Hello to all our loyal readers – here is proof of life that we have survived our two weeks in Las Vegas, and at least haven’t lost so much money that I’ve needed to pawn my computer.
The title of this post comes succinct piece of wisdom delivered by a slightly buzzed Morgan on our first night here, marveling at the chaos of the Strip. After all, we’d just spent a week in a town where the excitement was limited to minor league baseball and watching a semi-regular flow of people hotboxing cars down the street from our Airbnb.
I don’t know if I was just imagining it, but as we headed out of Fresno, I felt like I could perceivably tell we were heading back now. Perhaps it was getting on eastbound roads for the first time in nearly six months. Our last major eastward movement was back to Florida for the holidays, and since then it’s been relentlessly west.
After five weeks and nearly 1,800 miles in the Golden State, I can confidently say it is a very strange one to drive through. Our trip from Fresno started by threading through the hundreds of acres of citrus, grape, almond, and strawberry fields that absolutely blanket this part of California, before heading into the foothills at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevadas. It was all surprisingly beautiful, and to this very last day this state has continued to surprise me. It’s one place I could never and would never live, but California remains fascinating to me in a way somewhere between a great museum exhibit and a NASCAR crash.
Once we cleared the mountains, all that stood between us and Sin City was a few hundred miles of dusty Mojave Desert. By now, you should all know I’m a bit of a desert aficionado, but this one was not for me, at least along this blasted portion of California Route 58. I’ll chalk it up to the extremely menacing sight of massive dust clouds shrouding the road in what was initially the distance, and then all around us.
I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t a bit freaked out about the prospect of getting stuck out there, but we chalked it up to one more bizarre western experience to check off the list. And it gave us something to look at and talk about in a stretch of road that has very little going on, other than the extremely striking visual of a huge airplane graveyard some miles off the side of the road.
Against all odds, we made it through some extremely perilous driving on Interstate 15, a four-lane highway to hell with some of the worst and most aggressive drivers we’ve encountered – and that includes southern California and Texas! In some ways, Nevada is pretty much a combination of those two states anyway.
In fact, it also occurred to us as we rounded a bend and the Strip emerged that Las Vegas is essentially Tucson plus New Orleans. You can drink and party 24 hours a day, but you can also do it in 100+ degree temperatures and single-digit humidity. In an episode of King of Hill, Peggy Hill refers to Phoenix as a “monument to man’s arrogance” – there’s no way that doesn’t also apply to that city’s degenerate neighbor to the northwest, Las Vegas.
Our accommodations here are, also like Las Vegas, flashy and impressive at first glance, but a bit grimy and underwhelming on further inspection. Sure, there’s a cool accent wall – but there are also no coffee mugs in the kitchen. The Galaga arcade machine is awesome, but I’d prefer the washing machine actually work and not have to harangue them to fix the water heater. There’s a great balcony, but no furniture on it. I’ve said it before, but Airbnb owners need to hire Morgan and me as consultants because it wouldn’t take a lot to make most places great, including this one.
As one does in Vegas, we unpacked, changed, and headed right out to the Strip. We’re located about nine miles to the east of the city’s primary corridor, an Uber ride of about half an hour during the busy evening hours. Seeing the Las Vegas Strip is always an overwhelming experience, and it was fun to watch Morgan experience it for the first time. We headed straight to the Bellagio to check out the hotel’s famous fountains, but high winds forced them to skip the show for the evening, to our disappointment. We shook off our disappointment with some slot play and PF Changs at Planet Hollywood.
This night was one of three nights Morgan and I went to the Strip, in addition to two afternoons by myself. Even as I explored the city, I realized I had no idea how to write about these times. For one, it’s essentially one big multisensory experience from the minute you arrive until the minute you leave. It can be hard to know exactly which casino you’re in, which direction you’re traveling, how to cross the street – and all of this is before the liberally applied alcohol that’s available nearly everywhere and can be taken nearly everywhere, including out on the sidewalks. Sure, there are the absolutely hammered folks out there, but a lot more seemed to be roughly in the state we were; mildly buzzed, extremely overheated, and generally disoriented.
