It had been a couple of years since I went out west during the summer. Turns out, it's hot out there. I mean really hot. I saw 108 on a couple of days, but they had been getting over 110. Saying it's a dry heat doesn't make it any better when it's that high.
So here was the itinerary:
Day 1: Fly to Vegas and rent car. Drive 4 hours north to Bryce Canyon.
Day 2: Run Bryce Canyon Half Marathon
Day 3: Drive 2 hours to Zion. Recover from Half Marathon
Day 4: Hike the Narrows
Day 5: Drive 2 hours to Vegas.
Day 6: Vegas, Vegas, Vegas.
Day 7: A little more Vegas. Red-eye home.
Things didn't start terribly well, and it was mostly a matter of attitude, as is the great bulk of life. Flight went well, but I was anxious about everything. Like I said, just a mood, but a real one. I had read there was going to be hour-plus delays going north out of Vegas and I had to register for my race by that evening. I had given myself about a four hour cushion but that didn't ease my (unreasonable) tension over this. Then the a/c in the car stopped -- no the a/c was fine, the fan just stopped blowing cold air. Did I mention the temp was in the triple digits. This happened a number of times after extended high-speed driving (the speed limit on some stretches of freeway in Utah is 80). I don't know why it happened and after some slow speed driving it would come back on, but it certainly kicked up my anxiety. By the time it happened I was hundreds of miles from the rental center, well into southern Utah so going back to return the car was not feasible. (It was a Hyundai Sonata and as a result I have scratched the car of my list of potential purchases.)
I checked into my hotel outside Bryce and of course the wi-fi didn't work. Honestly, it amazes me what a horrendous job hotels do with wi-fi. This has been the case for years and it has only gotten marginally better. “Free wi-fi" often means they have a router set up under the front desk and you might be able to connect from nearby rooms on a good day. And if you can't connect don't bother asking for help; Joe minimum wage behind the desk likely doesn;t know what a router is. Grrrr. Despite everything, I picked up my race packet with about four hours of my four hour cushion to spare. Still didn't really ease my tension.
The next morning I was up before the sun and prepped for the race. I must say it was one of the coolest starts I have ever experienced. It was actually chilly just before dawn -- in the 50s, about half of what it would be later in the day. The starting area was lit by a series of bonfires that looked quite startlingly beautiful. The start itself was punctuated by a small fireworks display. The race started off with a flat mile, then a fairly steep downhill plunge for about 6 miles to the small town of Tropic, then another less steep downhill to finish line in the town of Cannonville where they had set out all the chocolate milk you could drink.
The first half of the run was about perfect. Towering red rock formations on the right, just getting hit by the low angled sun. To the left was the stark big sky landscape of the West. If you are a runner, you know you‘ve always had a vision in your head of that perfect run -- the one where you feel like you're just flying effortlessly through some exquisitely beautiful landscape. The first half of this run is exactly that. Wings on you feet, stars in your eyes. The second half isn't too bad either, but you're past the red rocks and, for me anyway, anything beyond 9 or 10 miles becomes a question of survival. I'd love to do the race again next year, but there are always logistical and expense issues when that distance is involved.
And despite the passing bliss at the start of the race, I was still feeling all struggly. After lunch I hopped in the car and headed towards Escalante and Grand Staircase National Monument (about 30 miles) to do the hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls. It was only a 3 mile hike so I just wore shorts and sandals; no special gear. Upon arrival the ranger came out to let me and couple of other people know that he did not recommend hiking without close-toed shoes because the the temperature of the sand on the trail was 159 degrees (did I mention it was hot?). Considering my feet were still tender from the race I decided not to test his measurement, and spent considerable time cursing myself for neglecting to throw my day hikers in the trunk before I left.
So I turned back -- the road to Grand Staircase National Monument is lovely -- it's a national scenic route (or whatever the official title is) and I was able to get some decent photos -- but I grumbled at myself the whole way. Finally, almost back to Bryce, there is a small hiking trail right off the road that I had passed during the race. It's called the Mossy Cave Trail so I expected a short trail to a cave of some mossiness. What I got was the coolest thing; a short walk along a creek, terminating in a waterfall -- a waterfall that you could actually walk under and splash around in the pool. It was exactly what I needed. It was cool and refreshing on my half-marathon-weary body. Most of all it was a beautiful surprise. It had been so long since I had a special travel moment like that, that I had forgotten about how exhilarating it could be to just accidently stumble across something so perfect, just when I needed it. I was OK at that point. Attitude adjusted. I was on vacation for real.
