I write to you today from Boracay, where I’ve traveled to a different country to spend the week dressing up like a mermaid, to tell you about a time I flew to the desert to see some painted rocks.
Seven Magic Mountains has been on my radar since it first went up in the Ivanpah Valley, seven miles south of Las Vegas. The two year installation by renowned Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone will close in May of 2018; lately, I felt the deadline looming. (I’ve since learned the piece may be moved to a park in Downtown Las Vegas at that time.)
So when I saw that there were no direct flights from Tampa to Los Angeles anyway, I decided it was the universe telling me to wedge a weekend trip to my beloved Las Vegas in between the two.
While widely celebrated among the art world, plenty of people I spoke to didn’t quite get the allure of Seven Magic Mountains. “I’m not normally into road side attractions,” wrote one. “Am I missing something?,” asked another. But I couldn’t explain it. Something drew me there.
I flew on a Wednesday evening and rented a car at the airport, a Las Vegas first for me. Over a late night dinner with my friend Diana, who runs the fabulous local company Vegans Baby, I urged her to join me. “Meh,” she said. “I’ve been before and I wasn’t really into it.” We’ll go at sunrise, I insisted. I promise to take new headshots for your business.
Sold! What can I say? I know how to hook an entrepreneur.
I set my alarm for 4:30am, giving myself enough time to pack all my cameras, pick up Diana, and navigate down I-15 ahead of the 6:12am sunrise that morning. While Google Maps clocked the work at only a thirty minute drive from my hotel without traffic, for once in my life, I decided not to cut it close.
When we pulled into the gravel parking lot in the middle of the vast valley, a highway and train tracks humming in the near distance, there was only one other car keeping ours company. “Wow,” Diana said simply, and I recalled her protest that the crowds were enormous the last time she’d visited. With over a thousand estimated visitors per day, she wasn’t exaggerating. I said “wow,” too, at the simplicity.
No security guard, no entry turnstiles, no bathrooms, no water fountains, nothing but a simple black and white sign with some background information on the work and the artist.
With half an eye out for the rattlesnakes signs warned us of, we practically skipped over to the seven towering totems, stopping frequently to take pictures and exclaim each new angle and view as our absolute favorite. Though I’d seen countless photos of the neon mountains prior to visiting, they felt brand new seeing them for the first time in person.
This “day-glo-drenched Stonehenge of sorts” suddenly seemed right — the totem shape and piled rock structure of the sculpture perfectly reflected the vast history and natural landscape of the region, while the bright neon colors would be right at home in the pop-art inspired and culturally rich Downtown Las Vegas. I was smitten.
Laying in the dirt looking up at the neon boulders shooting into the sky, I thought back to a special trip to New York City when I was in high school with my best friend and our moms to see The Gates in Central Park, another infamous piece of public art. The art teachers in my Upstate New York high school encouraged any of us who were able to make the three hour journey to see the 7,500 orange gates billowing in the park to do so, and so we had. Colorful, controversial, and surreal — The Gates and Seven Magic Mountains were both worth the trip.
Seven Magic Mountains artist Rondinone has been quoted as saying, “most people don’t know how beautiful the land is around Las Vegas, so I hope this inspires them to explore the city’s nature.” True — few make the journey just an hour away to Valley of Fire, Nevada’s stunner of a state park. And in five visits, I’ve yet to make it to Red Rock Canyon.
Financed by the Art Production Fund and Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art, Seven Magic Mountains is completely free to visit, yet the state tourism board estimates the project’s overall media exposure at $7 million — one million per mountain. I was fascinated to read that the three year process of making Seven Magic Mountains included having a state law written as a part of it’s creation! The law shields the creators of public art from liability if someone hurt themselves while “engaging with the artwork,” and is the first of its kind in the country.
When the sun was high in the sky and the parking lot finally filled with other cars, Diana and I called it a morning. We were both beaming. I rarely wake up at sunrise. This one was worth it.
It was a trip that, like Seven Magic Mountains itself, probably seems extremely silly and frivolous to some. Like going to the Philippines to go to mermaid camp, going to Las Vegas to look at very expensive painted rocks does sound a bit ridiculous. But I’ve also traveled to Bangkok simply to see Gone Girl in a movie theater, arranged a layover in New York because I was craving real fountain Diet Coke, and traveled back to the vacation island of my childhood to attend a Jaws festival. I’m strongly considering going to Croatia for the sole purpose of visiting an underwater winery I read about, and I’d get on a plane to any country in the world that the Spice Girls held another hypothetical reunion tour in.
Not every trip has to be an Eat Pray Love experience. Every time you get on a plane, it doesn’t have to be for something as noble as checking a world wonder off your list, summiting one of the earth’s highest peaks, becoming a divemaster or a yoga teacher, or tracing the genealogy of your family tree.
Life is short! It really doesn’t matter if someone else thinks your trip is silly or frivolous or a waste of time and money. If it makes you laugh or smile or feel content in some way, well, you do you.
Go see Lady Gaga in concert in Mexico. Fly to London to try nitrogen ice cream. Travel to Australia to do The Color Run. Go to Los Angeles cause one time in the back of a magazine you read about a cool bar there. Head to Colombia because you saw a Buzzfeed video about a hostel over the water. Go to Berlin because you want to take a picture of a wall you saw on Instagram. Whatever.
Granted, I have some professional pressure to keep doing big, important, epic adventure trips. In the last few years they’ve become fewer and further between for me as I focus on additional priorities, and there are definitely large portions of my audience that have tuned out as a result — and told me about it. I hate disappointing those people, but sometimes I just have to do my thing. And sometimes my thing is something that seems trivial or boring or downright silly to someone else.
And that’s okay.
Tell me about a stupid travel dream that you made come true — or are still working on!