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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Route 66 and the Grand Canyon

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Once we had crossed into Arizona Mei Ling and I were feeling exhilarated. Las Vegas had been fun but now our road trip had started and we knew we would be seeing dozens of new places over the next month. The sheer expanse of the journey ahead of us was electrifying. We weren't daunted by the fact that the landscape we were now driving through was some of the most barren I could remember since the Dead Sea seven years previously. The scrub had its own strange beauty and in the distance we could see the blue of a river snaking between a low range of rocky, black mountains.

We didn't see any signs of life until we came upon our first town more than an hour later. Kingman, Arizona seems like a generic hot and dusty Southwestern town these days but a century ago it was a bustling stop on the east-west railroad. We had lunch at a downscale but atmospheric diner in Kingman before embarking on our exploration of Route 66, which occupies a mythic position in the canon of Americana. The road was one of the primary means by which tourists and migrants reached California from the Midwest before the interstate highway system was developed and air travel replaced long-distance driving. The steady stream of travelers engendered a new form of roadside culture along the route, from motels to filling stations to souvenir shops. John Steinbeck christened the highway "The Mother Road" in his novel The Grapes of Wrath and the name has stuck. Most of the historic segments of Route 66 have been overlaid by interstates, with US 40 being the culprit in Arizona and New Mexico. However one long segment of the road between Kingman and Seligman has been preserved, largely through the efforts of local chambers of commerce. Most drivers choose the wider and faster interstate but for those of us in the area to see what is there and not just traverse it, the Mother Road still lives.

Our first stop after Kingman was just a photo op. Outside a shuttered souvenir store near the miniscule hamlet of Antares is Giganticus Headicus, a fourteen foot sculpture that resembles a truncated green moai. The head was created by a local sculptor in 2004 and is an apt symbol of the quirkiness of Route 66.

Just five minutes further down the road we arrived at Hackberry General Store. When the store was built in 1934 it was the only option for residents of the small town of Hackberry short of driving to Kingman until it closed in the 1970's. When the abandoned store was reopened in 1992 the new owner carefully maintained the mid 20th century aesthetic which has been preserved through several owners since. To some extent entering the store feels like passing through a time warp into the 1950's, but there's no question that the expensive T-shirts and souvenir knick knacks that keep the store operating are straight from 2020's assembly lines.

Route 66 and Interstate 40 meet again in the town of Seligman, the ultimate destination for all travelers obsessed with the history of the Mother Road. It was too late at this point to check out any of the famous Route 66 stores in town so we headed straight for our motel. By the time we'd settled and I was able to turn my attention to dinner, I found that the only real restaurant in town had stopped seating for the evening. They did agree to cook me up some food for pick-up, so we ended up eating in the parking lot of the motel using plastic furniture that the manager had generously provided. Eating in such humble conditions by the red neon light of the motel sign seemed like the perfect way to honor the generations of travelers that had wandered this glorious American road before us.

We had breakfast at Westside Lilo's, the same restaurant I'd picked up dinner from the night before. Like everywhere in Seligman it was full of kitsch and character, from the animal trophies on the walls to the skeleton with a permanent seat at the bar. More importantly, the pancakes and omelets were delicious and filling.

Seligman has the most famous souvenir stores on Route 66 but we didn't see much different than what had been on display in Hackberry. We did pick up a nice cowboy hat for Mei Ling that didn't seem unreasonably priced. The kids' endless begging for junk that they didn't really want got old quickly so after about an hour of browsing we decided it was time to get back on the road.

Having departed Seligman earlier than expected we had a lot of free time before we needed to head to the Grand Canyon. I reviewed my trip planner and realized we were quite close to one of the activities I'd relegated to the Flagstaff stop. Bearizona is a wildlife park mainly focused on bears although there are sections for wolves, bison, and other animals. It's one of those places where you drive through and see the animals from the car. We'd had a really good experience with a park like this near San Antonio many years earlier but Bearizona was a disappointment. There were bears surely enough but they were mostly sleeping or listlessly wandering through their enclosures, which I'm sure is very appropriate behavior for bears. We caught some glimpses of deer and elk and even wolves but nothing that particularly justified the experience. In Texas we'd been provided food for the herbivores and the animals had been roaming the road and sticking their heads into the windows. Obviously that wouldn't work for bears and wolves but the lack of interest from the animals made for a rather boring drive. After the driving route ended there was a "walk-through" section that turned out to be a regular zoo. Once again I was bemused by how a seemingly pedestrian wildlife park garnered such scintillating reviews on TripAdvisor.

The only other thing I could find to do in the area was ... a deer farm. I was a little hesitant to pile on another wildlife activity but my kids aren't old enough to be cynical and they generally trust me to find fun activities for them even if I've already swung and missed a couple of times. Fortunately the Grand Canyon Deer Farm turned out to be a lot better for us than Bearizona. The big difference here was that we got to get close to the animals and feed them which for kids makes all the difference in the world. The deer were pretty pushy and had a way of knocking the cups out of the kids' hands but they weren't as frighteningly aggressive as the ones we'd fed in Nara, Japan a couple of years before. Besides the deer there were farm animals, a camel, and a zonkey (zebra donkey hybrid). Luckily I had time to read the warning sign about the camel having a tendency to pluck hats off of heads so when he came trotting towards us I knew to step well back from his enclosure.

Our lunch in Williams was bad enough that I forgot about my plan to bring take-out to the Grand Canyon. My search for restaurants worth eating at had turned only one: the restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel. Reservations there were snapped up immediately when they became available a month in advance. There was fast food for the kids but the actual sit-down restaurants seemed to be universally awful. I had been proud of myself for coming up with a solution in advance and now here we were on our way with nothing but snacks. The landscape was surprisingly flat and plain considering that we were headed to the most acclaimed natural sight on the continent. I had decided that it would be worth seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time via helicopter, even though it was an expensive trip for the five of us. I wanted our experience to be more special than just looking over the edge of a railing and saying "Yeah, that's a huge canyon". I figured at least the older two would be pretty excited for their first helicopter ride but once we arrived at the airport they were pretty blasé. We watched a safety video and got kitted out with flotation devices which were mandatory since our flight path crossed the Colorado River. Although there have been a number of helicopter crashes at the Grand Canyon I was more worried about Mei Ling or one of the boys getting motion sickness than anything else.

