bellagio fountain show, shopping at Caesar’s Palace, Cirque du Soleil at New York New York, and Penn & Teller at Río. Around 2004, Fremont was revamped to be a more approachable, more familiar, “classic” version of Vegas. The result is an honest, working-class crowd, just as drunk as the Strip, but a lot less dialed-back. This is exactly why I’m staying here. That, and I can’t afford to stay on the Strip.
Truthfully, I’ve no interest in spending much time in Las Vegas proper at all, beyond sleeping, maybe getting a decent bite at a locals-only shop, and visiting as many dispensaries as I could. New legislation has opened the market for full-on recreational cannabis, and Vegas has welcomed the new cashflow with mostly open arms.
From what a clerk at CannaCopia tells me, it’s hard as hell to get the licensing, the permits, the certifications, the approvals, and settle all the red tape; that’s why a lot of dispensaries and canna-businesses in Vegas come from former bar-and-restaurant owners. That cadre of business owners, the clerk tells me, understands the ins and outs of buying property in Vegas better than anyone, and usually get their way. It’s the new guys who are fucked. As a new shop, though, CannaCopia seems to be doing just fine. I bought 3.5g of Chemdawg and a 1g Scarlette OG pre-rolled joint for $40 total. I like having a sativa and an indica on hand; one for up, one for down.
Careening out of the packed parking lot, and into pre-rush-hour Vegas traffic, I find my way to the Oasis at Gold Spike. This is, short of the unsightly Downtowner Motel, the most inexpensive straight-ahead hotel on Fremont. However, it’s still Vegas. The hotel’s ground floor is set up like a massive party-plex, with canopied indoor lounges, pop-up bars, arcade games, and a 24-hour deli. The asphalt-and-astroturf backyard has a squat stage for live bands, another couple bars, and giant-sized beer pong, chess, and Jenga. I’ve arrived on a Monday, though, so everything is turned off, leaving the empty ground floor looking like an abandoned hellscape of party aftermath. Apparently, the largest selling point of the hotel is the “Real World Suite,” where MTV taped the 115th season. Really, I’m just here for a cheap room with a clean bed, a functional shower, free parking, and a reasonable internet connection.
While the room is perfectly adequate, and my immediate surroundings seem to be a good spot to start an adventure, I realize I’ve managed to grossly underestimate the pre-rolled joint’s strength. I’m walking with my over-sized camera onto Fremont, smoking the indica down to the cone, and noticing how slowly everything moves. Suddenly, the praying mantis outside the Container Park erupts into “O, Fortuna,” and begins breathing fire from its fifty-foot antennae. I decide to head for bed before I get hit by a car.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area is about a twenty-minute drive from Fremont, some 16.2-odd miles from the door of Gold Spike to the Ranger Station’s front step. To put that into perspective for my D.C. readers, getting to Red Rock Canyon from the heart of Vegas takes about half as long as getting from Columbia Heights to Great Falls. Despite the short distance, Red Rock Canyon doesn’t turn up very frequently on the tried-and-true “must-do” lists. Tourists are more likely to visit three buffets than visit a single National Park during a stay in Vegas (And there’s nothing wrong with this at all– scores of hotels have “buffet passes,” offering discounts on the various buffets of Vegas. This is totally fine by me. I love buffets.).
It might be because Red Rock Canyon has a word associated with it that tends to strike a visceral reaction in most folks: “desert.” This kind of climate scares a lot of people. Inhospitable surroundings, unwelcoming landscape, desolate, wretched, devoid of life. But while the desert can certainly be a harsh spot for us humans, it’s just another one of many ecosystems on this funny planet, and it’s full of life. It’s no more unsettling or unwelcoming than a beach, or the woods. It just takes a little determination to brave the void.
I heard about this park in a 2012 issue of GQ. Max Plenke wrote, “Peace and quiet is hard to come by in this town. But just twenty minutes west of the Strip is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and its fire-hued 3,000-foot rock faces, often speckled with climbers. Take the winding thirteen-mile scenic drive; there’s not a single glass pyramid or neon tube in sight.” Three sentences had me hooked on the idea of seeing the beauty of the desert just outside Sin City.
Still reeling from the pre-roll, I arrive just after 2 p.m. at the foot of the ridge surrounding Calico Basin. The 250-million-year-old lithified sand dunes stretch and yawn into the clear desert sky above the parking lot, with a couple narrow paths leading into the wilderness. Finding a way up the side of the ridge proves to be easy enough, with only a couple hand-over-foot scrambles to get over a boulder. The route is crudely marked by white arrows scratched into the massive stones lining the ridge. Halfway up, I pass a climber heaving himself straight up a cliff, pausing every step to gauge the next foothold.
On the top, everything gets quiet. Carvings from generations of visitors line the crest above the ridge. At first, I’m revolted by the crass tourist engravings. Then a few start to stand out; “Bess, 1945” in chunky block letters, and “EVER” in perfect Latin script. Although visitors seem intent on disrupting the landscape just to leave a mark, it’s evidently something that’s been done in Red Rock for ages. Driving this point home for me, a pair of what appear to be Anasazi petroglyphs. A contact at the Bureau of Land Management explained that what I saw could have very well been carvings left by a former settlement. Given their location on the sunny side of the ridge, it’s possible the glyphs indicated a source of water, or shelter from the elements. Dragonflies generally mean good vibes with Paiute, and earlier settlers of the Canyon.
In marveling at the carvings, I completely lose track of time, and the sun’s position over the canyon. I notice my shadow growing longer over the boulders beneath me, check my watch, and see that I have about an hour of daylight left. I begin the descent, but not before a thin layer of evening clouds roll over the valley, killing the dim sun. Only a day in Vegas, and I’m already risking my life, climbing down the side of a ridge in the dark. I make it to the car just before sunset, just as the Rangers make their last sweep of the Scenic Loop.
The Apothecarium is almost exactly between Red Rock Canyon and Gold Spike. Customers wait in the lobby with tickets while their numbers are called by a host in a black suit, sitting behind a marble counter. I rise when I hear my number, and follow the host over the threshold, and breathe in the thousand varieties of bud being moved in and out of the shop. Dropping a paltry $20, I walk out with a pair of pre-rolled joints. I decide to learn from the previous night’s misstep, and smoke these in stages.
Covered in desert dust, re-charged from dinner, and pleasantly high from a Blue Dream pre-roll, I amble onto Fremont with my camera again.