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The ice man cometh
Story by Bjorn Dihle | Illustration by Hernan Valencia
The discomfort: He’s a rugged Alaskan who’s never hiked the desert
The zone: A quixotic quest to trek the entire circumference of Las Vegas
To understand what happened during my 2013 expedition to hike the circumference of Las Vegas, I have to start from the beginning.
It was late September of 2010. I was sitting on an Alaskan Airlines plane, watching the sunset redden an expanse of brown mountains, as a loquacious woman in the next seat claimed she’d recently separated one of her buttocks in a freak canoeing accident — an injury I didn’t know was possible. Somewhere between ordering her fifth mini-bottle of wine and describing her physical therapy regimen, I saw the distant lights of Las Vegas radiating below.
“Lord, what have I gotten myself into?” I muttered. A lifelong Alaskan, I was what you might call a bit woodsy. I spent almost as much time with grizzly bears as people, and showered on a once-a-month basis, whether I needed to or not. When I vacationed, I went to the Arctic to migrate with caribou or to ice-fields to slog through wildernesses of glaciers and mountains.
“What’s wrong?” the lady asked.
“Four months ago I lied to a girl, telling her I’d been on the television show ‘The Deadliest Catch,’ so she’d date me. She moved to Vegas for university and is forcing me to visit,” I said, fibbing a bit.
The truth was I didn’t want to spend another long, cold winter alone and this girl, MC, a wandering writer, was pretty and nice to me: two attributes that were rare amongst the women I’d encountered in the north. Uninterested, my seatmate launched into a lecture on an environmental convention she was attending.
“The world is getting warmer, and lawmakers and politicians are doing nothing to stop it!” she said, slamming her plastic cup on the seat tray. A bleary-eyed and flustered man looked back.
“I’m for global warming,” I offered, trying to make her feel better, “but against climate change.”
“They’re the same thing! That’s what I’m talking about. Everyone is so ignorant.” She rambled on.
I wiped her spittle from my ear and studied the dreamlike city surrounded by a sea of sand and mountains. I was struck by how Vegas resembled an island in the desert, how its network of streets and buildings ended and desolation began. Right then and there I decided if things went well with MC, and visiting became a regular occurrence, I might have to make a long walk around the city.
Small and fragile
During the next few years, MC taught me about V-neck sweaters, skinny jeans and how to deal with loud noises. She kept me on a point system, and when I’d earned enough, she’d take me out into the desert so I could run around, listen to the wind and howl with coyotes.
“See, it’s not so bad here,” she said as we watched bighorn sheep standing beneath red mountains. The shock of crowds, flashing lights and billboards of nearly naked women — it was a rare and giddy experience to see more than a brief flash of a woman’s ankle where I’m from — faded. Vegas soon felt normal, even tame despite its flamboyance and revelries. In relation to the surrounding desert, it seemed small and fragile.
Fancying myself an explorer, yet being lazy and prone to Oreo and Cheeto binges, I procrastinated making the long walk. My only real desert exploration had been in polar regions, where my beluga whale-like physique was much better suited. When Nevadan friends asked whether or not I was going to make the expedition, I was evasive and countered with stories of bear encounters.
“Once, a grizzly was this close to my head!” I said, gesturing and spilling my cocktail on my face. If that failed to impress, I pointed out the well-known fact that you’re five times more likely to be abducted by aliens in Alaska than Nevada, and that they’re bigger and meaner the further north you go. If that didn’t work, I’d challenge them to a thumb-wrestling match.
In the spring of 2013, shortly before MC graduated from her masters program, I visited Vegas for what I imagined would be the last time. After my once-a-year haircut and shave, I wiped off my Cheeto-greased hands on my shorts, loaded my backpack full of gallons of water, candy bars and basic camping gear. MC tried to talk me out of it.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked as she drove me to the city limit. “You should just hang out with me.”
“Look, some of us take the path less taken. In the wild is where I find the preservatives for life. Every man lives, but not every man really dies.” I tried to bestow my wisdom on her, but after a while, she kind of zoned out.
Near a dried-up Joshua tree and an entrance to the Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, she pulled over. Her blond hair rustled in the wind; I thought I saw tears in her deep blue eyes, tokens of love mixed with sorrow, and knew they were justified. How many women before her had fallen in love with explorers and had to watch them leave, perhaps never to return?
“Wait for me,” I whispered. “And if I don’t return, listen to the north wind. You’ll feel me then.”
“Stop being weird. I’ll see you in two days,” she said before driving off.