Almost as soon as we took off we were floating over the densely packed ponderosa pines of the Kaibab National Forest. I was so preoccupied with hunting for wildlife amid the trees that it came as a shock when we flew over the edge of the canyon. As I looked back at the lip it struck me how much it looked like someone had cut a layer cake rather clumsily. The colored strata were sharply defined but the wall of the canyon had been scalloped and gouged by millennia of erosion by wind and water. As we flew out further it became clear how incomprehensibly vast the canyon was in width, with the area between the rims filled with its own terrain of nameless red and gray mountains, each bearing innumerable scars of time. At the very center of it all snaked the innocuous Colorado River which had done so much of the sculpting of this intricate landscape over the centuries.

I needn't have worried about motion sickness. Mei Ling was fine and both boys had nodded off by the time we gently landed back at the airport. We drove on to our room at the Yavapai Lodge, which was the only accommodation still available at the canyon when I had gotten around to making reservations two months earlier. It was a fairly bare bones and unappealing motel with non-functional wifi. Once we were settled we decided we might as well drive to the rim although my research indicated that we would be completely unable to find parking in the early evening. As it turned out my premonition was false and we found the parking lot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to have plenty of space. There were plenty of people at Mather Point, the closest and most popular outlook, but it wasn't crowded by a long shot. We'd been spoiled by the views from the helicopter but it was good to be able to focus on the amazing colors and topography of the jagged rock formations that extended from the inner walls of the canyon. I realize now that it's quite challenging to get good photographs of the canyon from the rim with an iPhone, as any brighter objects in the foreground cause the camera software to wash out and blur the more interesting structures in the back. Fortunately I took enough photos to have a couple worth saving just by pure luck.

We didn't have any intention of hiking into the canyon but we walked for a while along the paved rim trial, stopping at each viewpoint for a slightly different perspective on the canyon. The setting sun was continually changing the appearance of the rocks as clouds passed in front of us. My skin crawled as I saw people walking out on narrow promontories from the rim just inches away from unimaginable plunges. My rational side knew that there have been relatively few deaths from falling at the Grand Canyon over the years but at the same time I could never tolerate being just one misstep away from a sudden and grisly end to my existence.

We never went out to dinner in the end and subsisted on our snacks without getting too hungry. In the morning we had a decent breakfast at a Mexican restaurant in the little commercial town of Tusayan and then headed back for one more look at the canyon rim. This time we chose Yavapai Point, about a mile to the west of where we had been the previous evening. The light and the perspective were a little different, but it was clear we had seen everything we were going to see from the South Rim.

We drove a little further west to Grand Canyon Village which has the Hopi House, a pueblo-like gallery of mostly Native American artwork and crafts. The architect was Mary Colter, who designed many of the iconic century-old buildings of the Grand Canyon. There were two floors filled with pottery, rugs, jewelry and paintings of very high quality. Of course we still had the reservations ahead of us which is where we were planning to make any purchases of Native American art.

Across the road from Hopi House is the El Tovar Hotel, considered to be one of the top national park lodges in the country. The hotel has an antiquated yet timeless look, constructed of pine wood painted dark brown to blend with its surroundings. We hadn't even been able to book a dinner reservation let alone a room but we took a short tour of the interior and marveled at the obvious sturdiness of the early 20th century wooden construction. By now we felt that we'd truly extracted everything we could from this visit to the Grand Canyon. Perhaps some day in the future we'll return and find our way to the base of the canyon by foot, mule, or helicopter but that will have to wait several more years at least.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:28 Archived in USA Tagged grand_canyon route_66 family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Henderson and Hoover Dam

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In our first two days in Las Vegas we'd done a pretty good job knocking out the essentials on my list. Now we had to decide which of the optional activities were best to complete. I had already reserved a time slot at the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, a large suburb at the southeast corner of Las Vegas that is the second largest city in Nevada in its own right. The ranch was located in a rather desolate commercial area on the western side of town. I was a little dubious about the authenticity of a lion sanctuary in Las Vegas but stellar reviews and countless mentions on Vegas top ten lists convinced me that it would be a good experience for the kids.

I was disappointed right away to see that the lions were kept in concrete-floored enclosures with chain link fences. They looked bored and lethargic, possibly due to the hundred degree heat. As with every other day thus far in Vegas, this was going to be the hottest yet with a projected high of 106. We were as uncomfortable as the lions despite the misters placed along the pathway. I was grateful I'd decided not to shell out a hundred bucks for the chance to feed a lion when I realized it was just a matter of pushing a large pellet through the fence.

Things looked up a little bit when we got to Ozzie, a young but tall giraffe with his own shed-like enclosure. There was more shade here and one of the employees gave a talk about giraffes while Ozzie painted T-shirts (awkwardly) with a brush held in his mouth. The giraffe wrangler asked if anyone had a joke about giraffes and it dawned on me that I had read one just a day earlier on my phone when the kids were begging me to tell them new jokes. So there I was suddenly in the spotlight telling a long and slightly inappropriate joke to an audience of kids. A man and a giraffe walked into a bar and started drinking. After a while the giraffe drops onto the floor and the man starts walking away. The bartender yells "You can't leave that lyin' there!" and the man replies "That's a giraffe, not a lion" and walks on out the door. In the version I read the giraffe dropped dead but I thought it would be better to leave that part out. There were a few confused chuckles and then the kids got to feed lettuce leaves to Ozzie. Cleo went twice because Spenser was afraid of the giraffe. Afterwards we had popsicles at the gift shop and made our escape. I was somewhat surprised that the ranch had such good reviews considering how sanctimonious people tend to be about zoos and any other entertainment involving animals. I'm hardly obsessed with animal rights but I found the place quite depressing and uninteresting.

