Monday, May 29, 2006

Death Valley - May 10th and May 11th

Wednesday 10th May- To Death Valley
The convoy parted ways at Kingman as we headed towards Death Valley and Joel and Stevie headed home to LA. Back across Hoover Dam, back past Vegas and past Area 51, finally driving though barren areas of land that Dick kept noting as being 'straight out of the X files'. It was difficult to see exactly where the valley began until we found our first information station. There we picked up a map and headed to Dante's View, where we first felt the heat of the area. The long twisty road up there was worth it for the views- miles and miles of barren nothingness. In the distance we could see both the highest point in California, Mount Whitney at over 14,000 ft above sea level, and the lowest point, Badwater, 262 ft below sea level. It was very dry and very hot.

We drove on to 'Zabriske's Point', where the rock formations look like huge claws of some unknown creature, and then to 'Badwater', the outside temperature continually rising. At 6 pm it was 105 degrees. Badwater is thought to be named after a traveller who wrote 'bad water' on his map after his donkey refused to drink it. No wonder, it is very salty! We walked on the salt crystals and gazed up at the mark on the hillside which showed where sea level is. The heat never leaves the valley as the surrounding mountains trap it in. We hit the perfect time for sunset again, this time over Artists Pallette, an area of naturally occuring strange coloured sand. We were definatley working up a thirst and a beer was foremost in Dick's mind. We were staying at Furnace Creek Ranch and we hit the bar!

Thursday 11th May- The longest day- Part 1
The longest day began with standing on sand dunes in the dessert- most peculiar and still no cooler first thing in the morning. A long barren drive north towards 'Scotty's Castle' where we bought a detailed map of California, and had our first incling that the day may turn out to be longer than we expected. We were heading towards Yosemite and happened to mention it to the ranger. She noted that the main route across the Sierra Nevada's was still closed due to heavy snowfall. Snow? In May? The map did say 'closed in winter'. Can't be that bad we thought. Want to bet??

Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon May 8th- 10th

Monday 8th May -Hoover Dam.
Finally we left Vegas, and drove past the famous 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign. I had enjoyed my time there but I was not sad to be leaving. Despite being very glitzy and clean on the surface, their policy to allow smoking everywhere finally got to me. Dick is normally the one who doesn't like crowded places, but I was with him this time. That and the men and women lining the streets slapping their hands to try and get your attention to give you an almost pornographic card advertising the 'services' of some young scantily clad woman. Lovely. You can imagine the litter build up at the end of the day. Not a place to take anyone under the age of 18.

So we headed east out of Vegas towards the Grand Canyon. There was lots of building work going on near the Hoover Dam. It seems they are building a bridge across the river, so you won't have to drive across the dam itself in years to come. Probably a security issue these days. You have to go through a security check point even now.

The dam is not as big as I imagined as you drive up to it, but is huge when you stand on it. First we did the tour, where you watch a movie of the history of the dam first. It is then that you realise how much of a huge achievement it was when it was built during the depression. It was finished sooner than they had planned and gave a lot of people jobs when there weren't any, as well as providing water for so many. Then they take you down into the dam and they show you the insides. The guide told us that they had only recently started allowing visitors to do this again after 9/11. Unfortunately you can't go outside at the bottom of the dam any more, which apparently really did make you realise how big the dam is. But you do get to go on an observation platform which hangs over the dam and you get a real bird's eye view of the power tower's which hang at a 45 degree angle over the valley. We walked across the dam into Arizona, where I discovered they do not have summer time, so despite changing time zones, the time was still the same.

Back on the road, the scenary becoming more sparse and dry toward the canyons. I wanted to go in the East entrance of the canyon, and we got their just as the sun was going down which was perfect timing. You start to see clues that you might be near the canyon when the landscape changes and everything looks very flat. The park is free to enter at that time of day, and there are several viewpoints. We stopped and watched the sun go down over a smaller end of the canyon and it was stunning. We were warned that there was so much more. Driving along towards Grand Canyon village it was getting darker but there were sparks of what looked like firelight. The parks service were doing some controlled burning which gave the whole end of the trip a really surreal feeling.

