I had never seen such anticipation from passengers on a plane. We have, us lucky few who travel regularly, come to take for granted the extraordinary aerial view of the world that flying offers. But dropping down over the Nevada desert we were all craning our necks and wielding cameraphones. The in your face geology of it all struck me the most: splodges of bright red rock amongst the shades of brown, veins of ancient river tributaries, gashes of canyons. Also the enormity of this continent: I am often beguiled into enjoying a sense of space and wilderness in, say, Yorkshire or the Cairngorms. But Britain is piffling compared to the hours of emptiness you see flying over Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, and now – at a height more computable by our minds – descending over the Nevada Desert.
Perhaps also the anticipation came because we were descending into this desert to Las Vegas.
I travel the world and I explore for many things. Looking for the Spectacular. To be surprised. To stand in wonder and stare at the scale of wonders. For excitement, to be energised, to leave the small and ordinary world behind. The wonders of the world are so limitless, and the range of human nature is so broad, that we can all find these thrills in different ways and in different places.
Las Vegas is not a normal place. At the start of the flight long announcements had cautioned against alcoholic excess on the flight. Now the tannoy reminded us “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
I have no secrets to hide.
It was my first visit to Vegas and I came feeling curious. I was here to give a talk, and that went well. But within 24 hours I was ready to leave. If nothing else, Vegas made me realise that I fall in love with virtually every place I ever visit. But not Vegas. The miles of hotel corridors, the smoky dayless casinos, the sense of compulsory fun (but always at a price) made me yearn for the sky and something real.
And so, at the urgings of an American friend, I set my alarm for 3am and hit the highway, heading east for Utah.
One of my recurring delights of travelling in America is the sense of space and possibility that I feel every time I launch out into the great wide open spaces. Perhaps it is an affectation: too many road movies, too many rite of passage novels, too much Bruce Springsteen. But the enormity and the beauty out here of even motorway driving always does something to me. I cannot help but reflect also on the sheer cussedness of the pioneer culture, just a dozen or so generations back, of those who ventured out beyond the ranges to make their homes out here, the Ayn-Rand epicness of the huge freight trains snaking their way west, a country on the move, and a great admiration for what America has achieved over the past hundred and fifty years.
Being British, of course, admiration cannot be served without a dash of derision too. But enough people criticise the excesses of America, the demonstration of what happens when human excellence and endeavour leads us to a world of ultra-convenience, ultra-sedentary consumption. So I will leave all that aside, except to say how much enjoyment I get from the roadside billboards of America. “InjuredInAHotel.com” shouted one. “WeBuyUglyHouses.com” on another. And of course the eternal American preoccupations of healthcare (“4 wisdom teeth removed just $899. Sedation included!”), litigation (“In a Wreck? Oh my Heck. Call now!”), and religion (“There is Evidence for God. 1-800-TRUTH”).
I left the baubles of Vegas under the light of a full moon. Once the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, and the gold Trump Tower were behind me the moon was the only light as the lone and level sands stretched far away. But the moonlight began to disappear. It was my great good fortune that barrelling along the straight, deserted freeway coincided with a total eclipse of the moon. It was, I since learned, a “super blue blood moon” when a total lunar eclipse, a blood Moon, and a supermoon coincide. How lucky I was to keep it company for hour after hour until only the faint rust orange outline remained!
By now I noticed the first greying of the dawn and the silhouettes of mountains. I flicked through the channels on my radio. This is another of my favourite things to do in America. I love the commercials on local radio stations, the bursts of Spanish chatter and Mexican mariachi music, and the comfortingly formulaic themes, lyrics and rhythms of Country music. I snaked up the Virgin River Canyon in the company of a very angry man, a pastor lambasting me furiously for my sins with a torrent of angry platitudes. I enjoyed it very much.
In this company, appropriately perhaps, I arrived in Zion. And lo, I was awestruck and overcome by the glories and wonders of the Earth. Zion National Park was truly magnificent and a privilege to see for myself. To my British eyes, the scale of the canyons and vertical walls was overwhelming. Peering down at the hundreds of metres of vertical drop on either side of the Angel’s Landing lookout horrified and mesmerised me. Any under-estimations I may have had at Alex Honnold’s free ascent of El Capitan disappeared. I held, very tightly, to a pine tree, gnarled and curved and reassuringly solid, and thought with astonishment about someone climbing a vertical wall much higher than this without any ropes! With my knees sufficiently wobbly for one day I made my way gingerly back to safer ground and hiked up to the canyon’s west rim to camp for the night.
Had Prince and I swapped lives (rather an unlikely thought, I know), he would surely have written a song about his Little Red Tent. ‘Tent’ doesn’t fit the scansion as nicely as ‘Corvette’, and I don’t suppose it would have sold quite so well, but I reckon Prince would have enjoyed it up there as much as I did. I camped on a wide expanse of pale slick rock dotted with stunted pine trees. The canyon fell away beneath me. When the moon rose the night was so bright I had to pull my woolly hat down over my eyes to get to sleep. The steep walls behind gleamed in the moonlight and I felt the immensity of a night alone in a massive landscape.
All this, all of this, for the price of a backcountry permit. The money helps protect this wilderness so would be worth giving even if I received nothing in return. But what I did receive so exceeded the small fee that the payment was almost risible. What price could I put on such beauty, such quiet, such permanence, such austere simplicity? Every wall “full of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have.” I did not need more than this. No flashing lights, no ostentatious cries for attention, dancing water fountains or VIP-only access. That this undiluted wonder is accessible to any person with a humble little tent made it even more regal.
To move from nighttime in Vegas to nighttime atop the Zion Canyon felt comical. Whilst Vegas made me despair for humans in the 21st Century, Zion left me assured that the planet is perfectly safe. Not in the next century or two, perhaps, or for however long we hang around. But in a billion years or so everything here will be just fine, just like this, just perfect.
The equation for fun out here in the wilderness isn’t quite as simple as Vegas’ bright lights and excitement (turn up, spend money). There’s the price of cold nights, rocks in your back, a stinky jacket bundled for a pillow, wind rattling, thoughts of bears. There’s the tiring aching trudge of hiking, the adrenaline fear of precarious perches and scary drops. In fact, it’s not always fun! But that’s part of the fun. It’s an experience, a change from normality, a chance for perspective. That in itself is enough for me. The fact that fun occasionally shows up too is a bonus.
I travel and I explore for many things. Looking for the spectacular. To be surprised. To stand in wonder and stare at the scale of wonders. For excitement, to be energised, to leave the small and ordinary world behind. I found all that here, thanks to my little red tent. This is the moment, I sang to myself. This is exactly where I was born to be. This is what I do, and this is what I am.