Little in my life has prepared me for Nevada. Over 90% of the state's residents live in urban areas and as I drive through this stark, barren and harsh land it's easy to see why. Steep, craggy mountains set in high desert without a hint of water anywhere. I skirt California for much of the day and pass roads to Death Valley that I want to take, but don't. Next Gas 120 miles. This would be a hard place to live and an easy place to die, and there is little that speaks of a human presence - a grave marker, an abandoned store with a For Sale billboard out front. But the place is inviting for that very lack of distraction, and the clarity it offers, the comfort and ease of just you and the landscape. I realize I've made few people photographs on this trip and on this piece of empty Nevada highway, I begin to understand why.
My cousin, Jean Pardee, has always been high on my list of favorite Ambergs so stopping to visit in southern Nevada was a no-brainer. Jean is the daughter of my dad's older brother, Stan, and was raised, and lived most of her life, in Chicago, my father's hometown. Jean and I share great memories from childhood, specifically an all-important recipe for cinnamon toast that I cherish to this day. Jean and Greg moved to Henderson seven years ago and love it. After some initial misgivings due to Las Vegas's crashing economy during the 2008 meltdown, they've settled into retirement and their new place. Golf, sunshine, warm days through three seasons and good AC in the fourth, easy drives to parks and hiking, a comfortable and welcoming home with good neighbors.
I've never had much of a desire to visit Las Vegas, but I'm here and have tour guides, so we go. First, we head up to Red Rock Canyon, a National Conservation Area west of town. We get in a short walk and watch a number of young people climbing and bouldering in the rocks. I think of Kate.
Driving through town it's clear Las Vegas has recovered from its economic doldrums. New infrastructure is going in throughout town. Existing housing developments are expanding and new ones are sprawling farther into the surrounding desert. New hotels and casinos are being built downtown and cranes dot the horizon. Greg says that McCarran Airport gets over 3 million people flying into Vegas every month. I wonder about water, given the parched nature of the place, but Greg believes it isn't an issue, that there is an ever- replenishing supply of water in underground storage to last ten years.
The strip is about what I expect - loud and pricey, the height of temptation - and it's here I see my fair share of those 3 million visitors. People eating, gambling, walking around half naked, walking in expensive clothing, singing in the street, yelling and screaming at their partners. The casinos are over-the-top in every conceivable way and seem to assault the senses with sounds and lights and smells, all in an effort to lure you in and take your money.
Later that night, heading out to eat, we crest a hill in their darkened neighborhood and get a glimpse of the city below - awash with light, like so many twinkling, unseen stars.
I leave the next morning heading east, toward home. I'm about ready to be there, but still have about 2,500 miles to go, a world away.