Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Red Rocks

A weekend in Vegas - the glitz, the glamor, the spectacular shows, the never ending buffets, the incessant slot machines, the drunken bachelorettes... the music, the neon, the traffic, Barry Manilow watching over your every move... Two days is really all you need in Vegas. I was trying to recount, and this was about my seventh or eighth time here, and I had yet to spent more than three days in this Desert Oasis on any single trip. No reason to change now, so on Day 3, Erica and I picked up our rental car and headed out of the city, aiming towards the Valley of Fire.

The name 'Valley of Fire' doesn't exactly exude calm and tranquility, but after just over 48 hours on the Strip, it seemed the most peaceful place on Earth. Well, that may be an exaggeration - I actually found the place to be spectacularly wild and jagged, but it is amazing how a mere 45 minute drive out of the Neon lights of Las Vegas, you end up in what appears to be a remote and quiet nature reserve - the Valley of Fire State Park.

As the name might imply, the park is filled with a variety of rocks, fiery red in color, forming a crazy assortment of jagged and angular shapes, seemingly defying the laws of gravity and the incessant forces of erosion along the way. Highlights of the day:

Erica and I in front of the fiery rocks and blue skies.

Our rental car dominating over the highway, as the asphalt pierces through the rock formations

The Balancing Rock

The Elephant Rock. Can be a little hard to tell in the picture, but it looks an awful lot like a big, thick elephant trunk when you get close

This isn't a named formation. I think it looks an awful lot like the guardian aliens early on in the 'Fifth Element'

The Valley of Fire seemed a good start... time to step up the spectacular though - enter Arizona: specifically, enter the Grand Canyon. In order to catch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon (and come on, you gotta!), we needed to get to the South, more spectacular, rim by about 6 in the morning. Given a little more time, or a little more common sense, one might choose to just come down during the day and stay the night - we left Vegas at midnight and were at the Canyon by 5AM. What did you expect? Safety Third: Go Hard or go Home!

On the way out of Vegas: Erica at the Cathouse in Luxor... Don't ask!

Cat, a friend we'd be staying with in Prescott the following day (ahh, Cat ... Cathouse ... I'm such a genius...) had warned, somewhat cryptically, to expect snow at the Canyon(!) - I chose not to make much of it... We're way down South in Arizona, and it's late March already anyway - what snow can there possibly be to talk about!? The tops of the nearby mountains must've gotten a light sprinkling, and everyone's just freaked out, right!? Not so much...

As we drove through the night, the scenes outside my window evolved from 'light sprinkling' to 'there's several inches of snow on the road now' to 'Holy Crap, are we in a blizzard!?' Good news: if you want to save your $25 park admission fee, arrive at the gates at 4:30 in the morning in the middle of a blizzard. Bad news: Temperature at sunrise: 11 degrees! (yes, Fahrenheit) Making it all worthwhile, the pictures:

The first glimpses of the sun washing over the Western slopes of the Canyon just after 6AM!

The views becoming clearer as the clouds thin out

The Grand Canyon Panorama spectacular!

So, yeah, it was a bit more than a 'light sprinkling in the mountain tops.' Several inches at the Southern Rim was more like it, and that brings us to the view ... which was incomparably spectacular as the first rays of Sun broke through the clouds!

The last time I'd seen the Canyon was on a stiflingly hot day in the middle of June. No snow, no sunrise, no hiking (not even any digital pictures!)... still quite awesome, but the big ol' hole in the ground improved on all counts this time through:

Looking out into the Canyon, snow covering the upper reaches of the walls

Erica, pleased to be here (and happy that it's warmed up since sunrise!)

Merely an optical illusion - I'm not really hanging over the abyss... even if I'd been told it looked a lot like I was.

The South Kaibab Trail took us about halfway down towards the bottom of the Canyon, making me really regret not having done any hiking the last trip! And wanting to come back for even more...

And this brought us to lunch time. The restaurant selection was surprisingly sparse - the quality did not disappoint though, as we headed back to El Tovar, the same lodge where we had had a delicious breakfast at 7 that morning. What was a concern ... was the 170 miles worth of highway that still still lay between us and Prescott. A drive through the night, an hour of [blissful] sleep in the car, a couple of hours of hiking in the fresh mountainous air, followed by a wholly rewarding Beef Stroganoff for lunch ... a good recipe for a four hour drive this does not make. We set off anyway - Erica left firmly in charge of making sure I stayed awake. Geography - good choice, Erica! In fact, we were sufficiently certain of my awakedness to feel compelled to make one last little detour on the way down and catch a glimpse of Sedona - a magical, spiritual, hippie tourism center in the center of the state, renowned for its mystical energy vortexes and [deservedly] famous for the giant rock formations invading the town from all sides:

The Courthouse Butte, presiding over its surroundings. All the biggest rocks have been named around here

Chapel of the Holy Cross, spectacularly nestling itself in amongst the giant rocks

This shot was particularly indicative - Sedona isn't a park, a preserve, not even some remote, inaccessible area - the rocks are just right all over town. At times, simply flanking the highway.

And finally, later that evening we reached Prescott, caught up with Cat, sharing a bottle of wine, and were rewarded with a full night's sleep. Next day's adventures in a post to follow!

