Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vegas and Death Valley: Feb 15-19 2010

Las Vegas: Tips
- Best Bathroom
- Best Local Park
- Best Art Treasure Hunt
- I’ll Have What She’s Having
- Visiting in the Off-season

2010NP#1: Death Valley
- The first of many
- Amargosa
- DV Impressions
- What’s the difference between 34 and 79?

Las Vegas
We are in the most staged city in America through a strange series of events beginning with a marriage of 60-somethings that shared a brief passion when they were teenagers then went their own ways for 40+ years. That brought our British friends M&G to LA (and just down the road from where our parents live) for a Valentine’s Day wedding. We met them there and then drove to Vegas for 4 days. Based on that stay, I can make the following recommendations:

• The most unusual bathroom was found in a terrific and unusual Japanese restaurant called Aburiya Raku, You should always be wary of a restaurant review that starts with a lengthy discussion of the décor. So, I will be brief: chirping birds and a tree trunk and a sink without an obvious way to turn on the faucet are only a part of the loo experience. And, the food was very unusual (and good): grilled thick rice cakes, smoky small rice bowls, many items offered in more than one style (grilled, raw, in sauce, not in sauce), a long list of robata choices, sake tastings. At the table next to us (Asian), they were taking pictures of each of their dishes. Too much dinner and drink for 4, $280. If you can arrange a long layover, this is your spot. NOT on the strip, a huge plus, no getting lost in massive self parks.

• Close to our hotel was a find: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, We were staying off the strip, north and west about 20 to 45 minutes depending on local and freeway traffic (the day we ran into TWO accidents on the way back to the hotel made it closer to an hour away). This park is a gem, vast differences in the rock colors, many unusual formations, a one-way 13 mile drive that can take from 1.5 hours to all day if you fill in with hikes. Now you should plan to land one day and leave the next based on just the first two tips.

• Another huge hotel complex (redundant use of huge and hotel) has opened up on the strip, with four hotels anchored by the Aria. “Hidden” amongst the four hotels and self-park and casino are a series of major art works: Holzer, Kaneko (two sets of dangos, one unmarked), Maya Lin, Nancy Ruben (also made the sculpture in front of the LA Temporary Contemporary), Chihuly, etc. We found a map on our first visit and the second time (with a lot more time) we started tracking down the pieces, no easy task. We found a hotel person who graciously helped us and also pointed out which pieces listed on the map were actually not yet installed. We also ran into another pair on the treasure hunt and their list was different than ours (shorter than ours) though both of us had official brochures. Hmmmmm….

• We took in Cirque de Soleil: Love. Plenty of classic Cirque action set to the words and music of the Liverpool lads. The woman next to me on my left was one of two people in the audience of approximately two thousand people (no, NOT M&G, the woman on her other side) who decided to lead the orchestra with much arm waving, deep sighs, many sounds of orgasmic satisfaction. I can only hope that her teen years (many a moon ago, many) were as happy as she sounded for the 1.5 hour performance. I can only hope that even one person had one teen week this happy, ever. Should I have said something or just tried to “hold her hand?” I’ll leave it to you (no, I was NOT tempted to hold G’s hand, sitting on my right).

• Lastly, we seemingly were in Vegas during a lull: mid-week, convention business way off, hotel rooms galore empty, restaurant reservations to be had at the last minute for whatever time you wish. And, at night, the traffic on the strip was at a standstill, traffic thick almost every time of the day or night (early eve, it is still a THB and DB schedule), and the sidewalks between 9 and 10 almost impassible, What can this be like in high season? Don’t find out.

Death Valley: Our first national park of 2010

Using the National Parks book we have as a reference guide, we decide to enter the park from the south. This means we end up circling from the north, then south to enter through the town of Soshone. On our way there, we pass through the town of Amargosa, home to the Amargosa Opera House. Fascinating, since the town seems to have neither a restaurant/café or a gas station. Some places just have their cultural priorities set correctly.

This park can be done in one very long day to two days (and thus, if you’re lucky, get several sunset/sunrise viewings in before departing). By driving from the south to the north (yes, or vise versa), over 70 miles, you can take in a huge amount of the vistas. We are fortunate that:
a) it is only in the high 70’s, even a bit muggy
b) it is not crowded on the roads
c) that the flooding has not made the roads impassible (hey, used this word twice in one posting…brilliant!)

And unfortunate that the cloud cover is keeping several vistas from having the usual glow associated with intense sunlight the park is famous for.

On the first day, we visit the lowest point in our hemisphere (I hope that means both North and South America), take the Artists Palette detour (many unique colors and color combinations in the rocks along the route), and take a short hike to the Natural Bridge (hoping that the thin cloud cover does not mean flash flooding), purchase our annual pass at the Visitor Center, buy some 2007 stamps and put them in our passport (national parks version) along with the DV date stamp (a version of getting your ticket punched to prove you were there).
We manage to spot a kit fox, not too hard since it is standing just off the road looking at a car that might provide a snack or two. We see another (same one?) the next morning near the lodge.

List of pictures:
1. Natural Bridge
2. Kit fox
3. Sign of flooding
4. THB at 287 below sea level
5. Hidden on the side of the hill: sea level indicator
6. Anachronism sign

As with Las Vegas and Los Angeles, there is plenty of snow on the (western) mountains. The entire southwest region is getting more rain and snow than usual. It is a bit early for the wildflowers, it appears that it will be a huge year. We also spot many a Joshua tree, some of which appear to be very close to blossoming as well.

Emilie and Tom (DB’s sister and brother-in-law/bridge partner to THB) are also here, having overlapped on our last night in Vegas and now at DV, totally serendipity, not planned (well, I think that is what serendipity means, so duplicated by stupidity). They talk up seeing the Park at sunrise, so we set our alarm for 6am. I get up a few minutes early, stagger to get dressed, and head outside…to cloud cover and rain.

Let us just say that the sunrise has been postponed for a day.

We eat a light breakfast (this buffet is not something that would encourage over-eating) and start driving north and west through the park. As we near the last tent campground (also below sea level), it is still raining and I check the temperature: 42 degrees. No wonder we have already seen cars heading to the lodge, the campers are near freezing AND wet! As we cross the pass leaving the Park, it is now 34 degrees and not quite snowing. Very pretty, still thinking about those poor campers who the day before were basking in 79 degree weather in late afternoon.

Bonus: as we near highway 395, the snow covered Sierras loom over us, a spectacular sight. And, it reminds us that we are going the long way home, as you cannot take either the Tioga or Sonora pass as shortcuts in winter.