I found the Ethel M Chocolate Factory while researching if there was anything else to do in Henderson after the Lion Habitat. We've had some good experiences with chocolate making in Nicaragua and Belize. Ethel M has the atmosphere of a small, independent business but it is actually owned by the giant Mars candy corporation. Forrest Mars, the founder of the company, established the factory in honor of his mother after he retired and it was later bought by the corporation. There wasn't much going on in the factory when we arrived, probably because it was Sunday, but the showroom had an impressive collection of expensive boutique chocolates. Outside the factory is a surprisingly large and attractive cactus garden.

After lunch in a nearby Jewish deli we had to decide what we were going to do on the sweltering afternoon. 104 degrees seemed almost too hot even for a water park but we were so close to Cowabunga Bay that we decided it was our best bet. This was the second water park we'd been to in the United States after Kalahari in Wisconsin five years previously, and it was a far inferior product. The entrance fee was astronomical, of course, yet we didn't get to experience much for our money. The young kids area had very little seating and not much in the way of shade either. Almost all the rides had a height requirement that excluded our kids, and the one attempt we did make for a ride we were qualified for failed when the line barely moved over half an hour. I could see that they were using just one raft so one group would have to reach the end of the ride and the raft would have to be returned to the top of the tower before the next group could go. It seemed they were cutting corners everywhere possible except on the price of admission. We finally found our way to the wave pool, which the kids really enjoyed except for the inexplicable twenty minute intervals when the waves stopped coming.

Not far from Cowabunga but on the Las Vegas side of the border between the municipalities is Mystic Falls Park, a large atrium within the Sam's Town hotel and casino. Most visitors to the city don't get there unless they're staying at the hotel but since we were doing so much exploration by car it was inevitable that we would be driving in that area before the end of our stay in Las Vegas. We were fortunate in that the afternoon water and light shows had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. The indoor park was a very pleasant environment but even more impressive were the interior walls of the hotel facing the atrium. They had been given facades to resemble an array of tall Victorian townhouses such as one might have seen in a major American city around the beginning of the 20th century. The water show itself was a little bit of a let down but I was glad we'd visited just for the opportunity to see the creative design of the park and the hotel.

We had dinner at a highly-rated Vietnamese fusion bistro in southwest Las Vegas called Black Sheep. The dishes were fairly creative and enjoyable but the restaurant couldn't match up with what Mizumi had given us the previous evening. Even though we hadn't had a single extraordinary experience that day we still felt like we'd spent our last full day in Las Vegas productively. Back at the Airbnb we collapsed into bed feeling that we'd accomplished the goals we had set for exploring the city.

We had strong motivation for getting out of town early Monday morning. We still had to see Hoover Dam and we needed to be completely out of the Las Vegas Valley long before the temperature got close to its projected high of 108. That plan took a hit as soon as I'd lugged our heavy suitcases down four flights of stairs and packed them into the back of the SUV. Somehow the suitcases seemed to have grown an inch in the Airbnb and I couldn't get the trunk door to catch when I slammed it down. After a few vigorous attempts I realized there was something else going on besides the suitcases. The little bar which keeps the door in place when it's closed was in the closed position even though the trunk door was open, preventing the door from engaging with the latch. I tried to pry it out with several implements unsuccessfully. I even looked to see if there was a trunk release inside the car and couldn't find one. It was starting to look like I would have to unload all the suitcases and carry them back up the four flights to the Airbnb and then drive the car with an open trunk to the nearest Enterprise location for them to either fix the latch or give us a new car. Fortunately Mei Ling had the idea to tie the two parts of the latch together with a string which appeared secure enough for us to drive a limited distance without too much fear of losing the luggage.

We decided to deal with breakfast before the car where I made yet another mistake. I picked our breakfast restaurant Jardin based on ratings without realizing that it was also inside the Wynn. That meant we had to go through the whole time-consuming rigamarole of parking in the garage and then wandering through the endless halls of the hotel before we could even sit down. The restaurant was pretty, of course, but service was slow and we ended up paying double the normal prices for very average food.

By now we were well behind schedule. We found a nearby Enterprise and the guy at the desk came out to look at the latch. He got a pen in there and it almost immediately released, which infuriated me because I'd tried the exact same thing with no luck. However, as soon as I tried to open and close it once more the latch had stuck again. Suddenly Mei Ling realized we'd never tried pressing the latch release on the trunk itself and lo and behold it worked perfectly. The Enterprise guy had probably pressed it himself accidentally while poking at the latch. We were now able to open and close the trunk repeatedly without any problem, and it seemed that if we encountered the same problem again we could just press the latch release and fix it. We decided the best course of action was just to proceed with the car we had rather than waste the morning trying to get a new car. It turned out to be the right decision because the problem with the trunk latch never returned. I felt incredibly stupid for not thinking of something so obvious as pressing the trunk release, even to the extent of hunting for some non-existent secondary trunk release inside the car. Thank God it was Mei Ling who thought of the solution and not the Enterprise guy or I think I'd still be shriveling in embarrassment.

I was really lucky to discover our last stop in Las Vegas, or actually Henderson. I only came across Shan-Gri-La Prehistoric Park because I was scanning through Google Maps and came across the icon. Shang-Gri-La is the house of a retired teacher who has decided to fill his small front yard with enormous plastic and metal dinosaur replicas. If that was all there was to it I think it wouldn't have made much impression on my kids. The beauty part was that after we toured the dinosaurs he took them back to the garage where they got to choose plastic eggs from a rack on the wall based on a roll of the dice. There were some complicated rules but they all got to pick a bunch of eggs and keep the little presents they found inside. They were totally thrilled by the experience and kept asking me if we could go back for days after we'd left the city. Cleo still says it was her favorite place in Las Vegas. Shan-Gri-La really shows the impact one dedicated person can have on their community with a little motivation and creativity. I can't imagine how much money he must have spent on his dinosaurs and I made sure to leave a substantial donation in the box before we left.

