Road Trip Las Vegas

October 19, 2011

Testing, testing….

Hello, wonderful ones — we’re live.

It’s taken me hella long to complete this feature  in which to tell you a few things about our recent vacation.  I’m hoping the news hasn’t gone completely stale in the meantime!

If you’re wondering why we drove to Las Vegas,  the answer would be  a.)  We needed a destination we could go to, enjoy and return from in six days (so, Wyoming, our first choice was not on) and  b.) It had to be sort of novel, at least to one of us (i.e. another option, Los Angeles, was out too).  Also, we wanted to give our new car a serious run to see if it’s suitable for the long retirement drives we imagine we’ll take in lieu of your pricey ocean cruises and European culture tours.  Michela had never been to Vegas, so when the idea came up it seemed perfect.

We left Berkeley on Sunday morning in the rain and I immediately became worried that it might be snowing at Tioga Pass in Sierras where we were headed.  It would have been early in the year for that, but I worried anyway. Over the phone Oami did some quick weather research for us indicating the way was clear, and during our lunch stop I found a Yosemite webcam which showed blue sky.  I was reassured as we headed into the mountains.

For us highway 120 is the direct route over the Sierras, but since it runs right through Yosemite Park a traveler must pay the standard $20.00 entrance fee.  However, if you’re an old coot you can do as I did (when prompted by the park ranger) and buy a Lifetime Pass to all our national parks for $10.00.  With this plastic card in hand you then drive through “free”.

Here we are at an epic Yosemite overlook (Cloud's Rest Mountain, left) discussing what to do with the $10 we just saved!

"Half Dome (left)? Been there....Done that."

"I enjoyed the view, Ross. Can we go now?"

Indeed, we were in a hurry to cross the mountains because we weren’t sure how long it would take to reach our resting place for the night, Bishop, California.  We turned south at  Mono Lake, not stopping to visit the tufa towers, and bee-lined down highway 395 through the high desert on a beautiful afternoon with the steep wall of the Sierras backlighted to our right.  Sooner than we expected we descended a long grade into the wide Owens Valley with the White Mountains–home to the ancient bristle-cone pines–to the east and Bishop like an oasis in the distance.

Ah, sweet home away from home!

Drinks on the lawn of the Elms Motel, with tennis players, skateboarders, fly-fishermen, ducks and canada geese all doing their thing next door in the city park.

The Elms Motel is charmingly old-school. For anglers there's a fish cleaning station near the ice machine.

And it is "Dutch Clean"

Monday morning was bright and warm.  We ate our complimentary continental breakfast on the lawn, washed squashed bugs off our windshield, loaded up, gassed up, stopped by a main street coffee bar and then hit the road. Michela was at the wheel as we motored south, still through rolling high desert and still running alongside the stark rampart of the Sierras a few miles to the west.  MM is seldom interested in sidetrips once the route has been set, but suddenly she  slowed down and signaled a right turn off the highway.  She had unexpectedly seen a sign pointing to the site of Manzanar, one of the notorious WWII relocation camps where thousands of American citizens were imprisoned because of their Japanese ancestry.

The landscape near Manzanar.

The only original structure remaining is the large camp auditorium which has become a museum. The place is now called the Manzanar National Historic Site.

A concentration camp in the desert. 10,000 people existed here in tarpaper barracks.

Apart from the auditorium (foreground) only a square mile of foundation stones and sagebrush remain.

But Manzanar and nine other wartime relocation camps are fresh in the memory of Americans of Japanese ancestry.

Goodbye, Manzanar.

We continued down route 395 to Lone Pine where we turned right and headed east toward Death Valley.  The landscape became increasingly sere as we approached the Panamint Valley, DV’s next door neighbor.  At the edge of the valley we stopped at a viewpoint where Rucha and I had pulled over during our Southwest roadtrip in 1994.

The desolate view of Panamint Valley in the distance was the same as when we were here before....

....but what had been a wide shoulder of the road was now an extensive car park with restrooms.

Back in the car, we descended a thousand feet via switchbacks to the Panamint Valley, crossed it’s flat, dry floor and climbed over the mountains on the other side.  There was Death Valley, wide, low and hot. It’s an extreme desert environment MM found unfriendly and was anxious to be out of.  So, we stopped in Furnace Creek (105 degrees!)  just long enough to have lunch and shop for  curios.  Then, ascending from of the valley we pulled off to check out the classic view of DV from Zabriskie Point. After that it was full speed ahead across a final 100 miles of wild Nevada desert to Las Vegas.

"OK, got the picture. Back to the car!"

At last, desert weary and road-dazed we arrived in Vegas and navigated to our hotel for this night–the Luxor. When Rucha and I were in LV seventeen years ago the Luxor was a new, glossy black pyramid at the edge of town.  Now the city has engulfed the hotel and the International Airport next to it, and the Luxor’s glass/metal exterior looks sadly sun-worn.  The searchlight blazing straight up into the night sky from it’s apex is still stupendous, though, and I’d always been curious what the rooms were like with their sloping window walls and views into the cavernous interior of the pyramid.  Now we would see.  As we trudged through the casino with our luggage in search of the check-in desk,  MM became  dazzled  and fell behind.  She approached a hotel employee for help and told the woman, “I’ve lost my husband.”  With touching concern the staff person said,”Oh, I’m so sorry!  Please accept my condolances!”

