Desert Southwest

Las Vegas in the rain

Longboarding Las Vegas

Crossing Las Vegas and its suburbs by longboard skateboard.


as Vegas is written by outsiders. I distinctly remember this quote from the Moon Handbook for the city, "Las Vegas is all flesh - bejeweled, bedazzling surfaces and voluptuous, irresistible curves; the lascivious seduction and wet and wild consummation are those of a would-be queen in the presence of the King."

I don't know about that, I thought.  Las Vegas is a living, breathing place; the fastest growing place in America - and although its growth is tied to its well known gambling center, the city and its suburbs are far more complicated than the image it is successfully positioning to the world.

Unlike those handbook writers and those travel writers and the copy editors for fancy hotels - all agents of somebody else's sales agenda, I had come to know the Las Vegas nobody was trying to sell me.  I knew its restaurants, its parks, its hidden spots.  I knew people that knew a Las Vegas that had never been told.  I was fascinated by this city, and these people are about to give me the keys to the city you'll never otherwise know.

If I was going to be able to write about Las Vegas, I would have to view it from street level - on the outside, looking in.  One thing that always struck me about the city was that it seemed never entirely flat.  The city was a downhill slope. 

Cactuses in Las Vegas

The Turner Greenhouse in Las Vegas is one of the city's greatest treasures.

What if I could use that slope to my advantage? What if I could skateboard down Las Vegas?

I put the thought away for a while, and found myself in a Southeast Las Vegas cactus greenhouse a few months later.

"How are your pachys doing," Mrs. Turner said.  She's referring to my pachypodiums, baobob-like succulents from Africa, which I purchased from her a few years back.  I didn't have the heart to tell her.  They were all dead.  But I think that's what keeps drawing me back.  The Turner Greenhouse in Southeast Las Vegas is one of those wonderful places that has no signs, no flair.  Just a few greenhouses and an impecabble grounds, and a wonderfully odd assortment of plants.

She says, "oh, that's right, you're that zone 10 couple."  What she means is that where we live, we can't kill anything we grow, because the weather is perfect. 

It wasn't until the seventh or eighth time I dragged my wife to the Turner Greenhouse that I really began to think of Las Vegas as a place that never really gets written about. America's sunniest city is America's unwritten city.

Las Vegas Motel

Sketch of Las Vegas Boulevard

Las Vegas is more than Las Vegas.  It's Henderson and North Las Vegas and Spring Valley.  Its Summerlin and The Lakes and a place called Paradise.  That's next to Whitney, and many of these sprawls are cities in their own rights. Many of them are counted among the fastest growing cities in America, and maybe the world.

You could skateboard a hundred routes through this city.  Mine is only the one that makes the most sense to me -  to start in the southwest, heading east along Tropicana Blvd., then north along the Strip, and finally to a brand new planned community in Henderson.

Out the garage of my mother-in-laws, I go fifteen minutes without  my feet touching the ground.  I just cruise the corners of the neighborhood, then pull onto Tropicana Blvd. 

Red Rock Station

Las Vegas keeps expanding outwards.

Unfortunately, the sidewalks on Tropicana are quite narrow - the telltale signs of a city made for drivers.  To make up for these harrowingly narrow sidewalks, I just keep my flipflop dragging on the top of the back wheel, to control my speed.

After fifteen minutes of free-gliding, I come to a stop at a storm drain.  I'm enthralled because I quickly find three new birds I'd never seen before.  They are picking at the garbage in the storm drain.  Chewing on some leftover burrito.  The litter is overwhelming here. 

At street level in Las Vegas, I see cigarette butts, soda bottles filled with piss and chucked out of a car.  I see plastic wrappers and bits of rubber, car parts and cleaning supplies.  The storm drain is like that too, only more. 

I pass a billboard which says, "Baker Development.  We are the Masters at Master Planned Communities." 

My skateboard is what is nowadays called a longboard - literally, its longer than a traditional skateboard, and like the surfing longboards, it has less give.  They are for cruising, not tricks and speed.  They also have more grace, more room for the feet.  Mine is made of that rare Hawaiian wood called koa - the wood normally reserved for pricey ukuleles and sculptures.  The wood is untreated, and so the pure natural beauty of my board seems to attract a certain punker, curious by its elegance and simplicity.  

I came upon three demented looking kids.  Their t-shirts were black, and the slogans and artwork seemed to say, 'Look at me, I'm bad.'

They each wore blacks shirts.  Each of these shirts had logos or pictures of skeletons§ that seemed to say, hey, look at me, I'm the bad one.  But I was especially interested in how pale they were, and their faces pock-marked with zits.  Little pale Noriega boys of the new west. 

What happens to people who live in a place with only strip malls and wide open concrete streets?

I update Las Vegas notes as I continue to skateboard through the city over the years.

Explore more in the Desert Southwest

While hiking in the Vermilion Cliffs, I dive into the ancient geological epochs that created these rainbows of stone

On the Road to a small desert spring, I investigate the border wall and the case for resurrecting a Transboundary Preserve.

My ongoing project to sketch every cactus in the Desert Southwest and the United States.

Notes on traveling to the Coyote Buttes during surreal winter weather.

Road trip to the Hatch Chili Festival in Southern New Mexico.

Kayaking the Salton Sea to the tiny seaside town.

Exploring the LA River by road and kayak, with notes on my 14 years living in the city.

Notes on ecological devastation and salvation along the New River in Southern California.

Notes on the rich desert tapestry of Anza-Borrego in Southern California.

You want to hear about a hotel nightmare? Notes from Panamint Valley, California.

Notes on my travels to Joshua Tree National Park and the Western Mojave of Southern California.

Notes from a desert California outpost, and the weird rocky world of the Searles lakebed.

Exploring the idea of travel and limitations during some of the amazing wildflower blooms in California history.

A few years ago, I decided to cross Las Vegas by skateboard, and then write about it.

We are walking on a hard, sandy soil when suddenly my boy shrieks in pain.

Notes on the pupfish of Death Valley and the Desert Southwest.

Notes on my frantic road trip across the dazzling desert Plateus of Utah and Arizona.