Monday, May 30, 2011

In the Land of Nightmares

Sin City, baby, Lost Wages, yeah, hepcat! Sinatra, Elvis, and...Wayne Newton?

What do you mean it's weird and it sorta sucks?

I understand that Las Vegas is designed to get people walking long distances past rows of slot machines, and that convenience of access and egress is something they've physically designed out of most venues. The non-stop need to persuade you to sit down, put your feet up, have a drink, it's just a nickel to play, is everywhere. Gas stations, hell, gas station bathrooms probably have slot machines over the urinals. Would you get your winnings from the bottom of the latrine, please?

We hassled a bit about where we were going to stay. I was originally interested in the Vdara (if vowels are optional, what else is?), and I was really interested in their rooftop pool - until I started reading about their "rooftop" pool. It's on the roof of the 3rd floor above the valet parking station. That leaves the other thirty or forty floors above the pool to look down on you. It also created an interesting physical effect, and I haven't heard whether it's been fixed yet.

Known as the Vdara Death Ray, it came about as something discussed (then blown past) in the design period: what would the sun do if it hit the huge mirrored surface of a concave hotel shape with a pool at the bottom of the lens? And the answer came back after they opened: singed hair, melted plastic drink cups, and a feeling of being microwaved if you happened to be in the path of the marauding sun. Remember ants under magnifying glasses? Scale it up a bit, and you have the Vdara's pool. They couldn't get the interior surface of the pool to seal, and all the plants died because, while the heat in Vegas isn't as bad as the heat on Venus, it was inadvertently achieved by the Vdara's architects.

So, anyway, we stayed at the Aria, one of the only non-smoking hotels on the Strip. Very pretty, all dark woods and modernist designs, none of the excessive Art Deco or Art Nouveau nonsense of places like the Bellagio (where things can always have extra unnecessary flourishes and gilding, lots and lots of gilding). The TV was controlled by a remote that also managed the lights & curtains (imperfectly), and relations with the hotel staff. One could, theoretically, order every service in the hotel and have it delivered to the room through this console system, except for the actual touch of another human being. If you didn't bring one, and you don't fancy drinking alone in the bars, you'll have to call for take-out from the local hookers. Or you could go out and get a massage at the Spa, though that costs extra, too (though less than a hooker).

We had wanted to see a show, but unfortunately, the shows we wanted to see were all sold out months in advance. You can wait on an interminable line for folks who've decided not to show up, but there are few guarantees of a seat, and no guarantees of two seats together. So we contented ourselves with $5 worth of the nickel slot machines downstairs (which lasted about four minutes), a little eating, and a little shopping, as well as time in the spa. Since the bartender from a local pub helped us find the check-in counter (a mile from our parking space in the free self-park structure), we decided to try the food there. Really good fish & chips and some pretty decent beer.
We spent an hour or maybe a little more in the Aria pool. We were warned against any sort of "rough-housing", like families tend to do when they play in pools, by folks who had already been warned about their rambunctious behavior. Ooooookay. Then there's the folks still wearing sunglasses in the pool. Then there's the one hipster doofus wearing sunglasses AND A HAT in the pool - not a baseball cap, but an actual trilby-type hat. I saw one older lady wearing a very tight bikini that really showed off her mottled, leathery tan. And from probably fifty feet away, and not wearing my glasses, I could tell that the woman in the sparkly white bikini had really big, totally fake boobs. MY EYES!!!

The other restaurant was the Buffet at the Bellagio. As with any buffet, the food was hit or miss. I had some spicy lamb ribs that were tender and amazing, RG had beef short ribs that were equally tender and amazing. I went to the macaroni and cheese bar (a MACARONI AND CHEESE BAR) and had my mac and cheese made to my personal specifications, including fresh crab. The cute thing about this particular buffet is that most of the food is portioned already. When you go for lamb ribs or the beef short ribs, you could pick up as many as you wanted. But almost everything else comes in little ramekins or mini saute pans, just to remind you, "hey, it's a friggin buffet, and you don't want to fill up on starches, now do you?" My largest complaint was with the desserts - does everything that has chocolate also have to contain passion fruit puree? What if someone doesn't like passion fruit?

RG really wanted to visit the Miracle Mile, a shopping mall we could see from our window that is on the other side of the Strip from our hotel. A mile of covered shopping mall covering a single city block, of the over a hundred stores within, we only found a few that we hadn't seen anywhere else. One was the Bettie Page store (with "official" Bettie Page clothes). RG tried on a few pieces, but the sizing was so ludicrously small that nothing fit her. I imagine a Petite at this store fitting, perhaps, a child of seven, but then no child of seven should wear this sort of clothing. We also tried Allsaints, Ltd, a swanky clothing store based out of England. Same thing there. I am not a small person, I am willing to admit I have a weight problem, but when I try on something marked XXL, the one thing I don't expect is for the sleeves to be so tight that I can barely get my elbow past the armhole. Couture sizing: it's all about being six foot three and weighing around 130 pounds. I gave up in disgust pretty quickly. Another was a piercing and tattoo place (where you can get that drunken tattoo experience you'll always regret) where I managed to find a pair of spiky earrings that I've since had to discard (couldn't pass through my kitchen curtain without it grabbing my earlobe). At one point we passed by an enormous fiberglass statue of a stripper. A stripper. Forty feet tall. In a shopping mall with kids. And you may ask yourself, "well, how did I get here?" I'll tell you.

