This post is a not so ambitious attempt to place Las Vegas in the proper regional context. This is not nearly as expansive a debate as that of defining what “The West” is in the American mind, but this smaller scale examination still has some important ramifications.
Las Vegas is situated at an interesting cultural and topographical crossroads. Some have argued that it belongs to several realms simultaneously. I don’t disagree with these commentators; however, I do think it’s easy to see Las Vegas as existing on the boundary between the southwest and the far west. Although the city is more commonly seen as part of the far west, it is also undeniably southwest as well. Petroglyphs, sandstone, proximity to the Colorado River, all these conditions exist in southern Nevada and mark Las Vegas as a southwestern locale. The exact location that marks the boundary between the southwest and the far west is Charleston peak. Standing atop this nearly 12,000 foot peak (which I have scaled twice–quite possibly the most painful days of my life) one can look east into the Colorado River gorge, seeing the river as it first leaves the Grand Canyon. To the west, one can see the mountains that tower above Death Valley at a proximity far closer than most people realize.
It’s really impossible to place Las Vegas fully into either the Far West or the Southwest. There is simply too much southwestern iconography present locally to disassociate it from the vision conjured by myriad John Ford movies. On the other hand, the overwhelming cultural influence in Las Vegas emanates from Los Angeles, thus rendering Sin City a far western outpost as well. It’s position is not unlike that characterization of the Virgin Branch Puebloan Indians. These peoples inhabited the area up and down the Muddy and Virgin River, some 50 miles Northeast of Las Vegas. Some evidence suggests that these peoples made forays into the Las Vegas Valley, and perhaps even inhabited the area on a permanent basis for a period of time. I asked archaeologist Steve Lekson about these peoples during a conference on water in the West last summer. Despite their now antiquated categorization as “Virgin Branch Anasazi”, Lekson asserted that they were more likely a southern branch of the Fremont people, roughly contemporaneous with the Puebloan cultures of what is now the four corners region. I was struck by this view since it meant that perhaps the Las Vegas region has always been a boundary, or a meeting point at which various cultures collide.
Why does this matter? Well, it seems like Vegas is often thought of in the popular mind out of geographical context. People think about Las Vegas a lot, to be sure, but when they do, they typically don’t think about it in the context of its relationship to the Mormon region of Utah, or the canyon country of Arizona, or the proximity to Death Valley, or its connection to the Great Basin and northern Nevada. It’s not embedded in place in the popular mind. It simply exists on its own. I think it’s really important to point out this embeddedness because, unlike the fantasy that Las Vegas’s boosters like to present to the world, the city is highly dependent up the resources contained within the region, most notably, the Colorado River. But it goes beyond just a direct link between the River and Las Vegas. Yes, Vegas does need the water from that river, but it also needs tourists. And the vast majority of those tourists also use Colorado River water. So, the more reliably places like Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Southern California have access to water, the healthier their economies, and therefore the greater the success of Las Vegas.