Also, how does one write about this? It’s a pretty predictable process; wander, people watch, get a drink, gamble briefly, move on, repeat. If I had a better story about our gambling, I would certainly tell it. But like most small-time Vegas gamblers, I lost a small amount of money slowly over two weeks, while Morgan ended close to even.
I’m not sure what to really write about the Strip, and it’s one of the reasons this blog has come out comparatively late. So here are some pictures that I hope tell the story on their own.
Perhaps our most notable nights on the Strip were our last two, on the Friday and Saturday before our departure. On Friday, we spent some time at the most-mocked but maybe most-fun casino on the Strip, Circus Circus. This is not the finery of the Wynn or the Bellagio. Rooms start at $25 a night, and not to sound too snooty, but the crowd kind of reflects this. But this doesn’t particularly matter when you’re watching the free clown and acrobat performances, which take place on a stage elevated over the gambling pits so you can even catch a glimpse without leaving the table.
The next night, we headed precisely to the opposite end of the Strip to the gold-plated Mandalay Bay. This was the site of two of our most interesting Vegas experiences – one of which may have slightly informed the other, as you’ll see. I had heard about an “ice bar” in Las Vegas for a while, and even thought I may have stuck my head in at one point during a previous visit (this was wrong, I was actually thinking of Red Square, a rather bizarre now-closed Russian bar.) It was pricy to enter, but we figured it was our last night in Vegas – why not? This was a good decision. Welcome to Minus 5.
It wasn’t truly -5 degrees, thankfully. But at 10 degrees Fahrenheit, it was still pretty chilly – even with the parka (or in Morgan’s case, fur coat) that we were given as part of our entry fee. Remember, we were dressed for Las Vegas weather, which was still over 100 at the time we arrived at Mandalay Bay. Personally, I’d wear pants instead of shorts if I went back. Still, the drinks were excellent and served in glasses made of solid ice, which we enjoyed sitting on furs set atop solid ice benches. We were warned to use coasters, or our ice glasses were liable to slide right off the ice table and smash to pieces on the icy floor.
We spent 20 minutes or so enjoying this respite from sweating our way through Vegas, before heading back out into the surprisingly pleasant casino air. But we had one more thing to take care of before leaving Sin City, and that was for Morgan to get a tattoo, naturally. This was a somewhat spur-of-the-moment decision, but she’d been talking about getting one for a while. And when there’s a well-reviewed tattoo parlor inside the casino you’re in with no wait…
The next best-known area in Las Vegas is known as Fremont Street. This was essentially the Strip before the Strip was the Strip. Today, it’s just an odd, odd, place where the beers cost $11 but the shrimp cocktail is still 99 cents (Lanai Express at The Fremont Hotel, in case you were wondering).
Morgan and I spent the day exploring on Memorial Day, which certainly amped up the crowds. It has the distinct feeling of sitting at the ragged edge of the Vegas that most people ever explore, and the crowd reflects this. What was once the busy street itself has now been turned into a pedestrian plaza with performance stages, covered with a canopy to block the sun and serve as a space to project trippy animations, videos, and advertisements for upcoming events – in this case, a luau party with a performance by Shaggy, which we considered attending but ended up skipping.
Fremont Street is also the home of the Heart Attack Grill, a restaurant as ridiculous as its name. Amid an incredible amount of weird pop-culture parodies involving the owner and borderline crazy anti-government propaganda, diners must wear hospital gowns as they’re served some of the most deliberately unhealthy food possible.
Ponder for a moment the concept of a burger with eight patties, sixteen slices of cheese, forty (!!!!) slices of bacon, an entire onion, two tomatoes, and buns, for a total of about six and a half pounds. If you don’t finish it (or any meal, as a matter of fact), the nurses will take you to the center of the restaurant and paddle you. I am not kidding – this happened twice in about 20 minutes. Ladies and gentlemen, I will tell you one thing – these “nurses” are not kidding around. You don’t even want to know what happened to this poor guy when he leaned out of the way of the second paddle. Best yet, all of this happens in an open-air restaurant, in full view of Fremont Street, with dozens of tourists taking photos of you getting spanked – some of which might end up on a lightly read travel blog.
