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August, 2010

Las Vegas or Bust!

by Larry

Over a three and a half week period from latter May through early June of this year, I completed a 4100 mile solo driving roundtrip from Austin, TX, through several neat parts of the American Southwest, winding up in Las Vegas, NV, where I wanted to visit with a nephew and his family. I had been to the Grand Canyon about 55 years before, but could barely remember it, and had not yet seen Hoover Dam. Initially I was going to fly out and rent a car for travels right in the vicinity of the city, but then I realized that by taking my own vehicle I could more easily stop at a number of interesting attractions.

So, that is what I did. I averaged about 170 miles a day, not bad. Of course, that assumes I was on the road more than actually was the case. Considering that at times I was staying with relatives for more than one night, that once I had to stay over because of needed auto repairs, and I also stopped several days at national parks, the mean daily mileage when really in route came to about 350. This turned out to be a bit taxing. Nonetheless, the trip overall was varied enough and sufficiently broken up with good periods of rest that I never felt overwhelmed, though there were a couple times, when for an hour or two the vehicle simply could not be coaxed to proceed, that I wondered if it had all been a big mistake.

At first too I was going to head out in March, when I could be assured conditions would be relatively cool and that most of the time the sun would not have been so high. That some roads I needed to use would still be closed by snow till mid-May proved a hindrance to those earlier intentions.

In retrospect, I think the vacation had about the right amounts of uncertainly, challenge, social engagement, entertainment, and adventure for me at this stage of my life. Both on the way out and once at my farthest distance of travel away from home, I was able to spend time with cool people whose homes I had not visited before or not in quite awhile. My wife, Valerie, and I corresponded regularly by e-mail or called one another reasonably often. In addition, I was in rather frequent phone contact with a few friends.

One surprise about the southwestern U.S., so much of which is desert or at a distance seems to be but barren rocky uplifts, buttes, mesas, etc., is how diverse it actually is. Wildlife occurs throughout. And there are few places where no plants at all grow. Within yards of an arid expanse there may be streams that flow continuously, supporting habitats of scores or even hundreds of species.

The colors also are far from uniform. Not only are they constantly changing in the sky's vast canvas, in bodies of water, or on land, as with the elevation of the sun twixt dawn and dusk, but they can change both subtly and dramatically with the ceaselessly renewing tapestries of clouds, the multiple microclimates, or the expressions of local geology imminently appearing, then disappearing along one's direction of travel. Even at night, one may experience profound beauty and wonder as the natural world unfolds to a starlit or moonlit gaze.

Nor, of course, are we limited to sight for appreciation of the universe's perfection. There are to be sensed intimate world's of olfactory stimulation, perhaps for instance of a flower, maybe of the imminent arrival of rain, ripe fruit, or possibly the first hint of a grass fire heading our way. And there are landscapes of sound in the wind's rush over or around rocks and trees, the roar of distant river rapids, the pulsing symphonies of insects, frogs, birds, or mammals calling to one another, the violent percussion of a looming thunderstorm, the splash of a leaping fish falling back into the water, or even the rare sonic boom blast of a meteor smashing through the atmosphere.

On this trip, I was ironically the most attuned to my senses in nature when stranded on the side of a mountain as the sun was going down. My car would not move further after I had stopped at a scenic overlook. Frustrated and tense at first, I also during this enforced waiting could not help noticing a host of tiny variations in the hues and noises around me as darkness descended.

In the midst of a vacation, one's normal routines get tested, and to one degree or another they must be adjusted to altered external and internal conditions along the way. For one as compulsive as me, this is not always welcome. Over just a few days, though, even I can think of it as like a game and play along.

The main way my own agenda was altered is that I tended to go to bed later than when at home, perhaps making up for it with an extra half-hour of sleeping in or with a second cup of tea. We do not have cable at home, and often at my motel stops I would find some movie of interest just when close to my normal bedtime. Well, I then might figure, why not enjoy watching it? I am after all on vacation!

Or I would stay and photograph the same subject in many ways over an extended period, hoping for just the right shot. Maybe if I were with someone else I might feel compelled to move along faster and see the next thing with her or him, missing what lay in this very moment.

I enjoyed on my first trip day seeing my mom and a brother and nephew with whom I shared lunch in Woodway, TX. Later that afternoon, I arrived at another brother's house and greeted his wife and a niece and nephew, while he showed up an hour or two later, and then we went out to eat. The next day held many interesting or fun activities, but the neatest, I think, was seeing my niece and nephew, aged about 7 and 5, acquaint themselves with a real fire engine, with the permission and aid of its firefighter crew.

I made faster progress than anticipated in the next day or so after leaving Fort Worth, then needed to deal with the car problems. They did not set me back much, however, and in the process I got to know Santa Fe, NM, a marvelous place I had not expected to even see on this trip. I also met with unexpected kindnesses that meant much while uncertain over the outcome of my vehicle issues.

Close to my motel there, the road suddenly erupted with a tower of water one evening, then a lower yet continuous gushing of it continued as a main had broken and the high-pressure liquid opened holes in the asphalt, stopping traffic's flow and creating a temporary creek's current instead.

A Whole Foods Market, less than a block from my room, provided fresh fruit and delicious tuna sandwiches each of the two nights I was in town. I reflected on the power of the unanticipated to bring us joy if we are not too bound to our expectations.

