Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 11)

Once we had arrived in Albuquerque we had completed our first lap of the world having been here on our honeymoon and then travelling to Phoenix - Los Angeles - Brisbane - Sydney - Melbourne - Hong Kong - London - Minnesota - Houston then driving across to Albuquerque. Tuesday morning, then, was the beginning of our second lap of the world as Christine dropped Sam and Jessie at school before driving us to the airport. On the way we saw four hot air balloons in the sky down in the south and were reminded by that, and by the mountains in the east, of all the things we love about this city. It was sad saying ‘Goodbye’ to Christine again, but we look forward to seeing her, Ian and the children when they come to visit us in Qatar.

This morning our first flight was to Salt Lake City in Utah. There is something beautiful about flying over the desert in this part of the world. There are so many colours in the earth and rocks, yet so little vegetation. Valleys, crevices, hills and mountains stand out vividly from the landscape, while the occasional rivers and creeks form little tracks of green through the reds and yellows. Looking at some of the old westerns directed by people like John Ford you can see where the beautiful scenery comes from.

As you draw near to the city through the air you get a sense of the size of the Great Salt Lake. It is the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere and the 4th largest terminal lake in the world. All up it comprises 1700 square miles (4 400 square kilometres) although this varies according to weather conditions. Apparently it is the largest remnant of a pluvial lake which, in prehistoric times, covered most of western Utah and was called Lake Bonneville. As we came in to land it extended as far as the eye could see in a couple of directions.

Salt Lake City is the largest city in Utah but only the 125th largest in the United States. Explorers of America’s inland had discovered the Great Salt Lake early in the 19th century and recorded the details. Having fled Nauvoo, Illinois because of the federal government attitude toward their embracing of polygamy, the leaders of the Mormon church had read descriptions of the lake and decided to found a city there, which they did in 1847. Even today, Salt Lake City is the home to the Headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons official name) and approximately 53% of the population identified themselves as believers. Most recently the city was home to the 2002 Winter Olympics, although there were serious issues raised as to the bidding process and corruption. From the air it looks impressively modern.

Because Las Vegas is in the very south of Nevada it is close to the borders with Utah, Arizona and California. Most of our flight from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas was on the Utah side of the border with Nevada, again the scenery was spectacular. There is very little housing, just the occasional farm which stands out from the surrounding landscape because of the irrigation of the fields, which is in large circles. It was only as we were getting close that we started to see larger towns, particularly as we crossed the border at Mesquite and followed Route 15 the rest of the way.

We found out later that Las Vegas has reached the limits at which it can be built up with the natural boundaries created by various mountain ranges and national conservation areas. As we crested the mountain range the vista of the city opened up in front of us. Other than the strip and the buildings in ‘old’ Las Vegas there are height restrictions imposed upon houses because the county wants people to be able to see the strip from wherever in Las Vegas they are.

Driving from McCarran International Airport to our hotel, the Luxor, we could see the black glass of its distinctive pyramid virtually the entire way. The enormity of the space is hard to describe outside of resorting to the bare statistics. While the building is incredibly impressive we were stunned at the length of the line for check in. Because we had all of our luggage back with us again Wayne stood with the bags while Meg went and queued. After a substantial wait we got our keys and a porter with a trolley to help us get up to our room.

It had been fascinating standing (whether in the queue or to one side) and watching the different people walking around the hotel/casino. Because there was a swimming pool on the main level people were walking through the foyer wearing only swimming costumes (it is somewhat disconcerting to see someone at Starbucks in the middle of a casino in only a bikini). There was also a parade of newly weds wearing very formal gear, some of whom had been married in Vegas, others who had arrived for their honeymoons from elsewhere. Because the foyer contained reception, shops, restaurants and the various gambling facilities, it was also an eye opening experience to see how many people had brought their children (of all ages from brand new babes upwards). More than once we were asked to move our children away from a Blackjack table or some poker machines, which was odd, especially given that at least on one occasion the children were African-American.

Like the rest of the hotel, our deluxe room was covered in Egyptian themed decorations, including a bedspread covered with hieroglyphics. The walls had faux stone paintings affixed in various places deliberately constructed with breaks to make them look more authentic. What was most amazing was opening the curtains on the sloping outer wall and feeling the heat coming through the glass (it was just over 100°F outside). Sadly, the view from our window wasn’t the best but we were very tired so we lay down on our bed for a while, which turned into a couple of hours.

