On jets flying into Las Vegas from the east, the bubbling red hills of the River of Fire are visible out the starboard side windows. Almost grotesque, these wave-like ridges of orange sandstone rise incongruously out of the desert floor, weathered into globules, as if molten. I didn't know what they were when I saw them, but later, when I saw "River of Fire" on the map, fifty or sixty miles east of the city, I was certain that's what I had been looking at out of the airplane.
It is perhaps a commonplace to note that Las Vegas is the most appalling city in the United States. My heart freshly broken, I was working on a film shoot when I probably ought to have been at a spa, or reclining on a psychiatrist's couch. I was staying at the Palazzo, twin luxury tower of the absurd Venetian, with its plastic indoor canals, imported gondolier-chanteurs ($65 for a twelve minute paddle through a mall, now that's entertainment!) and multi-story shopping experience replete with all the finest names in the franchise pantheon. There are more glorified fast-food joints bearing Mario Batali's imprimatur than you can shake a pair of chopsticks at. In my room, on my California king-size bed, operating my remote-controlled draperies, I couldn't stop thinking that someone else should be there by my side, my one-time best friend, to ridicule the laughable opulence, the black-marbled bath, the gold-brocade settee, the view, from twenties stories up, of an endless acreage of gleaming conference-center roofing dotted with air-conditioning units.
I had the brilliant idea that I would extend my trip by a couple of days, and drive away from the neon and the plastic, deep into the desert, and surround myself with an eternity of primeval rock, soothe my soul, contemplate my faults, bravely face the future.
After four days in the canned, smoky casino air and the eternal twilight of the utterly bogus Piazza San Marco, I felt I needed to get into the desert just to recover from Las Vegas, let alone the catastrophic trainwreck of my serial monogamy. The good news? Speeding along the blacktop with the windows rolled down in the desert cool, the gilded shark-fin towers of the Vegas strip receded quickly into the distance, and from memory. Surrounded by millenia-old sandstone bluffs unchanged since long-before they were wandered only by barefoot Anasazi, the grotesqueries of Vegas barely registered on my consciousness. The bad news? The heartbreak, not so easily diminished.
To try and recover from the sudden and unexpected shattering of your life by going alone into the desert, is a double-edged sword. In retrospect, I would argue that it was very brave of me. Lying, alone in my tent, the freezing desert sky filled with a billion stars, was a magnificent exercise in solitude. It was absolutely quiet. Except for the occasional bird or passing airplane, even during the day the winter desert was absolutely quiet, with a quality of silence I have not experienced since being in Antarctica. At night it was a perfect, complete silence. To be there, alone, is manifestly to prove that you are capable of being alone, that the world will not come to an end just because you are alone in it. Geologically, I was surrounded by proof that the world has existed for millions of years, compared with which the entirety of humanity and the triviality of its billion broken hearts is but an infinitesimal blip on the timeline of wind-sculpted rock.
But the tent was built for two people. Not for nothing is the desert the setting I find most compelling for Waiting for Godot. At least Vladimir and Estragon had one other to talk to. In south-west Utah I drove through places where pressing "seek" on the car-radio resulted only in an endless loop of blurry numbers. Like those numbers, the mind races. It fills with a turbulent tide of self-doubt, fear, longing and loss. The salty water sloshed around in my brain, constantly threatening to leak out of my eyes as fragile tears. The staggering beauty of the folded red rock and the striated canyons sometimes barely registered. I wanted to lose myself in the landscape, but it was difficult not to drive past all the magnificence as if trying to escape, or fleeing a crime scene.
I got to the airport four hours early, where I enjoyed bad enchiladas and the hilarious immorality of a departure gate clogged with one-armed bandits, cynically exploiting the desperate addicts who deposit the last of their dollars while listening with one ear for their row to be called.
As we slid through the orange midnight sky into JFK, I thought, the lights of New York City haven't looked this good in years.