Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam Complex

Hoover Dam.

My knowledge of dams is strictly African in focus - we learned about the Aswan High Dam years ago in school. But it seems that Hoover Dam is something that you should see if you're in the Vegas area so off we went in SuperBug.

A work colleague had warned me before going not to wear rubber-soled shoes. Apparently when she had gone several years before, her mother's flip-flops melted in the heat. As if I would wear flip-flops anyway! But while we're on the subject of heat, this was the first real day that I was out in the full sun (much of the drive to Area 51 being just that - a drive in a comfy air-conditioned car). I had not yet adjusted and so was not on my A-game at dam. Big dam. Water. Damn it's hot! Definite kudos to Bullfrog Sunscreen though. My pale English skin burns very, very easily. A trip to the beach in Hilton Head several years ago resulted in second-degree burns, despite layers of SPF 50. We picked up some Bullfrog spray to try for this trip, since Nic had heard it was used by soldiers in the desert. Not one burn. I've finally found a sunscreen that works!

Back to the dam.

How about a few nice historical facts for non-US readers:

Originally called Boulder Dam, it was constructed between 1931 and 1935, and straddles the Arizona-Nevada border. It was officially dedicated as Hoover Dam by FDR in 1935.

Cost some $49 million to build and more than one hundred workers died during its construction. Despite what you may hear, there are no bodies in it. The concrete was poured one foot at a time so chances are they'd have been noticed!

Very nice monument to the construction workers.

That beautiful azur-colored water you see is Lake Mead. And it truly was the most stunning color. The water level was also VERY low, a reminder of the drought conditions facing much of the Southwest and California.

When at maximum capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the US; that hasn't happened since 1983.

In fact, just yesterday, a story ran on CBS about how the decreasing water levels are revealing some interesting historical sites.

Note the low water levels on Lake Mead.

Kentucky Kicks Ass shirt at the Hoover Dam.
We spent some time walking around atop the dam, taking plenty of pics, making sure we didn't lose our ballcaps in the wind, and Nic making a good show of representing his home state. He also took a few shots over the edge, gingerly leaning with his iPhone.

View Over the Edge
Eventually though, the strong sun was a touch too much. (Oh how I miss it now!) So it was back to the car and off into Boulder for a very nice (but huge) lunch at the Southwest Diner, followed by exploration into Arizona. But you'll have to wait to read about what we found there until later in the week.

Until then, I leave you with a few more pics of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

Driving to Lake Mead

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Atomic Aliens Part 2 - Area 51

Panoramic Shot of Rachel, NV. Photo by Nic Brown.
After whetting our appetites with the Area 51 exhibit at the National Atomic Testing Museum, what better way to spend our first full day in Nevada than a trip to Area 51 itself.

We got off to a rather late start due to an unscheduled trip to the emergency room (expect a future blog post about what to do when you forget your meds on a trip). But, we soon set off with some handy directions from Vagabond3, a full tank of gas, sunscreen, and plenty of water.

The aforementioned items should all be considered essential before you go off driving in the deserts of the Southwest. You don't know how far it might be until your next gas station, and so take lots of water with you. Since the temps were north of 100F, sunscreen and water were key.

Long Road Ahead
First stop was the Pilot at exit 64 off I-15. The place was heaving, clearly a last potential stop for many travelers. For some reason, our radio was tuned to a Chinese-language station and I listened to the incoherent chatter, watching people come and go. As it happened most of those stopping were continuing on I-15 and so we drove off along US-93N leaving the hustle and bustle behind.

This was my and Nic's first time in the Nevada desert, and one thing that struck us over the next few days was just how different the landscape was, depending which direction we drove from Las Vegas. The desert north of the city looked very different from what we would see in Arizona and in Death Valley. All were similar for their sense of space. As we drove, we discussed if we would rather live in the open like this, where you could see for miles, or in the forest, where you could remain hidden but you'd have no idea who was watching you. I found myself preferring the space.

