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The tension started to ease in my shoulders, and the creases around my eyes smoothed from furrows to tiny lines once the car pulled onto Interstate 15, heading northeast out of Las Vegas.

I was recently on my way to Valley of Fire State Park, just an hour’s drive from the downtown cluster of Nevada’s biggest city. But the distance between the two places can’t be measured in miles. More like millions of years.

For if Las Vegas is a showcase of 20th Century corporate expansion and booming technology, then Valley of Fire is a mural of nature formed by all the preceding centuries, a work in progress dramatizing the gradual evolution of millions of years of powerful earth forces.

Mere mortals—architects and landscape engineers and interior designers—would be hard pressed to equal the majesty contained within Nevada’s first official state park. For one thing, they wouldn’t have the time.

Geologists estimate that 600 million years ago this vast area, distinctive for its natural sand sculptures, was covered by water. It remained home to complex sea life for another 300 million to 400 million years until the ocean floor gradually rose. As the water became progressively shallower, finely sifted mud washed in from the emerging land areas and the mud formations dried and cracked in the warm, sunny climate.

Over the next 150 million years, the mud and sand grains were cemented into unusual shapes by the reaction of rain with the calcium in the sand. The sand formations blended into a spectrum of hues, from purple to reddish to brown to tan to white as the groundwater percolated through the sand and leached the oxidized iron.

Unquestionably, the most distinctive hue to emerge from the chemical interaction is the blazing red that roars against the subtle shadings of the surrounding desert and gives the Valley of Fire its name.

Juxtaposed with the “fire” are the Muddy Mountains, which skirt the southern and western boundaries. They are comprised of gray limestone and offer yet another stark color contrast within the region.

The cumulative impact of this fluid intermingling of earth colors lends credence to Cicero’s observation that “those things are better which are perfected by nature than those which are finished by art.”

Most wildlife in the park prefer to do their exploring after sundown, a survival technique essential for Las Vegas’ harsh summers. On a second visit last month, I spotted an occasional lizard and antelope squirrel and a few birds, including one large vulture that circled slowly above me looking for the slightest hint of fatigue.

But the coyotes, kit foxes, jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, desert ­tortoise and snakes (mostly non-venomous) that also inhabit the park were either in the shade or concealed in underground burrows. They prefer to work the night shift, when it is cooler and the higher humidity prevents water loss from their bodies.

The desert bighorn sheep, which have been in the area so long they are celebrated in the petroglyphs (rock carvings) that are found throughout the park, are spotted only by the more fortunate visitors. The bighorn are more commonly found along the banks of the Overton Arm of Lake Mead, just 10 miles away. The sheep bear their young during the most favorable months, from January to this time of year, and are dependent on the late fall rains to assure forage for feeding lambs.

At Atlatl Rock, visitors can get their best look at the petroglyphs drawn into boulders and joint faces throughout the park. No adequate technique has been developed for dating these rock carvings, although geologists’ best estimates range from as long ago as 1000 B.C. to 1150 A.D.

While the unsophisticated designs resemble something you’d find on the cloakroom doors of an elementary school, they reveal much about the people who lived and hunted in this valley. There are many human forms carved into the park, as well as bighorns, antelope, jackrabbits, wheels with spokes, and spears and atlatls, which were throwing sticks or dart-throwers used by ancient tribes to give more force to their spears.

Are these merely the idle scratchings of hunters bored on a slow afternoon, or were the artists of this earlier time more concerned with passing on information to future generations about their language and lifestyle? Will there come a day thousands of years from now when visitors to a nearby area will discover gutted casinos with abandoned video poker machines and wonder how man could have been so primitive?

These are the kinds of questions Valley Fire provokes in visitors. At least that’s what occurred to me. 

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About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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