Las Vegas has been a bit challenging for me, in that it forces me to rework what had become a pretty typical pattern I’d fallen into way back in Tybee. For as much as I talk about how much I enjoy the flexibility of writing, I keep a pretty regular schedule all things considered. Wake up, work for a few hours, sightsee some items not of interest to Morgan during midday, come home and work a few more hours, and then either relax at home or go out with Morgan.
This simply won’t do in a city that only truly comes alive after dark, and is intolerably hot during the midday hours. We chose to come to Las Vegas at the tail end of spring or the beginning of summer, which here in the desert means high temperatures routinely in the triple digits. With expected highs only mercifully in the 90s, I decided I needed to seize the opportunity to do some walking that wasn’t along a casino carpet or elevated walkway between hotels.
Less than 15 miles west of the Strip is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a stunningly beautiful set of mountains set in a U-shape around a desert basin, ringed by a 13-mile scenic drive. Fans of the Sopranos may also recognize it from one of the iconic (and apparently highly-debated) scenes of the show.
The scene was filmed at the park’s High Point Overlook, about midway along the scenic drive. See the resemblance? Even that same little tree in the foreground has hung on over the intervening 15 years.
The day I visited was the final day they required reservations for the season, something I presumed meant it was so hot June through September that who really wanted to go anyway? Once again, our trusty National Parks annual pass came in handy for free admission.
I made a quick stop at the visitor center, which was actually had some amazing viewpoints and quality exhibits on the natural processes that shaped the area and its animal and former human inhabitants. There are even a decent number of desert tortoises that live on site, though I only saw one in the already-blazing mid-morning heat.
I was here to hike the park’s Calico Tanks trail, which promised lots of rock scrambling and some amazing views of Vegas from the top. It was beautiful, but perhaps the most extended edition of “Trail or No Trail?” I’ve played so far on this trip.
When you’re walking mostly on hard rock, there’s not even any footprints to follow. I can say for sure I would not have climbed this wall of rock if I hadn’t seen others ahead of me do it. But I did just watch Free Solo after all, so scale it I did. Moms of the world, I promise it looks steeper and taller than it actually was.
I was rewarded with those incredible views, which were even better than promised. From the top, you could easily see the Strip hotels and casinos, the airport, and clear across the Las Vegas Valley. The sights are especially amazing since most of the hike takes place in a pretty narrow canyon, so it’s hard to judge how high you’ve climbed or what’s around. Even in the 90s, I’d recommend it.
Little did I know this would be the last remotely comfortable time I’d be outside until we left the state of Nevada. At this point, you should move in front of your oven or perhaps a hair dryer or dryer vent to read the rest of this story for full immersion.
You can’t write the history of Las Vegas without including the mafia. For better or worse, organized crime helped turn Vegas from a tiny desert backwater into one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. The story of that is told at The Mob Museum, just off Fremont Street in a former Federal courthouse where the famous Kefauver Hearings were once held.
The exhibits focused mainly on the mafia and its associates, from its origins back in Italy to the variety of scams used to bilk casinos they were partners in. They also had the wall where seven Chicago gangsters were murdered in cold blood in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, reputedly on Al Capone’s orders. It was disassembled from the garage where it once stood, brought to Vegas, and put back together for one of the more unique and grisly exhibits I’ve seen. You could also watch highlights of the Kefauver hearings right inside the courtroom where they happened.
On the way out, you even get to check out some Tony Soprano casualwear, and Walter White’s hazmat suit from Breaking Bad. I just can’t seem to get away from either of these two – especially Walt.
