Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Travel Rewind: Way Out West (2006)

Travel Rewind: Way Out West (2006): (This month's rewind theme is journeys out west...pictures on Smugmug) Like the pioneers before me, I headed West -- Nevada specifically; a little time in the desert, a little time in the high country. Just like those hardy souls who packed up their wagons looking for the future, so I followed the sun in the name of high adventure. Of course, my wagon had a flight attendant and free booze.

Let me start by saying that I love flying first class. I mean I just LOVE flying first class. It completely takes the stress out of flying for me. Even getting patted-down for the first time in ages could not discomfit me. Knowing that I will not be contorted into a torture chair, have to be on guard against an inadvertent elbow from the fat, sweaty guy in the middle seat, hover over the poor folk in the last row to wait my turn to use the lav, or deal with the interminable wait as half the plane struggles to get their oversized carry-ons down and gather up their random belongings before shuffling out ahead of me, just makes me absolutely carefree about flying.

I finally used up some of my USAirways/America West miles to upgrade to first class for my flight to Reno. Considering I had to change planes in Phoenix, making it an all day affair, first class was a life saver. The food wasn't bad either -- fairly tasty pasta and chicken dishes both ways with a glass or two of white wine. I could get used to this. I need to be rich.

The plan was for two quick nights in Reno, just to scope the place out; followed by three more leisurely nights in Lake Tahoe (about an hour and fifteen minute drive away). I arrived in Reno in the late evening, about 10:30pm so it was pushing midnight by the time I retrieved my bags, collected my Ford Taurus from Hertz and made my way to the Reno strip.

The core of Reno is an easy ten minute drive from the airport. As I arrived at my hotel, The Silver Legacy, I was directed to self-parking (free) and had to make my way up to the 10th floor of the parking garage. Apparently the place was pretty much packed to capacity, not surprising for Labor Day. Arriving so late I fretted about them not being able to honor my request for a non-smoking room -- trust me, the one place you do not want to get stuck in a smoker is in a casino -- but they came through, quick and efficient.

Reno bills itself as the Biggest Little City in the World. It's often thought of as Las Vegas North. Well, speaking as a confirmed Vegas junky, I was ready to have a good laugh at that claim. But, you know, Reno does OK. Style and attitude-wise, the Vegas Strip it ain't. It's somewhat like downtown Vegas in that it is well downscale (and even seedy in parts) when compared to the glitter at the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Blvd., but it's not without its charms.

First off, what might be termed the Reno strip is small-ish. The only really big complex is a co-joined casino threesome of Silver Legacy, the El Dorado, and Circus Circus. Stay at one and you have easy access to all three.

The Silver Legacy, where I was staying, was the central of the three properties. The first thing you notice is that just off the lobby, there is huge, multi-story Victorian era contraption serving as its centerpiece. The device had no obvious function at first glance; it was just an enormous concoction of giant gears and lever arms and pulleys. It looked like a prop from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or a time machine as imagined by a contemporary of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

It turns out this monstrosity is an old silver stamping machine, which cranks out some sort of coins (presumably souvenirs). This goes hand in hand with silver mining theme of the Silver Legacy. Which begs the question: Did they have the gargantuan machine and name the casino based on it, or did they want a silver mining themed casino and go out and find the gargantuan machine? Which begs a further question: What is the lamest casino theme ever? I gotta go with The Silver Legacy. At least until someone comes up with a zinc mining or gravel pit theme.

Lame theme aside, the Silver Legacy is not a bad spot. The rooms are straight out of the Howard Johnson's playbook from the 1970s, but they are clean and functional. The staff is friendly and sharp. The price is right -- the night before Labor Day, when the place was packed, the rate a bit over $100, but on subsequent nights the price plunged to $45. Toto, we're not in Vegas anymore.

The restaurant options are good and cover the full range from high-toned steakhouse to food court staples. Parking is plentiful. There is a nice workout facility. The pool, on the other hand, is sorry-looking, although it is up on the roof with a decent view. There are two -- count 'em -- two cabanas and if they charge for them, they shouldn't. Wi-fi support comes though being an AT&T hotspot and so is not free, and you all know how I feel about that.