By the time we woke up it was dark outside but we decided to go for a walk along the strip nonetheless. When we got outside the Luxor we discovered that it was still remarkably warm, with the temperature having only slipped down into the mid-90’s, which was a shock after having been inside the air conditioned hotel for a few hours. We had expected the lights to be amazing and we weren’t disappointed. We could see from the Mandalay Bay behind us up to Caesars Palace and the Mirage without too much difficulty and certain places particularly lit up the sky. One of these was our own hotel which has a light shooting straight up from the top of the pyramid. According to the information prominently displayed inside the xenon light is bright enough to read a newspaper by 10 miles into space.

Walking the strip in the early evening was fascinating. Having crossed from outside the Excalibur to New York, New York, and then over to the MGM Grand we decided to stroll at street level. There seemed to be two types of tourists on the strip at this time: those who were casually dressed to cope with the heat, who seemed to be as fascinated as we were by the sights, smells and sounds; and those who were all dressed up, on their way to the latest shows or nightclubs. On the other hand the locals were universally small business people touting their wares or other people (despite walking along holding hands it was amazing how many people still tried to shove business cards with pictures of naked women and their phone numbers into Wayne’s available hand).

Apart from the hotel/casinos much of what you find on the Las Vegas strip tended to be either fast food emporiums, souvenir shops or specialty boutiques (we went into the M&M store but not into the Coca Cola Shop). The one exception to this was the odd booth which sold ‘cut price’ tickets to some of the shows along the strip. While we were there we could have seen Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Wayne Newton, Cher, Donny and Marie, Human Nature, Smokey Robinson, tributes and look alikes to Michael Jackson-Neil Diamond-Frank Sinatra, the New Rat Pack, Menopause the Musical, 6 different variants from Cirque De Soleil, and any number of different comedians or magic acts.

We walked quite a way before realising that walking the entire length of the strip was not only going to take a number of hours but, by the time we had finished, we would be absolutely exhausted. Instead we decided to take a trip on the monorail which goes from the MGM Grand down to the Sahara and Stratosphere at the other end of the strip. This is much like the monorail in Sydney in that it doesn’t run past all of the major attractions, but off to one side. However, given that the traffic heading north along the strip on this evening was virtually at a standstill (in the first hour of walking the bus that we had passed when we first began never managed to get in front of us, although twice it pulled up alongside) this was easily the fastest way to get to the other end. It also gave us the opportunity to chat to a couple of ladies from southern Washington State who were here on holiday themselves, and who had accidentally boarded the north bound rather than the south bound train.

After completing the entire length of the monorail back to the MGM Grand we needed to have some food and give our feet a rest, so we wandered back to the Luxor and to one of the restaurants there. Because it was quite late (it was now 11:30pm) there was only a limited amount of choice about where to go but we were able to sit down and have some pizza and foccacia before heading up to our room for some sleep. Even at this time it was astonishing to see the number of children who were up watching their parents gamble or running around while waiting for them to finish.

Wednesday morning we had pre-booked an excursion to Hoover Dam over the internet (which did save us a considerable amount of money) so we woke up early and headed down to get some breakfast. The Luxor had a buffet restaurant which we were able to buy a ticket for which would let us eat as many times as we wished during a 24 hour period which ended up being considerably cheaper than eating elsewhere. Having arrived as the restaurant opened we finished just in time to make our shuttle which took us across to the office from which the bus would leave.

Our bus driver was named Camille, she was originally from New York and she epitomised (possibly deliberately on her part, it was hard to tell) the archetypal New Yorker, which everyone on the bus really enjoyed. As well as being a phenomenally good driver (particularly at the end of the day when we were all being dropped at our hotels she was able to manoeuvre the bus into places most of us would not have been able to) she was also very knowledgeable about Las Vegas and its history, as well as all of the information relating to Hoover Dam that we could have wanted to know. She had a fabulously humorous way of communicating it and interacted well with the passengers who wished to talk to her (unsurprisingly, she got on particularly well with us). If you are ever in Las Vegas, book a tour with Greys Line and ask for Camille to see either Hoover Dam or the Southern Edge of the Grand Canyon (she drives both tours).

