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Las Vegas: Part II

Volume 28: Tues Jan 14, 2003

Hoover Dam, with Black Canyon in the background

I left off last time with me at a trailhead near Hoover Dam where I planned to spend the night in my car.....

Originally, it was my intention to load up my backpack, hike out to the hot springs 2.3 miles away, and spend the night on the shore of the Colorado River. I'd done it a couple of times before, and it's a great place to camp out for the night. Black Canyon—that's what you're looking into if you're standing on Hoover Dam looking over the side—is absolutely beautiful, and I discovered this place during a canoe trip that started at the base of the dam down the length of Black Canyon. The whole canyon is full of hot springs—even a hot waterfall at one place where you can take an honest-to-goodness shower if you wanted to. There's Sauna Cave, a steamy place where people sit soaking in the heat as long as they possibly can then go running out to jump into the ice-cold Colorado River. (I've never done that, though—I'm not as stupid as those people. *wink*) I heard Sauna Cave was actually created by workers building Hoover Dam (it IS a man-made cave, no doubt about that). That was originally where Hoover Dam was to go, but when workers hit the hot springs, they had to move the dam upriver a couple of miles to a more 'stable' location. I don't know how much of that is really true or not, but in any case there's a hot spring alive and well at the back of the cave which causes it to steam up and make the cave uncomfortably warm for any great length of time.

Most of these places are only accessible by boat, except for the Arizona Hot Springs, which is accessible by foot. Someone had the foresight to bring lots of cement bags, which people filled with the nearby dirt to form large pools in a slot canyon where the hot springs percolate from. With the bags, you can make the pools as little or as large as you want, as deep or shallow as you want, and can control the temperature of the pool. It's a pretty nice setup! And even better, on all my previous visits, there were always cute, naked women soaking in the hot springs. Does a campsite get any better than this? (Hey, pictures of naked women shoved in your face in public places is one thing, but real naked women in the middle of nowhere minding their own business is perfectly okay in my book!)

Hoover Dam had a new feature that I didn't remember on past trips through the area—primarily being police roadblocks. I guess they thought I looked harmless enough, because they waved me through without even bothering to search my car. What if I had filled it full of explosives?! How is the roadblock supposed to stop terrorists if it couldn't even stop me?!

The trailhead for the Arizona Hot Springs warns to "Climb to safety in case of a flash flood"

In any case, I arrived at the trailhead at around 11:00 at night, which wasn't the optimal time for hiking and setting up camp. So I pulled out a blanket and proceeded to go to sleep in my car at the trailhead. I can't say I slept especially well, but no cops (or anyone else for that matter) bothered me during the night, so that was good. =)

The next morning I woke up to an extremely windy sunrise. I wondered briefly if my car was going to blow away but shook off the thought and proceeded to prepare a letterbox for hiding. That done, I jump out of my car and proceeded down the trail.

It wasn't long before the trail winded its way into a canyon where the wind couldn't get at me and had a pleasant stroll the rest of the way. Upon reaching the Colorado River, I hid the letterbox. I stopped to rest and admire the view briefly, then turned around and started heading back. I didn't actually bother to go the last quarter mile to the hot springs for a couple of reasons. One, I had had a shower the evening before, so I wasn't especially dirty and in need of a cleaning. Second, it was now daylight hours and time was wasting! I had a busy day in store! I prefer my hot springs at night when I have nothing better to do than sit in them and ponder the meaning of life. And, even if I did go to them, it was unlikely there would be any cute, naked girls because there weren't any cars at the trailhead and nor did I see any campsites set up. Where would they have come from?!

So I trudged back up to my car. Fortunately, it hadn't blown away yet, but it looked like it might at any moment. I got in, started the car, and drove the four or so miles back to Hoover Dam. Interestingly enough, there were signs warning drivers that they may have to stop ahead, but I never had to. No police roadblocks. What kind of security is that?! I don't think it would be very difficult for a terrorist to figure out that if they drive out to Hoover Dam from the Arizona side, their vehicles aren't going to get searched.

Anyhow, I parked briefly to take some pictures—I'd never seen Lake Mead so low before!—and admire what is probably the world's most impressive looking dam.

Let me tell you a couple of things about the dam, in case you haven't heard much about it. First of all, there are no people buried in the concrete that makes it up. I don't know why that myth persists, but I've seen interviews with people who used to work at the dam that said there was no way that could possibly happen because as a body decays, it'll create gases and cavities in the concrete that would destroy the structural integrity of the dam. Even if they WANTED to leave bodies there to cover it up, they couldn't.