The Silver Legacy's neighbor on one side, the El Dorado, was fairly non-descript. There is an interesting little garden courtyard area and the place is very light on pretense and affectation and appeared to be pretty much theme-free, which is a treat in the casino world, but that's about it.

The third connected property, Circus Circus, is deeply twisted and terrifying. First, there is the clown motif. CLOWNS ARE EVIL. Second, there are those obnoxious carnival games like the ring toss over the pop bottles and the squirt gun in the clowns mouth thing and so forth. All are manned by carnies -- small hands, smell like cabbage. But most disturbingly there this sign out front that features the beyond freaky picture of two obviously mutated dogs. I am sure there is a reason for this being the featured graphic for the place but I really don't want to know what it is.

You know how when you were in college and everyone would get together and drop acid, there was always the one guy who would curl up in the corner whimpering and crying "please make it stop, please make it stop". Walk into Circus Circus and you'll know what he felt like.

Silver Legacy and Circus Circus (strangely, though, not the El Dorado) are owned by the MGM/Mirage group, although I doubt Kerkorian spends a whole lot of time here.

The only other significant property in walking distance is Harrah's, which looks and feels exactly like every other Harrah's, whether on the Strip, in New Orleans, or Tahoe -- a serviceable, decent quality casino. It's kind of like the Bennigan's of casinos, nothing to get excited about, but at least you probably won't get food poisoning.

Beyond the "Strip" there are casinos spread throughout the city. The most notable of those being The Peppermill.

If I were to ever go back to Reno, The Peppermill is where I would stay. Walking into The Peppermill is a dizzying event. It is a 360 degree swirl of brightness and contrast. There can't be more than a few square feet of the place that is not covered in neon lights of some shape or form. It sounds garish and it is, but it is also strangely compelling, probably because it feels like it was done in good humor and with a certain sense of its own absurdity.

The folks at The Peppermill also realize that even party-animal gamblers need a break from the visual onslaught, so they have installed one of the strangest things I have ever seen in a casino. Just outside the main restaurant, called Oceana, there are several banks of slot machines all facing a huge video display -- must be 20 ft. diagonal. What is showing on the display, you ask? Not sports, as you might expect. Not even promos for the casino. What is showing are scenes from beaches from around the world: Hawaii, The Caribbean, Cape Cod, etc. Just scenes of water lapping on the shore, peaceful couples wandering down the shore at sunset, sailboats coasting along in the breeze.

So folks are sitting there, pumping money into slot machines, while gazing up at these serene oceanic vistas. Is this done to lull people into a hypnotic state where they just keep rhythmically hitting the "play max credits" button? Are the machines particularly tight and they are trying to chill people out once they realize how much they've lost? Is the subliminal message that if you keep playing you will eventually win enough to live on one of these perfect beaches? The psychology is inscrutable.

You know how when you were in college and everyone would get together and drop acid, there was always one guy who would just keep giggling and dancing around and proclaiming his joyousness to the world. That guy moved to Reno and designed The Peppermill.

Even though this confirmed Vegas junkie went to Reno with a cynical attitude, I couldn't help be somewhat charmed and not just by all the eccentricities. The folks in Reno were an easy-going, friendly bunch -- almost Norman Rockwell-ish in their ways; this in contrast to the intensity that permeates Vegas. Even in the casinos, the dealers were very tolerant of those who might make transgressions of etiquette. In Vegas, confusion about when you can split or double down might induce stern looks or strong words from a dealer who can barely speak English (at Mandalay Bay I believe the policy is to spit on you). In Reno the nice lady will smile and take a moment to gently educate you in her warm western drawl. She'll probably even call you "Honey".

Sadly, I just missed a couple of interesting happenings in Reno that I regretfully couldn't attend. First, there was the Rib Festival in the nearby town of Sparks. It finished up on Labor Day, but I only heard about it from a cabbie when it was too late to head out there. Not that I'm all that big on ribs, but it sounded like fun.