A word about the Bryce Canyon area. Although it's heavily touristed, it's relatively backwards in many respects. There are no good restaurants or above average hotels. Best Western would be the top hotel, although I am sure there are some B&Bs that have some nice features. Ruby's Inn is probably the nicest restaurant and I would say it's about on par with a mid-range chain restaurant like, say, Chilis. There is a lot of Old West theme kitsch, all of it non-ironic, which is almost precious. There are no bars or nightlife and minimal alcohol anywhere, which I attribute to a combination of family values and Mormon influence. But everything is clean and friendly and the service is sharp and nothing is overly expensive. You can't help but like it, and admire the stripe of folks who live there. Still, I would have loved to have a nightcap at a quiet bar somewhere the night before I left.
So the next morning I was up and out and headed for Zion, and doing it over what is probably the most beautiful road I have ever driven. Because of the problem with the damn fan in the damn Hyundai, I resolved to take the scenic route out of Bryce and that means the legendary road from Panguitch through Cedar Breaks to Brian Head. You wind through forests mountains past Lake Panguitch -- an exquisitely beautiful recreation point deep in the Utah woods where fishing and camping and the whole slate of outdoorsy activities occur. Then you go higher, where you reach Inspiration Point (if you remember the Fonz and Happy Days you're giggling now) -- a turn off with a great view of the surroundings, but you will be chased off in short order by swarms of black flies. You keep going higher, eventually reaching Brian Head Peak (that's singular, not Brian's Head, which you will certainly read as Brain Head, which only makes slightly more sense than Brian Head), the highest peak in the area, where you can drive up a short dirt road to the summit and get even better views, until the bees and hornets chase you away. Despite the insect assaults, driving this road is really a one of a kind experience, and up high in the mountains the temperature is a beautifully reasonable 70 degrees with a fresh breeze.
From there the road cascades back down to Springdale and triple digits. Damn, it was hot. The heat may be dry, but then so is a sauna. And the sun is abusive. The first thing I did in Springdale is buy a Tilley Hat. Don't know how often I will wear it, but it's supposed to last forever, and frankly, in the oven of southern Utah, a baseball cap just didn't seem to be serious enough.
The second thing I did was rent a pair of canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, and a walking stick because I was going to hike The Narrows the next day. But first a word about Springdale.
Springdale is the gateway town to Zion National Park. It is a good deal more upscale than Bryce, in fact there a a couple of near luxury hotels and more than a few good restaurants, with bars. The commercial activity is built up along the road that leads to Zion; it's all hotels, restaurants, outfitters, and gift shops, but it's clearly controlled for aesthetic purposes. There is no neon, no garishness, everything is set back from the road enough for a nice sidewalk giving easy foot access to most of it. At this time of year, the bulk of Zion national Park is inaccessible by car. The park is so busy that during high season they simply shut down the park road to everything except shuttle busses. You can park at the visitor center just inside the entrance but even that gets filled up by mid-morning so they take it a step further by having a shuttle that runs back and forth through Springdale that stops in front of most hotels that takes you into the park to get the park shuttle from there. So if you are staying in Springdale, you can pretty much park you car at your hotel and forget about it. If you are driving in from elsewhere, you can park anywhere in Springdale and grab the shuttle. Shuttle service and parking is free everywhere and it looks to be very efficient. It's really one of the most intelligent systems of mass transport I have encountered. Once again I am impressed with Utah and Utahans.
