Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Las Vegas, Grand Canyon & Utah Park Tour 2010


We are off to Las Vegas for a wedding. 

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be going to Las Vegas, so this trip should be interesting.  I hear-tell that a lot of gambling goes down there, but I mostly subscribe to Mark Twain’s advice,

There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can.

I can’t say that I’ll be abiding by city’s claim that what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, at least for me, cause all the details of our visit will be on the blog!  On Sunday we are taking a bus tour of the Grand Canyon, which includes a stop at Hoover Dam.  For the rest of the week, we will be touring through Utah, visiting Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.

Friday, October 8: On our way . . .

One thing I’ve learned about travel is expect the unexpected even if it is just stepping off your doorstep.  I drive Richard to the train station, dropping off our luggage there, drive home, and walk back to the station only to find out that all train service to Philadelphia has been cancelled due to police activity.  Note to self: this is where a number for directory assistance would have been invaluable. So I walk home, call a cab and rush back to the station.  So we blew $30 and we weren’t even out of Philadelphia.

I knew that going through airport security would be different this time because of the titanium rod in my hip, and sure enough I set off the bells and whistles at the security stop.  They weren’t interested in my medical card verifying the hip situation.  An officer escorted me into a glass box and waited as Richard picked up his stuff and left.  A nice lady with a wand directed me to a seat where she commenced to check out the offending beeps.  I’ve heard complaints about these processes, but the security lady kept me informed of what was going to happen next and even offered a private area for the security check.

We had a beautifully clear day for air travel. Coming into Las Vegas we could see views of the canyons lit by the afternoon sun.

The airport seemed to set the scene for the Las Vegas experience.  Colorfully lighted slot machines greeted us immediately upon exiting the plane. Big screens flashed their advertisements of the latest shows and the smell of carameled pop corn filled the air.  I think I was getting Las Vegas now–it’s a carnival!

We checked into the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Buildings are huge in Las Vegas.  That’s Richard in the right hand corner of the picture looking up at our hotel.

We had a little time before the wedding to walk along The Strip and through some of the other hotels. Some of the casinos seemed to stretch indefinitely, lights and bells diverting our attention. Outside roller coasters flew to the top of metal precipices, castle-like structures decorated the street, and then unexpectedly, jutting out from the confusion, stood a partial view of the Statue of Liberty. The incongruous placement of Lady Liberty brought to mind the last scene in Plant of the Apes.


Sunday, October 10: Grand Canyon South Rim

Our bus tour began in Las Vegas at 6:30am, traveling by Hoover Dam, arriving at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for several stops, then back to Vegas by 10pm. There’s much to be said about this trip, but for now I’ll leave you with the thought of a 16-hour bus trip. I’m attaching a few pictures.

Monday, October 11: Drive from Las Vegas to Moab, UT

We said “goodbye” to Vegas and were off on our road trip to Moab, Utah, a little town just outside of Arches National Park.  We drove on Route 15 through Nevada, hitting a small corner of Arizona then into Utah.  The map indicated that this was a scenic route but spectacular would more accurately describe the views.  The highway ahead appeared as if we were either going to crash into the mountain or find a tunnel. Instead the road just sliced right through the high cliffs that towered on either side of us.

As we continued on, we came across one geological surprise after another as the landscape changed from the white cliffs to the red sandstone canyons.

The little dots on the map that designated scenic route disappeared on the next leg of the journey for about a hundred miles continuing North on Route 15.  I guess the cartographer didn’t see those 12,000 foot snow-capped mountains. At Route 70 we made a sharp right turn and the dots returned. Neither words, photographs nor videos can capture the views here.  The grandeur of the expansive spaces of canyons, mountains, planes were otherworldly and took our breath away. You’ll just have to come to Utah to experience this wonder.

We stopped at the first viewpoint, and not only was I blown away by the vista but was treated to a shopping extravaganza in this most unlikely spot.  Turns out that Native Americans have found a ready clientage of travelers, myself included, ready to buy a necklace or vase.

I asked whether I could take a picture of their baby sleeping nearby.

We drove on through every kind of rock formation imaginable. So Nature, unsatisfied that we had not viewed enough of this magical land, unfolded a rainbow before us just before sunset.