But the big festival that was still going on when I got there was the Burning Man. Burning Man is, well, very close to indescribable. Basically, it's a few days of safe haven in the desert for every form of freakish reveler imaginable, all of which is passed off as a form of art. I knew about Burning Man and had tentatively planned to visit, but it turns out you really cannot go for just a day. It is designed for you to attend for the full duration and essentially camp out there. I had planned to go for the final day just to gawk, but it turns out they won't even let you pay full admission that late in the session. I did notice a few, um, recently Burned Men on the Reno streets the day the festival closed, most of whom you could identify by the B.O. I never understood why some people find the search of true freedom and a higher plane of existence incompatible with personal hygiene. Lousy hippies.

The next step of my journey was the drive from Reno to Lake Tahoe, during which I made a quick side trip for lunch in Virginia City.

The road up to Virginia City roller-coasters up through the high desert; there's a great stop along the way where you can get sweeping panoramas of the entire Reno area and the surrounding desert. You keep going higher and higher beyond that and eventually you come to the Old West tourist town of Virginia City. (If you are old enough you remember Virginia City from the burning map at the beginning of the old TV series Bonanza.)

Virginia City is kind of sweet. It's like the little surf towns I have been through in Hawaii or the outdoorsy towns in northern Michigan or the tiny seaports you get all along the Atlantic coast; quiet little places that happen to have a strong pull for visitors and so Main Street becomes a litany of shops and little restaurants themed toward whatever is drawing la touristas. In the case of Virginia City it is the Old West. You can watch a gunfight, take a tour through museum of the city's history, buy all variety of souvenirs -- the usual touristy stuff. Most buildings are refurbished, with stories behind them. The saloons display the ancient gaming tables (of course, this being Nevada, they are right next to functioning banks of slot machines).

Virginia City is a worth a stop to wander up and down Main Street and maybe duck into one of the little museums. Everything is pretty inexpensive. The drive in and out provides plenty of scenery. No downsides here.

From there on to the southern shore of Lake Tahoe.

Tahoe is a strikingly beautiful place. You climb out of the hot, khaki desert (it is typically 10 degrees cooler in Tahoe than Reno, though it is only a bit over an hour south) and the haze clears into beautiful blue sky and the harsh scrub becomes thick evergreen. The personality changes from Western eccentric to well-heeled elite. And that's just South Tahoe, which the true Tahoans consider to be "too commercial."

As in Reno, my explorations in Tahoe started in a casino. I won't bore you with more casino details, but as a quick description, the casinos in Tahoe have none of the seediness that they had in Reno, but they all fall short of the best of the Vegas Strip. Lake Tahoe is 1/3 in Nevada and 2/3 in California. Not surprisingly, the casinos sit pretty much adjacent to the border on the Nevada side. I checked into the Montbleu Casino (formerly Caesar's Tahoe) and took a nice five-minute stroll over to California to get some dinner. Across the border in California is Heavenly Village, an open air shopping area with some decent restaurants. More interestingly, there is a gondola that takes you high up to the top of Heavenly Mountain. Up there is a nice restaurant and bar, some activities such as hiking trails, rock climbing, and skiing (in season). Also there are phenomenal panoramic views of Lake Tahoe -- high enough to see it from end to end.

At least that's what I was told. The gondola was shut down for repairs until my final day. But I was able to get a tasty sandwich from Wolfgang Puck and a Jamba Juice for dessert. Nice place, Heavenly Village.

There was still some time before dark so I drove a few minutes along the lake to the Tallac historic site. Tallac is where the hyper rich of Tahoe's past built their vacation homes. This is where the lords of mining and finance would chill when the world got to be too much for them, making it something like the Hamptons of the northern Nevada. Over time the homes were all sold off and fell into varying states of disrepair. In stepped the Tahoe Tallac Association and the US Forest Service and restorations are underway. It is obviously that there is a ways to go on some of this, but there are guided tours and one building has been turned into a playhouse.

I confined myself to wandering a little ways past the structures to a fine little beach adjacent to a harbor and sat on the deck of a restaurant sipping a beer and making plans for my time in Tahoe.

The next morning I was the first in line to rent a jet ski. I love jet skis. There is little I can think of that is more fun than barreling across the water searching for wakes to jump and turning crazy donuts at random moments. I know if I actually owned one and could do it every day I might get bored, but as it stands I will rent one for an hour every chance I get, even though it is ridiculously expensive.

