“Painting, Sir, can illustrate, but it cannot inform.” – Dr. Johnson
The wind finally chilled out, so I had no excuse. I steadied the arrow as best I could and lifted the bow, pulling back on the nock and making sure it was lodged nicely into the string. With my left index finger I held the arrowhead, and then, once steady, I pulled back as far as I could with my right arm, lowered my left index finger, thus freeing the arrowhead, aimed, and released. Ten feet in front of me was a light-brown moving box, held down by a stone, stuffed with paper grocery-bags, and decorated with a yellow-green piece of paper on which was a red-orange star: the target. I was ten feet from my target and may as well been a hundred. The star may have been a satellite. It may have been as unhittable as a falling star, as elusive as a black hole. For I not only missed the star; I not only missed the yellow-green paper; I not only missed the light-brown box. But my arrow quickly became its own version of a falling star or meteorite. Like some wooden supernova it exploded upon the stones near the box. Two shafts and several splinters flew in the air, twenty or so feet, and I thought the scene all too telling. Man stands on a precipice. A man may shoot straight in life. He may even shoot at the target. But f he misses by inches, his life, like some Shakespearean tragic-hero, may explode into several pieces.
Las Vegas is a work of art. That is, Las Vegas has clear and definable boundaries. It is not like Los Angeles, which sprawls and sprawls and spreads and becomes something impressionistic. It is not like Hollywood, which in a different way spreads and becomes abstract. No. Las Vegas is contained. It resides in a bowl of sorts. It cannot move out; it can only grow up. Los Angeles will never grow up; it will only move out. It will only grow wider, and thus eat more innocent, unsuspecting children. But anyone who has driven to Vegas, especially at night, knows that perhaps the best thing about Las Vegas is that it ends. But the paradox is that it ends because it continues. Las Vegas Boulevard continues pumping, like a heart, even when the body sleeps. But like a heart, its blood, which lines the streets, which is the street, can only reach so far. Like many things this is best perceived from the outside, once a man leaves the town. Once he leaves and looks at Vegas from a distance, a man understands. He sees the whole organism struggling for survival; he reenters and sees he is a lonely cell plodding along, helping it live. But he knows too that what he’s keeping alive is a work of art.
We took turns shooting the bow. It had been a couple of years since I’d shot one, and I was a bit rusty. But as the night progressed, I improved. We eventually broke four of the five arrows, but with just one, I was able to hit the box several times in a row, even from about fifteen feet back. I grew so accurate and powerful, that I managed to sink the entire arrow into the box, fletching’s and all, the front half of the shaft sticking out the backside. We lobbied to call it a night on such a shot. We hiked in the cool desert air after we packed up the bows and target safely in the Toyota. We were southwest of town, just at the end of Boulder Highway, off Wagon Wheel Drive. I say we were just outside Vegas, but Vegas ends abruptly. One feels it only takes a step or two to go from decadence to desert. But even in the desert the city could be heard behind us. Cars, drag-racing, dogs barking. And even in the desert the city follows you. As we walked we saw several transformers, which look like mighty metal men. Their hums could be heard easily and seemed a warming, as if they were once men who had watched too much television; men who lived like machines and who became one.
We plodded on a random trail on a ridge above town, the sky darkening above, the city brightening below. A reversal was taking place, almost as if the sun did not set in the west but fell straight down. But as we proceeded, the city was slowly obscured from view by a hill, and we continued toward the dark of a nearby hollow.
If one has ever seen a satellite picture of the world at night, he has some notion of what Vegas looks like from its neighboring hills – a vast group of lights against the black. Ever since the first time I saw those satellite pictures as a child, I had a fascination with the west. They call St. Louis the Gateway City, but Kansas City might be more aptly described as the gateway to the west. The interstate between St. Louis and Kansas City is not the west. It’s overpopulated, if anything. But west of Kansas City, one may feel they have stepped into the great unknown, onto a great rolling abyss that goes on and on until he meets the mountains, rides a new landscape, and drops into the everlasting sea. The mere expansiveness, mixed with the emptiness, the loneliness of the west intrigued me. At night in Kansas one may stand atop some prairie hill and imagine how far he must travel before he sees any large cities like Vegas. One feels as if he’s standing on the edge of the world, the edge of existence, looking at a great empty sea, only to come to himself and realize more fully, more truly, that he stands not at the edge but at the crossroads. He stands in the very middle. And if he’s in the middle, he’s both beginning and ending.
Vegas has a similar effect. I looked up at this hill obscuring our view of the city and decided it must be climbed. The view was worth it. The city looks rather more like a town from such a view. The whole of it captured in a glance. By now the stars were coming out and the ground around the city lights was dark. The lights were up against the darkness as if it was a wall; one got the sense that some hand from heaven drew the lines, that an artist had created his work through men and certain lines were not to be crossed or the picture would be blurred. To the northeast, the division was most notable. There it truly looked as if Vegas set on some cliff, as if the lights ended because they had to, as if one more step would be the step of death into some deep cavern. Yet for half a second, I thought not about Vegas but about those satellite pictures from my youth and the stars above. Some stars are actually planets. Some are satellites. Some are close and large. Some distant and faint. We’ve lit up this world now and don’t see as many as we used to. But I can’t help but think that man has, in his infinite and worldly wisdom, reached his hand out to heaven and pulled a few down to make his towns light up at night. I can’t help but think of Vegas as perhaps some larger fallen star. Or maybe, she is merely the shards of a blazing shaft, from the broken arrow of Sagittarius.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
May 24–25, 2016
Painting: “Archer in a Mythical Landscape”
Oil on canvas, c. 1780