In addition, if you're ever in the area, don't waste your time or money taking the tour. I didn't know any better and took a tour several years back. It was interesting, I'll give you that, but later I took tours of other dams that were far less crowded, had everything Hoover Dam had to offer (and more!), and it was absolutely free of charge. So why bother with Hoover Dam? At least I didn't actually pay for my tour of the place. I tried to—I even have the credit card receipt to prove it—but the charge never did show up on any of my credit card statements for unknown reasons. It's the only time I've ever charged something that never ended up making it to a credit card statement. Who am I to complain?

Anyhow, I got back in my car and passed by the police roadblock on the Nevada side of Hoover Dam before heading towards Vegas. This time, my destination was Red Rocks where I could nab another letterbox, and perhaps hide one while I was out there.

New York doesn't sleep in Las Vegas either

The road out there has signs warning of wild burros, and that if you feed or harass them you could get a $50 fine or something like that. I didn't see any wild burros, but I loved the signs warning of their presence. I've never seen THAT kind of warning before!

At the Visitor Center there, I parked in order to carve a stamp that I could hide in the area. The wind cranked up a couple of notches leaving me with anything but a steady surface for carving, but I still managed a pretty good carving. I drove out to the trailhead for the letterbox Amanda had placed a week or two before, during which time it started sprinkling.

By the time I reached the trailhead, the sprinkle of rain turned into frozen pellets streaking sideways through the air due to the force of the wind. Somewhere in the ten minute drive from the Visitor Center to the trailhead I misplaced the letterbox I was planning to hide. And it was freaking cold outside to boot. I was not having a lot of fun.

Fortunately, the letterbox I was looking for was maybe a five minute walk, although stamping in proved to be a bit of a challenge given the weather conditions. I brought an umbrella—not to keep me dry, but to protect my eyes from the frozen bullets whizzing through the air. Then I hiked back to my car and left.

I shouldn't be so hard on the place. While the weather conditions were less than ideal, it really is a spectacular area. The red rocks of the area looked much like those in Valley of Fire State Park—spectacular and beautiful. I just don't advise visiting until the weather is cooperative, though!

Given the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, I drove back to Las Vegas. Ate dinner. Then headed to the public library which Amanda had given me directions for the previous day so I could get on the Internet. You're only allowed to be on the computer for an hour per day, though, so after my time was up I stayed at the library reading books and carving stamps until Amanda was scheduled to arrive again.

At which point I drove to the hotel to wait for her again. She arrived just in time for us to watch a documentary on the Discovery Channel (or was it the History Channel?) about the building of the Hoover Dam. A rather strange coincidence given the fact that I had been there just that day.

My last day in Vegas started off with letterboxing. (Did you expect anything else?) Amanda hid a letterbox nearby the week before, so I went out to hunt the thing down. Despite mishaps such as parking in the wrong parking lot, not clearly understanding the clue, and so forth, I finally nabbed the box.

After that, we jumped back in the car and headed off to the first of our factory tours. I learned of three Las Vegas area factory tours from a great little book named Watch it Made in the USA that lists where you can watch really neat stuff being made all over the USA.

Our first stop a visit to Ron Lee's World of Clowns. At this place, you can watch them create pewter sculptures of Bugs Bunny, Superman, and other characters. All the figurines are made by hand, and you can wander around at whim watching people cast, deburr, paint and ship the figures. It's hugely labor-intensive to create these figures, and I have a new-found appreciation about why they cost so much!

The next factory tour was Ethel M Chocolates, much more automated as you watch hundreds of chocolates rushing up and down conveyer belts. It's a rather fascinating thing to watch, but in case watching chocolate doesn't interest you, there's also a cactus garden one can wander through. It's not the prettiest garden I've seen, but they are in a desert so you have to give them a certain amount of leeway in the matter. And if THAT wasn't interesting enough, they also have what's called "The Living Machine" which purifies the factory's wastewater that they end up using for their landscape irrigation and give back whatever's left over to the city. And if THAT isn't enough to get you to visit, they also give out free samples of their chocolates. =)

Last on our factory tours was National Vitamin. I know, it sounds pretty boring without clowns or chocolates involved, but if you've ever popped some vitamins, it might be interesting to watch how these miracle cures are created. And, they'll give out free samples of their vitamins and skin-care products. One of their promotional pamphlets brags about being the ONLY place in the United States where you can watch them manufacture vitamins and the sophisticated machines that make regular tablets, hard-shell capsules, and soft-gel capsules.

I can't really claim any of these factory tours were 'adventures' per se—neither Amanda nor I did anything to get ourselves arrested or anything, but they are fascinating places to check out if you're ever in the area.

After the last of the factory tours, I still had one small task I wanted to finish—hiding the letterbox I created the day before. Somewhere along the way, Amanda discovered my suddenly disappearing letterbox of the day before, and I wanted to hide it in Nevada. But WHERE?!