Much further down the road, we made a brief stop at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center, long enough to stretch our legs and refill our water bottles. Then it was back on the road through the isolation. Finally, we passed through the small towns of Alamo and Ash Springs, which alerted us to our drawing close to Area 51 and the Extraterrestrial Highway.

Nic's New Friend

One mile further and we came to the impressive-sounding Alien Research Center. Sadly, although we had heard it was open at weekends, there was no sign of life, except for one other car of equally-disappointed tourists. We did, however, make sure to pose for the obligatory photos with our new friend.

Back to more miles of lonely road. It is easy enough to see why this part of the desert is still used by the military for testing new aircraft. The flats stretch for miles and miles, providing excellent opportunities for low-flight without attracting too much attention. Since sound and light no doubt extend for miles here at night, I'm sure the area's few residents have many stories to tell.

And speaking of stories to tell, we heard a few once we made it to Rachel, Nevada, home to some 98 humans.

I admit I did find myself wondering what 98 people could possibly find to do in and around Rachel. My best guess is farming cattle and dodging abduction.

Once in Rachel, there is one obvious place to go....

The Little A'Le'Inn is Rachel's bar, hotel, restaurant, souvenir store, community meeting spot, and source for chatting to locals about their mysterious nearby neighbors.

The walls are covered with alien and movie memorabilia, including signed photos from the cast and crew of Paul. Other displays shared photos of strange, unexplained lights, sent from around the world. Plenty here to keep you entertained.

As we enjoyed our late lunch of - what else- the World Famous Alien Burger with a side of potato salad, one of the staff shared tales of the unexplained lights she had seen at night, far too high in the sky to be riders rounding up the cattle. Some new aircraft? Or visitors from another galaxy stopping by for a beer?

Little A'Le'Inn - the Alien Burger is delicious!
Inside the Little A'Le'Inn

What lies beyond those gates?

Recharged with food, a bathroom break, and souvenir t-shirts for friends, we hit the road again. This time our destination was the back gate of Area 51. We knew that we would be stopped before we could reach the gate, and so we respectfully stopped at a reasonable distance, took photos and turned around to make our way back to Vegas. On the way, I stopped to take pics of a cow skeleton we had passed as we drove from Rachel to the gates. I was having a Georgia O'Keeffe moment so I snapped dozens of pics of bones, while Nic snapped pics of me taking pics of bones.

Stopping for my Georgia O'Keeffe moment
One for the conspiracy theorists: hit by car at night or something more unworldly?
If you're up on your Area 51 knowledge, you may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the Black Mailbox, mistakenly believed by many to have been the mailbox for the secret military base. I had kept an eye open for it on our way to Rachel, but having no luck, we asked at the diner. Sadly, it is no more, and this is where I have to go on a little rant. The mailbox belonged to a local resident. For more than 40 years, he had collected his mail there... until some idiots decided to break into it and open his mail. This happened several times, at one point private tax documentation being destroyed. Eventually the post office said that they would no longer deliver there. So now, thanks to the selfishness of a few jackasses who somehow thought they might find secret alien documents (?! because we all know the Government would use USPS for that!), this poor local now has to drive to the Post Office at Alamo, a good 45 minutes away, to collect his mail.

Meanwhile, a rather odd but touching little memorial has popped up where the mailbox used to be - a few rocks piled atop each other with messages scrawled on them. Paper notes are also wedged beneath the rocks, offering consolation to the man for the loss of his mailbox.

The drive back to Las Vegas was rather uneventful, save for the unmarked (not even a license plate) white vans that occasionally passed us, transporting Area 51 workers back home after their shifts. Not exactly inconspicuous but better than unmarked black vehicles, I guess.

Did we see signs of alien life? No. Did we have fun? Yes. And when you think about, the aliens probably found ways to disguise themselves anyway. :-)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Atomic Aliens in Nevada

Landed in Las Vegas.
Picked up car after ridiculously long lines and a free upgrade to SuperBug.
Stopped for lunch at very tasty but overpriced Indian restaurant.

