Friday, January 06, 2012

[Travel] Long Gone

Long Gone: Nearly two full weeks is a long time for me to be away. If I hadn't had help, my plants would have died. I even had to have my mail stopped. Usually I‘m not gone long enough to have to worry about such details, but this was my one extended trip this year (thank you house) so I made the most of it. An extended road trip through the Southwest to destinations old and new, I was able to renew my acquaintance with the seemingly interminable, sparsely trafficked roads through Arizona and the Mojave.

In my travels I have discovered there are two things that exert a powerful visceral pull on me; simple acts that I can perform quietly and peacefully for long stretches. One is floating and bobbing in the waves of a warm ocean (generally the Florida Atlantic, but also The Gulf, or Hawaii). The other is cruising steadily along the western two-lanes highways, virtually no other cars (off season), just the mountain backdrop and the occasional settlement off in the foothills. The road seems to go through the mountains and into the sky. Until I started visiting the West, I never understood how big the world is.

Pseudo poetic blather aside, this trip fell into the category of the later, and can be neatly divided into four parts.

The Grand Canyon

I'm probably one of the few people in the world who could be disappointed in the Grand Canyon. Funny, in all the years I've been travelling in and around Las Vegas, I had never made the four hour trip to the biggest name attraction in the country. But I must say I feel justified. I have thrice been to Zion and Bryce Canyon. I have been to Death Valley. I have been to Carlsbad Caverns. I have been to Canyonlands, Arches, and Mesa Verde. I have to feel as though I was right in covering all those before the Grand Canyon. The Canyon is certainly Grand. The scope is enormous, but that's part of the problem. The Grand Canyon is deeply impersonal. It is almost as if it is a place as opposed to a thing, if that makes sense. It's a geographic area you happen to be in, not an activity you are involved with.

The park itself (at least the South Rim) is built around a long winding path along the rim of the canyon. Even off-season, it's heavily peopled. You can cover the entire rim path on foot which would probably take the better part of the day, or you can take the nice efficient shuttle bus to the key areas. The south rim park is filled with places to eat and shop and buy souvenirs -- most are open through the off season. There are also several lodges in the main village area. If you can snag room in one of these it's much preferable to staying outside the park in one of the numerous motels just outside.

But you should book early. I didn't and ended up in a Holiday Inn Express just outside the park. The internet connection didn't function and the front desk guys abdicated any responsibility just referring you to a third party to call and complain to. (More on hotel internet complaints later.) There is a decent breakfast buffet, but be ready to eat it standing up because they don't supply enough seating. The walls are thin. The hallways smell of some indiscernible form of cooked flesh. Really, a very bad hotel.

The lodges inside the park however, appear pretty nice, however. Most have comfy looking lobby areas, decent restaurants or lounges, and you get the convenience of easily walking or shuttling anywhere you'd like. It's the only way to go.

Of course there is more beyond the rim path; you can go hiking into the canyon. There are a number of trails including some that will take you all the way down to the Colorado River, where you can cross and go up to the North Rim. That, however, is backcountry camping -- bring a tent and provisions and etc. Day hiking consists of varying lengths of hikes down, followed by turning around and coming back up. I hit the most popular trail in the AM and hiked down and back up -- a few miles, round trip. The views were fine; a slightly different perspective from the rim, but it didn't really change my somewhat jaded view of the place. I might feel differently if I were to schedule some days here and actually make the full hike down to the river and back to the north rim. Perhaps that would provide more of a personal connection.

After lunch I settled in at the lounge in the El Tovar Lodge (highly recommended, would be my first choice were I to return), for beer and the Michigan-Nebraska game. An older couple wearing Stetsons had commandeered the juke box and were slow dancing to Patsy Cline. I had a burger that was cooked into submission served by a homespun bartender. You would think you were in any ol' western roadhouse, with no hint that just outside was a tourist mecca.

The remainder of the time I spent trying to get some good photos, which I couldn't. I found it virtually impossible to get any sense of the extreme height or depth. I‘m sure part of it is not understanding the lighting and part of it is my mediocre photography skills, but I would take shots of imposing cliffs and sites with visual arresting contrasts and everything just came out bland. Perhaps unjustly, I again blame the nature of Grand Canyon itself. It is not like visiting an attraction, it's just too big.