[HEAR MORE: Author Melinda Moustakis recounts life in Alaska on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
Into the wild
Being alone in the wild, faced with the unknown, with only your wits to rely on, is an incredible feeling. A jogger stretched and asked me what I was up to, but I ignored him and walked into the desert. The silence, except for the cars speeding behind me and the jets rumbling overhead, was nearly overwhelming. For the first 20 minutes the landscape’s scorched beauty engulfed my soul, then my pack got heavy and I got bored.
Due to what I’m claiming were time restraints, my dream to walk around Vegas had turned into a trek through Red Rock Canyon and the seldom-visited mountains to the north. Two days from setting out, MC would pick me up on Kyle Canyon Road, and together, we’d hike Mt. Charleston. I was somewhat ashamed of the abbreviated nature of the expedition, so I thought of bear stories and did thumb-strengthening exercises as I walked.
I picked my way through scrub-brush and cactuses until I got to the edge of a wall of red mountains. Canyons, from which small, foul-smelling creeks trickled, offered boulder-ridden and spectacular routes deep into the singed monoliths. A mule deer, her ears so large they seemed clownish, emerged from the juniper brush and watched me for a few moments. Lizards ran across the sand and disappeared into rock crevices. Two adult bighorn rams, their massive horns casting shadows on the front halves of their bodies, chewed their cuds. Turkey vultures, with ebony wing feathers glowing, hovered overhead. The sun beat down mercilessly; it was moving to see these animals thriving in such a hostile environment.
Dripping sweat and coughing, I couldn’t quite claim to be thriving. Following faint trails, used mostly by hoofed Nevada residents, I approached the boundary of Red Rock Park. Hikers began popping out of the desert, some on their way to rock-climb in canyons, while others moved more casually, content with the gifts the horizontal world offered. The sun fell behind me as I linked trails together and made my way towards Turtle Head Mountain. I hiked up Calico Basin, enjoying the company of a pair of western scrub jays as I smiled at hikers who gave me funny and sometimes envious looks, perhaps because they’d never seen the likes of my giant green-checkered sun hat. From the end of the trail, I took in a view of cliffs, desert and the sprawl of Vegas.
‘Can you please come with me?’
I still debate what happened next. I’m Alaskan, so it’s safe to rule out I got turned around. Somehow I lost several hours while wandering in circles, clinging to precipices and following canyons that led nowhere healthy. Eventually, I climbed to the top of a ridge and was surprised to see a group of elderly people having a picnic.
“Where am I?”
“You’re at the top of Calico Basin trail,” a woman said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I just wandered in a big circle.” I shrugged.
“Can you please come with me? I’ll take you back to the road,” she said. I convinced her I was fine, mumbled something about grizzly bears, showed her the size of my thumb and headed back into the maze of cliffs.
An hour later, after scrambling down a steep canyon and surprising a few rock climbers in the process, I emerged near Red Rock’s park entrance. The sun was setting, I was several hours behind schedule and had used more water than planned; I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it to Kyle Canyon Road the following day. Knowing it’s better to be a pushover than to push it in the desert, I swallowed my pride and called MC.
“Are you okay? What happened?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you in person,” I said and walked down the road into the dusty twilight. Forty minutes later, MC, with a smug smile on her face, pulled over onto the gravel shoulder.
“Hey, Mr. Alaska explorer-man, can I rescue you?” she asked, then stopped short when she saw how ghastly I looked. “What happened to you?”
“I’ve been alone in the wild for so long, I fear I’m no longer the man you use to love,” I said.
“You mean the man I dropped off this morning?” she said, and we drove off into a landscape lit crimson in the last of the day’s twilight. Physically, emotionally and spiritually spent, I hung my head in defeat. We sped along Highway 215, beneath billboards marketing infidelities, blue aliens and happy endings. The lights of Vegas grew brighter as the desert faded into the darkness.
I’m back home in Alaska now. I’ve had time to reflect on my attempted walk around Las Vegas, and come to the conclusion that hiking in Nevada is just too easy. In Alaska, on hikes, we live in constant fear of being mistaken for a wolf or grizzly, and being gunned down by one of our state’s politicians. And, it’s so cold here, your spit freezes before it hits the ground; you literally can’t pee outside or you’ll be frozen to the tundra. Also, we have three species of bears, as well as wolves and wolverines to contend with every time we go outside. The worse are the hybrids; when a wolf mates with a bolverine (a cross between a bear and wolverine) you have a wobolverine, and trust me, that’s one ferocious beast.
Bjorn Dihle has spent much of the last 14 years living in a tent, exploring the mountains, tundra and forests of the north. He is a lifelong Alaskan who works as a commercial fisherman, guide and freelance writer when he’s not wandering wild places.
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