Morgan and I also took on another Vegas must-do when we headed about 45 minutes south to one of the world’s most impressive piles of concrete, the Hoover Dam. The dam holds back the troublingly low Lake Mead, which is still absolutely mammoth in size and still very beautiful. For reference, the all-time high level of the lake is where the white ends – scary stuff.
I’m not going to say we processed everything on this stop through the prism of “Vegas Vacation”, but I’m also not saying we didn’t, so we made sure not to touch the walls while on the very interesting tour, and certainly not open any doors. The tour took us inside the Nevada side of the power plant, which generates a good deal of the electricity for the southern part of the state.
After our tour, we strolled a bit along the top of the dam, but not too long, as it was a scorcher and peering over the edge gave me some of that Alfred Hitchcock-style Vertigo.
If you’ve been sitting in front of your space heater since my last instructions, first of all, thank you for your dedication to immersing yourself in this journey. Second, turn it off, you fool – or alternatively, turn it up. During our second week here, it got hotter. Like, really hot. Less than three months after we were shivering in 19-degree Santa Fe winter weather, Las Vegas was routinely topping 100. Naturally, I decided this would be a good week to go to Death Valley National Park, home to the hottest recorded temperature on Earth – 134 degrees, back in 1913.
I’ve never been to a place quite like Death Valley – and I almost didn’t go. Stepping outside our Airbnb early in the day, I was blasted with heat. I checked the temperature – 100, still ten degrees cooler than I’d see later that day in the valley. The more I thought about this, the more anxious I became. In the 60 or so miles between Pahrump, Nevada and Furnace Creek in Death Valley, there’s essentially nothing other than a half-closed motel/opera house (more on that to come) and an oddly placed marijuana dispensary.
I like to think what we’ve done over the past eight months or so is at least mildly adventurous, certainly compared to the way most people live their lives. Still, we haven’t done anything too dangerous, outlandish, or even risky, save perhaps some driving well-maintained dirt roads in West Texas or some of my more remote and challenging hikes.
But Death Valley, in early June with temperatures peaking in the mid-110s, can kill you. Just this month, two people have died. You can lose two gallons of water in one day just sitting in the shade, and you’ll barely even realize you’re sweating because it evaporates instantly, before it can even cool you. I spilled half a bottle of water directly on the front of my shorts, but no worries about looking like I wet myself; it had dried three minutes after I got out of the car. Not even the wind helps cool you down; the best comparison is standing in front of an extremely powerful blow dryer while inside a sauna. You may think you know heat, but you have no idea the way 112 degrees saps your strength until you’ve been out in it, and tried to walk even a short distance.
Moving is just not a realistic option. The mind and body just rebels – you find yourself thinking, is it worth the extra hundred yards walking back to my car to get that bag? I almost threw out my coffee since I couldn’t take it into the visitor center, rather than walk the maybe 30 feet back to my car to stow it.
I realized this almost immediately upon my arrival, when I pulled into the parking lot for the Zabriskie Point viewing area, which gives a lot of visitors their first glimpse of the valley itself. I knew there was a quarter-mile round trip trail from the parking lot to the viewpoint. I knew it was uphill. But once again, you have no idea how daunting the idea of uphill walking is at 113 degrees.
This was the first of several times this visit that I had to tell myself, “you’ve driven 130 miles to Death Valley – take 30 more seconds and walk up that stupid hill, you lazy bastard, you have water and AC in the car.” And each time, it was worth it.
I had a reservation at The Ranch at Death Valley, one of two in-park hotels in the Furnace Creek area. This was the only part of the park I got to see; I was unaware just how big the park is, the largest in the lower 48 states. My hotel, which was part of a little village area with two restaurants and a general store, was located at the pleasant altitude of 190 feet below sea level. The front desk clerk assured me they were completely full, but I didn’t see more than a handful of other people anywhere in the park; mostly foreign tourists, and a few solo travelers like me. The employees were universally just a tad surly, but I couldn’t blame them if they had to live here year round, waiting on people stupid enough to drive around a murderous desert in record-breaking heat. I enjoyed a mediocre steak dinner and prepared myself for some nocturnal exploring.