Looking straight up in the interior of the Luxor. Elevators are in the corners and rooms are accessed by the tiered walkways. We were on the 12th floor.

Room #12050 was spacious, rather stylish and had two super comfortable beds.

Our excellent view of the Strip and the Luxor's guardian sphinx.

Once again....The Sphinx!

My guess is the pyramid's intense beacon is probably visible on our moon!

Dinner was at a stylish "mexican" restaurant in the next hotel (The Mandalay). MM wasn't aware of the mural behind her until she saw this shot of it in the camera.

Later, we made our way down The Strip on an interlocking network of elevated shuttle trams and pedestrian overpasses.

This new hotel, The Aria, puts on quite the crystalline lightshow.

The Bellagio Hotel has an 8 acre lagoon--a lake!-- out front.

I'd forgotten whatever I'd heard about this when music came up and the lagoon erupted with brilliant swaying fountains, I was so surprised.

I think the music here was an Italian tenor singing an operatic aria. The ensemble effect with the "dancing" water was excellent.

During climactic musical moments the fountains erupted 100-200 feet high with loud, percussive booms like fireworks. It's an exciting crowd pleaser, and unlike fireworks this show can be (and is) repeated all night.

Tuesday morning. This was the day we shifted our base of operations to the Desert Club Resort a few blocks away. It had been nice to get a taste of The Strip’s hotel glamor, but what we really needed was a lower impact crib with good car access.  We rolled up our stuff, had breakfast (2 coffees, a yogurt cup, a fruit cup at the hotel’s Starbucks–$25. Yikes!), checked out and then killed a little time by visiting the Luxor’s pool. At last we motored over to the Desert Club where they welcomed us and kindly allowed us to check in hours early.

Breaking camp in room #12050. Did I mention that there are almost 4500 rooms at the Luxor Hotel?

And did I point out that the interior space in the Luxor is said to be the largest atrium on our planet?

It's a faceoff at the Luxor's pool.

The pool complex is expansive and well set up. It might have been a nice scene except for an intrusive piped-in music soundtrack which was punctuated by loud commercial spots for hotel services. We were glad we hadn't intended to stay.

Suddenly, we're at the Desert Club Resort pool! Here too an annoying rock soundtrack during the day made relaxation improbable. In the evening the canned music stopped-- though the heat of the day remained--and that was the time to swim.

An extra bonus---no sunblock required.

"See you back at our shack, Jack."

After our dip we shlepped The Strip again, hitting Harrah’s and the heavily themed Venetian Hotel where the density of the crowds was overwhelming at times.  Amazing….and this was an “off-season” week night.

Buck and Winnie, a pair of Harrah's highrollers. Check out their priceless expressions.

The Venetian was all about wonderful rocco knockoffs like this ceiling. The shot, however, gives no hint of the mobs moving through the hotel, to say nothing of the street.

I'm tellin' ya, the streets were jammed....

....really, REALLY jammed, dude.

Wednesday we slacked. There was reading, and the pool, and I practiced knot-tying with the piece of rope I’d brought along.  Until dinner the principle planned event was a trip to the Atomic Testing Museum not far from our hotel.  The name sounds absurd, like a Monty Python routine, and in that way it seems a good fit among the other surreal attractions of LV.  However, this museum was created by uber-rational scientists and defence bureaucrats and it’s in deadly earnest.  The place was also highly air-conditioned, and it left me chilled in more ways than one.

The Atomic Testing Museum is not large but it is obviously well funded.

It's centerpiece is a small theater styled as a bomb shelter....

which--by design--rumbled and shook violently as a film is showed the evolution of atomic and hydrogen bomb development....

from Cold War era above-ground testing....

to underground tests in the Nevada desert during the '80s and '90s.

The exhibits were sometimes tediously technical in their attempt to demonstrate how much below-ground testing methods have improved over time and how safe they are.

The ATM's explicit message to the public turned out to be that below-ground nuclear weapons testing may have to be re-started one day, and if that happens, "DO NOT WORRY! We experts of the defence establishment have it UNDER CONTROL."

When I emerged from the Atomic Testing Museum I felt as though I had passed through the belly of the Military-Industrial Complex and been crapped out it’s back end.  Next door was a smaller, lighter exhibit on the theme of Las Vegas during the age of atomic testing.  In it’s perverse way it washed off part of the bad smell.  At any rate, it was refreshing to see a small collection of Lee Liberace’s glam gear which may have been rescued from the lamented closure of his namesake museum in town.

A "building BOOM" you might say?

The bomb testing areas were only 65 miles north of LV. People gathered on hotel roofs to watch the detonations.

It was generally felt to be a high time in Las Vegas.