For dinner that evening we ate at Eddie McStiffs, a local restaurant with a western ambiance on the main street in Moab. As we entered the restaurant, the Boxcar Bandits were performing so we enjoyed our meal to blue grass jigs and reels. In my effort to support local talent I purchased their CD; I’m sure to attach one of their songs to a video at some point.

Tuesday, October 12: Arches National Park


We started our day with a home cooked breakfast at our B&B. Moab must have a low crime rate because we had no room keys or even a key to the outside door. The proprietors were Mormons so I asked them a few questions about genealogical research, which they were well versed.  One of the owners said that his great-great grandfather settled in Moab with a few of his wives. He also explained the Mormon’s interest in genealogy.  Evidently their theology suggests that they can go back and baptize and marry anyone in their past, whether or not that baptism had been requested or not.

Landscape Arch

After stopping at the Arches visitor center, we drove to the end of the 18-mile scenic drive to the trailhead of Landscape Arch. Yes, there are many arches in the park but the geologic formations of every kind and variety and sweeping vistas are every bit as impressive.  The trail was easy walking but the sun was very intense even on this cool October morning. Landscape Arch is one of the longest natural rock spans in the world–a nine-story building would easily fit beneath this thin span. In 1991, a massive slab of rock fell from its underside, almost taking out a group of hikers who had settled under the rock for a rest.

So our hike to Landscape Arch offered an interesting family coincidence. I had bought a necklace for Sindy, my nephew’s finance, just outside of Moab and planned on giving it to her on the eve of her wedding day.  As it turns out Sindy was actually born in Moab and tells the story here . . .

I was born in Moab, and my mother walked across that arch when she was nine months pregnant with me! It was the ride back on the back on my Dad’s motorcycle that finally shook me loose, and I was born shortly after!

We stopped at a number of view points along the road including here at Fiery Furnace.

At Double Arch, which was used as a backdrop for portions of  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, strangely enough someone felt it necessary to blast the theme music from this movie over the parking lot.

Wednesday, October 13: Drive from Arches to Bryce Canyon

We left Moeb on a cool morning, heading south on Route 191, then turning onto Utah’s Bicentennial Highway (95), which as one of the most beautiful drives in the country.  We were on the road for ten hours, and the varied, dramatic and ever-changing landscapes had me constantly reaching for my video camera in attempts to capture the next stunning vista.  The changing palette of the topography included every color. Toward the end of our trip I remarked we hadn’t seen purple when ten minutes later shades of violet lay in strips across white hills.

We first stopped at Natural Bridges National Monument, where a nine-mile drive led us to three different natural bridges and a distant view of an ancestral Puebloan dwelling tucked inside a cliff near the river. Came upon this little fellow there sunning himself on the rocks.

Back on 95 the red cliffs stretched before us for miles and miles, with few cars on the road and almost no signs of human habitation. Until we came to the Colorado River, we didn’t see any water features.

The red sandstone walls were so massive it seemed as if we were  on Mars. Then the landscape changed yet again into huge black piles of ground-up coal sparkling in the sunlight.  This seemed more like the moon. We drove on top of a narrow cliff, so narrow that only the roadway fit with sheer drops on either side of us.

The terrain changed as we climbed to over 9,000 feet through the Dixie National Forest. Richard had called his friend Walter to tell him about our adventures in the parks since Walt had been there many years ago. The first question Walt asked was, “Have the Aspen changed?” Well, on the mountain slopes the Aspen had burst into light and dark shades of okra silhouetted against the dark green fir trees. In the color palate of  the West, green and yellow were well represented in the foliage and mum-like flowers that frequently lined the roadway.

Thursday, October 14: Bryce Canyon National Park

Hoodoos and Howdy-ya-doos

So what is a hoodoo do you ask? A hoodoo is a pinnacle of rock, usually rounded at the top, left standing after erosion has worn away adjacent rock and soil. For about 200 days a year, snow and ice melt and refreeze, which causes the major sculpting at Bryce Canyon. We drove the length of the 18-mile road through the park.  Below is a photo from the view-point at Swamp Canyon where there were lots of hoodoos.

At Rainbow Point we walked the Bristlecone Loop Trail, which offered expansive vistas through a fir and spruce forest. At one overlook a sign read, Silence alone is worthy to be heard. ~ Thoreau. We stopped for a while taking in the aroma of  spruce. Actually, deep breathing was a good idea because at elevations over 9,000 feet we were beginning to feel mild effects of hypoxia with a 30% reduction in the oxygen from what we are used to breathing at sea level.