We began by driving south through Henderson and the southern parts of Las Vegas, before heading down through Boulder City to the Hoover Dam, on the border of Nevada and Arizona. Boulder City was originally constructed as the town to house all of the workers who were being employed on the dam project (it was originally named ). The dam was constructed between 1931 and 1935, during the worst of the Great Depression and there were concerns about what the men would do with their money, so Boulder City had lots of restrictions about what could and could not be built there. Consequently, many of the original buildings still remain and it is considered a historical site. On the southern side of the town there are some amazing houses overlooking Lake Mead (which formed behind the Hoover Dam) belonging to Debbie Reynolds and Sharia.

Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River operated by the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It came about because of water issues taking place between the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming early in the 20th Century. In the 1920’s Herbert Hoover, who was later to become President, was the federal government representative at a meeting between the states to try and negotiate how to deal, in particular, with the Colorado River. The resolution of the meeting was that the river was to be divided into 2 sections; each would be further negotiated by the states which bordered those two sections.

The Boulder Canyon Project was too big to be taken on by any one company and on March 11, 1931 the Six Companies Inc. was awarded the contract. This first involved building tunnels to divert the river so that the dam could be built on dry land. Concrete began to be placed into the dam on June 6, 1933 and with some clever thinking to deal with problems it was finished two years ahead of schedule and under budget in 1935. It is 1244 ft (379m) in length and 726.4 ft (221m) high and the concrete is enough to build a two lane highway from San Francisco to New York. As well as controlling the flooding which had previously been part of the river, the hydroelectric power produced provides electricity to six different states.

It was such an impressive engineering project that the planners and builders recognised that people would be interested in seeing it from the beginning. Viewing platforms were built not just for seeing the outside of the dam but on the inside to see the hydro electrics, accessible by tunnels and elevators. There are all sorts of memorials and markers including one to the 112 confirmed deaths that took place among the workers and another to the dog who was the workers mascot but was killed later on. The tours and videos are very informative, as is all the information provided on boards and plaques.

From the dam itself we journeyed up to the top of the hill to overlook Lake Mead. The Lake was named for Dr. Elwood Mead, the Bureau of Reclamations first commissioner and, therefore, leader of the project. His writing of water codes had an impact upon Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, as well as the U.S.A. What was particularly noticeable about the lake was how much the water level was down from normal. As well as there being a very distinct mark along the Black Canyon (although the project was originally intended for the Boulder Canyon, the Black Canyon was better for a dam site) it was obvious that the water level in the lake was significantly lower because the docks for boats had been moved further down into the lake.

On the way back to the city we stopped in at Henderson (a separate town that is now essentially a suburb) to the Ethel M Chocolates Factory. The factory is named for the mother of the two men who founded the company that produces Mars Bars and M&Ms. She was their inspiration, and the factory is to commemorate an older method of chocolate making, as well as to inform about the history of chocolate. As you would expect, there was a shop at the end of the tour where you could buy chocolates of all shapes sizes and tastes. There was also a M&M themed shop at the beginning of the tour which sold clothing, toys, curios and all sorts of other things with M&M related images.

Outside of the factory was a cactus garden with all sorts of cacti from all over the world. There were cacti from the Baja California region that we had toured on our honeymoon as well as other variants from all sorts of other places. Amongst the plants there were also a number of different species of bird and at least one lizard that we were able to see. It was fascinating to see the different shapes and sizes as well as the trees. Many of the names were excellent descriptions of the plants to which they belonged. While unexpected in a tour that was ostensibly of Hoover Dam, it was fascinating to see both the factory and the garden.

The final part of the trip involved dropping each of us back at our hotels, which also gave Camille the opportunity to take us into ‘old’ Las Vegas. This was obviously a cheaper version of the strip but still included some fascinating sites. Among these were the Golden Nugget and the overhead display lights. We also had the opportunity to see many of the chapels at which visitors to Las Vegas can be married covering more movies and television shows than we care to remember. Our final leg took us part the Worlds Largest Gift Shop and the World Market Center. All in all it had been a very worthwhile time.

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