Friday, August 14, 2015

Feeling Alive in Death Valley

Of all the places we visited during our week in Vegas, Death Valley was my favorite, even better than the Grand Canyon. I fell in love with the place.

We had saved Death Valley for the last day of our trip, knowing it would be a lot of driving (it turned out to be less than going to the Grand Canyon). I've already described the first part of the day in my earlier post about Rhyolite, so we'll pick up from there.

The Death Valley National Park website has a great downloadable pdf of driving routes from Las Vegas, so you can choose if you want to take the shortest route, the most scenic, etc. We chose to make our outward journey along the Ghost Town Route (taking in Rhyolite) and then return via the route listed as the most scenic.

From Rhyolite, we continued driving on NV Hwy 374, across the state line into California and into Death Valley. As the mercury rose, miles of flat lay before us.

Harmony Borax Works.
At Hell's Gate, we took a left onto the Beatty Cut-off Road. I couldn't help but notice that the few other cars on the road all continued on 374. Did they know something we didn't?

A few miles further and we noticed some ruins a little way off the road. We ignored the climbing temperatures; we were here to explore, and so explore we did. Harmony Borax Works was in operation from 1883-1888. Borax was "the gold of Death Valley". I shuddered to imagine how they managed the heat (which by now was about 113 Fahrenheit) as they worked.

Once pulled by a 20-mule team to transport borax.
Speaking of the heat, I was ridiculously excited about it by this point, insisting that we take a picture of the temperature reading every time it climbed a degree. After all, I didn't know how hot it would get and I didn't want to miss that all-important reading. Don't worry - I won't bore you with EVERY degree.

Soon we reached Furnace Valley Visitor Center, where we refilled every water bottle in the car, using the handy-dandy refill fountains, browsed the visitor center, and bemoaned the lack of spoons. My mother collects them and they are becoming increasingly difficult to find - National Parks, take note!

Not the highest.
By this point we were getting rather hungry. The Visitor Center directed us to a campsite a mile or so down the road, complete with golf course, play area, souvenir shop (spoon!) and diner. Although puzzled to find that, even in the height of summer, the diner had a soup of the day, we enjoyed our sandwiches and fries before continuing on our way, now following the directions back to Vegas via the "most scenic route".

Once we got back in the car, I resumed my habit of taking pictures of every view. Every few feet or so, I would insist we pull over so I could photograph the miles of nothing.

And then, there it was. The magical 120 Fahrenheit.
But no, still hotter it became.
No longer able to get any reception on our phones, we were relying on the car's dash for outside temperature readings.

And since you're no doubt dying to know how hot it got that day, here you are...

122 degree Fahrenheit. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you 122 degrees!

It's kinda warm!

But back to Death Valley and the scenery.

Now here's the part that puzzled me. We were on Badwater Road when we saw the sign noting the turn-off to the Artist's Palette. I knew from reading up that this was the scenery we really wanted to see - a colorful blend of mineral-soaked rocks. But the few other cars on the road bypassed it completely. How often do you get to see this?

Artist's Drive took us on a looping tour through the beautifully-colored rock formations. Words can't do them justice, and the changing position of the sun must surely mean that they always look different. I'll simply share some photos.

Artist's Palette
The layers of minerals include iron, aluminum, magnesium, titanium, red hematite, green chloride, and more. Magnificent.

Once we rejoined the main road, we continued on to Badwater Basin, which holds the distinction of being the lowest spot in North America - 282 feet (855 meters) below sea level. For trivia fans, Mount Whitney, the highest spot in the contiguous 48, is just 84 miles away.

Spot the Sea Level Marker - yes,
I've circled it to make it easier for you!

We emerged from the air-conditioned car to walk along the platforms by the delicate salt flats, and this is where the heat really started to feel intense.

Have you ever been somewhere so hot that you feel as if you are standing in front of an open oven door?

Somewhere so hot, that your hands are actually cooler when you put them IN your pockets because that removes them from the blasting dry heat?

I have now.

Even with plenty of water, after a few minutes I could feel my throat tightening from the heat. The air was so dry that all moisture evaporated immediately.

I had finally met my match.

