Sunday, March 07, 2004

Journey Through Big Spaces Part One
My wife and I have returned from a vacation spent in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. I report the following observations:

Las Vegas: Sin of a City
I'm not quite certain what I was supposed to think of Las Vegas before I arrived, but I certainly know what I think of Las Vegas now that I have left - overhyped. The reputation of it being Sin City is legend of course, but I'm not sure it really offers any level of sin above and beyond the normal garden variety available to you in your own town. I mean, how many different ways are there to drink a beer? Is it particularly taboo to drink a beer at 8AM? Sure you can walk around drinking a beer on the streets of Vegas whenever and wherever you like, but so can you in New Orleans and even in Hanover, NH (as some serendipitous students discovered after reviewing town ordinances). Freedom to drink a beer doesn't really qualify to me as overly sinful, unless of course you're walking the streets absolutely shitfaced. But even that doesn't make Las Vegas any more unique than Durham, NH where one can witness that sort of activity most weekends.

Really, the more we experienced Las Vegas, the more we realized how contrived a lot of it was. The gambling is the same as that which can be found at Indian run casinos and the food choices, while overly abundant of course, center around familiar offerings of shrimp, crab legs, seared meats, and plenty of french fries. The architecture and spectacle of the hotels on The Strip is certainly over the top. Any place that offers you a mock Eiffel Tower, Venetian canal, or New York City skyline to gawk at deserves some attention. But even then, there's only so much awe and wonder one can absorb from looking at poured concrete - shaped, formed, and painted to look like the best of something else.

There are two types of amusement parks. There are the cutting edge ones run by Disney, Universal Studios, Six Flags etc which seek to immerse you into the story provided by each ride. By walking through a poured concrete facade of an old west silver mining town as in Disney's "Thunder Mountain", one is not merely riding any old roller coaster but is instead embarking on a larger imaginative adventure (even though it really is just another roller coaster). Then on the other hand there are the old, run down, derelict type of amusement parks that one can find at beach resorts or at once hot vacation spots (like the Jersey Shore, Myrtle Beach, etc). My favorite example of this has to be South of the Border. Its really tacky, cheesy, and pointless when you consider where it is located. But it survives I guess because of the kitsch that it offers. These places can't really immerse you to deeply into the theme that they offer because they simply can't afford the light shows, architectural ornamentation, and spectacle that the big boys can afford. Yet they try as best they can, with all the neon and flickering lights and funhouse music that they can muster up, which in the end can still be entertaining to experience. They survive purely on soul. In the end which experience is going to be the one that dominates when one imagines "theme park"? The imagery of an Islands of Adventure or the kitsch of a Coney Island? One may offer more for the senses to savor, but which one has got the most soul?

With respect to Las Vegas, it aspires to one, but offers you the other. On the one hand it seduces you with the reputation of the Vegas of old - shows, crooks, sin, and kitsch. Yet what you get for the most part when you are actually there is a slickly produced spectacle one finds at the latest amusement parks. Think of Vegas and you think of a bloated Elvis, the Rat Pack, World Series of Poker, lounges, cigar smoke, well healed prostitutes and wide collared suits. Yet you'd be hard pressed to really find that there today. The soul of Las Vegas is centered in the imagery of Frank, Deano, and Sammy. Of Elvis, Wayne Newton, and Tom Jones. Yet if you're on the prowl for a show in Vegas your choices are Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil, and Blue Man Group. Will people get all misty-eyed nostalgic for these performances as they did for Vegas headliners of old?

Vegas as Sin City earned that rep because it offered easily accessible sin at a time when sin may have been harder to access. Now, whatever sins Vegas may be trading in are no more extravagant than what can be found in your own town or on your own on-demand cable television. Want porn? Go online. Want to get assfaced? Drink an alcopop. Want drugs? Go talk to a high schooler. Indeed, when one wants sin, does one really have to go all the way to Vegas to get it? Not at all. Which in effect makes the "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas" tagline pure farce. There is nothing happening in Vegas that isn't potentially happening in your neighbor's house. Sin City is no more sinful than Gotham City, Motor City, hell even the Queen City or the Lilac City for that matter. So what is Vegas really trafficking in? Lies. Pure and simple. A well lit, well built, great looking charade - guaranteed to hoover you of significant bucks. You want to hang with Deano and the gang, but they are dead and buried.

But having said that, the spectacle is worth experiencing all the same. The extravagance of many of the casinos is astounding to witness. Caesar's Palace itself is a monument to overindulgence of the senses. Walking the Strip serves up for you a bizarre feast of erupting volcanoes, pirate battle production numbers that look like outtakes from the movie Showgirls, and Mexican immigrants (er, "Guest Workers") shoving all sorts of strip club and escort service advertisements into your hands. In the end, how long you can stand Vegas depends on how long your money or your patience lasts.

Nevada: There's a Reason Why We Nuked It
In truth, the vacation got into gear for us the moment we left the Las Vegas city limits. The drive out of town pointed us in the direction of Hoover Dam and the climb up to the Colorado Plateau - a geologic feature that takes up the better part of three states and is where we would spend the most of our time exploring. Leaving Las Vegas allowed for a first glimpse at the huge horizons that greet the eyes in all directions. The landscape looks a combination of lunar and volcanic: dry, sunburned, and lifeless. Valleys extend for hundreds of miles - with temporary playa lakes residing in the lowest depressions. Jagged sawtoothed ranges fringe the valleys. They are treeless, tinted gray, and cracked with crevasses and erosion. Looking at this terrain I expected to see mushroom clouds blooming off in the distance. There's a reason why this area was nuked.