So, The Narrows. This is one of two paradigmatic hikes in Zion (the other being the climb to Angel's landing, and don't get me started on that one). This is a river hike, the Virgin River to be exact, which is to say a good deal of you hiking involves literally walking in the river. Most of it involves ankle to knee deep water but for certain stretches the water can reach waist/chest high. You could walk through the water the whole way but that gets quite time consuming because you just can't walk very fast through water, and since the full hike is ten miles round trip you do need to keep up at least a steady pace, so you end up doing a series of extended river crossing to get from bank to bank and then try to hike briskly along the bank as far as you can. What's special about this hike is that you are travelling through a narrow canyon with walls hundreds of feet tall on either side of you. A couple of miles up you reach a stretch known as Wall Street where the walls start to close in on you, getting as close as 40 feet apart, which is an eerie sensation. You get sunlight for about half an hour around high noon, other than that the light is ambient which is nice because it keeps things cool. Also in Wall Street there are no banks to speak of. If the water is high you are swimming. If there's a flash flood you're in deep trouble. You keep hiking up to about the five mile mark where there is a pretty little spring fed waterfall area where to can sit and eat your trail mix and recoup some strength because at this point you have to turn around and walk back. It is technically possible to go further, but you need a back-country permit and, from my understanding, there is not that much to see further on.
The hike need not be strenuous. You could just amble in the river for a mile or so in your sandals, take a cool swim, get some sun if you time it right, then turn around and go back. A great deal of folks and bring their families and do just that. The first mile or so of the river can be quite crowded, but the crowds drop away quickly as you go further. The full hike is exhausting, primarily because although it is ten miles, the winding path you have to take back and forth across the river has to add another mile or two. Not to mention it's a mile walk (on a paved path) from the shuttle to the river and then back to the shuttle. I suspect the distance covered is closer to 15 miles, and the fact is for the bulk of it you are navigating uneven surfaces and precariously slippery underwater rock footing. So yes, the full round trip is exhausting. I know this because I was exhausted.
But I did good. I made it all the way and as I was returning to the river entry point, where everyone has their kids and they are all splashing around in the river I was feeling a little smug about being a badass hiker in my canyoneering shoes and Tilley hat amidst all these folks who were just goofing around in the river. Then not 100 yards from the exit, I slipped on a rock and face-planted in the water, in the process losing my $5.99 gas station sunglasses and getting a sarcastic round of applause from onlookers. I'm so awesome.
The next morning I was up on the road again, this time back to good ol' Vegas. No scenic road here, just a 2 hour freeway ass-hauling. Luckily the Hyundai fan held up OK so I was able to stay comfortably cool in the desert heat, and before I knew it I was pulling into the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at the Flamingo just off Las Vegas Blvd. There are few greater contrasts than going from wilderness beauty and little Utah towns to the Las Vegas Strip. I love them both.
I have lost track of how many times I've been to Vegas. Somewhere between 15 and 20. The nice thing for me is that while I have my favorite spots to revisit, there is always something new to try. Vegas is in a perpetual state of remaking itself. The place getting the most extreme makeover right now is the Fremont Street area downtown. Fremont Street (also called the Fremont Street Experience) is a section of town north of the Strip, where the street is closed off and it takes on the flavor of a smaller version of Bourbon St. in New Orleans. Along the street are hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and so forth. Arcing over the length of the street is the worlds largest electric sign, called Viva Vision, which display fairly impressive animated sequences set to music at the top of every hour after dark. Up until now, had exactly one nice hotel -- the Golden Nugget -- which is probably on the level of an upper-mid level Strip hotel. The remaining hotel and casinos, though some were storied such as Binion's, were the very definition of seedy.
That has changed recently. Although there has been a longtime push to upgrade the area, it wasn't until Zappo's moved it's headquarters nearby that things kicked into high gear. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappo's, has taken the lead in getting things built up and cleaned up, gentrifying the place for his employees. Also, two of the old seedy hotels have completely revamped and improved. One called the Fitzgerald was remade into The D and has become the darling of some Vegas insiders because of it's minimal nonsense approach. The D is not really themed, although they often say the are Detroit themed because the owners have Detroit roots and they have installed an American Coney Island, the first one outside the Detroit area. It's a huge upgrade from the old Fitzgerald's and it's location makes it the centerpiece of the new Fremont Street. Another old warhorse, the Lady Luck, just off Fremont, was remade into the Downtown Grand and has tried to bring some Strip level stylishness downtown, with mixed results.