All that said, I don't want to discourage you from visiting. You will have a good time, especially if you have kids. The place is almost Disney-like in its superior infrastructure. And if you can plan ahead and get a lodge in the park and maybe even arrange for an overnight camping trip in the depth of the canyon, then your impression might be vastly different from mine.

As for me, other things equal, I could recommend you something you'd better.

Lake Powell/Antelope Canyon

I really didn't know what to expect from the area around Page, Arizona. A few years back I had reached a point a little way east of here -- Monument Valley in Utah -- when I was exploring out of Moab, so I expected some red rock action, and got it, but beyond that everything was a surprise. Page is a small vacationy town on the banks of Lake Powell. Lake Powell is a big man-made lake that was created by the Glen Canyon Dam. As such you get the standard lake like activities such as boating and fishing, but you get them amidst towering canyon walls.

My first order of business, however, was to go underground. That's where the most visually striking feature of the area is, namely Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon is what's called a "slot canyon." Aptly named since you access it by sliding down through what literally looks like a slot in the earth. The canyon is formed by flash floods that plunge beneath the surface, carve out space, and smooth the wall surface into round, soft curves, looking like a red rock pop art animation.

There are upper and lower Antelope Canyons. Both are Navaho owned and operated, but they appear to be run by different families. The Upper one is more popular and any number of tours can be arranged in Page or presumably you can just show up and wait to join a tour, but the only way to see it is to fork some cash over for a tour.

I chose to visit the Lower Canyon because I heard you could pay admission to the park directly then wander about on your own. That didn't appear to be the case. You don't need to hook up with a formal tour, but you do need to hire a guide (they are waiting there for you). I suspect what actually happens is that when it gets busy rather than have everyone get a specific guide they station them around the canyon and let you walk through on your own. Whatever the case, I had plenty of opportunity for photography, although I certainly didn't capture anything as striking as Wikipedia's photo.

It only takes about 45 minutes to cover the entire canyon; it's not strenuous at all, although there are a fair amount of stairs in the Lower canyon. Whichever you choose, I can't recommend it highly enough, truly one of the most arrestingly beautiful natural sights I have seen.

I spent my one full day in Page exploring the area. Page itself is a nice small town that presumably swells up in season with multitudes of road tripping tourists; I would guess mostly families touring the West, and boaters and river runners. There are more than a few value hotels, chains or otherwise, and a handful of standard casual dining restaurants and pubs. The town is literally on the edge of the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell and there is a terrific viewing area where you can watch the Colorado flow through the canyon hundreds of feet below.

Page is also the primary south base for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area which follows Colorado river upstream all the way up to Canyonlands National Park, near my old buddy, Moab, UT. For the most part, the points of natural interest in the area are only accessible by boat, and a leisurely trip up the river to Hite, UT would be a sweet trip. But one spot accessible to autos is Lee's Ferry.

Lee's Ferry itself is a point of minor interest. There are some interesting rock formations on the way there. There are the remnants of some historic buildings. There is a boat launch. There is no longer an actual ferry. Lee's actual Ferry gave up the ghost decades ago when bridges were built, but until then, it was a key transportation choke point where one could cross the Colorado river. Otherwise anyone wanting to get to Southern California and Nevada was required to loop up almost to Wyoming.

What Lee's Ferry does have is a truly sweet and steep hiking trail. You access Spencer's Trail by walking a short way along the river from the boat launch. Then you go up. It's well maintained and marked. About 4.5 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 1700 feet. Quite steep for the casual hiker. Great for the heart, let me tell you. Sadly, as happens all too often, I didn't make the top. I made it about half way up when I crossed paths with a downhill hiker. We chatted briefly. He told me I was about half way up and that it got steeper from here. That's cool, I can handle it, I replied. Then he pointed out the weather. Clouds were gathering, the wind was freshening.

If youth makes you stupid, age makes you scared. I started to plow ahead but then I thought better of it and turned back. Were I younger, I probably would have plowing ahead…and subsequently been caught in a mud slide or something. The rain hit with conviction just before I got back to my car. So chalk up another half-lived experience. Also chalk up another reason to go back to Page. Great place. Next time I'll rent a boat a see the river canyons.