Badwater Basin

Wooden platforms protect the delicate salt flats.
This is not the sort of place where you want your car to break down or where you want to be caught without water, hence our multiple bottles, all carefully refilled at Furnace Valley. While we're on the subject of your car breaking down, a few miles later we were worried that we may be developing a flat tire. The alarm light went off and I had visions of us needing to do a change in the infernal heat (I've always wanted to use that phrase!) Several checks showed no apparent problems with the tires, and we can only conclude that the extreme temperatures were confusing the gauges and the pressure sensors.

On we drove, and eventually we reached the edge of Death Valley, and signs of civilization. By civilization, I mean Shoshone, California, population: 31.

If you were low on gas, this was your opportunity to fill up, for the princely sum of $5.50 a gallon. To be fair, this was miles from anywhere so the simple law of supply and demand was in evidence, although I suspect there may have been a cheaper, unadvertised rate for locals.

St. Therese Mission, Tecopa, CA.
From Shoshone to Tecopa, a comparative boomtown with a population of 150 but lacking a gas station or grocery store. For those items, Shoshone had captured the market. Tecopa is home to some natural hot springs which apparently attract quite a few visitors. At Tecopa, we joined the Old Spanish Trail, which would lead us back into Nevada to Hwy 160. This part of the drive was largely uneventful (despite signs promising what appeared to be happy dancing cows and deer). We did, however, pass the St. Therese Mission just outside Tecopa, and note what appeared to be a dust storm moving through the valley.

Dust sweeps through the valley.
That evening in Vegas - a balmy 102 degrees - I found myself feeling a little chilly. I guess the heat had got to me, in more ways than one.

Death Valley was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the trip. It is a beautiful wilderness and experiencing it in such heat, it is almost unfathomable how people made their livelihoods out here. But they did, as the ruins of Rhyolite show. And they still do, as is evidenced in Shoshone and Tecopa. And back in the humidity of Kentucky the next day, I found myself uncomfortably sweaty and missing the dry heat of the desert.

Drops of water in the salt flats at Badwater
A long-dried river bed near the Artist's Palette

Death Valley: Land of Extremes
More spectacular colors at Artist's Palette

The obsessive photographer

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Vegas Strip

Caesar's Palace
This post is going to be more pictorial than anything, because quite honestly, I don't have a lot to say about the Vegas Strip.

For all of the expected gaudiness, it is actually a very nice area and we spent a couple of afternoons wandering, sightseeing, etc.

In fact, the gardens at Caesar's Palace were a perfect little oasis of peace, a far cry from the constant noise and lights of Fremont.

The Bellagio
We did consider stopping for a cocktail at the Bellagio, but after viewing the prices, stopped off at Sin City Brewing instead for an excellent beer. I'm not at a point in my life where I can justify $30+ for a simple frozen cocktail.

This is really the place to see the incredibly wealthy and the high-end boutiques, as well as the lower end. But I think what surprised me was how family friendly the strip was. It was just a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

We did take in one show during our trip. Penn and Teller were on a summer break, so instead we took in the Zombie Burlesque at Planet Hollywood. Lots of fun. But even if you're not into shows and casinos (and I definitely am not), do take the time to browse the strip.

The famous fountains at the Bellagio

The gardens at Caesar's Palace

Inside the Bellagio

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Eating on Fremont

There is no shortage of places to eat in Vegas' Fremont Street area, from quick to cheap to pricier to the ever-present all-you-can-eat buffet. I ate wonderful shawarma here, some of the best fries and sausage sandwiches (the beer garden at The Plaza), award-winning pizza... and then there was one of the worst meals I've ever had.

Yes, you read that right - anyone over 350lbs eats free!
Their slogan may be "Food You'll Die For", but that is not because the meals served at the Heart Attack Grill are so good. Quite the opposite. I should preface this by saying that I am a health and a food writer, and so eating here left me feeling so incredibly conflicted/ disgusted/ oddly fascinated. But my husband really wanted to go and so we did.

This is a grotesque celebration of obesity, gluttony, and bad food, with a fair dose of sexism thrown in.

No words.
Upon arrival, the wait staff (dressed as sexy nurses) give you a hospital gown to wear during your meal. The walls of the restaurant are covered in TVs playing stories about rising obesity levels in the US and one of their regular customers who died of a heart attack. But let's face it, if you're eating here, you know what you're getting into.

The menu is limited in variety but not in size. My husband, being a lover of a good milkshake, ordered a chocolate one. No he didn't want a heavy dose of vodka in it. It arrived topped with a pat of butter. He described it "not a milkshake but a giant dose of soft-serve." If you happen to be vegan and somehow ended up here (why?!) your menu is limited to a choice of cigarettes.