What do you do upon arrival in Sin City?

Go to the National Atomic Testing Museum of course.
Stranger still, it was my choice!

Science was most definitely not my forte in school. I took physics GCSE purely because I had to take one science and it was the only one that fit in with my schedule. Boy, was I glad to be done with that. And there, at the age of 15, ended my scientific education.

But a few years ago, I was hired by some folks at the University of Kentucky to write a history of a gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah. My lack of scientific knowledge was just what they wanted - someone able to translate the dry engineering talk into something people would want to read. For the next few months, I researched and studied the development of the plant, its impact on the local community, the history of the Manhattan Project, and so on. It was absolutely fascinating.

Since then I've had a strong interest in the social history surrounding the atomic bomb so sign me up for a visit to the National Atomic Testing Museum.

You can find plenty of info about the museum online, as well as reviews, so I'm not going to add a bunch of info here. However, if you go, and I do recommend it, be aware that the museum is very pro-atomic bomb. To my disappointment, there was no mention of several topics that could have made interesting counterpoints - after-effects in the South Pacific, changes of opinion among some of the project's architects, etc. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly detailed attraction, and well worth a few hours of your time.

Nic meets a friend at the Atomic Testing Museum.
The museum also featured a visiting exhibit about Area 51 and aliens - lots of newspaper clips and news footage of sightings. Whether you believe in alien life or not, it was a fun addition.

It was also the perfect prequel to our planned trip on Sunday... to Area 51.

Come back tomorrow to see if we find any extraterrestrial life.

Monday, July 27, 2015

This Hermit Gets Her Week in the Desert

I'm something of a hermit. Not - as my husband would like to believe - the sort that would happily live in the middle of nowhere for the rest of my days, with zero human contact. I just find being around people draining and I have to carefully balance my being social with alone time... which is why I never found the idea of Las Vegas appealing, but I did love the idea of visiting the less-populated areas around it.

We were recently lucky to find a great deal through Orbitz (no, they're not paying me to say this and they did not comp the vacation - I wish!). A week in Vegas - hotel, flights, and car rental - all for about $1500. Some people told us we were crazy to go there in July, at the height of summer. Given the storms of Kentucky, staying here was not overly attractive. Others instantly thought we would be gambling and trolling the strip for the entire time we were there. These same folks told us we were silly for not staying on the strip. But we had other plans.

Our cute blue upgrade!
We flew out via American Airlines, and I'll leave my comment on the airline there, except to note that interior parts of the plane fell off and I was less than impressed. The car rental and hotel more than made up for it though. After checking in for the car, and refusing a paid-upgrade, we were told that we were getting a free upgrade and could choose any car available in the standard row. Goodbye Kia and hello sporty blue Bug! The guy loading his family into a Camry looked envious as he admitted he'd love to have had this instead.

Our hotel was in the Fremont Street area. The El Cortez is the city's oldest continually operating hotel and casino. As we wandered through the maze of slot machines and casino tables to reach the check-in desk, I wondered what we were in for. Surprise! Another upgrade! Instead of our original room, we were across the street in the Cabana Suites, recently renovated in a fabulously funky retro style. There was also a huge shower - how I miss that shower!
Retro at El Cortez.

I should also give kudos to the staff at the El Cortez. The morning after arriving, I discovered I had mistakenly brought an empty bottle of my medication. The woman at the front desk instantly leapt into action, calling her sister (a nurse) and helping me find a local clinic that would be able to provide a new prescription at 10am on a Sunday, thereby saving my bacon and our vacation!

Over the next week, I will be sharing details of our many trips, as well as some of our fun Vegas discoveries. I ended up liking Vegas much, much more than I expected to, although that may have been because we alternated time in the city with time on the road. So check back in tomorrow for the next installment.