Only locals understand the beauty of this place on a rainy day. That’s what the ranger says. He takes my seven dollars and asks me if I’d like a map. I take one, even though there are at least two of them crumpled in the back seat. Stanley lifts his head from the window.
The ranger tells us that with the rain there have been few cars today, save for a caravan of elderly tourists on an all-inclusive weekend trip from LA, notoriously undeterred. Stanley returns his head to the window.
When we found out that the job in Chicago fell through, we stayed in bed. We got a call from Stanley’s dad. He said he knew how disappointed we were, but what could we do in Chicago that we couldn’t do in Las Vegas? If we moved to Chicago the undersides of our cars would rust, and according to Stanley’s dad, the damage that did to resale value was more trouble than Chicago was worth. Stay here, he said, in the dry. He invited us over for dinner at his duplex on St. Louis and Maryland Parkway. We declined.
When the clouds rolled in and the winter light was not so harsh, we decided it would be a nice day to drive the Red Rock Canyon scenic loop. We drove out Charleston until it turned to the 159, the Las Vegas skyline in our rearview mirror until we curved around into the Calico Basin, there until it wasn’t.
The ranger reminds us that the loop is only open to one way traffic, that once we pass the visitor center we’re stuck driving the whole fifteen mile circuit. I reach for Stanley’s hand across the center console and assure the ranger that we understand the commitment. We plan to follow through.
Apart from the touring company vans, the visitor center parking lot holds just a couple of Subarus and Jeeps. Inside, the tourists read attentively the informational displays about desert wildlife and geology. We bypass them and go outside to where the tortoises live: we already know which snakes are poisonous and what makes the rocks red. We remember that tortoises hibernate in winter when we look out into an empty habitat. I wish that just one tortoise would come out to see us, but Stanley says that it would only come out if something was wrong. I take back my wish. I want no harm.
Desert tortoises live to be sixty or seventy years old. When I was a kid, my sister and I always wanted one as a pet, but my parents didn’t want me to have a pet that would keep me here in the desert for over half a century. I didn’t understand until I got older and realized there was a world beyond the desert. A world where children could play outside in the summer, where there were coffee shops other than Starbucks, and trees. It was a world rich with life, a world where a desert tortoise could not live. I wanted to be in that world.
Back inside, we take a stroll through the gift shop, not looking to buy. We browse the shelves of prickly pear jam and jack rabbit stuffed animal puppets. I consider some of the turquoise Native American jewelry but Stanley’s turning up at my side reminds me that this is not my style. Stanley buys himself Skittles, and I leave behind the prickly pear jam. I look out the window at tortoises who are not there, and we go back to the car.
Calico One and Two are the first stops on the loop, and the places where the rocks are the reddest. Smooth sandstone turned rosy with the reminder of a time when the whole desert—the whole world—was under water.
Stanley offers to take a picture of a couple with their two small children, a boy and a girl, and declines when they offer to return the favor and take a picture of us. We do not need to see ourselves later in front of these rocks and remember that we are here because Chicago is not an option. The photographees see our Nevada plates and make a requisite joke about how we live in a casino, right? Stanley, numb to it, asks where they’re from.
We return to the Cherokee and sit on the bumper, watching the dot of a climber going up the face of a red, red rock. I wonder if he knows that this is rust. I wonder if he knows the geological timespan of these rocks, beautiful because they have been here forever, because their age is showing. Later, standing in his hotel window, he will be a dot in the amorphous skyline of a city that is not allowed to age.
Next to me Stanley is squinting at something. Maybe he thinks he sees a lizard, or a petroglyph. There are little lines in the corners of his eyes.
Stanley and I met three years ago, deposited back onto the desert floor after college in the outside world and no jobs to show for it. He was using his geoscience degree to teach Earth science to seventh graders at Fremont Middle School and my sister got me a job working the front desk at the Bellagio where she was the manager.
I went to see my sister’s boyfriend’s kid in the school play at Fremont. At intermission, Stanley served me powdered lemonade in a Dixie cup and told me that he’d gone to Cornell. Teaching twelve year olds in his hometown about why rocks sometimes turned red was only temporary. God, yes. Temporary.