1/2 lb coronary dog
Not wanting fries or a burger (you can have up to 8 patties and 40 slices of bacon), we both opted for the 1/2 pound coronary dog. We figured we wouldn't eat dinner that night, and honestly, we couldn't face it.

This is somewhere you eat (hopefully) purely for the novelty value so good quality food was not high on my list of expectations. Even so, this managed to plummet lower. The sausage was ok and you can't mess up an onion. But add a stale bun, Velveeta cheese, and canned chili that bears a strong resemblance to dog food (which I wouldn't feed my dogs). There's your meal.

Now there is one additional caveat to the experience. If you do not finish your meal, you will be spanked. Since my pure stubbornness says I would rather punch out a waitress than let her touch me with a paddle, I finished my entire dog, something I spent the rest of the day revisiting. Let's just say that chili "taste" keeps coming back. Hubby was spanked.

Bottom line: by all means go. I know it may sound odd that I'm saying that but go for the experience. Go for the vacation novelty factor. Go to remind yourself that salad is a wonderful thing. We've been. And now we never have to go back.

A much better meal - dare I say it, the best meal we had in Vegas - was a simple pizza. I like pizza but it's something I rarely eat unless I make it myself. I am not a fan of the overly greasy delivery fare on a crust that is either so thick it is still raw and doughy, or something so thin it is little more than a potato chip. But Pizza Rock is your source for good, nay, excellent pizza. We stumbled upon it by accident while looking for somewhere to eat, and they were just turning away a group of 12 for lack of room. Luckily, though, they had a table for the two of us.

The chef, a California native, has an impressive array of accolades to his name, not least of which is the 2007 World Champion Pizza Maker at the Pizza World Cup (there is such a thing) in Naples, Italy. He was the first American and the first non-Neapolitan to win. If this guy can impress the Italians, I want to try his pizza!

The menu is differentiated by types of pizza - American, Neapolitan, Sicilian, etc - and by the type of oven and oven temperature. Although the Sausage and Stout was tempting (only 23 are made each day), we decided to try the Cal Italia, Gold Medal Winner in the Food Network Pizza Champions Challenge. The crust was perfect, neither too thick nor too thin. On top: Asiago, Mozzarella, Gorgonzola, a fig preserve, prosciutto, Parmesan, and a balsamic reduction.

It was, in short, pizza heaven. If I lived nearby, I would probably eat much more pizza. Instead, I may have to settle for one or two of his books.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Exploring Vegas - Fremont St.

Fremont St at night
During our recent trip to Vegas, we stayed in the Fremont St area, against the advice of friends who rarely ventured off the strip during their vacations.

Fremont Street is the old downtown area, before the development of what is now the Strip. This is where the first casinos and hotels were all built. For a while, it became the seedy side of town, but it has recently undergone something of a facelift and is now a bustling hive of activity encased in a video screen ceiling which broadcasts concert footage.

In truth it was very much a mix of the good and bad that Las Vegas has to offer. There are still plenty of casinos and restaurants, as well as street entertainment, live bands, and so on. If you're visiting with children, my advice would be to browse during the weekdays or the week evenings. Friday through Sunday is awash with panhandlers, topless women, mankinis, church groups praying for your soul, and people drinking.

Better yet, take the kids to the Container Park. We only discovered this on the last day of our trip and it was all of a block from our hotel.

The Container Park is a block or two away from the main Fremont St craziness and is filled with boutiques, restaurants, and entertainment for the whole family. How we missed it, I'm not quite sure; there is a huge praying mantis sculpture at the entrance.

The atmosphere is laid-back and peaceful, a stark difference to the neighboring blocks. Even better for families: there is a large play area for kids. Looking at a posted schedule, it is clear that lots of entertainment is available throughout the summer, from open-air concerts to family movie nights.

Had we discovered this sooner, we would have tried one of the restaurants. Next time....

Another place to make sure you visit in the area is the Mob Museum. You can book tickets online (and save $2 per person by doing so). Housed in the former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, the Mob Museum is three floors of everything you could ever want to know about organized crime and law enforcement attempts to combat it, not just in Sin City but nationwide.