Certain places were renting them for $100/hour. The Montbleu got me a slightly better deal than that, but damn -- I could've rented a BMW for less than $100, and that would have been for the whole day. Quite a racket. Still, this was my last chance to get on the water this year, and I have no buyers regret. It was sweet. Most fun was trailing along behind this big paddle wheel tour boat, criss-crossing its wake at top speed. Fully airborne, baby!

After a quick lunch I was back in the car for another adventure; this one to an actual ghost town. The road south from Tahoe into the wilds of western California starts with another one of those harrowing roller coaster drives over a mountain, then across a couple of hours worth of ranch country, finally culminating in about three miles of dirt road at the end of which, you come up over a rise to a sweeping view of the ghost town of Bodie.

The guidebooks say it is best to see Bodie fairly late in the day. That's undoubtedly true. The obliquely angled sunlight brings color to the place, which is primarily an array of wooden town buildings that sit at the foot of an enormous mill.

Bodie was the location of an enormous gold boom back in the 1870s. Of course almost as fast as it boomed, it busted. It hung on as best as it could until the 1930s when fire destroyed about 90% of the place. The remaining buildings were abandoned pretty much as they remain, with canned goods on the shelves and curtains on the windows, although a handful of the buildings have been converted for use by the park rangers.

OK, so it's a bunch of abandoned old buildings, right? What's the big deal? It's hard to describe, but it is simultaneously beautiful and disquieting, especially when viewed from one of the surrounding high areas where you can see the entirety of the town. It is exactly as you might picture a ghost town, in an open area of the high desert, surrounded by peaks on all sides. You come out of the desert and suddenly there is the town, in stark contrast to the scrub all around it. There are simple little cottage sized buildings all standing in the shadow of a huge mill complex -- it looks positively medieval in some ways. Like you might expect it to be pillaged by Mongol hordes at any moment.

Ghost towns are eerie things, especially this well preserved. The sense of it being a community is very strong; you can't help but see it as a piece of humanity. But everyone is just gone. It's as if you inserted a magnet into a bunch of metal filings and then, once they had fallen into place, you reversed the polarity and the filings dispersed. There must be innumerable stories of people and events in Bodie that are now lost; just vanished from existence as if they never occurred. The populace dissolved without a clue that in 150 years, packs of camera wielding hordes would return in fascination.

And judging from the visitors, Bodie is now pretty much a prime destination for photographers. Oh there were a few people wandering and sightseeing, but the majority were scurrying about, contorting themselves into all sorts of awkward positions, trying to get just the right angle for their shots. Most were very serious, judging from their camera rigs. They had tripods and light meters and lenses that were the size of my arm. I was embarrassed to be carrying my little Kodak point-and-shoot.

It's not a small task to get to Bodie. It's two and a half hours from South Lake Tahoe, and the closest town is nearly a half-hour drive away. The final miles are on a seasonally opened dirt road. There are no souvenirs and no concessions (there are bathrooms though), so once in Bodie, you have nothing to do but be in Bodie. You will drive 5 hours round trip to hang in Bodie and take pictures for an hour, so you better be keen on the visual adventure or you will be disappointed.

Me, I loved it. I found it fascinating both historically and aesthetically. And the ride there was really quite lovely over the mountains and through ranch country. If you are of an adventurous mindset, Bodie is a good target.

Just like that I was down to my last day and as usual, I had a plan. The plan was to hop in the car and do a quick day hike at Emerald Bay, which was identified in one of the tourist mags as the most beautiful spot on the lake. After that, I would return to Heavenly Village because the gondola had reopened. In the evening I would find place to watch the NFL season opener, and get to bed early since I had to get up in the middle of the night (5:30AM) the next day to drive back to Reno to catch my flight.

Of course, that didn't work. First, I got distracted in the casino on the way out in the morning. They had a craps table roped off and were filming some sort of promotional commercial. It was a curious sight so I stood and watched a while. The set up looked pretty genuine; I mean, every craps table I have been at has been loaded down with beautiful, perfectly made-up women just like the one they had staged. Or at least they would be if the unkempt middle-aged guys in baseball caps left them any room. I mentioned this to one of the film crew who looked at me like I was a germ. Strangely, they didn't ask me to be in the promo.

