August 21, 2011

Vegas/Canyon Trip Log


The saying goes, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," but given the day-by-day, drip-by-drip, bitter divorce proceedings of my wife's sister, our mantra is: "what's happening in Ohio, stays in Ohio". Except the text messages keep coming; modern technology knows no vacation.

Meanwhile I'm sitting on the plane bored, trying to pre-write my travelogue. It's extremely challenging but a good writing exercise. Unfortunately only the lamest of jokes occur such as: "Las Vegas" is the Native American term meaning "lost my shirt". Actually I have no idea what the words Las Vegas mean since I haven't done any homework. Haven't read any histories of the town, no books on where George Washington slept or the great Civil War battles fought here.

So I long to write the definitive travel guide to the spiritual and cultural delights of Las Vegas tentatively titled, "Vegas Without Gambling: Your Guide to the Higher Life". I go not in search of a jackpot but to see what the fuss is about and explore the cultural scene. It's one of those places they say you have to see once in your lifetime and I've never been. And I have only approximately 24 hours there.

My impressions and associations of Vegas include but don't preclude: hazy 3am joints where the Rat Pack delivered body blows to their livers. The Strip. Lots of bright lights. Desert, crazy place for a town full of fountains. Old nineteen-seventies daguerreotypes of famous hotels. Licentious, like New Orleans but without the beads. All sorts of faux things, like a fake Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, and old rock stars playing fake versions of their old hits. Will actually going there disabuse me of any of these stereotypes?

I slow-sip Bloody Mary's on the trip, but without the alcohol. Just Mott's 100% tomato juice or "blood" as we used to call it when Dad drank it back in the day. The pilot comes on and tells us the temperature in Las Vegas is 102. At 9:30 at night. I say bring it on! It brings out all those Edward Abbey inclinations in me, like a sudden desire to walk the desert singing "Horse With No Name" just to see if I'd last thirty minutes without dehydrating myself.

Anxious to see what the landscape is like. It's farther west and south than my mental map had placed it, though the plane ride is bringing that truth home. Dallas is only approximately half-way there. Vegas is a mere skip and a jump from California. I'd somehow pictured it in northeastern Nevada.

It also appears that Las Vegas is some three hours behind us, which is rather inconvenient and quite unnecessary. It's not like the casinos or people in them care whether it's light or dark outside. We'll arrive at 9:30pm Vegas time, or 12:30am body time. I had thoughts of getting there, this first night, and walking the streets for people-watching purposes. That seems a bit less appealing, now with my eyelids beginning to droop, than it did on paper. Fortunately the 9:30am bus tour should be easy to make.

Now if this were a Betty Duffy or Heather King post the foregoing would lead to the illustration of a deep spiritual truth which I could of course supply, but in the interest of greater interactivity, I will leave space here for you to add your own:

[Insert here]

Thank you. That was excellent.


The earth is full of the grandeur of God. There are sun-laden clouds with strati of grey and blue and white. Even when cloudy it's so much brighter than indoors - I can tell by the setting required on my iPad.

And now the sun moves along its appointed route, occasionally with stretches of open sky else patches of mordant clouds. I've had so much sun that I regret not the clouds and, in fact, rather relish their contemplative air. I feel full to the brim with summer, glad tidings running over. How appropriate we celebrate the Mother of God's assumption, the fruitful one, at this time of summer's maximal fruitfulness.


I read a good chunk of "The Church and Social Media" on the trip to Dallas and it's an enjoyable and edifying read so far. The proceeds for the book go to charity, which is like the greatest excuse to buy a book ever. That pushed me over the indecision line and I'm glad it did.

"Las Vegas is a city that’s surrounded by spectacular mountains but that’s built with little recognition of them: it’s a warren of parched parking lots with majestic desert peaks peeking out over endless repetitions of Targets, CVSs, and TJs Maxx."
- Jon Bruner, FORBES magazine
A new hotel in a strange city is akin to the first day at a new school - all new and bright and shiny. On this trip we would see some beautiful man-made architecture and some beautiful God-made architecture, although since He gave us the wherewithal - the intelligence, the raw materials, and the aesthetic sense that separates us from chimps - it all comes from God, wittingly or unwittingly. This desire to create beauty is part of what makes us human.

Despite the late hour, at least for our body clocks, Joe and I explore the grounds of the huge 7,000-room hotel, which includes indoor and outdoor gondola rides as well as a shopping/dining area with a faux blue sky and lit such as to make you feel it's early evening even in the dead of night. The opulent lobby and frescoes reminded me of something of the hallways of the Vatican Museum. The place feels in some ways like a cruise ship, an entertainment center of its own. The Phantom of the Opera theatre is there, some thirty-two eating establishments and, of course, a large casino. It was easy to get lost in the latter, which my dad said was intentional since they get you to stay longer.