Vegas (as if you didn't know…)

To get this out of the way, I lost a trivial amount of money on my football betting. You see, I have a system; a system that has never done worse break even for any given week. I have probably played it 20 times over the past few years and even when I don't win I have never done worse that break even. (Actually that's not true, I have been down the vig in a few of those weeks, but that's practical rather than a predictive failure.)

So why am I not rich? Well, because I am not such an idiot to believe there is any such thing as a reliable system, although I have been given pause by my consistent successes, or at least non-failures. So I don't bet enough to cause me any serious financial issues if I lose. I am not a degenerate, just a gambler.

Also, I am not disciplined enough to stick to the system. I'll throw the odd bet on this or that, usually lose, and end up down slightly -- which is what happened this time. My systems bets broke me even, but I took a flyer on a Thanksgiving Day parlay and that was the total of my losses. La dee da.

I stayed at Paris. Got a cheap rate for a cheap (but serviceable) room, which was fine because I don't hang out in my room, but I think I will splurge more in the future -- Aria or Cosmopolitan probably. Most people go to Vegas for the excitement, I find more and more it is a sort of comfort for me. I have made uncountable trips there going back to the boom years and lately it seems to have struck a fine balance between my expectations and new experiences.

My routine is to troll the sportsbooks to find the best odds. Play some low stakes poker. Eat the Ravioli Di Stracotto at Carnevino. Get a straight razor shave. Torture myself in the hot tub/cold plunge combo at Qua in Caesars. Besides that, just investigate anything new. This year I discovered the Ceviche at Julian Serrano in Aria -- so moist and tender it's almost like eating passion fruit. I also visited the bar on the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental, which is my new favorite bar in Vegas. Music not too loud and obnoxious. Comfy chairs. And astounding strip views. It's like a classy Manhattan bar transplanted to Vegas.

That's about perfect. That's what I want and expect from my Vegas Thanksgiving.

I did try one kitschy thing. I drove north along Las Vegas Blvd. and tried to visit the shop from the Pawn Stars TV show. There was a line out the door and down the street just to get in and see the place. OK, I realize it's famous for the TV show, but it's still just a pawn shop -- sheesh. I turned around and left.

Palm Springs (and parts nearby)

Speaking of perfect, there is Palm Springs.

I suppose there are a number of ways to reach Palm Springs from Vegas, but I strongly recommend barreling through the Mojave. Duck off I-15 and the shortcut south through the Mojave National Preserve will provide you with deserted roads (at least on the Friday after Thanksgiving) through endless groves of Joshua trees. Dirt roads and trails lead off in every direction from the main road making this an off-roaders paradise. The right time of year you can't help but spot tarantulas scurrying across the pavement in search of love. It is starkly beautiful, but plainly unforgiving. You'll want a reliable car and full tank of gas and enough water to last a while because this is not a good place at all to be stranded.

Crossing the Mojave from the north, you'll only encounter two settlements. The first is Cima, which is generally described as a ghost town, although there are obvious signs of life. There appears to be a function general store of some sort (closed when I passed) with a lonely cow fenced in behind it. Apart from that there are some trashed out cars. It would be a good place for a bunch of teens to get lost and hunted by the toothless local desert rats.

The second settlement is Kelso Depot, which also serves as the local tourist hub and the formal welcome center. Here there are businesses and historical exhibits and the usual sorts of services you would find from the national park service. It's a very cool place to hang for a few. You can get some food and water and unclench from the subtle anxiety of being the middle of the pitiless Mojave.

Leaving the Mojave Preserve there is a still a long run south, past sparse, hard-scrabble settlements until you eventually hit Twentynine Palms, the first town that actually looks like a town. From here you head west as the little towns become increasing more suburban looking. Eventually the road turns south again and you come to pass an enormous wind farm, with hundreds huge white propellers dominating the horizon, and from there into Palm Springs proper. The transition from desert grunge to pristine cultivation could not be more pronounced.

