A Ryan Carpenter Production

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Las Vegas: Part I

Volume 27: Tues Jan 7, 2003

Las Vegas is known as Sin City, but I think it could also be called the City of Lights. Even the local McDonalds sign is lit up with flashy lights!

I was looking at Amanda's schedule one November day, and I noticed she had quite a few layovers in Las Vegas during the month of December. And it occurred to me that from San Luis Obispo, Las Vegas isn't THAT far of a drive. Heck, I could probably reach it on a single tank of gas! So we plotted a scheme where I'd meet up with her in the glittering city in desert for a couple of days. And since she'd be there on an officially designated layover, we could stay in a hotel and it wouldn't cost us anything! She benefits from the deal because then I could chofer her around to far-flung letterboxes across the Nevada landscape—which I'd naturally be going after anyhow!

So around comes December—I load up my car, fill up the tank, and I'm on my way. It's not a particularly spectacular drive, but it is a great way to see the different types of power being generated as it turned out.

First up were the oil fields near Lost Hills, California, which I jokingly tell anyone I can get to listen that the place should have stayed lost. =) It seems like there are hundreds, if not thousands, of those grasshopper-like oil drills plowing the fields, bobbing up and down, as far as the eye can see. It's rather hypnotic, kind of like watching an accident on the side of the road, but if it weren't for places like that, I wouldn't be able to drive to Las Vegas in the first place, so I guess I can't complain too much.

Destination: Las Vegas

Shortly past Bakersfield, I passed a wind farm, with thousands of turbines spinning. One sign proclaimed it as being the world's largest wind farm at the forefront of wind technology. Another mile or two later, an additional sign warned drivers about wind gusts that frequent the area. Well I should hope so! Otherwise, one would have to wonder about the idiot that would have placed the world's largest wind farm in a wind-sterile environment. Which, now that I noticed, most of the turbines weren't actually moving, so I got a small thrill as they started spinning again when I drove past. Some people might attribute it to random chance, but I like to think that my driving past at high speeds might help contribute to California's electricity supply. =)

Near Barstow, you can continue your tour of California's electricity supply, where acres and acres of mirrors track the sun and concentrate the sun's energy on a central tower, making it look like the world's largest and brightest lightbulb. I didn't actually see it on this particular drive, although there was a sign proclaiming its importance to the development of solar power. But I've seen it before on previous trips through this area (nobody actually goes TO this area, only THROUGH it), and it's an impressive sight.

One sight that was new to me, something I'd never seen on previous drives, was the hundreds upon hundreds of airplanes parked at the Mojave Airport. I've been to lots of airports all over the world. I've taken the Boeing tour where you can watch them putting together one of those mammoth 747s. But I've never seen so many of those huge airplanes packed together like they were at this airport. Based on the "Welcome to Mojave!" sign going into town, there's probably a plane for every person that lives in the town, many from airlines I'd never even heard of. It's rather amazing to see all these planes parked there in the middle of nowhere, but rather sobering to see them all like that knowing the story behind it.

At long last, I finally stopped just short of Baker, California. It's a small, rinky-dink town boasting of the world's tallest thermometer—134 feet high. Built in 1991, that's about all this town has to brag about.

They make plaques for everything nowadays!

But my real goal was to hide a letterbox at Zzyzx, the alphabetically-last United States place name (as far as I know) a few miles from Baker. I stayed here for several days during a field trip learning about all things desert. We caught kangaroo rats, birds, scorpions, lizards, and even a couple of sidewinder rattlesnakes. We found bats, lava tubes, sand dunes, and one of the most bizarre monuments I've ever discovered—an obviously man-made large pile of rocks (maybe seven or eight feet tall) on a desolate salt flat, and located two miles from the nearest road with a plaque that reads, "On this site in 1897 nothing happened." Knowing I'd be passing through this area once again, I knew I had to hide a letterbox here and introduce this wonderful place to the rest of the world.

This view overlooks the salt flat from Zzyzx. If you look closely, you can see a small dot just to the right of the center, close to the horizon, that is the large pile of rocks with the plaque on it.

The establishment is mostly used for various desert experiments and studies, but visitors and take a gander as well. The place has a history as fascinating as the name, which you can read in more detail at http://wordways.com/zzyzx.htm.

The world's tallest thermometer is located in the small desert town of Baker, California

So I parked my car and started hiking across this barren landscape using only the large pile of rocks a mile or two distant as a guide for what direction to go. Naturally, I took the required pictures of the plaque, and hid a letterbox within the rocks. You could actually see the world's tallest thermometer in Baker, a few miles away. Then I turned around and headed back to my car.

I stopped in Baker just long enough to take picture of said thermometer, then hit the road again for Las Vegas, Nevada.

