I took my kid to the Las Vegas Strip last week. Some people thought I was crazy. They may be right. This hyper-psychotic patch of civilization is a compression of lights, clanging bells and music that could cause one’s head to explode. Fall break, his 15th birthday, he wanted to explore a city. Born next to a wood stove and growing up off-grid outside a town with a population under 500, an exotic place for him is where people cram together by the millions.
The brightest lights we see from home are the halo of Norwood and, looking 30 miles north, the dull dome of Montrose warming a corner of the atmosphere. Our night sky is mostly stars, a rare blessing anymore. In Vegas, only Jupiter was bright enough to stand out, and the Moon wandered between outlandish buildings like a stray animal. We came with a buddy of my son’s from Gunnison, another small town kid, and his father came along, too. We wove through thousands of pedestrians as if navigating wild and screeching flocks of birds walking around on two legs. Who couldn’t be in awe of the sheer magnitude?
A little backstory, my kids and I have been trekking cities for years. It’s to see how the other half lives. Visitors come to us in RVs and rental cars, and we go to them with our feet. Last July, my son and I took 17 days to circumscribe 170 miles around the perimeter of San Francisco Bay. No cars, busses or bikes, it was all on foot, carrying packs and navigating shipping yards, oil refineries and the ramshackle tent cities that blossom around freeways. We took this metropolis in the teeth, Oakland to Berkeley to Richmond to Sausalito to San Francisco. On our last day, when my feet were aching as if beaten with hammers, he said he felt done, senses overflowing. He said that in the city everything is happening everywhere all the time. After a while, it makes you dizzy.
You could say the same about all the world, about living in the middle of nowhere, watching the Moon set from a mesa top, leaves turning from green to yellow and slipping off the trees. Cities speed up every process, racing toward singularity, their sensory roar concentrated like a laser.
Vegas wasn’t just my kid’s request. I planted the idea by coming with him when he was younger. He was 10, his sister 13, and the three of us walked with backpacks for a few days along the Book Cliffs outside of Grand Junction. In the badlands, we made small campfires from naturally occurring coal and cakes of desiccated cow dung, using brittle twigs of shadscale for kindling. These were skills I wanted them to have. On the last day, we arrived at Walker Field, changed into clean clothes, and stepped onto a plane with $36 seats to Vegas. I found us a different hotel along the Strip each night as we walked miles of purely human landscape. This was a skill I also wanted them to have. Day four, somewhere in the whiz-bang bowels of Circus Circus, I couldn’t take anymore. I barely made it out, finding not much refuge in the diamond brightness of mid-day Vegas. At least I could see the sky. Coming back again was like a moth to a flame, a yearning to see all that glitters and shines.
My son asks, “Why do we live in the middle of nowhere?” I don’t have a good answer. Elbow room, I guess. More than half of all people in the world live in cities. Seventy years from now, which is the average span of one human life, the ratio is expected to rise to 90 percent, which could be 9 billion people living on top of each other. This is why I take my kids to the city, so they know what is out there, what other suns we’ve ignited.
When we were done with Vegas, I returned to Norwood and stood on our roof watching an orange Moon squish into the horizon. My boy was right. Everything is happening everywhere all the time. Only here, it has its own gentle pace. Watching the last skim of moon go under, I was relieved to be home.
Craig Childs is a Norwood author who has published more than a dozen books on nature, science and exploration, including “The Secret Knowledge of Water.”