At Bryce Point we ran into folks that we met at the bed and breakfast we stayed at the night before. Dianne and Dave were from the island of Whitbey in Washington state.  One of the benefits of staying at B&Bs, as well as having a home-cooked breakfast, is meeting people and sharing travel experiences and suggestions.  Turned out that Dianne and David know Judith Geist, violist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Richard sings with the Philadelphia Singers.  So I guess that made us two degrees of separation. The South Whidbey Record featured an article on Judith here.

We did “meet” a variety of wildlife along the way: mule deer (3 sets of doe with fawn), buffalo, squirrels and chipmunks.  The squirrels were somewhat tame, looking for handouts or scouring the ground for any tidbits left behind. Signs absolutely forbid feeding the animals, even suggesting that violators be reported.

Friday, October 15: Zion National Park & Grafton Ghost Town


Hanging Gardens and Weeping Rocks

Our first hike in Zion Canyon was to Weeping Rock, located in an alcove cut by the water into the cliff. Water seeps out of the cliff and gently falls to the ground in a curtain of steady “rain.”  Scientists have studied how long it has taken the water to reach to the outside traveling through the sponge-like texture of the sandstone–1,200 years. Plants cling to the cliff creating hanging gardens. As we walked along the path, a spicy-sage aroma filled the air.

Riverside Walk followed the Virgin River through the towering cliffs of the canyon. At the beginning of the trail we walked to the water’s edge where folks had built their own little cairn markers. We added one, too. The unspoken challenge was to build a tower that would look precarious but still support itself.

We walked past waterfalls and rapids and pools of water with colorful reflections. This paved trail was marked as “easy”  with a length of two miles and “suitable for wheelchairs.” Note in the picture below that families brought strollers and babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs! Note to my children:I fully expect when I reach 95 years old that you will wheel me down this trail.

West of Rockville: Grafton Ghost Town

So we left Zion National Park and began heading back to Vegas but not before stopping at Grafton. If you’ve ever seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the site of filming took place in Grafton. This Utah ghost town, settled in 1859, was difficult to find as the road was marked with only a small sign. The road eventually turned to dirt as it twisted its way through the brush. Only a few structures remained as floods swept through the town on several occasions and caused the settlers to abandon the place and move to another nearby town.

Saturday, October 16: Vegas then returning home


This trip has been one of contrasts. We enjoyed being with family during the joyous occasion of Erin’s marriage to Neal and the solitude of a quiet forest trail. The vastness and desolation of the dessert and canyons juxtaposed with the bustling and outlandish Vegas strip. Temperature differences varied from 91 degrees in Vegas to the low 40s in Bryce Canyon. Our lavish downtown hotel insulated us from the effects of the mortgage foreclosures and unemployment rate of over 14 % that have plagued the Vegas community.

The Smithsonian Magazine October issue featured an article on the city, “Winner Take All”, by J. R. Moehringer, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. His experiences only reinforced my stereotype of Vegas, “It’s a Sodom and Gomorrah theme park . . .” J. R. argues that “Vegas is America . . . run like a casino, boom and bust.” Maybe we can laugh at Las Vegas like J.R. suggests, but the city is like a political cartoon with a message far deeper than a superficial chuckle.

Is Vegas the delusional underside of America covered with kitsch and glitz, masking the blatant dysfunctions that nest in our collective psyche? The city facade veils sexism, waste, exploitation and wealth inequality, all of which thrive well while perpetuating the myth that gambling will bring a better life. Knights on horseback, Eifel Tower, Disney-esq castles all become parodies.  Even the interior “gardens” are constructed of plastic and plaster.

So is there anything redeeming about a visit to Vegas?  Perhaps the larger than life metaphor can serve as a warning.  So often we are fed propaganda by advertisers, corporate types, and slick politicians that perpetuates our prejudices and unreasoned responses comforting ourselves with a blanket of bling-bling.

Going to the carnival in itself may not be a bad venture, but does this temporary escape from reality somehow become normalized and accepted as real? Can we stand apart from the sideshow without being taken in by hucksters who might not only take our money but also steal our soul?

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