I'd made a concerning number of mistakes during our first stop but fortunately they had only resulted in minor inconveniences. We had still had a great time in Las Vegas and learned a lot about the city. Destiny prevented me from committing my final error, a raft tour through Black Canyon at the base of Hoover Dam. As it turned out we were extremely lucky that the company had decided to cancel the tour for all of 2021 as it would have been unbearable to be out on the raft unprotected from the sun amid the brutal heat of mid-day. As it was I was quite concerned about walking with the kids outdoors as the temperature spiked to 108. I had taken several precautions as this would be our first time traveling in extreme heat. Aside from our wide-brimmed hats I had a large spray bottle full of water that I carried in my backpack and regularly misted the kids while we were outdoors. We kept a small cooler bag in the trunk full of water including a couple of bottles that I had frozen the previous night. The frozen bottles kept the other ones cool and were a welcome source of cold water once they had melted by the afternoon. Whenever we left the car I carried a backpack with about twice as much water as I thought we were likely to use.

The forgotten municipality of the Las Vegas Valley is Boulder City, which began as a home for thousands of the workers who built the Hoover Dam in the 1930's. It's a small, pleasant town within minutes of the dam and Lake Mead. Given the heat we didn't have much appetite for exploring the town. However, we did stop at Hemenway Park to see the wild bighorn sheep that come down from the mountains to graze. I was not really expecting them to be there but sure enough as soon as we parked we could see about a dozen of the beautiful animals relaxing in the shade under a large tree. It was funny to encounter them so easily as many people who don't know about the park go on hikes around the dam in the hopes of seeing them. On the way out of Boulder City we had some beautiful views of Lake Mead from the highway.

The best view of the Hoover Dam isn't from the dam itself but from the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, the world's highest concrete arch bridge. The uphill climb to the bridge was a significant endeavor in the heat but we were sure to keep ourselves well-hydrated inside and out. Even though there was a solid railing on the concrete walkway of the bridge it was hard to lean over to take pictures of the dam. Even if there was no way I could fall over the railing, I felt like my hands were going to go numb and nervelessly release my phone into the Colorado River below us.

After walking the bridge we drove onward a little further to the garage for the Hoover Dam. The tours of the dam were closed because of COVID but I'm not sure if it would have been worth our time to see the internal works anyway. From the top of the dam we had a new perspective on the vast wall of concrete that held the enormous volume of Lake mead in check. We could also admire the futuristic span of the Tillman Bridge as it traversed the canyon high above the Colorado River.

The state line between Nevada and Arizona cuts through the middle of the dam and there are clocktowers on either side showing the time in each state. On this particular day they were the same because although Nevada is in the Pacific time zone and Arizona is in the Mountain zone, Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. On the way back to the garage Cleo started complaining a lot more about the heat and kept demanding to be sprayed with water. I didn't take her seriously because we hadn't really been out in the sun for long and it was an abrupt change in attitude, but once we got back to the car I could tell she really wasn't feeling well. An anti-nausea tablet and some air conditioning back in the car sorted her out but it was a reminder that I needed to take the heat and the sun very seriously on this trip. A short while later we were crossing the Tillman Bridge in our vehicle and wouldn't see Nevada again until the last day of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:23 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel henderson tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Other Las Vegas

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The Las Vegas Strip occupies such an outsized position in the American consciousness that it's easy to forget it is a tiny segment of a large metropolis of over two million people, a number that has tripled in the last quarter century. A sizable percentage of tourists never even leave the Strip when they visit the city. Even though we were fascinated by the visual spectacle and energy of the Strip, we are avid explorers of American cities and we were sure to give Las Vegas sufficient time to make sure we took in all the highlights.

Because of my shoddy planning we only had time to see a couple of things away from the Strip on our first full day in Las Vegas. We had lunch at Lamaii, a pretty good restaurant in a large conglomeration of East Asian restaurants and businesses that extends for about two miles along Spring Mountain Road to the west of the Strip. It's an impressive concentration of Asian enterprises but I don't really agree with its informal name of Las Vegas Chinatown. Aside from the fact that there are easily as many Korean and Southeast Asian signs as there are Chinese, I didn't get any sense of the area having any Chinese character from a residential or cultural standpoint comparable to the Chinatowns in NYC, Boston, or San Francisco. I'd call it more of an East Asian commercial district, similar to what they have on a smaller scale in Denver, Houston, or Atlanta. I was still envious of what they had compared to Miami, a city where authentic Asian restaurants of any kind are very few and far between.

Another Las Vegas feature I was excited to experience was Omega Mart, a metaphysical interactive art experience in the form of a surrealist supermarket. Omega Mart is part of a larger complex called Area 15 which is housed in an enormous warehouse right by Interstate 15 in central Las Vegas. Outside of Area 15 is an array of interesting, futuristic sculptures of intimidating size that hint at the weird environment one is about to experience inside.

The interior of the warehouse is illuminated only by blacklights and various light-emitting displays. It was fairly crowded and noisy in the late afternoon with a pumping electronic music soundtrack. It was set up somewhat like a mall with virtual reality attractions, boutiques, and restaurants on two levels.

One side of the warehouse was devoted to Omega Mart. At almost $50 per ticket we had made a substantial investment in this novel form of entertainment that I understood very little about. It seemed that underlying the exhibit was some form of mystery we might be able to solve, but no one seemed able or willing to describe what that mystery was let alone how to discover the answer. The entry of Omega Mart was superficially similar to a small supermarket but on close examination the products were clearly not real. The market stocked everything from Organic Moth Milk to Butter-Scented Air Freshener. It was a very entertaining parody of American consumerism and we probably could have spent an hour just in the market amusing ourselves with the creative packaging.

