Sunday, December 26, 2010

Route 66 Journal - Day 7

7:11 a.m.
I woke up rested and feeling energetic, apparently getting the hang of sleeping outdoors. Although, my restful sleep may have been the result of my closeness to one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, lying only a few hundred yards from my tent. Without a doubt, the Grand Canyon emitted a certain sense of peacefulness that affected everyone around it.

8:28 a.m.
Grand Canyon in the morning
After breaking camp, I went back to the Desert View lookout and watched the rim in the glow of the morning sun. Even though it was my second time looking at the canyon, I felt the same awe and inspiration I experienced when I first laid eyes upon it. I doubt I would ever become bored of the spectacular sight of the Grand Canyon. It is a truly spiritual place.

9:45 a.m.
Grand Canyon National Park
I had driven though most of the park, enjoying the spectacular vista. The rim on my right and a sparse mountain forest on the other provided a nice and relaxing driving experience. I especially found the signs warning me of mountain lions interesting; it would have been awesome to actually see one of the animals. To my biggest disappointment, however, the cats decided not to show that day.

Upon reaching Grand Canyon Village, the main visitor center, I realized what the term “summer crowd” really meant. Time was not even ten in the morning, and I could hardly find a parking spot, visitors pouring in by the busload. Under these circumstances, the fact that I could find an empty campsite last night seemed even more like a miracle.

After taking a short hike around the rim and stopping by the park’s main entrance to take a picture of the Grand Canyon sign, it was time to hit the road again. I had to drive back to Flagstaff before I could continue my trip westward; my goal for the day: Las Vegas!

Further pictures: #1#2.

11:45 a.m.
Fortunately, instead of backtracking to Flagstaff, the road actually took me to Williams, a nice little city surrounded by lush, green hills. Despite the town’s attractiveness, however, I did not stay long. I merely stopped for gas and then immediately headed west because I knew that a few miles ahead, between Ash Fork and Kingman, laid a special section of Route 66. According to the literature, the narrow, roughly a hundred mile long, stretch had retained most its historical look, following its original track, far from the crowd and craziness of the interstate. If I wanted to experience what the Mother Road looked and felt like back in her heydays, that was the place to do it.

12:06 p.m.
I just reached the 2000 miles mark.

12:14 p.m.
Soon after I left Ash Fork, I found the famed stretch of Route 66 most books talk about. The area around the road was largely unpopulated, and I felt as if I had gone back in time fifty years, back to the glory days of the Mother Road—only with less traffic, as I had not met another driver for miles.

The scenery, however, was rather uninteresting, just barren hills and yellow, sun dried fields until the sky merged with the ground in the distance. Travelers were entertained by a series of signs periodically telling a short anecdote and trying to prevent drivers from falling asleep. Nevertheless, despite the monotonous panorama, I enjoyed driving on this rare, historic highway, especially enjoying the solitude it provided.

1:26 p.m.
The Mother Road
After driving through an overpass crossing the Santa Fe Railroad, I noticed a car parking on the side of the highway. The vehicle’s owners, an elderly couple, were standing in the bushes, discussing something and taking pictures. Since I had time, I decided to pull over and see what they were doing, a decision I did not regret. As it turned out, the couple—from Germany, judging by their accents—in all likelihood stumbled onto a small section of the original Mother Road.

Apparently, during the renovation of the highway, the authorities decided to build a new bridge over the railroad tracks while also keeping the old one—non operational and closed to traffic though. This allowed a small strip of the historic highway, immediately adjacent to the old overpass on both sides, to remain untouched. Although rather unimpressive, heavily affected by the passing decades, cracked and overgrown by plants, the road still gave out a special kind of vibe. The old bridge even had the distinctive Route 66 marks on its railing.

Though I believe most people would consider getting keyed up over a little patch of old asphalt rather silly, I could not help but feel a little excited. It was the real deal, the actual road from back in time.

2:19 p.m.
Seligman, Arizona
About halfway to Kingman, the tiny town of Seligman—barely a few streets large—seemed to exist solely to cater for Route 66 tourists. The residents apparently tried to recapture the look and feel of the 50s—as far as I was concerned, successfully. The main road was crammed with restaurants, offering homemade burgers, milkshakes, and Coca Cola, and souvenir shops, decorated in the most cleaver fashion from vintage cars to manikins. I enjoyed walking into the stores and going through the incredible amount of collectibles and other—oh, let’s call it—memorabilia on the shelves. Interestingly, a few places even displayed license plates and paper money from all the different countries which tourists passing through Seligman came from—though, German items seemed to overshadow everything else.

Seligman presented a unique Route 66 experience that did not leave me unaffected: before I left the town, I had to get myself an ice-cold Coca Cola.

Further pictures: #1#2.

3:55 p.m.
I stopped in Kingman, where Route 66 merges back into interstate 40, and refilled my truck before continuing my way toward Las Vegas.

4:44 p.m.
After long miles in the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, just before the Hoover Dam, I hit a road construction in the mountains. This, combined with the heavy security at the dam, slowed traffic down to an almost walking pace. Advancing bit by bit in the endless line of cars with the A/C trying to keep up, unsuccessfully, with the scorching desert temperature outside put an enormous pressure on my truck. So much so that, after a while, the engine began to overheat!

Luckily, when the warning signs lit up on the dashboard, I was close to a parking lot and was able to stop before my truck would quit working. When the engine cooled down enough to continue, I went back to the slowly advancing line. Fortunately though, from then on, I was able to use gravity and the slight slant of the hills to my advantage, cruising all the way down to the dam in neutral, without putting further pressure on my vehicle.