When I say Palm Spring is perfect, I mean it is precisely what you expect it to be. Mid-century modern homes with flawlessly manicured landscaping. Wide, palm-lined streets. Beautiful people on promenade along Palm Canyon Drive, leading their pocket sized dogs, sipping wine in the open air restaurants. One thing is clear, however: they are all delighted to be in Palm Springs. As well they should be. It is eighty degrees and sunny, the air is clear and dry, and you probably have access to a pool, because if there is a perfect place to have access to a pool, it is Palm Springs.

Apart from lounging by the pool and promenading around with your toy breed, what does one do in Palm Springs? Well, golf is big, but I don't golf. In town, I suppose the Art Museum is something of popular attraction. It is not big, but it's open and invitingly designed. It is devoted to modern and contemporary art and while there are a few interesting pieces, I found the vast majority of the works to have a narcissistic feel. Much of the work is in-your-face mixed media giving the sense that the artists are crying "Look at me! I'm being symbolic! Or ironic! Or both! My art is important and daring! It comments on the world! Drop my name and you will gain instant status!" In other words it's the sort of art that, when mixed with wine and cheese, will bring people who promenade with their toy dogs to a reception.

I tease the Palm Springs nobility. If leaving the old Impeach Bush bumper sticker on your Prius and paying ten times the annual average wage of Zambia to feed organic food to your chihuahua keeps Palm Springs the way it is, then you have my full support. Honestly. You live in a truly awesome place.

And I am quite happy to have all the pool time I can get. My pool, in this case, was the fine one at the Hilton. The Hilton here is pretty nice on the surface, but there are little angles that bear closer scrutiny. First, you have to be wary of the free breakfast buffet. They have a full buffet, but it's only free if you confine yourself to a continental breakfast. If want to avail yourself of the full selection of tasties, they will credit you for the equivalent continental price, which effectively gets you a top notch buffet for about $10. A fair deal, but they could do a better job of managing expectations.

{Rant alert! Skip this section if you have no interest in my whining.}

The other problematic issue was that for all four nights I stayed, the wi-fi never worked. I honestly fail to understand why they can have reliably functioning wi-fi at McDonalds or Starbucks, but hotels can't seem to get this simple thing right. It may be because they have some notion that they should control access to it so they can charge for it in some circumstances, thus complicating the system and causing it to be unreliable. That's completely fat-headed. Throttle bandwidth if you must, but don't limit access. Really, a traveler can't get along with at least occasional web access. Why continue to treat it like a luxury? But the worst aspect of this is that when the wi-fi is not working, no one seems to know what to do.

I mentioned above how at the Holiday Inn they just pass you the number of a third party who, rather send someone out to address the problem, will do what is referred to as "troubleshooting" where they have you reboot and do all kinds of things to convince you that you are doing something wrong. No, I'm not doing anything wrong. It's 2011, connecting to wi-fi is a completely brain dead activity for a modern computer or phone. Clue for hoteliers everywhere: if someone is not able to connect to wi-fi, 99% of the time the problem is your wi-fi. No amount of "troubleshooting" with the user is going to sort it out.

At the Hilton they at least acknowledged the problem, but as near as I could tell, nobody took any action to correct it for four nights running. I ended up going to a nearby coffee shop to connect. Whoever is responsible for attention to that particular detail at the Hilton should be very ashamed. If the a/c didn't work or if the TV was out, action would have been taken immediately. Why is wi-fi different?

Attention hoteliers: If, for whatever reason you are unable to match McDonald's for quality of service, here's a procedure you can follow when someone complains about wi-fi being down:
  1. Have a laptop available to test with -- just some el cheapo job that you can fire up and try to connect on your own.
  2. If you can't connect that means the wi-fi is down. (You may have to check both the lobby and the location where the guest tried to log on.)
  3. If it is down, call the people responsible for fixing it right then and there and make arrangements to have it corrected.
  4. Have a back-up wired connection in the business center for urgent situations.
That's not hard is it? Much of this can probably be avoided by making wi-fi free and not requiring anyone to log-in or checkmark meaningless terms of use agreements. It really is a very simple technology, you could just turn it on and forget it.

The real top-notch five-star service properties would even take a more active approach by verifying the connection is available across the property in the morning before everyone is awake and late afternoon before any chance of repair is lost. Just part of the MOD's standard daily procedure. That is the sort of behavior that is the mark of a truly superior hotel.

