The descent into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada was the roughest that I had encountered in all my years of flying. The plane bucked so wildly that one of the stewardesses was knocked off her feet and had to drag herself back upright on the backs of the two aisle seats nearest her. She smiled broadly, as though to reassure her passengers. Someone screamed from further forward in the cabin.
So it’s easy to understand why my traveling companion and I were so glad to set our feet on the ground.
We were masters of airport efficiency, and breezed through the enormous hallways and trams of the airport, only to be made to wait a good half-hour at the baggage claim. We were already feeling the pressure of our packed itinerary, and wanted to spend as little time in McCarran as possible. The place is enormous, and has sacrificed access to the outdoors in the name of security and commercialism. It really is like a shopping mall or a casino in that sense; few windows, huge advertisements and strategically placed video slot machines, and the first exits that we encountered after leaving the plane were actually at the baggage claim.
We procured a gleaming white Chrysler sedan from the rental agency (after a bus ride, of course) which would serve as our transportation and home for the next six days. Thinking back, we should’ve paid more attention when the woman checking us out at the booth at the car rental garage said, “damn, this car is falling apart,” but we were wide-eyed and full of excitement.
We got on Highway 95 as quickly as we could, headed north. The plan was to make our way to Beatty, Nevada, and then head west through Hell’s Gate.
The problem with the desert, it would seem, is not specifically a lack of water, but rather the fact that the water seems to turn up all in one place at the same time. I had checked the weather with a near-compulsive frequency prior to our trip, thinking that I could get my head around some kind of pattern in the three weeks before our departure.
Evidently this was not the case.
It started to sprinkle on the way north, and as we were diverted off of 95 and on to Horse Drive, it started to rain in earnest. The traffic on Horse Drive was not moving, so we turned around and tried the other direction, and found that road was washed out at Brent Drive, the flooding spreading a new river across the intersection, complete with its bed of detritus.
Some of the larger vehicles wallowed their way through the soil and rocks and branches that now barricaded the road. The smaller cars turned around and went back. We pulled over and evaluated the situation. We didn’t trust the Chrysler to make it over the wash, and Brent Drive southbound was so flooded that it was impossible to tell even how deep the water was. We ended up turning around.
We headed back south on 95, and after some deliberation, ended up taking the Las Vegas Expressway east and picking up Highway 93 northbound. The expressway was flooded but not closed, and despite some very terrifying driving in rain so heavy that I literally could not see what was coming up on the road ahead, we made it through.
93 was going north, but it was also taking us slightly east, the exact opposite of the direction that we wanted to head in.
Phil assured me that it would be fine; we’d cut west after we got around the flooding and approach Beatty from the north instead of the south.
Later we found ourselves pulled over off the I-15/Highway 93 interchange, across from Love’s Truck Stop. We were taking in the sunset spreading over hills still misty with rain to the west. The eighteen-wheelers roared past us, some blowing their horns as they passed and we marveled at the light that seemed to change by the second. It was the first of many slow, achingly beautiful desert sunsets that we would see. It’s worth noting that the sunsets were gorgeous here even when the sky was cloudy.
We felt a spatter of rain and decided that it was time to press on northward before the storms caught up with us in earnest. With the sun down and the light failing, the fear that we might be trapped for some hours by a flood in the middle of a pitch-black desert highway was a real possibility… and not a delay that we could afford on this, a detour that would end up taking us hundreds of miles out of our way.