"We're still hayseed enough to say, 'Look who's in the big town'." - John Mellancamp song
Arriving in the room we note the remote control on the wall which controls the draperies that reveal a view of the Strip. I could've played with that all day. A "wow" factor, although the more amazing thing, on the negative side, is that a hotel of that caliber could make it so difficult to find a cup of coffee. No coffee pot in the room, not even instant coffee, and the places in the lobby area produced long lines even at, say, 6:50 am in the morning! You can't make it up, but it's a small detail that for all the glitz and glamour making the customer happy isn't job uno. We noticed that also with the fact that there are serious lines to check-in, something that normally takes nominal effort.

On the floor of the casino you see that there is little effort to have equal opportunity (unlike with the airline flight attendants) in wait staff; the girls were all thin and wore absurdly short dresses. Subtlety is not a Vegas thing. There were "Thank You for Not Smoking" signs but every third person had a cigarette in hand, so somebody feels ungrateful. "Cigarettes, cigars," announced one young lady as she made her way through the crowd, which was reminiscent of the "Cigars, cigarettes," line Bugs Bunny used to say in a cartoon I seem to recall.

We made our way to a restaurant with a breakfast buffet and it may've been the most delicious breakfast I'd ever had. Everything perfect and the price not unreasonable. Afterwards a bus tour, where we met up with Mom and Dad. The host had what seemed to be a photographic memory for trivia concerning the business dealings of Las Vegas; Steve Wynn was the only name that sounded vaguely familiar, but I thought it interesting that he felt compelled to tell us who was buying and selling these casinos given that the names meant nothing to most of us. But tour guides get paid to talk, and there's something reassuring about traveling on a bus listening to a pleasant stream of Tour Guide Talk.

Shawn mentioned that his mother had been a showgirl, and seemed to have insider knowledge such that Howard Hughes did actually leave his room during the four years he lived in a Vegas hotel. More puzzling was learning that many bottles of his urine were found in his room - it's not like he didn't have indoor plumbing so...

We went through various and sundry casino hotels such as the Venetian, the Bellagio, the Cosmopolitan and the Golden Nugget. Saw downtown and the every-other-block tacky wedding chapels. Our guide said there was a specific scent to each hotel unto its own - the Venetian smells of perfume, the Imperial Palace of smoke. (Joke.)

Afterwards I headed to Caesar's Palace and toured the palatial outdoor grounds (and some of the interior, which included a gallery of vintage pro baseball and football photographs). The statuary and topiary of Caesar's was a great place to rest in, especially in the patches of shade on what was spectacularly sunny, if hot, day. Here was the beauty of the natural - trees and shrubs and fountains galore - from which one could observe the spectacle of Las Vegas boulevard, a sort of Times Square west.

After a gambling awhile and a quick dip in the pool, it was onto dinner which proved to be a mild disaster. As in most cases of "system fail", this was a case of safeguards not working out, like when you get water in the basement because your main and battery-powered back-up sump pumps fail. Cellphones make us think we're now impervious to failing to meet at the right place but that's not so since we had the perfect storm of me trying to call Steph while Steph tried to call mom. I received only her answering machine while she received only Mom's answering machine, because Mom didn't think she'd need a cellphone. Meanwhile my dying cellphone (it's ancient in cellphone terms) now requires nearly daily charging, and the last thing Steph had heard was that I'd be charging it during dinner, but I decided to bring it just in case, which she didn't know. The issue wasn't as trivial as it sounded because we had to leave in about an hour to go to the Phantom.

And what of the Phantom? It was haunting, Victorian and included some pretty dramatic special effects. You go to Vegas mainly for the shows and the gambling, and since we aren't much for gambling that leaves the shows. Which we much enjoyed. I wish we'd had another night to catch "The Vegas Show" that Mom & Dad went to on Tuesday night, or even maybe ol' Donny and Marie Osmond, for nostalgia's sake.

Post-Phantom we went back up to the room and I sat mesmerized for maybe a half-hour, looking out at all the lights and buildings of the Strip.


I am the desert.
I am free
Come walk the sweeping face of me.

- Diane Siebert, "Mojave"


This is the great Mojave,
Desert of mystery --
Creosote, Holly, and Sagebrush,
As far as the eye can see.

-Gladys Merrick
The Grand Canyon, like St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, exceeds expectations despite the lofty expectations one brings to both. And pictures don't do either justice. In both you have people from every tongue visiting, making it like a mini-United Nations. On the bus ride to the Hualapai ranch there was a Parisian young woman, eyes wide with wonder in an ingenue sort of way, a German father and son and daughter, a surprising yet telling number of Chinese, a Pakistani-looking family, Italians, etc... That people from all these different countries were visiting made me proud to be an American. The Grand Canyon, if not Las Vegas, felt like a foreign country and it's a grand country indeed that has such incredible variation in landscape.