Without any ideas in mind, instead we wandered back to the strip where Amanda could chow down at one of her favorite restaurants: Cheesecake Factory. (Does that count as a 'factory' tour?) She was also appalled to learn that I had never stepped foot in Caesar's Palace (which is where the Cheesecake Factory is located) and watched the animated statues argue with each other or something to that affect, so off we went.

Amanda sits waiting for the dancing fountains, but alas, they ended up being canceled due to wind

We watched the animated statues (rather cool stuff, if you want my opinion) and ate until we burst. Then we wandered down to the Bellagio because Amanda wanted to see the fountains dance to Christmas music. She'd seen the fountains before, but not dancing to Christmas music like I have. (Strangely enough, I'd ONLY heard them dance to Christmas music, since that was always the time of year I've been to Vegas. Why go in the heat of July?!) As it turned out, they were shut off due to 'wind'. *rolling eyes* If people can't stand a little water blowing over them, maybe they shouldn't be standing there?!

Dejected, we started walking back to the car. Except a strange thing happened. I put a hand in my pocket and discovered change. I had COINS in my pocket, and I had yet to gamble a cent of it. Among all the pennies, I spotted two nickels, a dime, and a quarter. And I wanted to try my luck. Not being much, Amanda and I kept our eyes open for the nickel slots while wandering through Caesar's Palace on our way to my car.

And we found them. There were a couple of false alarms at first, since we wanted the machines that spun real wheels. None of that 'video slot' BS for us! But we found them, and I took out one of my nickels, plunked it into the machine, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best. And get this—I WON!!!! Yes, that's right folks, I won ten cents! I happily clicked the 'return coins' button or whatever it was called and clicked my heels with the knowledge that I beat Las Vegas. I gambled and I won.

Don't laugh, now. You may think coming out five cents ahead isn't much, but I know the odds there. They didn't build nine of the world's ten largest casinos in Las Vegas by giving money away. I was a winner, and there was no way I'd let them take that back from me! =)

Amanda wanted to try her luck too, and shoved in a few quarters that she quickly lost. I told her to chalk it up and get out while the losses were light, but I saw a gleam in her eye. She started gambling, and she had no intention of quitting. She moved on to the quarter slots where they would be able to take her money even faster. She pulled out a couple of one dollar bills to feed to the machines. She'd win a buck perhaps, but then would lose it again. We walked on.

Until she saw the BIG slot machine. You know the one. It's maybe five or so feet wide and stands taller than me. With a huge handle gleaming in the flashing lights. I could see her willpower failing as she pulled out another dollar bill. This was a big-ticket machine: $1 per pull. She fed in the dollar bill. Pulled the handle. And nothing. Nothing happened. Giving up on the handle she pushed the 'spin' button (or whatever it was called) instead, and the wheels started spinning.

She lost. By the time I finally got her out of the casino and back to my car, the damage was done. Amanda had lost four dollars and change, if I added correctly, and THAT, I told Amanda, was how Las Vegas was born. =)

Venice is a good place to walk off gambling losses

With losses as heavy as that, naturally we headed off somewhere so she could drink her losses away. Just kidding, but we did head off to a local watering hole called the Funhog Ranch. We have a mutual friend we met from the letterboxing world named Funhog. It's not her REAL name, but that's what everyone calls her, and Amanda wanted to drop by to check the place out and perhaps grab some matches or something that had the logo on it (a rather cute one, actually). Amanda had discovered its existence the week before, but she said it looked kind of scummy and didn't want to go in by herself, so she waited a week for when she knew I'd be around.

So we drove up to the place, and it is a very seedy-looking place without windows and a poorly lit parking lot. But we walk into the smoke-filled bar and take a look around. It didn't look very busy—maybe six or seven patrons sitting around the bar, and we start looking around for matchbooks, coasters, napkins, or anything with the Funhog Ranch logo that we'd eventually give to Funhog, but alas, there was nothing. Found some generic matchbooks without the logo. An old, wrinkled waitress asked if she could do anything for us, and Amanda's quick-thinking lie was that we were on a scavenger hunt and we needed to find something with the Funhog Ranch logo on it. The waitress seemed very perplexed by what a scavenger hunt was, so Amanda tried to explain the concept to her.

"And they sent you here?" she said with what looked like total astonishment. "Why?" You could almost hear the rest of her thought, being, "Why did they send you into this god-forsaken hole?" She thought about our request for a moment, trying to think of something that would have their logo on it, and she gets an idea and tells us to follow her to the other side of the bar where she introduced us to one of the local drinkers. If you've ever watched Cheers, this guy would have been Norm. A large, heavy-set man obviously used to a few drinks, and she told him to show us his shirt—and there was 'Funhog Ranch' written right there on the back! And the waitress says to check out the front, and there was the logo. Yes, that would be PERFECT! So Amanda and I ask if we can buy one of those, and the waitress goes off to see if she can find them in back.

