The merciless desert sun beat on my salty face as another big rig thundered past my supine body. The right side of my being was shielded from the sun by the van, while the left side was perilously close to the white line of the highway. Considering that the three-quarter ton vehicle of mine was balanced precariously on a wheel jack that was sinking ever lower into the uneven gravel that made up the road's shoulder, I wasn't sure which half of me was in direr straights. The dust that the Nevada State Trooper had kicked up after stopping by to give me directions to the nearest repair shop had long settled in my mouth and nose, and tried giving the jack a few more nervous turns. The rocks beneath shifted ominously.
After bidding a reluctant farewell to Zion National Park, I had retraced my steps back towards the southwest. One of my best friends from Madison just so happened to be spending part of the week in Las Vegas, and I couldn't resist an opportunity to see her. My plan was to spend a day climbing in Red Rock Canyon, just outside of the city (a place I had visited last November), then meet up with her group for a night out on the strip. It would be quite a departure from my outdoor excursions, to be sure.
I woke up early in the morning to start the 3 hour drive to Vegas. My plan was to skirt past the city and get a couple days of climbing before hitting the city. My plan hit a bump in the road.
I was driving along Highway 15 (a long, desolate road - much like Highway 10, but less useful (I'm a guy with some strong opinions when it comes to highways)), when I felt a strange vibrating going through the van. This occasionally happens at certain RPM's, often when I'm speeding up or slowing down rapidly, but this was different. The van was bouncing up and down slightly, as if the road was undulating. I was curious about this, but not too concerned. I figured the asphalt was graded strangely or something.
After some time, the up-and-down motion returned, stronger than before. It seemed to be coming from the rear of the van. I put on a troubled visage and furrowed my brow at the cargo space behind me. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Satisfied that I had done my due diligence in getting to the bottom of the mystery, I returned my gaze to the road just in time for a sound like someone was slamming a metal trash can closed on my ears blasted through the van. I glanced into the rearview mirror and watched pieces of a tire ricochet across the highway as I lost both speed and control of the automobile.
I managed to roll gently to a stop on the soft shoulder, and gave myself a moment before heading out to inspect the damage. I was safe. No other cars were affected. Big picture, things were gonna be alright. I let out a sigh and gave thanks.
Then I opened up the door and gave a perhaps more convincing curse to the same benevolent being that I had just thanked. My practical theology is still a work in progress.
The tire had exploded off of my rear driver's side wheel, taking with it the plastic bumper and some rusted metal from the underside of the truck, which was doubtlessly put there to serve some important purpose. I had swerved to a standstill riding directly on the rim of the wheel, as evidenced by some minor damage to the road, and some major damage to the rim.
As I alluded to above, the process of changing the wheel out was not a pleasant one. When you normally change a tire, the rubber around the rim gives you a pretty good cushion, so you don't have to jack up the vehicle too high. When that part of the wheel no longer exists, there's a good 5 inches or so further that you need to lift the rig to fit the new tire on. And when you are using a tiny car jack that fits in the compartment below the passenger's foot rest, 5 inches is a long way to go.
I eventually won the race against the gravel slowly sinking under the jack and got my replacement wheel on the van. I removed any spare pieces of metal that seemed detrimental to the free motion of the tire and gently lowered my precious cargo back onto the ground. I used that wonderfully baffling concept of modern technology - internet anywhere through thin air - to find a tire shop that was only 2.5 miles away.
I had just gotten my tax refund back, which was fortunate, because I gave them the entire amount and more. My tires were balder than a pool ball, and it was a wonder that they didn't blow earlier. In addition, my brakes were worn down to the calipers. Woo-hoo. They replaced the tires that day, and told me to stay in town for the next few days while they ordered the brakes. The damage to the vehicle from the blowout? It would "probably be fine." Good enough for me.
My brakes were in bad shape, but I still decided to head out and find a campsite. I was planning on meeting my friend the next day in the afternoon, so there was theoretically some time in the morning for climbing. Before sunset, I managed to find the exact site in which I had stayed last November, and settled in for an early night. The temperature was predicted to be in the 90's the next day, so I wanted to get an early start.
Being familiar with the area was a huge help. I woke up at the crack of dawn, drove straight into Red Rock Canyon, and got down to climbing. I had a few hours of reasonable temperatures, but I had unfortunately selected boulders that were exposed to direct sunlight. With that many photons beating down on your brain-cage, it's hard to do much of anything with any degree of success. I wandered around the desert a bit more in search of shaded climbs. In doing so, I disturbed the sunbathing of a striking Chuckwalla. I didn't get a picture of him on the way out, but moving more stealthily on the way back to my car, I saw him again and managed to get a sub-par camera phone shot of him. I really need to learn how to use a real camera one of these days.