Sometimes I think I can bond with nearly any place given just a couple essentials: sunny weather and being off work. Food isn't even necessary, since on sightseeing vacation it generally recedes into the background. Beer as well. Thus the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, different as night and day, both have charisms because both are warm and sunny (in August) and both have the requisite freedom from work.

Las Vegas may be all glitz and glamour but they sure do know how to put on a show. Or create a hotel lobby. Phantom of the Opera was very entertaining and makes you appreciate the strenuous effort that went into the singing, acting, and stage craft. Such professionalism in the arts is good for us if only to inspire greater attention to detail and concern in our own jobs. Which sounds utilitarian I suppose but I mean it even in the spiritual sense. To see someone else care deeply about something seemingly extraneous ("oh, it's just entertainment") is to remind us that we should care deeply about our witness. It's in that sense an admonishment.


The Grand Canyon reminds me of the first time I saw Niagara Falls, a wonder of the world, an astonishing natural sight. Took a walk down the dusty horse path towards the spectral canyons. Some looked like Mayan Temples, with the red blood of sacrifice dripping down the stair-steps. The red blood was actually the iron-tinged red rock, and the stairs were created by the water table of the Colorado River, which one tour guide said has maintained its current depth for millennia but which sinks lower over time, leaving a strata-by-strata of rock exposed and eventually forming this Grand Canyon.

I stirred up no rattlesnakes but only a cottontail rabbit and a large black bug the size of the Hoover Dam. Walking the empty landscape reminded me at times of some of the desolate areas of Ireland, despite the difference in average rainfall. Maybe it was only the feeling that was similar.

We met on this trip a collection of folks as garrulous as I'd ever seen. One, a 1st generation American by way of Mexico was a political pontificator of the highest degree. ("A Mexican communist," summed up his boss, the pilot.) Remarkably thin, boyishly enthusiastic about his causes, his energy and looks belied his fifty years on the planet. Later a cowboy at the ranch named Evan chatted us up quite amiably. No taciturn cowhand, this California transplant of Italian extraction was expansive and apologetic over the situation of some Chinese tourists taking over our room due to a mix-up. It seemed to take a remarkably long time to clear up. He was from Meadview, a tiny little community that from the air looks as isolated and lonesome out in the middle of the barest Nevada desert as was ever invented. I asked the pilot about it and he said it was so isolated they had to drive an hour for groceries; Evan however, when asked, said there was one grocery store in town.

At night there was to be the much-heralded campfire where the cowboys come round and tell stories and make S'mores, but apparently campfires are barely tolerated out of fear a spark will cause a fire, especially if there's any kind of wind. Which apparently there was, enough to cancel first, then delay it. Meanwhile Chinese karaoke was transpiring in the eating hall (labeled "Dance Hall"). The scene was an acquired taste - I lingered not even though there is something satisfyingly surreal about seeing karaokers singing Chinese words rolling up on the big video screen here in the setting of an 1880s old west town.


Sleep in the Mojave Desert


Out here there are no hearthstones,
Hot grains, simply. It is dry, dry.
And the air dangerous. Noonday acts queerly
On the mind’s eye, erecting a line
Of poplars in the middle distance, the only
Object beside the mad, straight road
One can remember men and houses by.
A cool wind should inhabit those leaves
And a dew collect on them, dearer than money,
In the blue hour before sunup.
Yet they recede, untouchable as tomorrow,
Or those glittery fictions of spilt water
That glide ahead of the very thirsty.

I think of the lizards airing their tongues
In the crevice of an extremely small shadow
And the toad guarding his heart’s droplet.
The desert is white as a blind man’s eye,
Comfortless as salt. Snake and bird
Doze behind the old masks of fury.
We swelter like firedogs in the wind.
The sun puts its cinder out. Where we lie
The heat-cracked crickets congregate
In their black armorplate and cry.
The day-moon lights up like a sorry mother,
And the crickets come creeping into our hair
To fiddle the short night away.
Woke up early, 5am early, to view the sunrise over the canyons. It was quite lively even at that hour; Chinese visitors emerged from their cabins, cameras in hand. I think we were the only Americans. One tour guide said that, for whatever reason the Chinese LOVE the Grand Canyon and, I believe, Bryce Nat'l Park for the similar reasons . I find that sort of national penchant for some specific travel experience interesting, as if there's something in the Chinese psyche that is specifically attracted to canyons, though it's likely as simple as word-of-mouth and how when one family shows another their U.S. travel photos, the other family wants to go. A status thing.