After our third date at a hip bar downtown, we went back to his parents’ duplex. He showed me how to climb the cinder blocks on the front to get to the flat roof. We watched the roller coaster go in circles around the top of the Stratosphere. The light from the neighbors’ window mixed a sickly orange lamp with the TV’s soft blue glow. I couldn’t help but look at them, an old couple, sitting silent but together in their respective recliners.
Stanley held my hand, and we lay down to look at the sky—no stars, just an orange haze reflecting on the thin layer of clouds. Stratus clouds, he told me. We could hear the screams of the people on the Big Shot. I wondered what we would do when one day we got sick of teaching Earth science to seventh graders and telling tourists that they would be charged a damage fee if they smoked in their nonsmoking room. The world on the other side of the mountains was harder to enter as a pair.
When Stanley kissed me Las Vegas felt less temporary. The roof felt close to the ground.
We drive past the next Calico stop. There is still much of the loop to go. A cyclist glides by to the right of the car, struggling up this initial hill. He gestures with his left arm for me to drive around him, but the road here is narrow and I am not confident that his tan and muscled arms won’t falter and run the bike into the Cherokee. Stanley in the passenger seat is far away. We span the entire road. The cyclist glances back, wavers in his turn, then speeds up. No matter what he does he cannot outrun us in our car. I can’t bring myself to pass him. Stanley looks at me, incredulous, and now I feel like the car spans the desert. I grip the steering wheel and pass.
The next stop, Turtlehead Peak, is ugly. Compared to the rusty rocks of Calico and the pinyon pine canyons that line the loop’s western side, it juts out grey and ordinary. But it is the loop’s ultimate conquest. I have never climbed it. I have never felt I had the strength.
The radio in the car beeps out a flash flood warning. We don’t stop.
At a Starbucks one day while grading quizzes, Stanley found a job listing to do soil research on rooftop gardens in Chicago. Together we filled out the application. Confident in his qualifications, we started looking at apartments, jobs that I could do with my BA in communications and hospitality experience, the price of cross-country moving vans. After an email, a Skype interview, and a brief phone call, Stanley was offered the position. We took my sister and her boyfriend and his kid out to dinner and went to the duplex after. We started packing.
This part of the road is riddled with hills and dips. To look at the scenery for even a moment is to drive into a bank or to bottom out in a wash. This part is windy and difficult and I am impressed that the tourist caravan can drive in the desert the way we can. After the cyclist we see no one on the road.
Located at the middle of the loop, the overlook is one of the highest points in the canyon short of climbing its peaks. The wind is strong here today, and when the clouds that move in and out of the mountains to the west drop rain, they will drop it here first. The tourists are getting into their van and leaving the overlook when we pull up. We have this one to ourselves.
Without speaking, Stanley takes up his position at the binoculars, and I go stand on my favorite rock next to a stunted juniper with a bald patch in the middle that makes way for a view of the desert. Stanley swings around so fast that he cannot be seeing anything. My body blocks a part of his view.
We have a picture of us standing on this rock. In the picture, Stanley is looking at me, smiling with his mouth open, in mid-laugh. I have my right hand on his arm, my left pointing at the weird looking juniper and making some kind of joke. It seems like I am pointing out into the desert, much farther than I’m actually looking.
In light like today’s, I do look. I see all of it, for miles, a desert and a city hidden by ancient rusted mountains. Sometimes when I look at the picture, I forget that we were only seeing as far as the juniper.
I hear the creak of the binoculars and the crunch of gravel and Stanley joins me. I fold my arms against the wind. We look like our picture now, but there is no one seeing us today. We are so still that a giant crow drifts against the wind to a perch on the juniper. It caws a couple of times, and flies away on the next favorable gust. Stanley and I turn our heads together, watching it until it is out of sight.
I could look at this forever—the ground and the rocks and the cloudy sky and the invisible hint of the city pushing around the edge of my periphery. I say this to Stanley. Only then does it occur to me that forever is a possibility.