5:32 p.m.
Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam
Interestingly enough, the Hoover Dam turned out to be a little disappointing primarily because it looked much smaller than I had imagined from pictures and movies. Of course, in all fairness, I must confess that I did not see its depth from my truck, therefore missing the most attractive part of the structure. The blue surface of Lake Mead right next to the dam, however, was nice enough to justify a short stop and a few pictures.

Once I passed the dam—and entered the state of Nevada—I was able to revert to a faster pace and was relieved to notice that the wind generated by my speed was again enough to keep the engine at a safe temperature.

6:30 p.m.
Before I arrived in Las Vegas, I did a quick financial checking and determined that I might be able to stay in a hotel—despite my insistence on keeping my spending as low as possible. The many billboards next to the highway advertising $1.99 lobster dinners and such also helped me come to this conclusion. I was hoping I could find a few good deals; after all, I was in Las Vegas!

6:50 p.m.
I drove through Las Vegas Boulevard. Though it looked a bit narrower than I imagined, looking at the legendary casinos along the way was a great experience. Despite the incredible heat, the streets were already crawling with people, and I could not wait to finally be among them and discover “America’s Playground.”

Mandalay Bay
As I was driving through the Strip, however, it occurred to me that I did not know squat about Las Vegas and had not the slightest idea of where and how to start my bargain-hunting. I did not even know where to park. Since I was quickly approaching the end of the main entertainment district, I simply pulled into the garage of the last major casino, Mandalay Bay, on Las Vegas Boulevard. Though I expected Mandalay Bay—an impressive glass giant—to be way out of my budget, I was hoping to find at least a few brochures at the lobby that could provide a starting point to my search.

7:30 p.m.
The way to the front desk led me through much of the Mandalay Bay complex, easily comparable to the size of a small city. Although I had a general idea of what to expect from Las Vegas, the reality of the place truly blew my mind. Never have I seen such luxury before. Elegant shops, restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, and gambling halls dotted the labyrinth-like hallways. Black marble and gold dominated the interiors, but not excessively. Whoever built Mandalay Bay never lost sight of its true aim: to be both extravagant and tasteful at the same time.

The casino part of the complex, on the other hand, did not hold any surprises; it was exactly as I imagined. Massive rooms filled with slot machines, Black Jack tables, and numerous other forms of the sinful pleasures of gambling. Even those who bet sports had their own theater-sized room filled with hundreds of monitors where they could follow virtually every sporting event in the country. Neon lights, noise, and a constant crowd distinguished these areas from the modest elegance of the rest of the casino.

Though gambling never interested me, I would be lying if I said the vibe of the place left me unaffected. I decided that, once I solved my lodging problem, I would definitely try at least the slot machines.

7:43 p.m.
After a good half hour of wandering in the gigantic casino, I finally arrived to the lobby. Despite my expectations, however, I could not see anything there that would even remotely bring me closer to solving my problem. There were no brochures or flyers lying around like in an ordinary roadside hotel. Fortunately, on the way back from the front desk, I noticed an information booth and decided to check it out. Though I expected it to serve hotel customers only, I was hoping the employees there would at least be willing to give me advice on where to start looking for a reasonably priced hotel room. To my biggest surprise, however, I received much more.

Once I explained my problem to the attractive girl behind the counter, she not only looked for a hotel room based on my price-range but actually made the reservation for me. As a result, ten minutes later, I walked away from the booth with the comforting thought that a room was waiting for me.

8:17 p.m.
Very convenient, the hotel—Hooters Casino and Hotel—was only walking distance from the Strip, and my room was similarly satisfactory. Nice, clean, and furnished with beach-style bamboo gear, it provided a beautiful view to the nearby Tropicana, MGM Grand, and New York New York casinos. Though the room was far from being extravagant, after days of washing up in truck stop restrooms, it felt like the very definition of luxury—and for a great price too.

Even though I was exhausted from the long trip, I could not wait to finally head out and see what the fuss surrounding Las Vegas was all about. Before I would hit the bricks, however, I tried my luck with the slot machines with the hundred dollars the hotel gave—complementary for all new members—but, of course, I lost it all in just a few short minutes.

2:13 a.m.
New York New York
A person once said that Las Vegas is a fake city built for fake people. Well, risking of being categorized as “fake,” I have to confess that I absolutely loved it. The crowd, the lights, the glamour were all very appealing to me. The city was so alive that it made parts of New York City look like a sleepy little village. People from all over the world came to have fun in “America’s Playground.”

Even though initially I just wanted to walk around for an hour and then go to bed early, I actually ended up spending the rest of the night and much of the next morning wandering on the gleaming streets of Las Vegas. With every step I saw something interesting, luring me deeper into the heart of the city and farther away from my bed. I visited many of the famous casinos—which I maintain the owners built purposefully to confuse visitors and keep them inside. Underneath all the major casinos lay a town-sized dungeon with a seemingly never-ending line of entertainment opportunities. In fact, most casinos reminded me of amusement parks, making sure visitors always had something to do and, evidently, spend their money on.

Of course, all this effort would have been in vain, if people did not go in and this is where the outside attractions came in. Some casinos tried to draw in people with various cultural themes, such as Caesar’s Palace, the Venetian, or Paris. Others took a different route and tried to stand out by presenting unique shows to those on the streets. Among these, I particularly liked the Bellagio’s fountain, the Treasure Island’s pirate show, and the Mirage’s volcano

Further pictures: #1#2#3#4#5.

3:13 p.m.
By the time I found my way back to the hotel, even the Las Vegas crowd began to disperse. Small cleaning crews emerged all along the Strip, closing down sections of the sidewalk and, much to my surprise, mopping them up! Though the extreme cleanliness of the city was astonishing, I was simply too tired to give it much thought. I went upstairs, took one last look at neon-covered Las Vegas from my room, and hit the bed, falling asleep immediately.

Distance covered on the seventh day 

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