There are several ways to escape from the market into the huge complex of rooms behind and above, but my favorite was the secret tunnel through the refrigerated cabinet. We found ourselves in a maze of small rooms and large open spaces, each with a completely different creative design. Connecting the different spaces were secret tunnels and slides that were ideal for kids our age to explore. Most of my attention was spent on keeping up with them and making sure they didn't get lost. Interspersed in the rooms were some video displays and texts with repeated themes that hinted at the underlying mystery, but it quickly became clear my kids weren't about to start focusing on some obscure conundrum with such a cornucopia of sensory stimulation around them. In the end we had to beg the kids to leave after almost three hours and even after watching several YouTube videos I still have no clue of what the mystery was about. I think it's a better plan with young kids to focus on exploring every room and secret passage and ignore the metaphysical challenge, at least on the first visit.

After emerging into the bright light and heat of the Las Vegas afternoon we drove to Downtown Container Park, a small arts and shopping district constructed mainly from shipping containers. The entrance to the park is watched over by a giant metal sculpture of a praying mantis. Inside is an eclectic mixture of galleries, boutiques, and cafes surrounding an enormous multilevel play structure and a performance stage. There wasn't a show going on while we were there and the area in front of the stage was filled with kids building with oversize Legos. It was so much fun for the kids we let them play there until it was time to go back to the Strip to watch the volcano eruption at the Mirage. I was still guilty about the distance I'd made them walk that morning.

Mr. Mamas, the breakfast place we chose for our second morning, was a lot busier than the one we'd eaten at the previous day. In fact it was jam-packed with full tables as if the COVID epidemic didn't exist. Infection was still my biggest concern about the trip and I'd hoped that we would be able to eat mostly outdoors and keep our masks on otherwise, but there wasn't any outdoor dining here. We had to choose whether to take the last open table or eat elsewhere, and that's when we realized we were going to have to take our chances if we were going to go through with this road trip. The breakfast was totally ordinary despite the line that was forming outside. We ate and got out of there so quickly that I didn't realize they'd charged us for service and included a tip line on the check until after we'd gotten back on the road.

The high temperature of the day was expected to be 102 so there was no question that any outdoor activities needed to be completed in the morning. Las Vegas is bordered on the west by a large area of natural beauty called Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Within the area is a twelve mile scenic loop drive that comes off of Highway 159 a short distance from the city. Considering the temperature and our lack of hiking experience this was an ideal way for us to begin our exploration of the Southwest's natural attractions. Aside from the magnificent views of the multicolored landscape from the road, there were several stops where we could get out and take short walks into the rocky areas and admire the formations more closely. There were plenty of longer trails and some precarious climbs to be made but we knew there would be plenty of opportunities in the coming month to have more intimate encounters with the terrain.

From the canyon we took Interstate 15 southwest from the city. We made a brief stop at the Silverton Casino to see the mermaid show which had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. That turned out to be a flop with the kids who found it boring and unconvincing, although Mei Ling and I thought it was kind of cool. Cleo was especially critical of the scuba regulator the mermaid was using to breathe, although I'm not sure how exactly she expected the mermaid to go without one. We also had an absolutely awful lunch at a Chinese noodle restaurant inside the casino.

We got back on I15 and continued until we reached Seven Magic Mountains. The seven towers of brightly-painted limestone boulders by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone are apparently intended to evoke comparison to the naturally-occurring rock formations of the Southwest that appear to be balancing. The towers were erected in 2015 and are scheduled to be dismantled at the end of 2021 after a three-year extension granted in 2018. Rondinone's explanation of his abstract work is typically obscure, but there's no question that the Dayglo colors and dimensions of the towers make for an arresting contrast against the flatness and monotony of the surrounding desert.

We were now starting to experience the full brunt of the Las Vegas heat so it was time for an indoor activity. We headed back into the center of the city to visit the Discovery Childrens Museum. Children's museums are always on my list when we visit a major city because they are a reliable way to keep kids entertained in a constructive way and I'm often able to teach them stuff while we're inside. Discovery wasn't one of the largest or best we've been to in the United States but given the amount of time we had it more than served its purpose. There was a very fun water feature and also a spiral staircase in the center with multiple little slides and interactive exhibits that the kids loved. As with Omega Mart, we eventually had to tear the kids out of there and Spenser was asking if we were going back to the children's museum for several days afterward.

With just an hour left to kill before our dinner reservation we headed to The Arts Factory, a warehouse complex of galleries in a commercial district north of the center. I didn't see any other visitors in the quiet building although there were several artists working in their studios. We had a few interesting discussions with the artists that Cleo and Ian got involved in which I thought made the visit worthwhile.

Dinner at Mizumi was our single biggest extravagance on the Strip, where we had otherwise mostly focused on the free experiences. I had chosen our expensive Vegas restaurant carefully and as soon as we entered I felt like we had made the right decision. The interior of the restaurant was painted a deep shade of red and the decor was elegant and modern. Large picture windows displayed the impressive waterfall in the Wynn atrium outside. I'd describe the cuisine as "creative Japanese" and the food was excellent from appetizer to dessert.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:33 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel family_travel_blog omega_mart area_15 Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Las Vegas Strip

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Ever since 2017 we've adopted a consistent schedule of traveling during the kids' school breaks. We've taken short trips during the winter and spring breaks and either one or two longer trips in the summer, and it's worked out very well. We were putting a fairly sizable dent in the long list of places we still hadn't seen. Then in 2020 COVID came along and we went an entire year without any travel at all. By spring 2021 Mei Ling and I were vaccinated and it was possible to strategize around the epidemic. Our first post-viral expedition was a week in Belize, a country which had virtually eliminated the disease by strict border controls and tightly-enforced masking. It went well but we hungered for a longer and more intense road trip. I had the Eastern Europe itinerary I had originally planned for 2020 but at the time that was one of the worst-hit areas in the world. Even Western Europe seemed logistically dubious, Asia was locked down, and South America was unthinkable. It was clear that our best bet was domestic travel and there was only one region we hadn't visited that could support a month-long road trip. I had planned on leaving the American Southwest a couple more years until the kids were more capable of hiking and other adventurous activities, but it became clear that we really had no choice if we wanted the kind of travel experience we had become accustomed to. Somehow we'd have to make it work.