We stop to eat our lunch at Willow Creek. Tucked between two high peaks, there are a couple of hiking trails that begin here, as well as the mouth of the Rocky Gap road that traverses the mountains until it spits out on the other side in Pahrump. The family of four from earlier sits at one of the picnic tables, and the caravan of tourists take up most of the others, so we open up the back of the Cherokee and lay our picnic out there, sitting on the bumper and turning around for a grape or a cracker when we feel like we can eat. A grape from the bunch I’m holding drops into the dirt, and Stanley kicks it around till he accidentally crushes it.
Sitting here between two mountains with the low clouds, I feel like I am in a room with walls and a ceiling. If it weren’t for the wind and the cold, it would feel like we were inside. Stanley regales me with some facts about the way that the low pressure system is pushing the clouds across the mountains. He tells me that by the afternoon it will be sunny out here and the clouds will be in the Valley. When he tells me things like this I remember that I love him.
I’m sorry, he says, I thought I was getting us out.
It was easy to see that Chicago was the city for us. There was good public transportation, cool bookstores, suburbs for when we wanted them, and concerts. We imagined Lake Michigan in the summer as practically tropical. It would be a white Christmas. Our dream neighborhood was where the L lines met up downtown, overlooking Millennium Park or the Chicago River. It was called the loop.
The Ice Box Canyon hike is ranked “difficult” on the map the ranger gave us, but we know that this is a stretch, and we hike it anyway. We start behind another couple, young like us, with a dog, but they pass out of sight when we stop in the wash to look up and down the canyon. Stanley takes a picture with his cell phone. It is a picture he has taken many times before, and even if the clouds are a little different, on the phone it will look the same as all the others. Stanley says he wants me in the picture, so I stand within view. I am oblique; I will not make sense in the frame with the way the wash and the mountains meet each other.
I am not looking at the camera or smiling, and when I do look up I watch Stanley back up into a cholla. It makes itself known before I can warn him. The last picture is of me, open mouthed, hands outstretched, too late. I help him pick the spikes out of his jeans, and we walk up the stone steps into the crevice.
The path you follow in to Ice Box Canyon is never the path you follow out. I am leading us out, but every time we reach a fork we consider together which way we came. Stanley cedes to my decision every time. We reach the stone stairs that descend into the wash. I think of the flash flood warning. We pace, and try to find our way up.
We are far away from each other, and neither of us have found the second set of stone steps. We shout against the wind and Stanley’s words are carried away. I watch him scrabble up the side of the wash and hit a brambly impasse.
Later that day when we get home, it will rain. The clouds that have been with us at Red Rock all day will make their way down Charleston to the Valley. We will open all the windows and doors, letting in the fresh smell, and when it stops Stanley will light a fire in our fire pit outside. We will dry off the patio chairs and sit wrapped in blankets watching the logs burn and talking quietly about how beautiful it all is. We will find some stale marshmallows in the house to roast, but we won’t eat them. We’ll agree that we want the experience of making, not having. Rain will start again, and we will sit under the tree, our tree, so that the rain does not fall on us. When it starts to get too cold, we will go inside and let the fire burn itself out.
The young couple with the dog is back and they move confidently toward a way out. Stanley and I follow, strained but pretending to smile. We go up the stairs behind the unleashed dog, and it runs circles around us. The couple calls it back and waits for us to catch them on the path. They ask where we are from and Stanley gestures around the canyon in answer. We don’t have the energy to laugh at the second living in a casino joke of the day. The woman tells us that they are on a cross-country hiking trip. They live in Chicago.
The clouds are starting to roll out of the canyon as we finish out the loop. Stanley is driving now, so I have a chance to watch the yucca and Joshua trees speed by out the window. This ending part of the loop is flat and open, and the pines that grow in the higher points give way to sagebrush and sparsity. For a moment I am amazed at how much the imperceptible change in elevation reduces the amount of life the desert floor can sustain. We bypass the option to return to the visitor center and turn left out onto the 159. Picking up speed and dropping down the hill, sagebrush is replaced by empty dirt lots, awaiting development. A patchwork of pink and tan and green, the town where we still live is laid out in front of us, and we drive into it.