books & blog > Grand Ambitions > Page Three:

Grand Ambitions


By sunrise I had departed Death Valley. Shortly I was greeted by a sign proclaiming "Welcome to Nevada, 100 years of Vision." I observed broad, arid basins dotted with mobile homes. Businesses glittered with racing lights. Slot machines greeted me, like soldiers from an army of jesters, at restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations, and shopping centers.

In the daylight, Las Vegas, a mixture of steel, cement, and light, more closely resembled a construction site than America's capitol of adult entertainment and the region's hub of modern culture. I had difficulty placing landmarks I knew from two years prior. Buildings had been given facelifts; others were demolished. A wave of new properties extended the strip into open country and gave the city the air of an amusement park.

I kept east. By evening I was in southern Utah, above the Arizona Strip.

The old town of St. George, Utah was built of classic Mormon architecture. Brick facades and white pillars gave a sense of history and tradition. In the crisp, clear morning air, maple and elm trees shaded sidewalks and well groomed lawns. Beyond lush golf courses, spouting fountains, and developments of stucco trimmed with palm shaded gardens, I encountered the end of the pavement and the couple with the all-terrain vehicles. They were only visiting for the weekend, the man told me, and would not have time to go to the river. I clarified the route with him before putting the truck into four wheel drive.

"You've got a full tank of gas, don't ya?" he asked.

I nodded.

"You'll need every bit of it. You'll be going over two hundred miles before you get off the Strip."

Made anxious by the building weather, I bid them farewell. The washboard track cut through a low range and dropped into a broad valley bounded by a low mesa to the north. Fence lines and cattle guards appeared. It was the first of a half dozen ranches I would see. For thirty miles, as I drove in and out of dished valleys, the eastern horizon was dominated by the Hurricane Cliffs, the imposing escarpment of a thousand-foot tall plateau.

Late in the afternoon I came upon a tall white one-room schoolhouse, alone at a crossroads. The sound of my boots echoed through the empty and lonely room. I easily imagined the clamor and patter of children. Black and white pictures, in ready-made frames, told the story of two families and depicted a solitary existence, at first raising crops, and then, when the climate changed and no longer permitted agriculture, cattle and sheep farming. Teachers, recruited from St. George and further, stayed on and married. A single color snapshot captured the middle-aged faces of several siblings during a recent reunion.

A mile further the road deteriorated as it descended into the top of an arching canyon, which, in turn, opened into a broad valley of golden grasses. Bounding it were majestic mountains, sheered and carved, their peaks solitary and domed.

There I encountered a large, cubical, modern home. Tall bay windows looked upon converging valleys. Cows grazed near a dirt airstrip. At the next cattle guard, I left Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction. Prime grazing country yielded to a treacherous lava field. I shifted down to my lowest gear and let the truck feel its way down jarring hills of jagged, coarse rock glazed the color of charcoal. The cactus rooted directly on the shoulder spoke of the irregularity of visitors.

With storm clouds crowding all horizons, darkness fell prematurely. My head lamps illuminated the white, bullet-stained hulk of an old sedan on its belly in a sandy hollow of bunch grass and creosote. Loss of altitude alone told me I was nearing the rim. The airstrip was more than an hour behind and I had covered only three miles. The terrain leveled and I entered a wide loop. At one corner my lights fixed upon a torn and broken shed, its door dangling by a hinge. Mattress skeletons abutted the road where rusted cans and shattered glass covered the underbrush.

Further on I found an area level and smooth. Through the darkness shafts of moonlight fought with a restless cloud layer, revealing muted shapes rising sharply above. Suddenly, bright flashes of lightning illuminated the surrounding cliffs. In a heartbeat, deafening thunder exploded from all sides and rumbled beneath my feet. Feeling the burden of the moisture in the air, I scrambled to set the tent and retire for the night.

All Content © Thomas Bachand