"Now appearing, Liberace! The Rat Pack! Elvis Presley! AND direct from the Nevada Test Site, Mr. Atom BOMB!!"

Back at our digs we had beers, hung on the veranda and watched the sun go down.

This cowboy needs to get out of his boots and chaps more often.

Dinner that night was at Roy’s, a fine and expensive restaurant on Maui (MM thinks it’s divine) which has now popped up in Vegas.  Our meal was  terrific, but throughout it I could not take my eyes off the two men at a nearby table who had their noses deeply in their cellphones the whole time.  Three women were with them, all in evening outfits. One of the guys was at least sharing his phone-thrill with his date, but the other dude never looked up, never acknowledged anyone.  It was shocking and it creeped me out.  I hoped the distraction of those two phone clods hadn’t turned me into another kind of boor to my own adorable dinner companion. If so, she didn’t say anything and afterward we made one last pass down The Strip, had a drink at the Bellagio and said goodbye to all that.

Dale Chuhuily's astonishing inverted glass-flower-garden on the ceiling of the Bellagio Hotel.

Although I'm not such a big Chuhuily fan, I did admire this piece of his in the Baccarat Bar. We also enjoyed two excellent caipirinhas here (@$15.00 each....yikes!).

Let's hear it one more time for the Dancing Waters! Bravo!

Hey!! They just closed the doors of Urban Outfitters in our faces. And it's still only 11:30!

Thursday morning.  Our last day in Nevada and time  for an out of town field trip….to Hoover Dam  and the recently finished, jaw-dropping Memorial Bypass Bridge.  They’re next to one another on the Colorado River about  35 miles east of LV.

The Bypass Bridge leaps from Nevada to Arizona across the gorge of the Colorado.

It's one scary-high bridge, but pedestrians are invited to walk across it. This nice detail is at the bridge approach.

A bridge view of Hoover Dam, way, way, way down there. Previous to the bypass the dam itself was the bridge over the river. But it was always a gnarly switchback route for big trucks to negotiate, and post 911 there was also a security issue least terrorists explode one of those trucks mid-dam.

Two Art Deco seraphim guard the approach to the dam. They're made of sandcast bronze with a dark patina. Their feet are polished bright, however, because everyone passing by rubs the toes for good luck.

Looking across Hoover Dam toward Arizona.

It fascinated me how the concrete dam was stitched into the rocky side of the gorge.

A boffo view down the face of the dam. Below are the halls where the power generators live, and above, of course, is the new Memorial Bypass Bridge.

Looking at Nevada.  The thing glued on the cliff is the Visitors Center.

Looking at Nevada. The structure glued onto the cliff is the Visitor Center.

These intake towers feed water to the generators through tunnels in the cliffs.

The notorious bathtub ring caused by the water of Lake Mead. 25,000 years from now when the dam has vanished, surviving humans will visit "White Canyon" and ask, "What the f--k happened here?"

On our way back from the dam we stopped 7 miles away in Boulder City for a couple of hours.  This tidy berg was built about 1930 as a meticulously planned and supervised federal government town for the people working on what at that time was called Boulder Dam.  It was a dry, vice-free  town for years and even today gambling is prohibited there, which makes it a serious oddity in a state as loose as Nevada.

Home again, though not for long. Our plan was to leave at dawn the next morning, so we took a last look around our dandy little apartment before packing up.

Our unit had a full, well equipped and very clean kitchen, a doublewide bathtub, king bed, a leather couch and two TVs.

We were a dozen steps from our parked car and a 10 minute walk from the throbbing heart of The Strip. All this cost us about $77.00 a night. A great thing too was the five-bar signal I got there on my iPhone. For the first time since I've owned it I could use my phone to move around the internet almost as fast as on our home computer.

Friday morning at 6:30 we were ready to go.  As the sun came up we swung onto the freeway and headed out of town.  On the trip home we drove southwest on Highway 15 toward LA, northwest at Barstow thru Bakersfield and then north on I5.  We stopped for a late breakfast in Bakersfield but otherwise drove steadily and fast until we reached Berkeley about 3:30pm.  Our drivetime down to Las Vegas had been about 12 hours.  The return took 8.5!

The car's loaded and we're headin' out.

Here's The Strip. The lights are on but no one's home.

Later, Vegas!

Michela and I came back happy from our getaway and feeling curiously refreshed.  It was wicked hot there and we drove a lot and we were just fine.  We didn’t gamble at all, mostly because slot machines don’t take actual coins anymore and neither of us was inspired to buy a house debit card in any of the casinos we wandered through.  Our car demonstrated that it’s excellent fuel economy specs are accurate, about 40 mpg for  highway driving.  The Hyundai’s ride is very comfortable, but unfortunately it’s electric steering system is not good.  Without constant alertness and continuous wheel corrections the car can drift from it’s lane.  This flaw makes my neck and shoulders hurt, and it brought us to the painful conclusion that we don’t want this car as our retirement cruiser after all.

That’s a sad note to end on, I know, but the end must start somewhere, right?

Goodbye, wonderful ones!    —NeRP


One Response to “Road Trip Las Vegas”

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