We stayed at the Grand Canyon hotel, an attempt at a lodge style hotel, which had free wifi in the lobby, so Dick was a happy man (somewhere to download his podcasts!) It was late enough that we ate in the hotel and had an early night ready to go hiking the next day.

Tuesday 9th May- Grand Canyon
We bought an annual National Parks pass, a cheaper way to see all the parks we would see this trip. Nothing really prepares you for parking up and walking over towards the canyon in what seems a normal tourist area and then suddenly seeing the huge expense of the canyon right in front of you. Stunning. Gob smacking. Ten miles from the south rim to the north rim and it seems a lot further. I just couldn't stop taking photos, and it is true that none of them can really show what is there. Everytime you look, you see something else that catches your eye.

We had planned to walk some way down the Bright Angel Trail, a trail that can lead to the canyon floor, but you can't safely do it in one day, and we had not planned to hike for more than a couple of hours as it is very hot down there. The trail meanders down but fairly steeply, and I was concerned about coming back up as I am not as fit as I should be right now. So Dick, Joel and Stevie carried on down a bit further and I had fun playing with my camera whilst making my way back up.

After lunch we drove to some of the other view points and I took yet more photos. I just couldn't get enough.

That night we ate at a restaurant at a spitting distance from the canyon, so Stevie and I even walked over to see the sunset again between courses. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped and watched the famous Imax movie about the history of the Canyon, which was also well worth it.

Wednesday 10th May- Sunrise
I had seen two sunsets over the canyon but not a sunrise, so I got up at 4:30 am, and drove into the park to the nearest viewpoint where people were already gathering for the sunrise. It was cold! I had on a fleece and a jacket and was still cold, but it was worth it. More people arrived, including a Japanese tourist bus- I only really noticed them as some were wearing masks as if they were trying to avoid the pollution. Pollution? I had a great view and took loads more pictures, the reds in the layers of rock showed even more clearly.

I drove back to the hotel on deserted roads only to see elk eating the flowers in the hotel flower beds! I saw four in total and they totally ignored me. Then I went back to bed to warm up!

Las Vegas May 3rd- May 7th 2006

Wednesday 3rd May- Flight to Vegas
As usual, I was working right up to the last minute, so I was glad to get to the airport. Atlanta's airport is horribly busy, whenever you go. This time I was leaving from the C gates, flying AirTran for the first time. About an hour before the flight I sat down to listen to my Ipod when I noticed the case was covered in blue ink! A pen had exploded inside my bag. Luckily it was in a pocket, so I spent the next 45 minutes trying to clean it out, and suddenly realised my flight must be boarding! It was, but I was ok. The flight was very full, and I was sat next a woman who was travelling with her mother to go and see Celine Dion in concert. She was very excited.... The flight attendents were very friendly and helpful, though I wasn't happy with just a pack of crackers for a four hour flight. This saving money lark by the airlines may well backfire, as no food means that those who drink (and pay for every one) get drunk much quicker as the guy sat in front of me proved. I think the scantily dressed lady who sat next to him regreted her choice of clothing by the end of the flight!

The first thing I saw was the slot machines in Las Vegas airport! The airport was very clean and new looking, relatively quiet, and yes, some people were gambling. I was meeting up with Carl and Tracy for our limo ride to the hotel. Dick had flown in earlier that day and raved about the stretch limo that collected him- we just got a town car.

The Aladdin Hotel is ungoing a renovation, so it was a bit confusing finding the hotel lobby even. It seems the priority is to get you into the casino first, and then you find the lobby later! Dick met us near the lobby and after going to our room we were back downstairs walking through the mall area of the hotel which was meant to look like the streets of somewhere in Arabia. We sat in a bar, and tried to stay awake having gained three hours in the time zone change.

Thursday 4th May- Topcoder and the strip
The whole purpose of this part of the trip was because Dick was invited to cover the 'Topcoder Open' for his 'Java Posse Podcast'. So we were up eating a very nice breakfast with the competitors first thing the next morning. The Topcoder guys were very friendly and didn't seem to mind that I was joining Dick. They made us feel very welcome right from the beginning. Tracy and I left the geeks to do their thing while we explored the hotel (the spa!) and then walked down part of the strip. Tracy had been to Vegas before so she was a great guide: a mini Eiffel towel outside the Paris hotel, gondala's being guided around the pool at the Venetian, both inside and out, and more slot machines than I have ever seen in my life! After lunch we decided we couldn't take any more of the strip, so we relaxed by the pool in a wonderful breeze under a palm tree. What a life!