If you've ever driving west on I-15 from LA to Las Vegas, I find this last push before the Nevada border rather odd. The highway is straight as an arrow, but it's actually on a rather steep mountain. The thing is, there's nothing to really orient you and clue you in that you are actually going uphill. It's rather a bizarre feeling. Your ears start popping, signs on the road warn to turn off the air-conditioner to help prevent your car from overheating, but looking around, everything looks completely and totally flat! Then there's a sign saying you've passed the 2,000 foot mark. Then 3,000. And still the landscape looks flat and level. Pass 4,000 feet. And finally you start heading downhill again and at last see a landscape that no longer looks flat.

You can tell when you're getting close to Nevada, because in the distance you can see the lights of a small town named Primm built on the California/Nevada border whose sole purpose in life is to empty the wallets of Californians who don't want to drive all the way to Las Vegas (another 30 or 40 miles away) to lose all of their money. It's not Las Vegas, but they put up the large, blinding flashing signs for cheap food and loose slots just like you'd see there. One of those signs probably uses the entire power supply provided by the wind farm I passed earlier in the day.

But I didn't stop here, I kept on going until I reached Las Vegas following Amanda's directions to her hotel—a nerve-wracking experience that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies. I'd find myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic, on the right side of the road, having to somehow cross five lanes of honking horns and J-walkers to the left side of the road to make a left turn. But at last, I made it to the hotel without any new scratches on my car, with a couple of hours before Amanda's flight was due to arrive.

The dancing fountains at the Bellagio were hard to capture on film (at night, no less), so I ended up with this picture of a light with the Bellagio in the background instead

Naturally I did what anyone in my position would do: I walked down to the strip and checked out the sights and sounds of the only place I know that can swallow New York, Venice, Paris, and New Orleans without even stopping to burp.

My first stop was the Bellagio so I could watch the wonderful display of jets of water shooting into the sky synchronized with Christmas music. No matter how many times I see it, I never get bored of watching this incredible display. For those who haven't been to Las Vegas recently to witness the show yourself, you can see a peek of it in the movie Oceans 11 where all the thieves are leaning on a rail watching the display near the end. I also got to admire the Eiffel Tower across the street which I was anxious to see, because the last time I was there it was only half finished.

After that, I wandered around rather aimlessly, trying to catch all the free entertainment I could along the strip. I was disappointed to learn that the pirate show in front of Treasure Island was closed. I've heard so many wonderful things about it, and I was excited to finally be going out there to watch it for the first time. Instead, I found it drained of all water and a sign saying that the pirates have gone elsewhere to look for booty until December 22nd. My only consolation was that I could see what all the neat stuff that's usually hidden underwater looked like and how it might work. =)

The last time I was in Vegas, the Eiffel Tower was only half completed. This was my first view of the finished structure.

I was in for another disappointment at The Mirage where there's an active volcano that erupts a couple of times every hour (weather permitting). Now, I've hiked up active volcanos before. I've seen lava rolling down volcanos. So I was pretty excited at what Las Vegas could do with an erupting volcano. This would definitely be a show worth watching! Oh, how wrong I was.... *shaking head* I love tacky. I love gaudy. I love cheesy. But by Las Vegas standards, this show was pathetic. I'd even call it cheap and half-hearted. A rumbling noise like thunder was piped through speakers while colored lights made water look orange (lava) that would spit a few feet into the air and flames would randomly shoot out from the top. And that was IT.

As I said, by Las Vegas standards, I think the thing is pathetic. If it were someplace in the middle of nowhere—Halfway, Oregon, for instance—where you wouldn't expect it to be and they charged you five dollars to watch, THEN it would have been a fantastic show, but on the strip in Las Vegas, it's an embarrassment. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

The volcano at The Mirage I found disappointing, at least by Vegas standards

I'd only stopped in Las Vegas once before this particular visit (hard to believe, I know, but it's true!), and forgot why they called 'the strip', well, the strip. It's because you can't take more than about three steps without being accosted by people trying to sell you sex—handing out flyers and cards for strippers and such. And the litter from these people is EVERYWHERE. It's absolutely impossible to walk more than a few feet without seeing pictures of naked girls laying around on the street somewhere. And it bothered me. A lot. Can't they ban these annoying people from throwing trash in your face?

Don't get me wrong—this is a free country and people can hire strippers if they want. Heck, I even think prostitution should be legal. Why not? What two consenting adults choose to do behind closed doors is no business of mine. But the blatant in-your-face naked pictures of women all over the place is just plain wrong. Children might be walking down that street! Most of the women walking down the street probably find it insulting. And even from a tourist perspective it doesn't make sense to me since it might drive away people that find such stuff offensive. If cigarette companies can't advertise near schools, why can the sex industry advertise naked women in such a blatantly public manner? And generate so much litter to boot. It seems really screwy to me. If someone really wants to get off with strippers, let them look it up in a phone book or something.

