From one end of the boulevard–known as The Strip–to the other are casinos with themes other than New York. There’s the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Venetian with its gondola and Caesar’s Palace under which is a shopping mall where the sky changes. Las Vegas speaks very plainly: If you don’t like any of these, you’re free to leave or wander the expanse of the desert.
A couple of blocks down the sassy, glitzy, wild boulevard is the campus of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV), which has a strip of its own in a landscape of trees and plants brought from elsewhere to make the place far more soothing to the mind. When I first arrived here in the searing heat of summer in August, temperatures rising past 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the university was a buffer from the shock that Nevada inflicts on strangers.
It seemed for a time that you didn’t have any choice but to stay enclosed, covered from the perpetually rising sun, resistant to the lure of the lights from the Strip. The arboretum was to be my solace. There you see species of cacti and eucalyptus and yucca--names far removed from the island tropics--and are comforted by grackles, birds that resemble smaller versions of the black crow.
And then it rained, unleashing a flash flood that took up space in the news, a rare calamity that claimed the life of a boy who drowned. But for the most part, it was a blessing, a breather, because it gave us a chance to feel the wind, walk in the streets, and see the world outside even if Las Vegas doesn’t have the charm of a small town.
You would have to believe there’s more to this city than its famed decadence trumpeted by no less than Prince Harry of England when pictures of his naked ass at a private Vegas party was splashed worldwide. Before coming here Las Vegas to me was the CSI television series, thinking it gave us a better idea of what shakes down in “Sin City.”
I was tempted to leave Las Vegas, to resist the tackiness and vulgarity and glitz. But then I took on the attitude of many long-term residents, that the Strip is merely there, an illusion in the desert, a mirage for the tourists; it has nothing to do with real things. Vegas is meant for transients, quick money and slot-machine happiness. It grows on you. Some people who say their sojourn is temporary end up staying.
We search for our own oasis.
The desert can pull you towards your source of loneliness and it can leave you empty in the desolateness. If you are used to the oceans and can master the shifts of the tides, the desert can deceive you; you may think that the “space needle” that stands as a compass on the Las Vegas Boulevard will give you perspective, but it doesn’t, when you choose to find your place in this town.
It turns out that Red Rock Canyon is my backyard, a natural wonder outside of the strip believed to have been there since the Jurassic Age. On Sundays I go there for my prayers, beholding what little of nature you can see. I burst into tears when I first saw its color against the sky, as if they were meant to blend. The rocks came up to me like a giant, and it was great to see something else other than the monotonous flat land. Dusk becomes the shining moment, when a glint of yellow shimmers behind the contours of the mountains.
The canyon has hiking trails visited mostly by outsiders, more than by people I know who have lived in Vegas for years. Someone told me that they deliberately avoided looking for something beautiful because it might stop them from leaving Las Vegas some day.
Word of mouth tells of where water can be found. I heard of Lake Las Vegas, the fake one, and Lake Mead, whose water flushes down from the famous Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona. You might recall the scenery in the “Transformers” movie. It’s a drive out of the city, and so is the Valley of Fire, laid out in sand dunes and awesome rocks, perfect as Luke Skywalker’s birthplace.
We find, at last, the water we’ve been looking for: At the end of Tropicana Boulevard, roughly a quarter of an hour from the university campus, is the Las Vegas Wash, converted into a wetland park for bird-watching and nice strolls on paved trails. Soon it will have a café, from where we would dream of watching the days go longer in the coming spring.
The Wash may not be perfect, with its water reclaimed from urban run-off and flash floods. It flows like a tame country river in a setting of reeds and mesquite trees. We know it’s not real, but it’s good enough. One of us said it looked better than the fountains of the Bellagio, a luxury hotel that, from the bridge where we stood, glints on the near horizon.
Criselda Yabes is a fellow on a one-year writing grant at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She was based in Manila and wrote books on the military and Mindanao.