Best Friends and the Grand Canyon

Friends, here’s Part 2 of my travelogue of Janice’s and my recent trip to the U.S. Southwest. On Thursday, 11 May 2006, we left the flashy casinos of Las Vegas in a rental car and drove from Nevada to Utah. The landscape became more colorful, as the brush and cacti of the desert were still blooming from a spring shower of a few weeks earlier. We were on the lookout for deer early that morning and saw jackrabbits.

The open road climbed into more mountainous terrain as we reached the so-called high desert. We arrived at the small town of Kanab, Utah, by midday and learned that numerous Westerns had been filmed in that area, including the Lone Ranger television series in the 1950s, Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, and more recently, Maverick. We explored some pieces of movie sets.

Gene and cacti
In the southwestern desert

While we were deep in conservative “red country,” I found the people we met to be very nice, despite any political disagreements I might have with them. The firearms and animal heads on display nearly everywhere were part of Americana, anyway.

That afternoon, we visited the Best Friends animal sanctuary, the largest no-kill shelter for domesticated animals in the U.S. As some of the photographs I took show, not only are there dogs and cats in need of good homes, but horses, goats, sheep, and pot-bellied pigs as well. We took a brief tour and signed forms to volunteer there on Saturday.

On Friday, May 12, Janice and I drove to Arizona for a day trip to the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, the North Rim was still closed for the winter, so we had to make a long B-line to get to the South Rim. Fortunately, the long detour was worthwhile, as we saw red bluffs, mesas, and the Glen Canyon on our way.

The Grand Canyon itself was spectacular, making the human-made sights of Las Vegas seem small in comparison. None of the pictures I took or words I can type do it justice. Ever since seeing images in National Geographic magazine as a child, I’ve wanted to see this natural wonder, and it didn’t disappoint.

Like the Skyline Drive of the Blue Ridge Mountains near my parents’ home in Virginia, we drove from overlook to overlook. Fortunately, we encountered relatively few fellow tourists because we had left Utah early in the morning, approached from the east side, and visited the national park before Memorial Day. I recommend this to anyone.

The rock face clearly showed millions of years worth of strata, and a breeze blew through twisted trees at the top and bottom of the canyon. From rim to rim is a 10-mile gap, and some of the lookout points had a sheer 1,000-foot drop (and no rail)! The Colorado River twinkled far below the road, which is 7,000 feet above sea level, and we admired the narrow, winding mule trails and sheer scale of the canyon.

We reluctantly drove back to Utah, enjoying the sights on the way. I would have liked to have more time to hike or visit Native American reservations, and we passed several poverty-stricken roadside stands selling Indian arts and crafts. We ate at a Tex-Mex restaurant in town.

Janice and I helped feed horses and muck out paddocks at Best Friends. While most of the horses are too ill or old to be ridden, bumping around in a pickup truck on narrow mountain trails to get between pastures was an adventure in itself. We saw where the Lone Ranger had been filmed, found a cool, water-filled cave, and chatted with other volunteers.

On Saturday afternoon, Janice and I returned to Las Vegas for one night. After beholding the colorful landscape, the ride back seemed gray, and we were less interested in the neon and crowds of the Strip. We flew back to Boston on Sunday, May 14, and aside from a little jetlag and getting over the altitude change, we dove back into a busy workweek. Overall, I’d say our vacation was as successful as we could have hoped in the time we had!

Fortunately, after the recent rains, the basement of our new duplex didn’t flood. Last Tuesday night, I ran and hosted the last regular D&D3.5 “Vanished Lands: Seekers of Lore” fantasy session for Byron V.O. before he leaves for a new job in St. Louis, Mo. Paul J. and friend Bre even managed to be present, despite impending college final exams. Byron has been busy getting ready to to relocate his family, and I’ll miss his role-playing ability and political sparring, but he’ll continue to be involved through e-mail and the occasional cameo in my games.

The latest Player Character party completed its investigation into murders in a steampunk future, culminating in a fight at a dance hall. I had to cancel last night’s session due to a dinner with co-workers and Jacqui M.D., but I look forward to wrapping up that team and shifting to D20 Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed.: “Drake’s Port” superhero scenarios for the summer!