The one amusing incident that resulted from all these trading-like cards of naked women was when I saw two grown men talking to each other as if they were trading cards. One had just taken another card from someone on the street, and was telling his friend that he already had that card, but he'd trade it for a card his friend had. As much as I didn't like those cards being passed out in the first place, I did find the exchange between them amusing—trading cards as if it was a contest.

A makeshift memorial after the September 11th attacks appeared overnight at Vegas's version of the Statue of Liberty

My wandering eventually led me to the base of the Statue of Liberty at (where else?) New York, New York, where a sign was posted saying that people went there after the September 11th attacks creating an impromptu memorial to the people who lost their lives. Now they're creating a permanent structure to house the various stuff that people left there in honor of those people. It's a rather touching tribute—even more so because it was never actually planned as one—just a natural place that folks in Las Vegas could go to show their support for the people of New York.

By now, my feet were starting to get sore and Amanda was due to arrive before too long, so I waddled off back to the hotel to wait for her in the lobby. She arrived just in time for us to watch CSI. I love free hotel rooms. =)

This is my grandma, with her friend whose name I now forget!

The next morning, I called up my grandmother. You might think it's strange that I'd call my grandmother of all people my first morning in Las Vegas, but as it turned out she was actually already in Las Vegas on an adventure of her own! (Just goes to prove that you can never be too old to have fun!)

So Amanda and I wandered down to the Lexor where she was staying to meet up with her for breakfast and to swap war stories of our adventures. She's been a huge fan of my Great Adventures for quite a while now, so she also made sure I'd promise to mention her in my Las Vegas Great Adventure. =)

But Amanda and I had a busy letterboxing day ahead of us, so after breakfast we departed for the Valley of Fire State Park northeast of Las Vegas. Not only would we find a letterbox, but Amanda was excited at the prospect of seeing her first Native American petroglyphs. How it's been she's never come across them in all her travels, I don't know, but they're all over this place and I had little doubt that that dream of hers would finally be fulfilled.

Valley of Fire was Nevada's first state park, and for good reason. Brilliant red rocks jut out of the ground in beautiful shapes and designs. One sign claims the place to be a popular spot for filming movies and commercials and such—that quickly proved surprisingly accurate when we passed a film crew that took over a part of the park.

Valley of Fire SP is Nevada's first state park, and incredibly scenic

Amanda was thrilled to death about that because she used to work in the film industry for a short period of time. She pointed out the vehicle they use to chase and film cars driving down the road, and a table full of snacks which Amanda said she was an expert on, because she used to have to buy all the snacks to put them on the table. Or something like that. She'd also use all sorts of technical terms that the film industry uses which would go right over my head and I'd nod at appropriate times and say insightful things like, "Uh-huh," "Really!", or "Wow!" I noticed the couple of cop cars parked nearby (Clark county's finest!) and hoped they wouldn't be interested in my apparently broken taillight. =) In any case, we have no idea what they were actually filming since we never did stop to ask.

Speaking of the film industry, for any of those remember our adventure to Universal Studios where we got to watch a new sitcom being filmed (The Grubbs), it was originally supposed to debut in November. It didn't. I don't know if the show was completely canceled before it made it to the air (perhaps it didn't rate high enough with test audiences?) or if the show's launch was delayed for better "timing", or some other reason altogether, but it has yet to hit the airwaves and as far as I know, it might never do so.

Petroglyphics are common at the Valley of Fire SP

But back to Valley of Fire.... Amanda and I found the letterbox there. I quickly carved a stamp and hid my own in another part of the park. Amanda got to see her first petroglyphs. And, as an added bonus, Amanda spotted some bighorn sheep nearby as we were driving out. She scared the heck out of me suddenly becoming animated and telling me to pull over, which I did. And there were a few bighorn sheep grazing nearby. After admiring them for a respectable amount of time, we continued on. By the time we finished, it was starting to get dark, so we drove back to her hotel.

Amanda had to fly out that night, so I'd be without a hotel room until she returned again the next night. We watched more television to kill time until she had to leave. I also took a shower since I would not have another opportunity for the next 24 hours. She caught her ride to the airport. Not having anything better to do, I wandered down to Circus Circus to watch the free entertainment they provide.

First there was a Russian guy that swung around and did stunts from a strap dangling from the ceiling. Rather impressive act, actually. I suspect one of his fingers had more muscle-mass than my entire body does. It's rather intimidating. One women was pretty funny, though, obviously keen on getting this man to her hotel room waving and blowing kissing and silly stunts whenever he was looking in her general direction. Then there was a juggling act which would knock your socks off. I've seen real circuses where the performers couldn't do that good!

But eventually, I grew tired and had to start figuring out where I'd be spending the night, and I decided to drive out to the Arizona Hot Springs about 30 or 40 miles away just past Hoover Dam (yet another major power source for California, even if it's not actually IN California). Which is exactly what I did, but you'll have to wait until vol 28 to hear the rest of my Las Vegas adventure.


— Ryan

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