I devised my usual ambitious itinerary to include as much of the region as possible without skipping anything important. After checking weather patterns I quickly realized that summer is not the ideal time to visit Nevada and Arizona. I was determined to include Las Vegas but it had to be our point of entry in early June. That way we would at least have a chance at seeing some two digit temperatures. I had wanted to include Phoenix but didn't find enough there to justify the risk of overwhelming heat so it got axed. The Sonora Desert region may end up a future winter or spring break destination. Santa Fe, a city I've never found my way to despite an enduring fascination, was the other non-negotiable stop. It didn't make sense to travel to the Southwest without visiting the famous national parks of Utah. Salt Lake City therefore became the third vertex of the triangle of major cities that formed the skeleton of our itinerary. Small towns and national parks would fill the time between city explorations. Persistent research uncovered more and more interesting sights and activities and I soon realized we were about to have a very busy month on the road.

Even though we didn't have to worry about serious cold weather we had more than the usual luggage. This was mainly because of all the hiking clothes for five people. We needed the water-resistant hiking boots with a solid grip and the fast-drying wool socks. I also bought everyone long hiking pants with a zip-off at the knee that converted them into shorts and long sleeve shirts like landscapers wear. I figured the long sleeves would keep us cooler in direct sun. We ended up with two large suitcases and one smaller roller instead of one large and two small like we usually have, in addition to the carry-ons. I was looking forward to a nonstop to Las Vegas from Miami but in the end we were forced to connect through Los Angeles on the outbound flight. At least we would have a direct flight home for the red-eye on the way back.

As we flew from LA back east towards Las Vegas, I watched the unfamiliar landscape passing beneath us. Irregular arrays of mountains almost devoid of vegetation looked like a model constructed from clay. Between the grey and brown sierras were enormous man-made metallic fields with irregular shapes. Were they solar power plants? Military air bases? I still have no idea.

Once we arrived my main concern was whether our rental car would be there. I'd been hearing a lot of horror stories about rental car companies being short of cars and people showing up at the counter to be told that the car they had reserved wasn't available. Fortunately I needn't have worried - the agent took me to a whole row of SUVs in the garage and let me pick whichever I wanted. We chose a Ford Equinox that seemed to have the most trunk room. I was so relieved to have a car I completely forgot to ask the agent if any of the vehicles had a true four wheel drive.

Our Airbnb was close to the strip but not really within walking distance. It was a third-floor walk-up in a dingy, stained, concrete block of apartments but the price was right. The journey up the stairs with two 50 pound suitcases was miserable but the apartment itself justified its high Airbnb rating. It was emblazoned with full Vegas decor from the purple lighting to the pop art to the neon sign. It was also cool, comfortable, and immaculately clean. By now it was well after midnight Miami time so we headed directly to bed in order to be ready to begin our adventure in the morning.

One of the little perks of traveling to the west is that the time change works in our favor. Despite our late arrival we were all up bright and early the next morning. Unfortunately we squandered our early start by driving half an hour to a breakfast restaurant far from the Strip that appeared on several top ten lists I'd read. The restaurant turned out to have pancakes and a build-your-own omelet station that reminded me of my hospital's cafeteria. We were the only customers.

I had decided to kick things off with an early morning tour of the Strip. One reason was that the temperature would be hitting 99 in the late afternoon, and this was projected to be the coolest of our four days in Vegas. On our last day it was going to be 108, but thankfully not until we had already left town. The other reason was I just couldn't wait to put my feet onto Las Vegas Boulevard. I'd done so much research and I had such a long list of things to see on the Strip that I knew I couldn't concentrate on anything else until I had that out of the way. One odd thing about the Las Vegas Strip is that there are quite a lot of casinos that allow you to park for free. That list is constantly changing so it pays to do research ahead of time, because the ones that do charge are quite expensive. We chose Planet Hollywood because it was the southernmost of the places we wanted to see on the Strip. I figured once we'd worked our way all the way north to the Wynn we could take one of the free shuttles back to where we'd parked.

As soon as we walked out of the garage and into the Miracle Mile shopping mall we got our first taste of the buffet of visual delicacies that the Strip had in store for us. The high, curved ceiling of the upper level is deftly painted to simulate the evening sky and the exteriors of the stores are crafted to resemble an Arabian marketplace. The overall effect is quite beautiful and convincing, and I had the kids half-believing it was the real sky even though they knew that it was early morning.

The only thing I wanted to see inside Planet Hollywood was the Tipsy Robot, a bar where customers order drinks from computer screens and robotic arms mix them from an array of bottles above them. The kids weren't allowed through the doors and although the exterior walls were glass paneling the robots were too far away to get a good look. I sent Mei Ling in to order a drink but she was worried about the number of customers inside. She figured she'd pay and then it would be an hour before her drink was made so we left empty-handed.

Everything on the Strip is on an enormous scale so walking distances are much further than they appear on a map. The full city blocks are half a mile long. It seemed like we were walking in Planet Hollywood forever but eventually we spilled out onto the Strip and were greeted by the view of the Eiffel Tower replica and hot air balloon of the Paris Las Vegas Casino. Our first destination was the Bellagio which was directly across the Boulevard. We walked along a beautiful covered walkway with a great view of the Bellagio Fountain and Las Vegas Boulevard until we reached the entrance to the hotel.

Inside the Bellagio the lobby has a ceiling installation of colorful glass flowers by renowned sculptor Dale Chiluly. Adjacent to the lobby is the Conservatory which is a large open area with a greenhouse roof filled with exuberant displays of flowers and plants as well as dramatic sculptures. On the periphery of the Conservatory were boutiques and restaurants. In any other city it may have seemed ostentatious but of course in Vegas it was absolutely on point and a great introduction to what we would see for the rest of the morning.