But nobody listens.

{Here endeth the rant.}

OK. That felt good. On with the story.

For me, apart from the blindingly perfect winter weather, the coolest thing in Pam Springs is the hiking. Indian Canyons [Caution: auto-play maudlin Indian peace pipe music which cannot be turned off!], not ten minutes from where I was staying, has the goods. You simply drive up the long, winding South Palm Canyon Drive, or if you are smarter than me, you rent a bike and enjoy the day even more, which terminates in the Indian Canyons Park.

Indian Canyons appears to be part of the homeland of the Agua Caliente tribe, as far as I can tell, although it is never referred to as a reservation. It is a semi-mountainous region crisscrossed with many miles of hiking trails. For the most part these trails wind through desert scenery but at its core along the main trail you get to see why Palm Springs came into existence. It is, literally, a desert oasis; just like you would picture an oasis -- lush greenery, with burbling springs and soaring fan palms. There's not much of it -- probably not more than a square mile along the stream bed, but it's an entire ecosystem and a startling contrast to the arid scrub surrounding it.

Stop at the visitor center for a map, and take a moment to check out the swarms of buzzy little hummingbirds hovering and darting around the hanging feeders. From there hike the main route along the river for a while to appreciate the oasis vibe, then turn off on to the Victor Trail which takes you on a moderate ascent to an overlook that will give you the full view of the park and the city beyond it. Stop at the top. Appreciate.

My trip was winding down and as I try to do with each trip out west, I wanted to make sure I saw new sights and logged new experiences. In that vein this trip was a gem, but that's not to say there wasn't been a clunker or two. One side trip I chalked up that is certainly not for everyone is about 30 miles southeast of Palm Springs: The Salton Sea.

What is the Salton Sea? Here's the official description:
One of the world's largest inland seas and lowest spots on earth at -227 below sea level, Salton Sea was re-created in 1905 when high spring flooding on the Colorado River crashed the canal gates leading into the developing Imperial Valley. For the next 18 months the entire volume of the Colorado River rushed downward into the Salton Trough. By the time engineers were finally able to stop the breaching water in 1907, the Salton Sea had been born at 45 miles long and 20 miles wide – equaling about 130 miles of shoreline.
What it actually is, though, is pretty nasty by most standards. But it's not without attraction as a curiosity.

When I say it's nasty, let me explain. The Salton Sea is fed by some small rivers and creeks and a fair proportion of agricultural runoff from the surrounding farms and groves. The only way water exits the Sea is by evaporation. So assorted silt and chemicals trickle in and get concentrated as the water evaporates. As a result, the water is saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

Many years ago it was regularly stocked with various fish in an effort to attract recreational business. In time all the fish species, except Tilapia, died off. So Tilapia own the place and they swim around fat and happy for the bulk of their lives, only threatened by the occasional pelican or fisherman, then they die of old age and there is nowhere for the body to go, so they just wash up on shore. There are stretches of shoreline that are just covered in dead Tilapia husks. The smell will hit before the sight.

There are a few little towns around the Sea which sprang up back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the plan was to make the place a recreational mecca. Now they seem to be mostly ghost towns. Or more properly, ghost trailer parks.

But despite all that, people still come here. There are fairly active campgrounds and boaters happily swarm the waters. Fishermen have been known to catch hundreds of Tilapia in a single day, but I don't think I would eat them. Considering all the watersports going on, I suppose actually entering the water would not burn your skin off. In fact, the salinity is so high it's probably difficult to actually swim; you are more likely skimming over the top. It's also a bird watchers paradise as it's a key stop off for many rare species.

Still, as a tourist destination, I'd give it a miss or just devote an hour to a brief stop at the visitors center and nearby dead fish covered shore to get the complete experience.

And that was that. All that was left was a leisurely day of driving back to Vegas, dropping off the car, collecting on my winning bets, and hopping my red-eye back home. Sadly at some point in those activities I snagged a nasty case of food poisoning and spent the next three days is agony, but it didn't ruin the trip for me. I'd do it all again. And maybe I will next year.