Amanda cleans up after a day of fun in the sun, wind, and smoke-filled bars

In the meantime, we're still talking to Norm, and he introduces us to Cliff Claven who's sitting nearby. Norm tells us that he's got a bazillion of those T-shirts at home so he doesn't have to wash clothes more than once every couple of weeks, and he somehow manages to say this with a hint of pride in his voice. Cliff tells us that taking showers or washing your clothes too often can lead to cancer—something about the soaps and detergents being used—so he washes his clothes (and himself) maybe once every couple of months. Amanda and I back a little bit further away and nod our heads as if we thought the observation was obvious.

The waitress comes back saying she couldn't find any T-shirts, but she did find a long-sleeve shirt if we were interested. So we said, that yes, that would be great—and how much would it cost? She didn't know, so she said she'd have to call the owner to ask. She meanders on back to make the phone calls while we continue our fascinating discussion with Cliff and Norm.

Cliff and Norm asks us where we're from and they seemed quite taken in by Amanda. I whispered into Amanda's ear asking how it feels to be by far the most beautiful woman in the room, hands down. She made some comment that it feels great, but wasn't impressed with the choices available there. I joke about how much 'the shirt off his back' would cost, and he says $10.

"But seriously," he tells us, he has lots of T-shirts back home, and he'd be happy to run by and pick one up for us. Amanda says she'd pay $5 for one, and I quickly suggested $10 if it's clean. =)

The waitress comes back again saying she didn't get ahold of whoever it was that would know the prices of the shirts, but she found something else we'd probably want—stationary with the Funhog Ranch logo on it. PERFECT! We took the stationary, said our goodbyes, and got out the door as quickly as possible.

As soon as we were out the door, we looked at each other with stunned amazement and spent the next half-hour taking about how loony these people were and discussed in minute detail every little thing that was said or done in the bar. But we got the stationery, and now we headed back to Amanda's hotel room. After our time in that smoke-infested bar, we both need to shower and get a change of clothes on, cancer risks be damned! =)

After which, we said our goodbyes. Amanda jumped on a shuttle to the airport while I started my long drive back to San Luis. It was night by now, and I still had a letterbox I wanted to hide in Nevada. In addition, there were two letterboxes I wanted to nab on my way out of Nevada. I stopped at the Visitor Center in Jean (about 12 miles from the California border) where I hid my letterbox, then drove out to Good Springs about eight miles away to locate another letterbox.

A view up the main street of Calico

While I was pretty certain the letterbox was in Good Springs, I didn't know WHERE in Good Springs it was. The clue was rather vague about that. I was to look for a certain sign and the letterbox would be by a tree near it. It's not a big town, and I drove around for a half hour looking for the sign while it was getting pretty close to midnight now. Not the best lighting for hunting down letterboxes, and finally I had to give up. I suspected some locals seeing me drive around town more-or-less randomly might have considered calling the cops, and I really didn't want to encourage that.

This unusual structure at Calico is built out of thousands and thousands of bottles!

So I parked at a pulloff at the edge of town and proceeded to go to sleep. I'd look for the box again in the morning. The rest of the night was uneventful and I woke up to an incredibly cold morning. Yow! It took me all of about five minutes to find the letterbox once I had defrosted my windshield, and I found myself working my way back to California.

I did make one last quick stop before leaving Nevada, this time in the border town of Primm where I hunted down one last letterbox before continuing my journey. The drive back was non-eventful as I switched between listening to Spanish radio stations and humming to myself. I passed once again the world's tallest thermometer.

My last stop of the journey was Calico ghosttown just outside of Barstow. I'd passed by it numerous times before, but I had never actually stopped to visit this place, and now was finally my chance. It's a bit hokey, I admit, but I love hokey. There was a 'shoot-out', a little train you could ride, a mine you could check out, and all sorts of tourist traps. It wasn't particularly busy there, so I spontaneously decided to carve and hide a letterbox at a viewpoint from the old mining town. It's an interesting place to visit and I'm glad I finally got to satisfy my curiosity about the place.

I loved this cute little train at Calico

Then I left, speeding through Barstow. A teacher I once had summed up Barstow pretty well, asking, "Wouldn't it really suck to be a cow in Barstow?" With that thought, I decided to put as much distance as possible between Barstow and myself.

The only other thing to note on the drive back was the abundance of snow in the mountains around me. On my drive to Las Vegas, I didn't see any snow, but on the way back the hills—especially around the wind farms—were coated with white, beautiful snow.

But I sped on past it until, at last, I pulled into San Luis Obispo. My Las Vegas adventure at an end.

— Ryan

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