40 miles outside of Las Vegas lies a barren stretch of highway where I go to die for a few hours.
It is as straight as a beam of light, cutting through the peaks and valleys of ancient mountains, binding two horizons together. It is a place of stark beauty where earth and sky and peace converge, where I go to escape the weight and din of the city that sprang from it.
In the silence of the desert, I kill my pride and prune my ego. Both swell much too fast now, unfortunate side effects of a life built around professional speaking, around actively looking to be the center of attention for a keynote or workshop. My profession provides for my family. I’ve never been more grateful for both. If I grow the wrong one for the wrong reasons, though, I’ll lose the only one that matters, so I leave Las Vegas as long as I can, to remember and forget.
I talk to Jesus out there, offering private words only He will ever hear. I listen to the wind amongst growth long dead and the scrape of scavengers foraging to stay alive. I pray for the launch of my new book this fall. I practice what I’ll say from the stage, a thousand mistakes and edits falling harmlessly onto eternal mountains that become both audience and perspective. My words will never move them. I will always be small next to them. The only force who can change them is one infinitely stronger than I will ever be.
I know I can’t stay out here forever. My return drive to the city and my room at Caesar’s Palace is reluctant and in the dark, obsessed with what I’m losing in the rear view, and below the speed limit. I earn the ire of fellow drivers who can’t escape my lane fast enough.
In my absence, The Killers have begun a pop-up concert outside my hotel, a hometown-turned-worldwide-hit band who found what they were looking for outside this city’s limits, too. Thousands gather on the Strip and cluster along the edges of adjoining balconies, singing as one in full throat, bound together for a few hours until the light and sound fades and they go their separate ways, strangers once more.
I’m due on a more conventional stage inside Caesar’s the following morning, keynoting one of the largest conferences on my schedule this year. I follow legendary journalist Dan Rather on the first morning of the event.
A few minutes before his timeslot, he moves through the equipment-choked backstage holding area to shake hands and share a warm greeting with each technician and event staffer, all of whom trade this-is-amazing glances with each other once he passes.
Even though I’m six feet away from him, I don’t introduce myself before he takes the stage. I don’t want to intrude on the final few moments he spends alone with his thoughts. I opt instead to greet his assistant Alex and grandson Martin, then capture a few surreptitious photos of him in silent contemplation before he steps into the spotlight.
His thirty minutes of wit, wisdom, and encouragement feel like five, and he earns every second of the thunderous standing ovation from the packed ballroom.
After he leaves the stage, I offer my hand in silent appreciation. His handshake is strong and sure. He thanks me in the same resonant voice that has narrated the last fifty years of world history, then disappears down the hall. I’m in awe of what I just witnessed.
I take the stage to deliver a new keynote called “The Night the Dog Exploded.” Despite the hundreds of hours of prep and practice that went into developing it, doubt goes viral in my mind:
Compared to Dan Rather, you’re forgettable. They loved Dan Rather.
They won’t like you. Dan Rather is a giant. You are nothing.
I conclude my message with an emotional homage to a friend gone too soon, and a plea to the crowd about the value of unconditional love and the urgency of selfless service.
Sharing Steve’s story is a calculated risk, since I’d never told it from the stage before. I hope it finds its mark among the crowd but can’t be entirely sure, given the insecure counterpoint echoing in my head.
Several attendees stop me afterwards to tell me they liked what I had to say. I’m grateful, yes, but because I’m proud and weak, I compare their reaction to the one received by Mr. Rather. I measure the intensity and quality of the applause, tally how many smile at me in gratitude, and obsess about those who pass me by with neither a word nor eye contact. I forget the good and let any indifference unmake me. All I want are the mountains now because I feel like I’ve failed somehow.
I retreat to my hotel room and stare toward the desert. I don’t have time for one more trip into it before my flight, so I change into comfortable clothes and make my way to the lobby, my heart heavy and every manner of baggage in tow, eager to slip away as fast as I can.
The cook in the Chinese restaurant catches my eye. He’s coaxing hundreds of gossamer-thin noodles from a dense ribbon of dough, spinning and twisting and cutting it in a sequence that requires only the barest fraction of his attention. His expression is serene and composed, no trace of tension or question, no hesitation in his hands as they bind his work together. I long for the peace that’s on his face, the confidence he has in his skill, the ease with which he works under the gaze of a stranger, and wonder if I’ll ever feel that way again.
And as he swings the dough, the peaks and valleys from his labor are unmistakable and familiar.
I capture him as best I can while trying not to disturb him. As I put my camera away, his eyes find mine. His face melts into a smile, and he nods at me in silent affirmation. My smile matches his but my nod is one of gratitude. We never said a word. We never had to. A weight leaves me. I needed this moment because now I’m free to go.
At that moment, my phone vibrates. It’s a message, submitted through my website, from an attendee. I open it with dread, certain it will confirm all of my fears from the morning’s keynote. I’m wrong:
With tears in my eyes, I forward the message to Karla. She rejoices with me. She can’t wait for me to come home. I can’t either.
I re-read the message on the plane. I thank God for this moment, this trip, for what He has done for me, and for what lies ahead.
We tilt away from the setting sun toward home. I find the mountains one last time, sliding away from me in the distance, and pray for the day when I can return.
all images (c) Andy Janning