Tours begin on the third floor with the chance to participate in your own police lineup. Learn about the birth of the mob, the origins of Las Vegas, and much more. You can also see the original wall from the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Work your way through the exhibits, learning about possible mob connections to the assassination of JFK, trying a Tommy Gun, and seeing some of the more gruesome tools used in a number of murders. Near the end of the tour you get to sit in the courtroom where the Vegas hearings for the Kefauver Committee took place. Watch footage from the hearings before making your way back to the first floor where you'll see exhibits of, among other things, movies and the mob.

In all, be sure to allow 3 hours or so to tour the museum; there truly is that much to see.

All this reading built up an appetite, but where to eat in Fremont Street? Check back tomorrow to find out.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Grand Canyon

Do you ever have that one day on vacation? That one day you've been looking forward to more than the others? That one big day that ends up being the most frustrating day of the entire vacation?

For me, it was the day we visited the Grand Canyon.

I know, I know. It's the Grand Canyon. How could it be anything less than spectacular?

The day started well enough. We woke up early to get on the road so we could have as much time as possible there. We had seen signs and publicity everywhere for the skywalk at the west rim, only a couple of hours from Las Vegas.


The drive there took us through the usual desert flats, and fairly soon we started to see the expected mesas and mountains in the distance.

And the timing was perfect since I was starting to feel a little unwell. There was just one thing... this
did not look like any National Park I'd ever been to. Helicopters were taking off and landing everywhere and a giant white tent at the end of the parking lot seemed to be the entrance.

Now I'm going to give you all the benefit of our experience so you don't make this same mistake.

When in Vegas, ignore ALL signs and promotion for the skywalk at the Grand Canyon. Don't do it. As it happens, this is nothing to do with the National Park. Instead it is on private reservation land and the minimum price to even go out to see part of the Canyon is along the lines of $80 per person, with no photos allowed.

Hugely disappointed but glad that we had started out so early because it was barely 10am, we decided to retrace our steps and drive to the real National Park. Plus side: we'd get to see the Grand Canyon. Down side: hours more on the road driving through the desert. And I do mean hours. We stopped off a few times to get more water and to have lunch at Sonic. And the hours ticked away.

By the time we arrived in Tusayan, at about 2.30, I was snappy, crabby, feeling mean as hell. Just show me the bloody canyon already!

One of the many ravens native to the area.
Rather than drive on up to the park and find somewhere to leave the car there, we used the Park and Ride service available for Tusayan. Simply park your car at one of the four pick up spots in town, buy your entry pass to the park, and hop on the bus. You beat a lot of the traffic into the park, and the pass covers the bus services within the park itself.

We were finally at the Grand Canyon by 3pm. And I was tired and frustrated.

We spent the next four hours enjoying the South Rim, hiking in some areas, and riding the bus to others. Near the Visitors' Center was absolutely heaving with tourists, and so taking the bus to points further out allowed us to enjoy the views much more.

To be fair, it is beautiful... despite my grumpiness. The layers of rich color seem to be constantly evolving with the changing light. Vistas stretched for miles, and sound carried just as far.

Nic admires the view as the Colorado River runs below.
Knowing that we had a long drive back to Vegas, we decided to beat the traffic from the park by leaving a little before the sun set. After dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Tusayan, we made our way back through the desert into Nevada, arriving at our hotel at about 1am. Next day would be a lazy Vegas day.

Will I go back to the Grand Canyon?

Absolutely. I want to be able to enjoy it when I am in a better mood. More importantly, we'd both like to enjoy it without as many tourists and yelling children. (Is it bad that we both wouldn't have felt too much sadness if a particularly rowdy trio of kids, whom we'd already told off for defacing the rocks, had fallen? I know that probably makes us bad people but we've all been there.)

At the furthest point of the bus route, Hermit's Rest offers some
relief from the crowds.

Next time we visit the Grand Canyon, we'll plan on making a week of it, doing the hike down to the bottom and back.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Desert Mining Towns Part 2 - Rhyolite, NV

Yesterday, I wrote about the former mining town of Chloride, AZ, now a quirky community with gunfights for tourists at weekends.

Today I want to look at another former mining town that we visited during our trip to Nevada, this one now a skeleton of its former self, and just a few miles from Death Valley National Park. Just as Chloride was named for the mineral mined there, so Rhyolite was a source of its titular mineral, as well as gold and quartz. But I'm getting ahead of myself... first the drive there.

Long, empty road.