After an interesting run through some canyons and brief glimpses of man-made Lake Mead, we arrived at the Hoover Dam - one part hydroelectric project and the other part an art-deco shrine dedicated to man's ability to conquer nature. This place was the engineering project of the planet in its time and still astounds today when you appreciate the scale in which it resides and operates. That this engineering marvel is responsible for the growth of places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles for the most part leaves one with a slight feeling of dismay. We built the Hoover Dam and the electricity and surplus water it provided lead to ever expanding cultural enclaves of gambling, porn, chemical excess, Botox, boob jobs, and stardom for mediocre talents like Jim J. Bullock and David Hasselhoff. Once again it all goes back to poured concrete and the demons that are borne in the aftermath....

Route 66 and Northern Arizona: Kicks Few and Far Between

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66.
- Bobby Troupe

Indeed, we had two options to get to the Grand Canyon. Take the Interstate for most of the way or take Route 66 for most of the way. Considering we had plenty of time to enjoy the Road Less Traveled, we decided to take Route 66. The legendary road at one time journeyed from Chicago to Los Angeles and was a major artery for traveling to the West. Now, most of the road has disappeared - swallowed up by the interstates in the service of more efficient travel. At 130 miles, the section of Route 66 that we traveled between Kingman and Seligman, AZ is the longest uninterrupted stretch still remaining.

What we saw of Route 66 surprised me, simply because it was nothing like what pop cultural references make it out to be. Perhaps this was because we drove the wrong stretch of Route 66. Expecting a 50's era patina of hamburger joints, drive-in movie theatres, knick-knack peddlers and lots full of classic cars we instead drove through some of the most deserted and beautiful countryside I have ever seen. There were very few towns along the way. This section of the Route attains the height of the Coconino Plateau which is marked by grasslands, sagebrush, pinyon pines and juniper trees. Long cliffs lead in North/South directions marking particular sections of geologic uplift on the plateau proper. This area is as expansive as the desert areas we had seen leaving Las Vegas, but because it resides at a higher elevation it traps moisture and snowfall - allowing for the promotion and survival of the area's vegetation. Route 66 was less a cultural attraction and more a grand scenic byway. We made our way through the Hualapai and Havasupai Indian Reservations with barely a soul to be seen. Needless to say we saw more cattle than people along this drive. The line of the Aubrey Cliffs channeled us towards the town of Seligman and our return to the Interstate for a few more miles Eastward toward Williams, AZ. From there it was 60 miles of driving through sparsely populated lands marked by ponderosa pines and more of the stout pinyon and juniper. Looking at the maps beforehand, I had thought that these areas of Arizona would be desert. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they were not.

Grand Canyon: Mind the Gap
You are not given any preview what to expect as you approach the Grand Canyon. The views on the way to the canyon from the approach road suggest nothing but a flat plateau in front. Then your arrival at the South Rim greets you with an awesome perceptual readjustment - located in front of you is a gigantic chasm 10 miles wide and 1 mile deep. Its virtually impossible to grasp scale and dimension of the Grand Canyon. Rock benches down into the pit seem like simple strolls away. The colors of the different geologic strata provide a wondrous tableau that demands continuous attention. The play of sunlight on the walls constantly shifts. To look away is to miss out on seeing Earth at its most alive moments. Where you stand is 7000+ feet up and the Colorado River that you faintly see flows at an elevation of 1500+ feet. Between the two elevations is a wedding cake staircase of cliffs and terraces revealing eons of time involved in creating that which you see. The ditch is wide enough, deep enough, and old enough for you to cast into it all your insignificant concerns. It will remain long after you have left.

The collection of buildings clustered at the edge of the South Rim hearken back to a different era of outdoors appreciation. An extension of the Santa Fe Railroad ends here. Its completion ushered in an age of mass tourism to the Grand Canyon - dwarfing and eliminating small scale efforts found on various rim overlooks in the area - efforts conducted by luckless prospectors, homesteaders, hunters, and others who recognized the natural treasure that spread out in front of them. This was the era of Appreciation of the Sublime, where people would travel great distances by train just to simply view an awesome spectacle of nature and soak it in. Some would venture into the canyon of course, but most were simply happy to sit at rim's edge and merely contemplate the scale, depth, and meaning of the canyon. Studios, dining rooms and hotels were built as close to the chasm as possible - ensuring a most comfortable environment for viewing the infinite. The jewel of these constructions was the El Tovar Hotel - intended to be the most luxurious accommodation in the area. Stepping into the lobby of the El Tovar reveals to the visitor the log cabin construction of the interior. The dining room is a broad expanse, with wooden support posts, rafters, and beams. Some of the beams still trap within them the faint odor of Teddy Roosevelt's after-dinner cigars. A large stone fireplace warms the room and up above, various animal trophy busts supervise and watch over the dining herds below. Time travel is the activity not mentioned in any of the guidebooks. Whether it's by trail - traversing the rocky layers of Earth's formative history, or by sitting in the El Tovar as a turn of the century guest, enjoying oneself like earlier guests at an earlier turn of the century the net effect is that you are guaranteed to enjoy the here and now at the Grand Canyon simply because the edges of time have been pleasantly obscured.

(Part Two to follow)


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