In the meantime, Janice and I are preparing for our trip to Belgium later this week. We’ll be attending the baptism of my niece Ava by my uncle, meeting members of my father’s side of the family who I haven’t seen in 20 years, and sightseeing around Brussels, Brugge, and Ghent. It’s Janice’s and my first trip to Europe together, and we’re looking forward to the fine food, medieval towns, and a countryside that’s very different from the southwestern U.S. (if a climate that’s a lot like cool, damp New England)…

Entry for May 23, 2006 — Las Vegas

Friends, I hope you’re having a good week. Janice’s and my trip to the U.S. Southwest went well. We left from Boston’s Logan Airport on Saturday, 6 May 2006, and stayed at the Bally’s/Paris Hotel in Las Vegas.

Gene & Janice hit Sin City
Viva Las Vegas!

We walked up and down the infamous Strip, exploring the various hotels, casinos, shopping malls, and restaurants. While the heart of Las Vegas Boulevard is only a few miles long, the desert air and the oversize scale of the themed buildings (which Batman artists Bill Finger and Dick Sprang would have appreciated) made distances seem smaller than they actually were.

We overdid the walking a bit on the first two days, although I believe that the casinos may make the sidewalks bumpier to lure people back into the air-conditioned gambling halls. Sore feet and hot, dry weather (especially compared with New England, where it rained for almost two weeks straight) didn’t stop us from seeing anything.

Janice attended the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communications and found the sessions informative. I joined her at the opening reception (free food) and even met a Belgian technical writer! There were sessions that interested me as a copy editor at a computing magazine, but since my employer declined to pay for registration, I was free to roam.

Janice and I went to the “Star Trek Experience” at the Hilton, where we enjoyed the exhibits of props from the long-running space opera franchise. I rode a virtual-reality simulation, sat on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC 1701-D, and had a Romulan ale at “Quark’s Bar.” Definitely recommended for any speculative fiction fan.

Of the casinos that Janice and I visited, we liked the Venetian (and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum), landmark Caesar’s Palace, the indoor plazas of the Paris and Aladdin, and the upscale art galleries at the Bellagio. From our hotel room window, we could see the Paris’ half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower (and sunbathers at its rooftop swimming pool) and the Bellagio’s famous dancing fountains.

Although I’m not a big gambler and found the thousands of senior citizens sitting for hours in smoky rows of slot machines a bit depressing, I played videogames and pool near the lion exhibit at the MGM Grand, walked with Janice through glass aquarium tunnels at the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay, and ate pizza in New York, New York’s replica of downtown Manhattan. We also admired the ancient Egyptian style of the Luxor and saw scantily-clad showgirls duel on pirate ships in front of the Treasure Island.

While Janice was in conference sessions from 8:30 a.m. to about 5:00 p.m. from Monday through Wednesday, I went to the old downtown casinos. The neighborhood around them was a bit seedy, but it verified Las Vegas’ reputation as a sort of Disneyland for adults. The numerous people at street corners passing out leaflets for escorts and strip clubs notwithstanding, I felt reasonably safe and saw many tourist families.

I also managed to find some book stores and comic book/gaming shops near the University of Las Vegas campus. At first, I tried to walk, but the distances ended up forcing me to take buses and taxicabs. Between the casinos on the south/central strip, we were rode an affordable monorail.

We didn’t get to any of the major stage productions, which range from standup comedy and magic shows to old-fashioned crooners, circus acrobats, celebrity impersonators, and topless revues (and sometimes combinations of all of the above), but we took several amusing photos at Madame Tussaud’s. Most casinos prohibit cameras, which was a pity, given the opulent d├ęcor.

Time and money are always in short supply, especially with many fine restaurants. We did feast at a New York-style delicatessen at Caesar’s and the “Round Table Buffet” at the Excalibur. Despite the 90-degree F temperatures, we didn’t take advantage of the hotel pools because the casinos have limited hours to keep everyone focused on gambling. The high-roller tables and games were interesting to watch.

On Wednesday, May 10, Janice and I took bus tours to the Hoover Dam. The massive civil engineering project was impressive not only because of its scale and Depression-era art deco style, but also because it was finished two years ahead of schedule and under budget–if only Boston’s “Big Dig” were as successful! The Colorado River and Lake Mead provided our first glimpses of the wilderness.

We saw the desert landscape of Nevada being encroached upon by Las Vegas’ rapid suburban growth, and I stopped at the Ethel M Chocolate factory and a cactus botanical garden. Next post: Beyond Sin City! -Gene