Monday, April 18, 2011

No Fear, No Loathing, Just Vegas, Baby, Vegas!

or how to visit Rome, Paris, Monte Carlo, Egypt, Venice, New York, and the North of Italy all in a single weekend

Authentic it is not... Glitzy, bright, ever-evolving to astounding new levels of outrageous it certainly is: Vegas, the neon-lit oasis in the middle of the desert. Spend a month touring the sights of Europe, or just come here for a weekend:

Paris, France: July of last year; Paris Las Vegas: a fortnight ago

Venice: summer '99; The Venetian, 'authentic,' down to the gondolas on the river, just last month

Bellagio Resort and Casino, in the North of Italy or on the Strip? I passed through the Alps in the North of Italy on the way to Geneva last summer, but not through the town of Bellagio

Caesars Palace Las Vegas or Roma, Italia?

Luxor Las Vegas, or did you just hop across the Mediterranean to see the Pharaohs' ancient tombs in Egypt?

You can, of course, travel to Monte Carlo and New York too, but there was just too much on the Strip to get pictures of everything...

Want to take in all these sights, but don't have three years to roam the Seven Seas? Or the Seven continents? Why, come to Vegas, of course! Elvis awaits. Won't even have to deal with those pesky Euros of a currency, those pesky Europeans who refuse to learn to speak English, and those pesky museums with all of their priceless works of art. Exquisite European cuisine and the high fashion runways of Milano, Paris, and London bear a mention too, but Vegas may just be able to compete with those - after all, if it can be bought, it's on sale in Las Vegas!

Not sure how much more there really is for me to say about Vegas... It was far from my first time here, but I hadn't been in some 5 years, so was intrigued and excited to take in all the new hotels and casinos. More than anything though, I'd been all kinds of responsible ever since September, not having done any serious traveling, and Vegas might still be in these United States of America, but it sure looks and feels like a whole 'nother country ... if not another planet. And it was only Stop #1 on a week-long adventure around the American Southwest that Erica and I were tackling. It was her very first time here, giving me a chance to relive the bright, vivid, seemingly hallucinogenic memories of my first couple of trips here - watching her try and absorb all the lights and sounds all around. Mind blown, as it ever is - the first time in Vegas!

Happy Vegas!

1AM at a dueling pianos bar at Paris Las Vegas. Up next: breakfast, which is [of course] served here from 1 to 11 in the morning. Then back to the hotel for an early night - that would be in bed a bit before 3... The day before wasn't to be such an early night - we began in Seattle at 4AM, getting up bright and early in time for our flight to Vegas ... then were immediately thrust into an onslaught of Slot Machines, Dancing Fountains, Dim Sum, Singing Pirates, Dancing Vixens, high school prom dates, and Cirque du Soleil acrobats of Zumanity ... all the way to a middle of the night excursion to the heart of Old Vegas: Fremont Street, having drinks with Aga and Aneta, my Camp Caribbean camp-mates from Burning Man - all in all, a fitting, appropriate introduction to the life and culture of Sin City! In pictures:

Chilling the way the Romans did (but better dressed) at Caesar's Palace, waiting for my Beijing Noodle #9 Dim Sum lunch

Sunday night: moving on from Zumanity to Bally's classic Vegas Showgirls extravaganza: Jubilee

When I said prom date, I didn't mean some new, quirky, high school prom-themed Vegas musical - no, we met Milarmi, my actual high school prom date, for dinner and a night of catching up. Seeing her for the first time in some 15 years felt awfully surreal. Yet, so very Vegas...

A visit to the 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas!' sign also on that evening's agenda

Next goal was to head back to wild, unbridled nature of the Southwest, leaving the glitz and glamour of Vegas' neon lights behind, and heading out to catch a glimpse (and a photograph or two... or a hundred) of the funky red rocks that surround this oasis of hedonism - the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and the Grand Canyon across the state line in Arizona... trip reports coming soon!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My baby has doors!

I've missed you, blog! And I'd missed you too, mini! Fortunately, I went to visit the mini (about a month ago) and am only now finally getting around to visiting with the blog to report on the new and improved status of the car. And good news: the end is in site! We are actually getting dangerously close to being done with the body work (and moving on to such other exciting things as paint, engine work, interior, seats, etc... it's a long list still, but hey, progress!)

Last month, I went to see the car, and here's what I found:

The car has doors again! For the first time since Gunnar initially got his hands on her, just about a year ago!

There was a very good reason why he had removed the doors in the first place: a lot of rust. Now all re-skinned and black. Not quite matching the fluorescent yellow of the car, but we're working on that too...

Unfortunately, the next steps will involve sending the car to other mechanics to have some of the other work done, so it's something less than a straight line from here to victory, but baby steps! The stereo is one thing that Gunnar does specialize in, so the mini now features this bitchin' subwoofer in the back:

Also some lovely recessed speakers in the front and ... of course ... the good 'ol Lada stereo that I've brought with me from the depths of Siberia! After installing it myself at some point on the lonely post-Mongol Rally ride to the Pacific coast... The CD player apparently doesn't work anymore, and just looking at the Cyrillic characters on the back was more than enough to scare the people at CarToys away from even trying to open it up, but they did run the rest of the diagnostics, and the things I do care about all still work: AM/FM and the Auxiliary input. And, of course, more important than them all: the Lada logo on the front!

I would normally now move on to regale you with some exciting pictures from a recent trip or two - be they to exotic third world countries, or right back here in Washington State - but this time, we're going to have to wait. There are pictures and blog stories galore coming from a recent trip that featured the American Southwest, including stops in Las Vegas, Valley of Fire, the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Prescott, Arizona, Phoneix, and San Diego. And such luminaries along the way as Yuma, El Centro, and the fairest of them all: Dateland, AZ (home of the Cougars)! Sorry to leave you on a cliff hanger like that, but stay tuned!