For instance, I accidentally took the wrong highway after leaving Sante Fe. In trying to discover the route from there on toward Cortez, CO, I found myself again on a mountain road my wife and I had used during our honeymoon, almost exactly 25 years earlier, bringing back a surge of poignant memories.

Again I got lost near the northwest corner of NM, and for the first time came upon the spectacle of Shiprock, a giant thick upthrust of stone in an otherwise flat plain. It looks rather like a huge sailing ship, hence the name, and has in the past been revered by Native Americans. My detour also took me to Four Corners, an interesting extra excursion not on my original itinerary, where I saw the juncture of NM, AZ, UT, and CO.

Later I would visit the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, both surprises I had not counted on seeing on this vacation.

On my return trip, equally rewarding and unexpected sights were those of the Vermillion Cliffs, Marble Canyon, and a not so impressive stream called the Colorado that I crossed on a modest bridge, the river here giving no hint of the vast Grand Canyon creation it would cut through a couple billion years' worth of stony time but a few miles farther west.

Cortez, CO, though a semi-arid and hot place when I arrived, dropped to 27 degrees F at night while I was there. A few miles down the road was Mesa Verde National Park, where I enjoyed a couple days of exploring, photography, and tours. I came away philosophical about our own culture, how civilizations wax and wane, and mistakes we can make in thinking one culture is necessarily better than another. Each is I think but an adaptation. That of the cliff dwellers in Mesa Verde country did pretty well, surviving in relative peace with their neighbors and nature for several hundred years. We like to believe our own version, so successful since the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of oil, and the use of atmospheric nitrogen as an unlimited supply of fertilizer, will do much better than that, but already are changing the environment so much this seems problematic.

Since I am particularly sensitive to the heat, I was very impressed with basement-like rooms the cliff dwellers had fashioned out of the stone. These are 20-30 degrees cooler than the prevailing mid-day warmth above. Presumably in winter they are warmer than the outside conditions too.

I previously had no idea how much the Native Americans there had used wood and rope (or twine) ladders for easily clambering up and down the different levels among the cliffs' rooms, or even up and down the sides of the cliffs themselves. That there was evidence of their using cocoa and having parrots as pets, both normally only available from a great distance, was a revelation too.

A couple days after Mesa Verde, I arrived at Tusayan, AZ, a short way from the Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim. I used their great bus service, free to park visitors, to get to and from multiple points of interest. My first view of the Grand Canyon vista was awe inspiring. It happened to be close to sunset and especially impressive in that receding light. Altogether, I spent three days at the South Rim. I certainly never got bored.

Besides hiking here and there and taking many photos, I enjoyed a ranger-guided tour and appreciated seeing various animals amid the vegetation atop the canyon, including one bull elk.

I did not take one of the trails down into the bottom of the canyon, either on foot or by mule. I might have been tempting fate after having had numerous surgeries for skin cancer and an earlier bout of heat exhaustion. It is easy, it seems, for folks to misjudge their stamina. Some have died attempting this round-trip trek. It is compared in its demands on the body to running a marathon. Most would not consider that feat without weeks or months of preparation, yet too often park visitors will go down into the canyon on impulse, many suffering severe consequences for it. The lucky ones can be helicoptered out and receive medical treatment in time.

My next stop on the trip was Hoover Dam. I arrived late the afternoon of 6/3 and then went back the morning of 6/4, the resulting lighting differences allowing a good overall viewing and photo recording of this significant engineering achievement.

Then, later on 6/4, I achieved my goal of reaching Las Vegas and visiting there with my nephew, his wife, and their son, plus seeing where the boy's parents work and the three of them live. In our fairly short time together, we managed to pack in a lot of good visiting and sightseeing. We tried different good eateries, played with my grand nephew, and, while his mother needed to work, my nephew, his son, and I went out to Red Rock Canyon. Later, my nephew also took me out on the town for some really entertaining Las Vegas scene experiences. Another thing I enjoyed during that visit was a form of "whale song" communication with my grand nephew! The three cats were an amusing diversion as well.

My one regret from time in Las Vegas was that I seem to have brought a heat wave with me. The mercury, which had been a reasonably tame 90° or so (F) before my arrival, jumped up to 108 and 109. Fortunately, even if they lack underground cave-like rooms, modern dwellings have air-conditioning, which in this case certainly kept things bearable, and at times quite pleasant.

6/8 found me on the way to and then at Zion National Park. Here I discovered some of the most beautiful scenery of the whole trip.

The following two days were spent mostly at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Due to its 2000 foot higher elevation than most of the South Rim, it is cooler, though also less accessible. Yet it too has truly great vistas.

Wonderful as this long vacation had been, I was quite ready to be home again after leaving the North Rim area on the morning of 6/11. While I had counted on four days for the return trip, I managed it in three, getting back the afternoon of 6/13/10. It was great to see Valerie again. We had a few weeks in which to get reacquainted before Val was off on a few weeks' trip of her own, vacationing with her mom, and then the two of them showing up for Val's sister Vic's 50th birthday celebration.

This Southwest U.S. adventure was terrific, and seeing folks in the Waco, Fort Worth, and Las Vegas areas was super, but, in view of my preferences for temperatures on the low side, my next journey may be to locales much farther north, perhaps Iceland or at least Alaska. We shall see. However that turns out, the experience will no doubt be full of engaging surprises.

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