Oliver Pelling turns his back on the blackjack tables for the thrilling hills and dusty deserts of Nevada's great outdoors
It's 2am (ish) at The LINQ Casino on Las Vegas Boulevard, and I am not winning.
I was winning, and then I wasn't, and then I was, and now I'm not, but maybe I will again? Only Vegas knows, and even Vegas doesn't actually know.
I've been in Sin City a week and this is my first time dancing with Lady Luck. It appears she does not want to dance back. Not surprising, considering the blackjack is not my boogie of choice. I prefer the tango of financial inevitability — it's not one of the better-known dances.
I've no vitriol towards anyone who does like to gamble, mind you. The Scottish guy on my table certainly does. I'm betting with $5 and $10 chips while he's throwing down hundreds on each hand. He doesn't look wealthy, either. He looks terrible.
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To recap: I don't gamble, I don't like gambling, and I'm no good at gambling. Good news, then, that I'm not here for the casinos. I'm here to for Nevada's great outdoors.
As the most famous destination in the state, as well as the first — and often only — stop for the majority of travellers, Vegas casts a long shadow over the rest of Nevada, which yawns some 286,383sq km (about 20,000sq km more than New Zealand) into the dusty horizon.
A few days prior to my failings on the blackjack table, I meet Geoff Flegal in the carpark of Bootleg Canyon mountain bike park.
I spent the night in Boulder City — a quiet, attractive little town that also happens to be one of only two towns in the state in which gambling is illegal. The clouds have emptied out of the sky, the sun is grinning a fat yellow grin, and Nevada's jagged ochre belly bakes idly beneath it. A magnificent day for doing outdoor things, by any account.
An internationally-renowned mountain biking destination, Bootleg is a 40-minute drive from the glitzy labyrinth of Caesar's Palace and the like.
"I came here 10 years ago, and I had no idea what happened beyond the strip," says Geoff, a veteran mountain bike racer turned-guide for Bike Blast Las Vegas, as we ride uphill to our first trail of the day. "Everybody hears about the gambling, but this is one of the most mountainous regions in the US."
Geoff is right, of course. Nevada is the US' fifth most mountainous state — the benefits of which are reaped by the hundreds of two-wheeled speed freaks who choose to fly down these dirt tracks on a daily basis.
Geoff is taking us to "Girl Scout" trail, which he promises is one of the least-challenging routes on offer (the names of tougher trails include "Snakeback", "Reaper" and "Poopchute").
"There are between 15 to 20 trails right here in Bootleg," says Geoff. I am glad to not be meeting Poopchute on this day.
"Least challenging" is still challenging, though, and sharp rocks and sheer drops do not make Girl Scout's tight corners and steep dips any less palatable. "Of all the rides I've done, the only person who's ever been injured is me," says Geoff, mid-trail, to ease my nerves.
We may be a while from the neon smirk of the Las Vegas strip, but a morning in Bootleg still feels like rolling the dice — albeit with your body, not your cash, on the line. As the trail progresses, my confidence rises, and trepidation makes way for exhilaration. Geoff is a good coach; Bootleg a good proving ground.
The sheer variety of outdoor pursuits within earshot of Vegas keeps Geoff in good spirits year-round. About 35 minutes from Bootleg is Red Rock park, home to over 2000 climbing routes. Even Alex Honnold, the world-famous climber who tackled Yosemite's El Capitan with no ropes, lives out there.
Then there's Mt Charleston and Lee Canyon, a small ski resort that's been dubbed "the coolest place in Las Vegas". And there's Black Canyon, a wet dream for kayakers of all experience levels and Lake Mead, an enormous aquatic playground for water-skiing, wakeboarding and all the rest of it.
"I do this thing called the 'Vancouver Week'," says Geoff. "I'll go skiing one day, mountain biking the next, then go kayaking, then hiking — you can do so much in the space of just a week."
A couple of days later and I'm flying through the Mojave Desert in a Polaris RZR all-terrain vehicle. Having donned goggles and a bandana to prevent my lungs from filling with Mojave dust, I look and feel like an extra from Mad Max. The RZR, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of dune buggies, makes light work of the exacting Nevadan terrain.
When it comes to driving these things, the philosophy is relatively simple: drive fast enough to not get stuck, slow enough to stay in control, and precisely enough to dodge the rocks.
I seem to be doing okay on the speed side of things, not so much the rock side of things. "Don't forget your back wheelbase is wider than a normal car," yells Gordy, a guide for Vegas Off Road Tours, from the back seat. "You need to give yourself more room back there." It's not the first time he's brought it up.
Weathered, bearded, with wild grey hair and a pet (fake) rattlesnake he uses to scare tourists, Gordy could easily have sand and petrol for blood. He's exactly the kind of hard-living character you'd hope to meet in the desert.
As well as an ATV guide and driver, Gordy is a landscaper and handyman for the small town of Goodsprings, where Las Vegas Off-Road Tours is based. He also spent a good while working the mines.
Nicknamed The Silver State, Nevada owes a lot to silver mining, and the role it played in building the local economy. Times (and mines) have changed though, and gold is now Nevada's most prized shiny thing. In 2018, in fact, gold comprised some 44 per cent of the state's entire exports, at $4.9 billion. (The casinos, for those playing at home, came in at $720 million, or 6.5 per cent of the total.)
"I could find gold anywhere," Gordy tells me proudly as we pull over to take in a view across the desert. "I could find it in the parking lot at the bar!"
After three-and-a-half hours and 130km of careening through clouds of dust and dodging (or not quite dodging) rocks, a Budweiser in a desert bar, an earnest chat about Trump with locals in aforementioned desert bar, and multiple sightings of wild horses, we wind up back at the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings — where we began — for a hard-earned drink.
Built in 1913, the saloon retains many of its original features (including the bar itself), and is all of the things you'd want an old desert saloon to be: charming, quaint, creaky, eerie, and as full of stories as it is booze.
Stories like the one about Clark Gable, and how he waited here for news of his wife, Carole Lombard, after she went down in a plane crash (she died). Stories like the one about Paul Coski, who was shot and killed here after he was found to be cheating in a poker game in 1915. Stories like how the ghosts of Lombard, Coski and another ill-fated chap have been spotted here numerous times over the years.
Over burgers and IPAs in the Pioneer's beer garden, Gordy asks what else we've been up to over the past few days. I tell him about mountain biking at Bootleg Canyon, the zip-lining across the Las Vegas strip, and the indoor skydiving (which, weirdly, was the most terrifying thing I've done all week). I tell him about the rafting through Black Canyon in the shadow of the Hoover Dam, and the helicopter ride we took into the Grand Canyon.
Gordy grins, then his expression changes, like he forgot to turn the iron off. "Wait here!" he says before vanishing.
From a contemporary travel perspective, Las Vegas is a bit of an anomaly. While many destinations around the world are suffering at the hands of overtourism, Vegas is arguably built on overtourism, so the motivation for travellers to get off the beaten track is hardly to spare the city from the pitfalls of too many tourists.
But while the reputation of Las Vegas is forged from its world-class ability to ensnare travellers in its twinkling, tempting tentacles — by breaking free and stepping boldly into Nevada's outdoors, a traveller can find more riches than they ever will at the blackjack table.
As I finish the last drops of my beer and brush the dust off my arms, legs, face and hair, Gordy appears again, grinning, and makes a beeline for me. He grabs my hand and sprinkles something into it. It's gold. Tiny nuggets of gold.
"See," he says. "I can find gold anywhere."