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for people who care about the West

Las Vegas: Images in light, images in stone


My brother, Karl, tells me the Las Vegas Strip is the only road in the United States that's a National Scenic Byway after dark. It is scenic, though people tend to snicker when informed of this designation.

We're outside my brother's apartment on the west side of the city. Karl points downtown, toward the Strip and the column of light that shoots out the top of the Luxor, the pyramid-shaped hotel. "Supposedly, it's bright enough to read a newspaper 10 miles out in space," he says. At over 300,000 watts, it is the world's brightest, most extravagant light.

I've been to Las Vegas before. I've seen the neon, the volcano that spews smoke on a timer. This time I've come for the petroglyphs.

It may seem an unlikely quest. The first petroglyphs I saw were at Valley of Fire State Park, northeast of Las Vegas. That visit nearly 10 years ago sparked an interest that's taken me everywhere, from the canyon country of the Southwest to not-so-wild patches of open space squeezed in next to subdivisions in California. Sometimes the least promising places offer the most rewarding finds.

In the morning, we set out for Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Red Rock is a preserve for wild burros and a world-class climbing area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Just 20 miles west of Las Vegas, the cliffs are visible from the city. The petroglyphs there - ancient images pecked into stone - were created by the Numic and Yuman peoples of southern Nevada. They range in age from hundreds to thousands of years.

Heading west on Charleston Boulevard, we pass strip malls, subdivisions and donut shops whose signs announce "real" donuts, suggesting that in a city of reproductions, the reality of donuts might be questioned. We speed through desert the pioneers crossed on the Old Spanish Trail, etched by spiky Mojave yucca and Joshua trees, sagebrush and tumbleweed. This is the dry West, overlooked by those who come to Las Vegas for its faux Venetian canals, mini-New York and Eiffel Tower. Ahead of us lies a massive escarpment no one built.

Booming Las Vegas creeps closer to the boundaries of the park, making Red Rock a recreational ecotone - part urban, part wild. Scrambling up a talus slope, my brother and I round a giant boulder and nearly stumble into a wedding. If they're like most visitors, the bride and groom don't know petroglyphs are nearby.

In the midday glare, the images made of lines and grids fade into the texture of the rocks. To see them takes the same skill as spotting the stillness of a wild burro on a brushy plain, or the dot of a climber hundreds of feet up a cliff. Eyes must simultaneously relax and pay attention.

I'm looking for one particular image, a striking design I've seen in a photo. With a goal, of course, comes the possibility of disappointment. It also means that in my search, I may overlook something else.

When I find the petroglyph, it's a surprise. It's big, maybe two and a half feet high. A geometric pattern with fringe at top and bottom, it's instantly recognizable as a blanket. The patina on this petroglyph shows it may be as much as 1,000 years old.

Petroglyphs like the blanket are inherently intriguing. Their graphic appeal is so strong, yet their meaning remains a mystery. Rock-art scholar David S. Whitley conjectures that the blanket design at Red Rock represents a pattern seen during a shaman's trance. Whatever it really means, the petroglyph is a quiet beacon from a time when the world held fewer images; when a single image must have held more power.

It's after dark, and the Strip is scenic again. We've left the boulders of Red Rock for the Fremont Street Experience, a sound-and-light show. More than 2 million computer-controlled lights send images cartwheeling across a vaulted canopy four blocks long and 90 feet high. A gigantic snake flashes over our heads. Jungle vines. Then a hunter with a spear. His angular figure seems inspired by rock art. The hunter hurls his spear, and something falls into place. The millions of lights are making simple pictures, part of the constant stream of images that humans send into the world. Neon and petroglyphs: We're not so far from Red Rock, after all.

There are hundreds of people out on Fremont Street tonight. We're all looking up at the dazzle of lights the way, in another place and time, we might have picked out images in stone.

Erica Olsen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). She lives in Salinas, California.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Erica Olsen