I’m sitting atop a horse on the outskirts of Las Vegas, trying to decide if these cowboys are faking it. Robbie Franks and Matt Replogle look as if they galloped straight out of a Western. Ruggedly handsome, they sport colourful neckerchiefs, cowboy hats, and fringed leather chaps over their tight jeans. They talk a good cowboy talk too. With lilting accents that seem out of place in Nevada, the guides treat the women in our group to “Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am” gallantry, and discuss horses using phrases like, “He’s a purdy little feller.”
Finally, an hour into our trail ride, I have to ask: “Are your accents for real?”
Franks turns and gives me a long, slow grin. Charming as all get out, he answers politely, “Is your accent for real, Miss Carolyn?”
We’re high on Fossil Ridge about 20 miles from the Las Vegas strip—a place famous for its fake Eiffel Tower, fake Egyptian pyramid, and fake boobs. So I might be forgiven for thinking that everything in the area is less than authentic. But I’m about to learn that in the Mojave Desert, not all oddities are illusions. A cowboy mentality isn’t that uncommon. And the scenery is just as fascinating as that of Sin City.
The desert’s beauty is on full display during our two-hour ride through Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. In contrast to the claustrophobic Strip, it’s all wide-open spaces out here. As my horse clops along slowly, I enjoy sweeping views of the tan- and rust-coloured mountains and terrain dotted with scraggly Joshua trees and the occasional wild burro.
It turns out that Replogle and Franks are the real deal. They both grew up on ranches: Replogle in Oklahoma, and Franks in Colorado. Although Franks moved to the Vegas suburb of Summerlin a decade ago for love, he’s still a dyed-in-the-wool cowboy, riding six-and-a-half days a week. (“I go to church on Sunday mornings,” he explains.) In addition to leading trail rides, he cares for horses as a veterinarian.
Apparently, there’s more of a horsy scene around Las Vegas than one might think. That night, I learn that my hotel on the Strip has a full equestrian arena that hosts horse-jumping competitions. Deep beneath the South Point Hotel and Casino, there are over a thousand climate-controlled horse stalls. Who knew?
Heading west to Death Valley the next day, I’m struck by how the cookie-cutter suburbs stretch away” and then abruptly stop. Past the development line, there’s nothing but endless scrubby desert—cowboy country, indeed.
After a two-and-a-half hour drive, we reach Rhyolite, a ghost town on the eastern edge of Death Valley National Park. In 1907, almost 10,000 people lived here, at the height of the boom after the discovery of gold in 1904. Now, just a handful of crumbling buildings remain, plus two very modern-looking signs. One reads Warning: Rattlesnakes. The other, No Shooting. It sports five bullet holes.
Just down the road at the Goldwell Open Air Museum, things are even more surreal. In the middle of nowhere, Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski has created a ghostly representation of the Last Supper. Cast in white plaster, the life-size figures make an otherworldly impression on the desolate terrain. Nearby, there’s another Szukalski work with a similar eerie figure hovering over a bicycle. A handful of equally out-of-place sculptures by other Belgian artists, such as a pixelated Pac-Man–like figure made of cinder blocks, round out the “museum”.
Watch an overview of what to expect at the Goldwell Open Air Museum.
We head 10 minutes down the highway back to Beatty (pronounced Bate-y), a one-stoplight town that’s home to about 900 people. Like us, many tourists stop in Beatty on their way to Death Valley, which straddles the nearby Nevada-California border. They spend the night in one of a handful of motels, stock up on water, and fuel up at Eddie World, a quirky gas station.
Over a steak at the Sourdough Saloon, I chat with “Notorious Nell”, a member of the Beatty Cowboys. The group consists of 16 residents who dress up in Wild West period costume—as cowboys, floozies, train robbers, and the like—and stage gunfights for special events like weddings. As a saloon girl who’ll drink you under the table and then take your loot, Nell sports a feather boa and packs a gun. (Her real name is Sarah Willis, and in real life she’s a dispatcher for the local sheriff’s office.)
The Cowboys are here to entertain our group, but Willis tells me that several of the men “dress like this all the time”. They simply like the Old West look, she says, and they wander into the saloon regularly, to the delight of out-of-towners.
She introduces me to her husband, “Colorado Krug”, who, as a train robber, is clad head-to-toe in black. To make conversation (what does one say to a train robber?), I compliment him on his antique-style handgun. Willis informs me that it’s real and explains that Nevada is an “open-carry” state. That means citizens can tote a gun openly—even in public places like restaurants, as long as the proprietor allows it.
In Beatty, it seems, the Wild West mentality runs deep. Willis, who reports that the town has no crime to speak of, says she also owns a gun. When I ask why, she replies pleasantly, “Because it’s my right.”
The next day, we drive about 45 minutes to reach Death Valley National Park. Twenty minutes further, at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, naturalist Bob Greenburg tells us that although it’s just about 20 ° C on this November day, temperatures in the summer reach almost 52 ° C in the shade, “and there is no shade”. Surprisingly, the park is flooded with visitors during the summer months; Europeans in particular want to experience the extreme. “Heard about climate change?” Greenburg quips. “They come here to see what they’re going to get in the next 40 years.” Car companies use Death Valley’s roads to test-drive their latest models. If an engine can make it here, it can make it anywhere.
I’m a little disappointed to miss out on the scorching heat. But as we drive further into the valley, the scenery doesn’t let me down: Death Valley looks like another planet. At the plain known as the Devil’s Golf Course, we struggle to walk over the cracked earth, which is covered in jagged spires and rock salt.
Park assistant Cheryl Chipman explains that the valley floor gets less than two inches of rain each year. Ninety percent of the water that surfaces from underground springs evaporates when it hits the air, leaving salt and other minerals behind.
At Badwater Basin, we see for ourselves that not only is Death Valley the hottest and driest spot in North America, it has the lowest elevation. Standing in the parking lot, we crane our necks to read a sign posted high up the cliff face. It marks sea level—an impressive 86 metres above us.
The surface of the basin is blanketed white and gleams like snow. But the white substance is actually salt flats. As we walk comfortably on this inhospitable terrain, I’m suddenly glad it’s not sizzling hot out.
I don my hoodie for our last stop, Zabriskie Point. As the sun sets, we look out at the valley and the mountains, which are carved into swirls like prehistoric soft-serve ice cream. As the beige mountains melt into orange, peach, caramel, and chocolate hues, my chest widens with awe. The sight is more moving than anything I’ve seen in Las Vegas—and it’s 100-percent natural.
ACCESS: The writer travelled as a guest of the Nevada Commission on Tourism. For information on Rhyolite and Beatty, see travelnevada.com. For Death Valley, see the U.S. National Park Service website. For horseback riding in Red Rock Canyon, see Cowboy Trail Rides at www.cowboytrailrides.com. More information on outdoor activities near Las Vegas can be found here.
Follow Carolyn Ali on Twitter at twitter.com/carolynali