The road to Emerald Bay is not long, but it is under construction. It is yet another one of those roller-coaster two-lane jobs, with no shoulders in many parts, that can make you feel as though the slightest twitch of the wheel will send you tumbling to a horrible, burning, action-movie demise. It's not all that far from where I was staying, but the speed limit is on the low side and there was construction. Man was there ever construction.

In situations like this -- narrow roads with no shoulders, where they have to take it down to one lane -- they set up flag people some distance form each other and hold up traffic in one direction, then switch off after a few minutes. Standard procedure. Well, around Lake Tahoe they position the flag waivers miles and miles apart. Catch the procession at the wrong time and you will be sitting in your car for a minimum of 20 minutes.

What I'm getting at is that between making snide comments at the craps table and sitting idle watching some guy stand around with a stop/slow sign, it took me a lot longer than it should have to cover the 20 miles or so Emerald Bay.

Emerald Bay State Park is on a glacier-carved cove off the western shore of Lake Tahoe. You access it from a pull off on the high road above and hike a full mile downhill to water level. That means another mile uphill when you are done. The area is forested by enormous evergreens; like all of Tahoe, it seems much more Lush Alpine than Arid Desert. Upon passing though the woods and reaching the shore there is a beach and a small dock. Out in the cove sits the only island in Lake Tahoe, Fannette Island, looking as though it was placed by a landscape artist.

The day was perfect, the sun was high and bright, the water was the deepest of blue. There were a handful of boaters who had docked and were picnicking or getting some sun. Others who had sailed over to the Fanette Island, where you can climb the peak to a small structure called the "teahouse". From the flat blue water the mountains soar up blanketed in dark green foliage. I have seen a lot of beautiful places in the world and Emerald Bay is right up there with the best of them. I can't imagine and more perfect place to while away an afternoon with a swim and a picnic.

From the coastline there is a short steep trail up to Eagle Falls, which isn't really much more than a minor creek running over some rocks, but it's up nice and high, providing fine views, especially if you are comfortable ignoring the safety signs and scrambling out on some of the boulder formations.

There is really only one structure in Emerald Bay: a '20s era mansion called Vikingsholm. From the name you can guess that is a Nordic style lodge. It is adorned with carved wood work and has an actual sod roof -- apparently an old Norse method of insulation was to have a lawn on top of the house, which suggests a poor Scandinavian husband being nagged to mow the roof.

They give regular guided tours of Vikingsholm but I didn't take one because I needed to get back to Heavenly Village to ride the gondola. Naturally, I didn't make it in time. After the uphill trudge back to my car I got snagged in the worst possible way at the constructions site: I was the very first in line to be stopped by the flagman. I waited a solid half-hour before he flipped the sign from "stop" to "slow". Not exaggerating.

So by the time I got back, the gondola had closed for the day. Missed the last one by 10 minutes. Personally, I blame the film crew and the beautiful ladies playing fake craps. Oh well. Nothing to do but accept that I was at the end of my vacation. So I put the camera away and stopped worrying about what to do and where to go next. I stopped at a little open air restaurant in Zephyr Cove to enjoy the sunset of what was likely to be my last true summer day of the year over a bowl of what had to be the best New England clam chowder I have ever had.

The next day brought the early morning drive back to the airport where I was given the lovely send off at the airport. The Reno Air Show (another Reno festival I missed) was beginning and they kicked of with a mass ascension of hot air balloons over the city. It was awfully nice of them to do that for me, but really there was no need. I enjoyed the hell out of this vacation. And I only managed to cover about a quarter of Lake Tahoe.

I have become a big fan of Nevada and the surrounding areas. It is on par with Florida as a state I can consistently go back to and explore. [[update: I had yet to appreciate Utah back then - dam]] I'm sure I'll back sooner rather than later. Maybe next year I could come out in time to point and laugh at Burning Man. And I only covered about a quarter of Lake Tahoe.

Yes the dusty wagon trails are calling me. I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences. Like Huck Finn, I need to light out for the territories before they sivilze me. Better start hoarding those flyer miles.