'Topcoder' know how to treat everyone well, and this time they gave the geeks the perfect down time by inviting everyone to dinner and an evening of gaming at 'Gameworks'. We each had a unlimited gamecard for 3 hours on everything from racing games to Dance Dance Revolution. I have never been into gaming of any kind, except the occasional 'Tuxracer' at Christmas (penguins racing in downhill races!), so it was a whole new experience for me, and I had a great time. We raced cars, motorcross (my favorite!) and even horses, and shot zombies and terrorists for about two hours! The noise was what finally got us. Noise is something that is not easy to escape from on the strip. Next stop was New York and hot dogs! Every landmark you see in New York was there, including all the people. So we headed back to the Bellagio to see the fountains and Joe sweet talked us into a bar on the terrace for the last two shows of the night.

Friday 5th May - Topcoder and more of the strip.

Tracy and I opted for a more relaxing morning and had coffee and a walk through the mall while our geeks continued to report on the competition which was heating up. After lunch, we explored further down the strip and saw the cheesiest moving statue show in Caesar's Palace.
Tracy and Carl were leaving that night so we all met at the hotel Mexican restaurant at the end of the day for a Cinco de Mayo margarita.

That night we were invited out by Bruce Eckel, a past interviewee of the Java Posse, to go into the real Vegas (ie downtown and NOT the strip) with his friend Brad (who turned out to be the City Attorney of the City of Las Vegas). Brad explained that the strip was in county limits and not even in the City of Las Vegas. We went to an area that was having a street party, a monthly affair, and then had dinner at Mexican restaurant. Brad then kindly gave us a full tour of the strip by car, and told us bit more of the history of the area.

Saturday 6th May - The geeks hit Vegas
Dick and I breakfasted in Paris on crepes and coffee, and then took a taxi to a local camera store. The lens on my camera had given up the ghost, and I had been without a camera all the time, and we didn't want to go on the rest of the trip without a camera. $500 later I was a very happy lady, and we took a local bus back to the other end of the strip. Joe had talked about the new Wynn hotel so we went in there, and it was beautiful, their flower display rivalled the Bellagio. We found a bar with a view of a cascading waterfall, and relaxed whilst waiting for Joe and Dez to join us for lunch.

After lunch we went and explored TI (the new name for Treasure Island) which was very disappointing, and discovered that Dick had left my old camera lens back in the Wynn hotel. So we double backed and booked a show for the evening- La Reve, similar to Cirque du Soleil.

Bruce joined us for dinner at the Wynn at a very nice but expensive restaurant whose name I can't remember. Then we headed for the show, only to discover that the show had been cancelled due to a faulty stage. Disappointed, we took the Monorail to the MGM, and walked over to another free monorail to connect to the Mandalay Bay resort. This time we rested in a Russian Vodka bar where the main bar was frozen in order to keep the vodka cold, Dick had a chocolate peanut martini and a big smile on his face for the the rest of the evening.

Sunday 7th May- Enough of Vegas, time to chill.
Following a late breakfast, we headed for the pool to listen to Ipod's and chill. Only in Vegas would a band be playing and deafening everyone on a Sunday morning, so we didn't last too long.

Joel and Stevie arrived mid afternoon from Los Angeles, and were staying at TI. They picked us up and we went to the MGM for dinner at the famous 'Emerils' restaurant. Unfortunately their name is better than their food and the only thing special about it was the price!

We headed back to TI to see the show outside on the pirate ships, hoping to see a swashbuckling pirate show, only we should have guessed by the title 'Sirens of TI' that it wouldn't be the case. Instead we were treated to scantily dressed 'sirens' luring pirates into their lair by some terrible singing- just dreadful, and certainly not a show for kids!

Our reward was ice cream at the plaza in the Venetian, and a walk back to the Aladdin.


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