I made it back to the van, chomped down on a protein bar, and into "The Strip" I drove, sweaty, hungry, sunburnt, smelly, and dressed like a climber. As it turns out, none of these things made me stand out. You need to do a lot to stand out in a place like Las Vegas. I had just come from a barren, rocky landscape that was punctuated by tiny spectacular shows of color and life, made all the more brilliant by the rarity of their brio. The city was a photo negative of this, trading the harsh canyon for incandescent displays and neon cathedrals. Mountains of glass and gold burst from the asphalt soil, littering their surrounding lands with light instead of sand and dust. The electric energy of the thousands of people around me crackled, filling the air with momentum. The transition was not unpleasant, but it was definitely jarring.
Fortunately, the humans that I was seeing were grounded enough to discharge some of that residual static buzz that I experienced. We met in the Excalibur Casino, where my friend Mandy was staying. I had never been into a casino before, and I was pleasantly surprised with exactly what I had come to expect. Well-lit, well-ventilated, and well-filled with people staring into blinking lights and shrieking klaxons. The people themselves seldom blinked nor shrieked.
From the entrance, Mandy and I trekked to the food court, finding her husband and brother dining on KFC. I wasn't quite ready for fried chicken, but I did grab a water and a beer. I was dehydrated.
Mandy is my closest friend from my former job, the one that I left over a year ago (at least as I write this) for whatever course my life is on now. We were an unlikely match, but 4 years of working side by side for over 40 hours a week has rendered us inseparable when we're together. After I had showered and acclimated to the atmosphere, we met up with a few more folks and headed to the strip. Mandy and I grabbed a bottle of champagne, carefully obeying the open container laws (which seem to be framed as more of a suggestion), and promptly lost the group and ourselves in conversation.
We are two adults separated by a gulf of alien experiences. Her life is a beautiful one that I often envy: two spunky and delightful children, a veracious and hard working husband, and a personality that is giving and generous without being naive. And then there's me. An opposite from my friend in so many ways.
The two of us sat on a step on the street and the world disappeared. We smiled at each other, wiped tears, snorted, and rolled our eyes at the predictable mistakes that we've been making. The hot day had faded to a dusky and comfortable night, lit by the city that never sleeps. We rose from our seats, and unsteadily deposited the empty bottle of champagne into a garbage bin. We saluted the night and went to find the rest of our posse. Breast friends.
To make a long visit short, I found out that I quite enjoy gambling, but only when I'm with a bunch of friends. I tried it out by myself and was crushingly depressed, lost, and bored. So that was encouraging. I don't have the money or non-addictive personality to handle gambling responsibly as a hobby. But if you're looking for a good time, I had a solid streak on the roulette table. I recouped a solid 10% of what I'd end up spending on the van during the course of the week.
I spent a few days in Vegas instead of the single night that I had planned. It was fine, if different than the vacation I had planned. The company certainly helped. My brakes arrived on Friday, and I immediately brought the van back to get them replaced. The repairman said that they should be able to get the job done in a day, but if any of the rust-covered components that made up my undercarriage were to break during the process, it could take considerably longer. With that ominous warning ringing in my ears, knowing full well that I needed to get back to California to work by Monday morning, I wandered around in the merciless heat until I found a Starbucks. Fortunately, the repair shop called me in around 4 hours, and all was well. I handed over more than just my Vegas winnings and drove back to the mountain.
To cap off the week, I met up with the friends with whom I had gone to Zion, and we drove out to the Deep Creek Hot Springs. The drive was less than a half hour, but the hike in is just over 2 miles on some very sandy terrain. As unpleasant as the hike is, the destination is fantastic.
A sandy beach with three or four hot pools from which to choose. This hot spring is unique in that it has no sulfuric scent that plagues many of these geothermal oases. We drank wine and bathed until late into the night, watching the stars light up the sky and laughing with the crowds had set up camp for the weekend. I slept out under the stars, and when the cold of the night was too much, I slipped back into the hot pools and contemplated the week that I had been privileged to be a part of. Mountains, canyons, sheep, deserts, breathtaking vistas and harrowing highway tribulations. Casino shenanigans, heartfelt reunions, the feeling of ancient rock in my grasp and gut-turning uncertainty. And now, to be warmed in the frigid air by the embrace of the molten Earth itself. Life is full, and life is good.