An Explanation, Unsolicited

Mason Voehl goes on a paradoxical trip to Las Vegas after a long hard study of environmentalism.
is a recent graduate of the University of Montana's Environmental Philosophy MA programme. He continues to work as a writer and field instructor across the American West with focuses in climbing ethics, issues in the anthropocene and dark ecology.
On a Monday, I successfully defend my masters thesis. On Friday, my wife and I drive down to Las Vegas.

People go to Vegas to celebrate many arbitrary occasions, mostly birthdays, anniversaries and tax refunds. My occasion is less arbitrary and so stranger. A bender in Vegas is an odd way to celebrate completing a masters degree in environmental philosophy. My friends and teachers from the programme don’t ask me for an explanation before we leave. We’re all too polite to ask each other for such things. I feel I should explain anyways.

I’ve spent the last two years studying our environmental moment. To be more precise, I’ve been studying how the Earth has been ravaged and how so far no amount of scientists, politicians or philosophers have figured out how to save her. These years have been marked with profound discomfort. Witnessing the degradation of the environment feels a lot like witnessing a hand repeatedly pushing glasses off the edge of a table, or a snake voraciously devouring itself. As a result of witnessing these horrors for enough hours, I now have a piece of paper certifying my status as something of an expert on the subject. Our country no longer celebrates its experts though, least of all those with the word ‘environmental’ on their diplomas. So, we’re celebrating privately.

Sarah makes a little money on slot machines on the Bellagio casino floor. She has the touch. We like the Wonka machine best, with its spinning everlasting gobstoppers, Oompa Loompa bonuses and golden ticket jackpots. We never do find a golden ticket, but we do turn a ten dollar bill into four hours of complimentary drinks and all the secondhand menthol smoke we can breathe. It’s cheap entertainment at five cents a spin. Her winnings don’t amount to much, but more than I’ll make in two days of work as an environmental educator this summer. She wins enough from the Bellagio to keep us numbed by booze (or legally high) for the rest of the trip. If we have enough left over, we’ll quit mooching off of her dad’s national park pass and buy our own.

Floating chandeliers in the Mirage

I remind myself to ask my friends and teachers about the ethics of spending gambling winnings on a national parks pass when we get back to Missoula.

We mix vodka tonics in plastic cups shaped like a cactus and a flamingo and head to the hotel pool. It’s 90 degrees pool-side and we realise we forgot to take our sunscreen out of the trunk before the valet drove off with our dust-caked Subaru. Sarah spots a few moms stretched out under the shade of a cabana and asks them if we can use some of the 50 spf stuff they sprayed on their kids.

‘You two are pale. First day on the Strip?’

The words float out from beneath a sweat-stained white visor and a pair of tortoise shell Ray-Bans.

I want to tell her how over the last few months, we have spent the first hour of every morning crouched by a wood stove trying to get unseasoned hemlock to burn before we give up and click on the propane furnace. I want to tell her how this long Montana winter has left our bodies starving for sunlight. I want to tell her I’m a bit of a hypochondriac having lost my mom to cancer when I was nine years old. But I was brought up not to be so blunt with strangers, or friends, or even family. I let Sarah do the talking instead.

I want to tell her how over the last few months, we have spent the first hour of every morning crouched by a wood stove trying to get unseasoned hemlock to burn before we give up and click on the propane furnace

We’re seated in front of the Wonka machine again before we know it, and we’re down. It’s looking like we’ll have to keep her dad’s national parks pass a little longer. Still, the server is quick with the free drinks, so we play on. It occurs to me to quit accepting them after the third or forth. I’ve been experiencing painful and persistent neuropathies in my hands and feet for about a month.  My chiropractor thinks it’s the stress of my last semester manifesting. The technicolored screen of the Wonka machine and bottom shelf gin takes my mind off of all the horrific neurological diseases I could be suffering from. When another drink is offered, I remember how fond Nietzsche was of pastries and accept. We spin on until our winnings are halved and the line at the fabulous hotel buffet shrinks to our liking.

I feel safer experiencing these neuropathies in Vegas than I do at home. Our little cabin resides 40 minutes from direct care. I learned about anaphylaxis, transient ischemic attacks and pulmonary embolisms during my wilderness first responder training and realised that if any of these happened to me while I was home in the cabin, I’d never make it to the hospital in time. If I collapse on the Las Vegas Strip, I’m likely to fall into someone on my way down to the scalding pavement. The emergency services must be excellent here. People must collapse on the Strip every day.

: Pillars decorated with live flowers at the Wynn buffet.

We catch a Cirque du Soleil show deep in the labyrinth of the MGM Grand and stagger back to our hotel room immediately after. We lie  in our backlit room fully awake for hours, overstimulated. The master bedroom in our little cabin 40 minutes from direct care provides a chilling darkness we’ve grown too accustomed to. We like the quiet at night, and the cacophony of birdsong in the morning. In Vegas, each night lurches to life, thumping with the heartbeats of a dozen clubs where humans play at chaos. At 26 and 27, we’re getting a bit too old for chaos of this particular flavour. We enjoy scouring the Strip for cheap coffee around 6:30am, when some of the hearts have only just stopped beating.

On the third morning, we ask the valet to bring the car around. Twenty five minutes of dodging traffic and we’re on a trail in Red Rocks National Conservation Area. Pairs of climbers perform their art on the shaded side of hulking sandstone bluffs. A few voyeurs like myself watch and snap a picture or two. But the climbers, whose act is less rehearsed, less predictable and therefore more dangerous than the acts on the Strip, take no bows and receive no applause. Their celebrations are private, too.

Given the proximity of Red Rocks  to the Strip, night must never really fall over this community of sand and stone and desert bloom. I wonder idly how such a phenomenon selects for particular adaptations. Do avian raptors hunt all day and all night here? Do lizards enter REM sleep, and what happens if they don’t get enough? If I lived here, could I climb not only year-round, but around the clock as well? None of the signs along the scenic drive answer my questions, and there are no experts milling about for me to ask.

I thought that once I held the right kind of diploma in my hand, I would know what to do about this oncoming climate calamity.

This doesn’t amount to much of an explanation. I thought I would stumble upon one if I just kept the words rolling. The best I can offer is I went to Las Vegas, that upthrusting audacity, that quintessential rejection of system limits and self discipline, that den of raw, immediate and depthless gratification because I’m terrified. I’m terrified because all of the more seasoned experts are terrified too. I thought that once I held the right kind of diploma in my hand, I would know what to do about this oncoming climate calamity. I’m sorry if I’m letting you down – I’m letting myself down just admitting it – but I really don’t know what to do. I really don’t.

And so I’ll keep accepting those free drinks. I’ll continue to ignore the reality of my illness, or illness of any kind. I’ll keep my eyes averted from the one-way glass where a certain kind of expert studies me at play at this particular flavour of chaos that is Willy Wonka’s gift to the world.  I’ll dance with the machines, and retreat. Feeling sick and more than a little broken, I’ll withdraw to my little cabin 40 minutes from direct care because its alternating moods of stoic silence and riotous upheaval caused by Life shifting in its myriad forms remind me I am not alone. These are the only things that I, an expert in tragedy, believe in. It’s not much, and it may not be enough. 

If I collapse on the pavement, please help me up. If I collapse in the desert, maybe let me be. Night isn’t coming either way. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE

The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and art

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  1. Read this with a real fellow feeling. Been in both the desert and Vegas. And I too face despair on a daily basis. thank you for putting it into words.

  2. Beautifully written Mason.
    There are others of us who have made this trip as well…


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