A national park slogan you’ll hear occasionally is “half the park is after dark.” That’s 100% the case in Death Valley, which prides itself on being open 24 hours a day and offering some of the darkest skies in the world. By 7:45pm when I headed out to do some pre-sunset driving, the temperature had mercifully dropped to 103. I headed to Harmony Borax Works, a few miles up the road. Other than Native Americans who lived here seasonally, borax mining was pretty much the only reason people came to Death Valley pre-tourism. But even they stopped in the summer, if for no reasons other than practical ones involving refining the mineral.
I’d heard this was one of the best places to stargaze and explore after dark, and it didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, I don’t have the right camera for star pictures. But you’ll have to take my word that I’ve never seen a night sky quite like this – even in Big Bend, also a dark sky park. Instead, you can enjoy some photos I sweated quite a bit to get, and a timelapse video of the late sunset.
It was not only the darkest and hottest place I’ve ever been, but perhaps also the quietest. Maybe it was the heavy, hot air, but the silence was deafening. Even when I whistled, or clapped, or yelled out, it seemed like the sound died almost immediately. This is a bit of a disconcerting feeling walking alone, in the dark, in the desert. After I’d walked a bit, I went back to the car, with the hope of waiting for things to cool down a bit for a little more exploring. But by 9:30, it was still 103. I gave up, and headed back to my room for some gloriously powerful air conditioning. It was good I didn’t wait – I stepped outside at 11 for one last look at the stars, it was still 103!
I got up early the next day, intent on seeing as much as I could before it got unbearable. Surprise – it was already 101 at 7:30am, when I dragged myself across the parking lot to my car, with a black interior already roughly the temperature of the surface of the sun.
The only real thing to do at this point is to push things are far as they can go, which in Death Valley, is Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea leve, it’s the lowest place in North America. It’s simply hard to fathom that, 275 miles west, we’d be underwater, and not by a little bit either. I tried looking up, and imagining a 28-story building between me and the surface of the water, but that didn’t work. Even the signs on the cliffs still make it difficult to perceive the geographic oddness of this place.
Here, there’s a trail that leads out onto the salt flats nearby, and I even saw people brave enough to wander out there. Not I, though – not today. I was happy just to get back in the car and pour some of what was once ice from the hotel vending machine over my head.
By now, it was close to 10 am already, and my concerns about the effect of the heat on our car still lingered in the back of my mind, so I decided to make my way back toward Vegas. On the way out, I was able to check out the scenic Artist’s Drive (where some scenes from the original Star Wars were filmed), along with the ridiculously named Devil’s Golf Course.
It only dawned on me later that night, laying on the couch back in Vegas and just thinking of that place sitting the pitch darkness, baking like an oven, that I’ll be thinking about Death Valley for a long, long time. For whatever reason, it wasn’t incredibly high on my list of national parks to see, and it was almost an afterthought to the trip. But there is something unbelievably, hypnotically beautiful about this place, in spite of or maybe because of how wildly inhospitable it is for half the year. We will be back – though more likely in the winter or spring. After all, I love Morgan too much to watch her spontaneously combust.
All in all, I think I can speak confidently for both Morgan and myself that Vegas is, perhaps, Too Much. Too simple to spend a lot of money. Too easy to drink too much. Too trafficky to navigate. Too hot to survive. Part of the goal of this trip for me was to learn a bit about what it’s like to actually live in these places, as opposed to solely what a tourist might experience. I was not remotely successful in this during our time in Vegas, and I’m glad for it. I frankly can’t fathom why someone would live here unless their livelihood directly depends on gambling.
We’ve now traveled roughly 420 miles to the northeast to a city that, once again, could hardly be more different than Las Vegas – Salt Lake City. Really, it’s pretty wildly different than any other American city – for reasons good, bad, and ugly. For us, things have started decidedly ugly – though not through any Mormon hijinks. Stick around for more next week.
Drying out in Utah,
Nick and Morgan