We walked back up Las Vegas Boulevard and cut through the faux Roman ruins and gardens of Caesar's Palace. The grounds of the casino hotels were enormous and I was starting to realize that even though my planned tour looked very manageable on the map it was going to be rather hard on the kids. Once we reached the LINQ promenade we took a quick ice cream break and then had a pleasant walk down the busy promenade with the High Roller Ferris wheel in the foreground. Over our heads were the cables of the FLY LINQ zipline but it was still too early for them to be running.

The next stop on our tour was the Venetian. I hadn't realized until then the outsized Italian influence on the Strip but up to that point all the casinos we'd seen were based on various eras of Roman and Italian architecture. As we walked over the elevated walkway we saw some people filming an oddly-shaped potted plant. As Cleo went for a closer look the plant suddenly stood up and started chasing her. She squealed and fled as the man inside the plant costume laughed. I saw one the the guys filming had a T-shirt with something about TikTok so presumably they were making videos for a TikTok channel. The Venetian had a nice layout with a sky blue canal, gondolas, and fair representations of St Mark's Campanile and the Rialto Bridge but it reminded me more of Little Venice in Dalian, China than the real thing.

The kids were complaining pretty loudly about the walk by now but I still pushed them one block further to the Wynn, which reportedly had one of the most beautiful lobbies. However, after everything we'd already seen that morning we were underwhelmed by the long, ornate corridors. We enjoyed one interesting display of colorful orbs made from artificial flowers hanging from a grove of small trees in an atrium. To top it off I realized that Mizumi, the restaurant we'd be having dinner at the next evening, was inside the Wynn so we had wasted that last painful block getting to a place we would be seeing soon anyway.

I had thought returning to the car would be a simple affair as I knew there were complimentary monorail trams between the casinos on the Strip and I assumed we'd be able to hop on one nearby and hop off close to Planet Hollywood. Unfortunately I hadn't done my research carefully because when I asked the valet at the Wynn for directions to the closest monorail he directed me to the monorail operated by the city, all the way back at the LINQ. Two stops later we got off a full block away from Las Vegas Boulevard, another half mile walk. By the time we reached the entrance to Planet Hollywood we'd walked further than if we hadn't bothered with the monorail at all. To add insult to injury, once we reached the garage we realized we'd retraced the whole distance we'd just walked on a higher level and we could have saved a mile by going straight into the back entrance of the garage from the monorail station. The only positive was that no one had collapsed during the walk. Later I figured out that the casino trams wouldn't have been any help either the way they're laid out, but the lesson learned was that especially with kids a tour of the strip needs to be planned very carefully.

We went about our other planned activities of the day away from the Strip and then returned for the events that only occur in the evening, the eruption of the volcano at the Mirage and the water show at the Bellagio Fountains. This time I had learned my lesson and took advantage of the one hour complimentary parking at both casinos. We got there about twenty minutes ahead of the first of the evening eruptions, which are scheduled from 8 to 11 pm on the hour. I expected it to be difficult to get a good viewing spot but the crowd remained fairly sparse. We occupied ourselves in the meantime taking more pictures of the Strip in the gathering dusk. I found the volcano pretty impressive although somehow the kids were more enthralled by a cloud of gnats that buzzed insistently around my hat. I also got fooled by a false ending to the eruption and ended my video before the grand finale.

The Bellagio was a little easier to time since the fountains get activated every fifteen minutes. We still almost missed the time we had planned on because it was such a long walk from the parking lot. The fountain was a bit of a let-down after some of the exuberant and colorful displays I saw in Shanghai and Dalian a couple of years earlier, but it was a good opportunity to see the bright neon cityscape of Las Vegas at night. I realized that we could have timed our evening visit to see the fountains and the volcano as well as everything we had seen on the Strip earlier and spent the morning doing something completely different. Fortunately we still had a few more days to get through our Vegas list but my many mistakes of the first day helped me realize that I was definitely rusty at traveling and I needed to be a lot more careful how I was planning our itinerary over the next month.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:41 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip las_vegas family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog las_vegas_strip Comments (0)

Belize Road Trip: San Ignacio

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Together with its sister city Santa Elena, San Ignacio is the second largest metropolis in Belize and the only major city in the western part of the country. The city was fairly busy when we drove in, perhaps because it was midweek. We went straight to the market which had a more upbeat feel than the Michael Finnegan market in Belize City. We had lunch at the food stalls which served mostly Latino dishes like quesadillas and pupusas as well as some barbecue.

I wanted to get to work on our list of activities in town right away since we only had that afternoon and the next day. I expected everything to be shut down for Good Friday and we had to get a fairly early start on the road Saturday morning. I hadn't had any luck reaching the Marie Sharp showroom by phone but I had hopes that I'd be able to set Mei Ling up with one of their cooking classes if we walked in. Marie Sharp is the best known hot sauce brand in Belize, producing thirteen different habanero sauces and a variety of other condiments. The factory is in Dangriga but there's a showroom in San Ignacio which has a reputation for offering excellent classes on Belizean cuisine. We found the location and a banner advertising the showroom but there was no door to be found. Eventually someone yelled at us from a balcony that the showroom and the hotel housing it had closed because of the epidemic.

Fortunately we were close by Ajaw Chocolate and Crafts which proved to be open, although once again the person minding the desk seemed rather nonplussed to have visitors. She was even more surprised when we knew the correct spelling of Ajaw (a-how), although we had just learned it a few minutes earlier from asking directions. She took us through a brief presentation of how chocolate was derived from cacao beans following which the kids were able to make their own rather bitter chocolate paste from the ground up beans. It took a surprising amount of sugar to make a palatable drink out of the paste. Across the street from Ajaw was a majestic four story yellow house that was probably the most beautiful residence we had seen in the country. Afterwards we walked down to Burns Avenue, the main pedestrian street downtown. Here the effects of the pandemic were most visible with many shuttered shops and restaurants. Hopefully they were just in dormancy waiting for the travelers to return and not out of business for good.