While waiting for the sun to do its ever dependable thing, a couple fat goats, who on this ranch free ranged on native plants and tourist largesse, got some trail mix from Steph. After our own satisfyingly full breakfast at the Old West dining hall, I raced out to take that "last walk", a ten minute excursion down the wagon path. Ten minutes was painfully short, especially given it meant the effective end of our vacation.

Back at the tiny Indian reservation airport, I took another stroll, this time down the road towards the canyons. A couple of tenths of a mile later I was "pulled over" by a security guard who said that I had to obtain permission to do something as risky as walk down the generous shoulder of the roadway, due to safety concerns. I found the head of security and he denied the request and said that instead I could walk the other way, away from the canyons. Put a badge on a man and he's a changed man, mad with power! It's sort of ironic because they let people walk right up to the edge of a canyon where a slip means death. But you can't walk near the roadway. (One of the photographers at the Skywalk said that no one has fell there yet, but it's early since the tribe has only recently agreed to this development. Glad to see our safety mania hasn't so extended such that you can't go up to the ledge of a great vista.) So I walked down the other way and came across a dirt road that led to a small development of wistful houses and trailers, presumably the workers at the tiny terminal and gift shop.

Before moving to Mojave I was a park ranger at Alaska’s Katmai National Park & Preserve, five million roadless acres of spruce trees, brown bears, spawning salmon, and volcanoes. Here, I thought, was an unequaled example of “the Wild.” When I signed on to Mojave National Preserve in Southern California, I felt resigned to the fact that I was leaving true wilderness behind.

I was wrong. I soon learned that nearly half of the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve is an incredibly diverse wilderness, ranging from the vast, desiccated playa of Soda Dry Lake, near Zzyzx, to the limestone crags and ancient white fir trees of Clark Mountain.
- Michael Glore

The plane ride to and from was more trying than I expected. Instead of underpromising and overdelivering, there was a lot of overpromising and underdelivering from the airline. Flying there and back took about twelve hours, and despite the thrill of the flight I wouldn't have done it that way again. But travel is like that, and you have to go with the flow and expect the unexpected. I did enough "research", i.e. asking the airline in advance, to discover the trip would take about six hours so I can't fault myself for not enough advance work. (Although I was suspicious and somewhat put off by the fact that I couldn't find a review on the web either for or against what I didn't realize was a very young (3-month) operation.)

On the way back to Vegas from the reservation, I was struck again by the singular impact of a dearth of water. Being from an area where water is abundant, it brings home why it's the quintessential symbol of life. I look down from the plane at dirt roads that have a tendency to STAY dirt roads simply because there isn't sufficient water for anything else to take root. The old Walker Percy "love in the ruins" thing where the plants eventually take over is meaningful in an area where if I go two weeks without weeding the garden it looks like a jungle. Here out west there seems a stasis born from lack of rain. This is the flip side of my fascination with how you can leave your tame backyard grass and given enough time you'll have a mature forest. Out west feels more timeless if nearly uninhabitable, such as Death Valley, California which I presume is even more forbidding than the nearly uninhabitable Vegas (but for A/C and water). It would be interesting to see what would happen to an acre or more of desert wild area was merely given Ohio amounts of water. What would grow there? What would it look like in five years?


Been doing some "reverse traveling" - research done after the fact. I greedily consumed wikipedia articles about areas I flew over, such as the dramatically exotic-sounding "Mojave desert" as well as the ironically-named town of Meadview -- which offers no view of Lake Mead. There's something about the Southwest that makes me want to live there, likely the sun. But then I say that about ocean-front property, historic Boston, and happening Manhattan as well.

Flying over Meadview

Downtown Meadview

Las Vegas is like New York in that both are ruled by money. No sentimental keepsaking of historical locations, unless there's a boatload of money to be made by it. That isn't all bad since you get a dynamism that is exhilarating. The modern Cosmopolitan casino in Vegas may not appeal to all, but it is something to behold and Vegas would be less without it.




[Dick] Barnes´ subject matter is the Mojave Desert, and–though he writes poems on other subjects, certainly, most of them beautifully crafted and subtle in their sensitivities to sound and form, including a range of elegies, satires, and frankly pointed humorous verse–it´s the Mojave Desert poems that lure the reader in; Barnes writes about it with the intensity that a lover might fix upon his beloved, and there are times in this volume when the Mojave Desert (in California) takes on the visionary heft and import of a Beatrice for Barnes´ Dante.



dylan said...

A wonderfully vivid travelogue, both the prose and the photography! And thanks for the interstitial verses, especially for the Plath!

TS said...

Thankee much Dylan! It was fun looking for versification on the Mojave.