It's not just hotels. A hidden bar called the Laundry Room gained cache by requiring you to text a secret phone number for a reservation. Once admitted you are treated to high-end craft cocktails from some of the best bartenders in Vegas. Golden Nugget has a very clever pool area that is integrated with an aquarium that can make it feel like you're swimming with sharks. The Andiamo steakhouse at the D is getting a great reputation. And now there is a zip line ride under the canopy that starts at the top of a 100 ft tall slot machine called Slotzilla.
And the growth has spread. Fremont Street East, the couple of blocks east beyond Viva. There is the El Cortez, a low end casino that has a great rep with gamblers because of the better payoff tables. A number of dive bars, including Atomic Liquors that was featured by Anthony Bourdain on one of his shows. And a relatively new section called Container Park -- an area filled with shipping containers that contain food truck-y sorts of spots and little stores. It is guarded out front by a giant metal praying mantis sculpture that appears to be primed to attack slotzilla.
Peppered throughout all the are sound stages with bands playing, often quite good bands, or in the case of the night I spent there, an Elvis impersonator, and a good one. Like I said, it's very Bourbon Street in its vibe. Fremont goes on the must visit list for all future trips. It's a cab ride to get there, and all Vegas cabbies are on the make, but that won't stop me. Still, I don't think I'll bed down there. Dinner and some bar hopping after is about right. I'll still lay my head down on the Strip.
This time I lay my head down at the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at the Flamingo. It was a good choice. Hilton Grand Vacation Clubs are points based timeshares, that have always been tempting to me for reasons I won't get into right now, but they also function as good quality hotels when they have vacancies. There are actually three of these right on the Strip. One is the Elara, where I have stayed before, another is further north up by Circus Circus, which I am told is beautiful, but it really is kind of in no man's land. These are the type of property I have come to appreciate over the years: the non-casino hotel that is just barely off the Strip. They tend to be low-key oases that still give you ready access to the madness. In this class I would place Signature, Vdara, Elara, HGVC - Flamingo. Also possibly Delano (formerly theHotel), Four Seasons, and Trump, all of which I have yet to try (maybe in the fall). (See below about where a newby should stay.)
HGVC - Flamingo has nicely appointed rooms with mini-fridges and newish furnishings. You have access to the Flamingo Pool and all the Flamingo services, but it also has it's own smaller pool. Friendly staff. A gift shop where the sundries are not too overpriced -- $2.50 for a Diet Coke instead of $4 as is typical in Vegas. They even have special spaces reserved in the Flamingo garage just for HGVC guests. It's about a two minute walk from the lobby to the valet entrance of Flamingo, then through Flamingo to the Strip into the LinQ. The room rate is comparable to the Flamingo generally, and unless you have some sort of financial incentive, I can see no reason to stay at the Flamingo proper instead of the HGVC - Flamingo. Recommended.
Which brings us to the LinQ, the newest area of the Strip. It is an open air mall that extends from the Strip east about 300 yards, terminating in the new observation wheel. It is filled with shops and bars and clever bits of art and displays and, I would guess, street performers or proper bands. It replaces the odd mishmash of booths near the Carnival Court, which had little to recommend it and just created an annoyance to walk around. The observation wheel creates a terrific backdrop, especially lit up at night, and, although I didn't ride it, it looks to be uncrowded. Definitely an upgrade.
The final new thing I tried in Vegas is Giada at the Cromwell. The Cromwell itself is relatively new. It's the old Bill's Gambling Hall converted into a high end hipster palace. It clearly a nice place, and of course it has just about the best location in the universe, right at the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Blvd. I may try to stay one day, but it's awfully pricey. The signature restaurant is Giada's, named for the Food Network star and beauty icon Giada de Laurentiis. They had been open for dinner for a few weeks, but I managed to snag a seat for the first ever lunch service. It's billed as Italian with a California twist and it's very good; various Italian dishes with fresh ingredients. It is overpriced of course, but no more so than every other glamourous Vegas restaurant. Thinking of putting it on my short list for repeat visits.
And that was about it. I did my standard pre-red eye visit to Qua spa at Caesars then on home where I wisely took the following day off work to reset. It was a vacation of contrasts and it reminded me that even on my most well trodden paths there are new things to be discovered. In a few years, maybe I'll come back and do it all again.