To reach Rhyolite, we followed the directions given on the Death Valley NP site, following the long road to Beatty and then turning toward the park. The drive itself was not particularly remarkable, save for the reminders that we were in Nevada, where brothels are legal. My favorite roadside billboard (which sadly I did not take a picture of) proudly advertised: BROTHEL - Hot Sauce, Pictures, Souvenirs. 

Hot sauce - who knew!
The gas station where we stopped also sold a variety of Bunny Ranch souvenirs.

We didn't stop in Beatty, although we later learned that it is home to a huge candy store, one of the biggest in the state, thanks to a local entrepreneur with a sweet tooth. 

On the road from Beatty to Hell's Gate, in one of the most desolate places you can imagine, there is a road that turns off to the remains of Rhyolite, paved in spots, gravel in others. Follow that a little way and turn off to the left toward Bullfrog. One more left turn down a gravel road brings you to the Rhyolite/Bullfrog cemetery (Did you think I'd skip it?) 

The cemetery is home to some 280 graves, although the majority of them are unmarked or marked only by a simple pile of rocks.
A monument marks the historical significance of the site, and there are a few more recent graves.

A few older ones have stone markers, which are still legible. They offer a glimpse into the miners who settled the town, people such as Daniel Kennedy, who traveled from Nova Scotia to

Grave of Daniel Kennedy
Bullfrog, presumably to find his fortune. Daniel died at the tender age of 21.

Other graves, even if once marked, were now worn away to - if lucky - a faded wooden slab, the occupants' names and stories lost to the mists of time.

Rocks outline the two graves marked by this more recent stone.

Some old graves have wooden barriers around them...
Details lost to the ravages of the desert air.

Wandering around the burial ground was a profoundly peaceful experience, but one with an enormous sense of isolation. Hot winds blew across the rocky desert. Seeing mounds of gravel that had never settled lay scattered in seeming random positions. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine the far off sound of mining tools.

Leaving the cemetery and heading back toward Rhyolite, we could see the ruins of buildings, and something else...very unexpected.

Silhouetted against the starkness of the skyline were figures - tall, white, hooded. 

The Last Supper
The Goldwell Open Air Museum is an unexpected find at the edges of a ghost-town. At the same time, the sculptures add to the eeriness.

The Last Supper and several other ghostly works are by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski. According to the museum brochure, the figures were cast by using models draped in fabric which was then soaked in layers of plaster. As the plaster set, the model slipped out, leaving the shell behind. The sculptures were then coated with fiberglass to protect them from the weather.

Ghost Rider
In addition to those pieces by Szukalski, the museum contains pieces by several other Belgian artists, all of whom made their home in this unlikely location during the 1990s. Now, their work makes up possibly the most unique art museum I've ever visited.

From the Goldwell, it's a short drive to Rhyolite. 

Ryolite was born in 1905 and quickly attracted those determined to find their fortune in gold. At first, Bullfrog was a competing camp, and the two struggled against each other to become the primary settlement. Rhyolite won and by 1906, the last merchant had quit the neighboring camp.

In the frenzied days of the Gold Rush, thousands of claims were made in the area, and growth of the town was rapid. The town boomed, having close to 10,000 residents within a year or two. Railroads, banks, an opera house, a stock exchange, more than a dozen restaurants, churches, 40 saloons - Rhyolite was civilization in the middle of nowhere. Of course, there was also a red light district, with seven brothels available to provide comfort to those lonely miners. 

Rhyolite's decline was as swift as its rise. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, investment slowed. Some investors claimed they had been tricked into buying shares. In 1911, the town newspaper declared that the main mine, the Montgomery-Shoshone, was dead. The newspaper went out of business two weeks later. The editor wasn't the only one to leave town. The population of 7,523 in 1910 had shrunk to a few hundred within a year. In 1920, only 14 people remained. The last person left in the 1960s, moving to nearby Beatty.

Many of the buildings were moved or torn down and strippped for materials. Today, as the pictures below show, just a few shells are all that remain of the once-booming gold town. 

As the sign in the window says - BROTHEL

Remains of the school and a bank. By the time the school was completed, the town was already in decline.

The former railroad depot
Main(e) Street 

The Tom Kelly house. Seventy-six year old Tom Kelly spent five months building this house between 1905 and 1906. More than 30,000 bottles were used to construct the walls. Once completed, he raffled off the house.
All that's left of Rhyolite