Our new accommodation at Table Rock Jungle Lodge was on the main road from San Ignacio south to San Antonio. There was a lot of road work and we had to detour through a colorful little village called Cristo Rey. The frequent buses had to do the same and there was one little side lane on the detour where I had to look carefully to make sure we had a clear path until the next turn because there wouldn't be enough room if a bus came from the other direction. At the lodge there was actually another car in the parking area, our first time sharing an accommodation with other tourists. The owners had done a good job of maintaining a forested environment but of course there wasn't the same sense of remoteness from civilization that we had in Chan Chich. The most beautiful spot was the infinity pool built on a slope with nothing but jungle on the other side.

We drove back to San Ignacio for dinner at The Guava Limb, one of the best reviewed restaurants in the city. The food was better than the other restaurants we'd tried in Belize and the setting was very pretty. As usual we were the only customers when we arrived although another couple had arrived by the time we left.

In the morning we headed back to the market for breakfast. Unlike the previous afternoon the parking spots outside were full and we had to park in a dirt lot a block away. We put together a solid meal and explored the stalls at their busiest time. Although it was more lively than the Belize City market it wasn't very large and we had seen everything after a few minutes. There was no comparison with the markets we had been to in Nicaragua or Mexico.

Afterwards we drove to the San Ignacio Resort Hotel to experience the Green Iguana Conservation Project. The project was initiated in response to a dramatic decline in the green iguana population in Belize due to overhunting. We were lucky a guide was available that morning as we were the only ones visiting and it seemed that as with everywhere else the tourists hadn't returned yet. The guide took us to the enclosure and briefed us about the life cycle of the iguanas as well as numerous interesting facts about their biology. He advised us that iguana hunting was strictly prohibited during the breeding season from February to June, which left us scratching our heads about the trussed up iguanas we had been offered for dinner at the Michael Finnegan market. Large adult iguanas lazed in the sun within the enclosure while another specimen noisily crawled around on the plexiglass roof. The guide told us they had released him to the wild but he kept returning to the project to be fed.

The juvenile iguanas were kept in a separate enclosure and the guide allowed us to gently pick them up and place them on our arms and shoulders. They instinctively crawled to the highest place to seek the sun which eventually led them to the top of Mei Ling's head. The bright green color of the juveniles exactly matched the foliage in their enclosure.

We had wrapped up our activities in town a little more efficiently than expected so we headed back to the lodge for a swim. Table Rock was built above the Macal River upstream of where it divided San Ignacio from Santa Elena. We grabbed a few inner tubes and walked along the path down the hillside to the river where we eventually found a little beach where we could put our tubes in the water. For some reason I drifted downstream much more quickly than the kids and I got rather nervous even though they were wearing life jackets and can swim. To make things worse I heard a loud splash coming from the area of a submerged tree at the river bank. It seemed quite unlikely the lodge would be promoting tubing in an alligator-infested river but in the moment it seemed like the set-up of a horror movie. I kicked furiously at the water to get back upstream to the kids who were already bored and wading to the beach.

Our last full day in Belize was Good Friday, a major holiday with mandated closures of most stores and restaurants. We'd already seen everything of interest to us in San Ignacio anyway. The lodge staff thought that the Belize Botanic Gardens would be open so we decided we would go for it. Although the gardens were quite close to the lodge as the crow flies, the only bridge to the other side of the Macal River was at San Ignacio. We had to drive back to San Ignacio and then another half hour on the Western Highway and a dirt road to the gardens. It would have been quite a disappointment if the gardens had been closed but fortunately they were open. Of course we were the only visitors and we had the expansive gardens entirely to ourselves. The gardens were so large it wasn't possible to see everything but I think we acquitted ourselves well. Some of the highlights were an orchard of tropical fruits, a grove of the thickest and tallest bamboo I've ever seen, and a wooden tower with a viewing platform. Mei Ling took some amazing pictures of flowers and insects with her Huawei phone.

The only other activity I could find for the afternoon was an hour and a half away, but it was either that or laze around at the lodge for the rest of the day. I didn't want to waste any opportunities so we piled back into the car and retraced our path on the Western Highway past San Ignacio to the road that led to Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Once again I was glad we had the four wheel drive as each successive turn off led to a rougher road. The last stretch would have been close to unnavigable in a regular car, with huge pits and ruts in the dirt that tossed us from side to side as we slowly crept towards our destination.

The end of this fraught journey was a little anticlimactic, a small clearing with a couple of other SUV's already parked. We took a series of steep wooden staircases down to the creek. Some of the steps were broken or missing so I stayed in front of the kids in case one of them tripped. At the bottom was a series of pools of murky water separated from each other by piles of boulders and rocky outcrops. Once we were close to the bottom we could see a thirty foot waterfall in the background. The kids wanted to swim but the cloudiness of the water made me worried that one of them might get their leg trapped in the rocks under the surface, so I only let them dip in the shallow pools right at the edge. Afterwards we found a relatively flat area of the rocks and ate the barbecued chicken and flatbread we had bought on our last pass through San Ignacio.

The next morning we didn't need to rush because we had an afternoon flight. We made one final stop in the market for breakfast and bought a hand-carved wooden plate as a souvenir. The two hour drive back to the airport was uneventful except that we did not pass a single gas station in the last thirty minutes. We were prepared to accept the penalty for the half-empty tank but the clerk at the rental office looked so perturbed that I agreed to follow her directions to the nearest station. With a full tank I was finally allowed to return our car to the clerk who didn't bat an eye at the thick layer of road dust that encrusted it.

Our short trip to Belize had felt like it lasted much longer than a week. We returned home confident that we had captured the essence of a new and unique country, a diverse and oft-forgotten outpost of English colonial culture in Central America.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:22 Archived in Belize Tagged road_trip belize san_ignacio family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman Comments (0)

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