From the Aria check-in counter, take a right out the door, and walk all the way around until you find a staircase leading to street level. When you hit the street, walk across the ambulance entrance (ambulance entrance?!?) and make your way down the narrow sidewalk until you see a sign that has a big "no Pedestrians Past This Point" and an indication to "Cross the Street". Which we did, all six lanes. Then cross another wide intersection, taking you to the back of the base of Crystals, a different high-end shopping mall attached to the Aria. This area is a large concrete pad in front of a black building with Keep Out signs plastered all over the doors, and a woman in a security guard uniform sitting on a folding chair under one of the sparsely-placed lampposts. She seemed to be guarding the back entrance to the lower floors of Crystals, which appear to be unoccupied and/or under construction. Guess it's nice to be employed. From the dark Crystals, walk around towards the street you think you want to cross until you find the staircase that leads to the overhead crossing (pedestrians should never, ever be on sidewalks unless they absolutely have to). Up two flights of steep stairs, across a very long catwalk past at least three different sidewalk buskers, turn right, and cross the Strip from above. By the way, you are now surrounded by hundreds of people. Down the stairs, only to be accosted by guys and gals handing out flyers for hookers by SNAPping them at you. It's an interesting trick to get your attention, but these folks don't seem to realize that the pregnant woman with the stroller probably doesn't want a hooker later. I said "probably"... Then walk through the mall.

We came out into the night, past the Michael Jackson impersonator, the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp) impersonator, and all manner of costumed freaks hanging out on the street corner, surrounded by people wanting their photos taken with these bizarre apparitions. We walked across the street (again, surrounded by a huge, starchy mass of humanity), to get to the Bellagio. We wandered amongst the beautiful flower gardens and the Chihuly ceiling, past the endless rows of gamblers, past the incoming guests who've just arrived and are trying to find someone helpful while dragging fifty pounds of luggage through groups of chattering girls and hooting, drunken frat-boy types, hoping to be able to rest their weary heads on the front edge of a craps table, really, really soon. RG at this point was certain that if I didn't find my way back to our own hotel soon, I was likely to expire in front of her, and she didn't want to have to drag my sorry ass back through all those crowds. So we looked up on our smart phones, "how do you get from the lobby of the Bellagio to the lobby of the Aria, without the detour to Pyongyang?" The answer was deviously simple: walk to the back of the Bellagio, down a hallway to the lobby of the Vdara, out the front door, and turn left. You will find yourself on the walkway mentioned above that lead to the stairs which lead to the ambulance, Crystals, etc. In other words, a walk that originally took nearly fifty minutes would have taken ten, had we looked it up in advance, rather than relying on the advice of the staff at our hotel. Never trust the staff if you mention that you want to leave their establishment, because that's not something they want you to do for any reason at all.


Various strange sightings:

  • a fellow walking in the revolving doors at the Bellagio yelling "whoop, whoop, whoop" in a sort of howler-monkey yowl. His friends join in. Other people join in. Everyone in the lobby joins in. I SO regretted not having my little recording device here. Even without the zoo atmosphere, the level of jibber-jabber by everyone was astounding. I've been to rock concerts that were quieter. 
  • Standing in line for O, the big water-based Cirque du Soleil show at the Bellagio (which we didn't get to see), I was watching the poker tables. Mostly young guys wearing shades and trying not to get fleeced by the guys with the massive gold wristwatches. One woman sits down, wearing a loose-but-clingy gold gown that barely covered her various naughty bits, being given a stack of chips by a house elf (hers or the hotels I didn't know). She knew a few of the players already, so I guess she (and they) were fixtures. 
  • When RG and I were playing the slots, I ambled down the line to a slot next door, and noticed the woman on the slot next to me. She's playing a nickel slot, running the maximum bet per play, and she's losing on every single play. The dollar amount on the machine started at $9,956 when I started observing her, and went down into the upper $8,000 mark when I turned away. A thousand dollars or so on a nickel slot machine in a matter of minutes.
  • We did get to see at least one Vegas stereotype walk by. A man wearing black leather pants and jacket, with a black shirt, open almost to his waist, with a gold chain and heavy gold wristwatch, dark skin, very hairy, medium length black hair all gelled out and tousled, probably in his forties. Could have been Arabic, could have been Italian, Spanish, maybe French, but just SO perfect.

We hit the Spa for a couple hours, clothing-optional and gender-separated. I opted for no clothes, since I'd never had that experience. I spent a long, long time in the wooden sauna waiting for the temperature to rise. It was probably hovering around one-fifty, which, for a dry sauna, is actually not that hot. I was the only guy that afternoon who went from being in the hot room to dropping into the cold plunge. Everyone else went from the hot room to the steam room to either hot tubs or the lounge chairs. I kept wondering, don't they know the point of going into the hot room in the first place?

I realize that this post does not appear to be in any sort of order, and that's appropriate. I don't remember terribly well what even happened on which night, though if I put enough effort into it, I could probably figure it out. RG would help, as well - she remembers everything.

Vegas was, to put it nicely, a surreal place in which to spend a lot of money. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Taking a break in our regularly scheduled programming...

For a funny:

"Windbag prophets reap windfall profits"

From the appropriately titled Ironic Times.

Just thought you should know.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rocks and Christians

Back to the big, bad old Bryce Canyon, and the willingness to actually hike down all the way, and then hike back out, hopefully without the need for a helicopter airlift. Down, down, down the Queen's Garden trail, so named for the figure of Queen Victoria formed by a zillion years of slow erosion way up on one of the various parapets of sandstone, down in the depths of the canyon.

Happy Trails
You walk around and occasionally though these massive formations that look both very solid and impossibly balanced, huge chunks of rocks and whole trees with their roots waving pitifully upwards, testifying to the results of the constant, yearly freeze/crack style of erosion these walls go through. One of the trails had fallen off the wall, and the forestry guys were there rebuilding a chunk of trail. Most of the trails have been cut out of existing erosion paths, or are simply an angle carved out of the side of a really big rock, but then they have to buttress them up with concrete and rebar, and I just want to tell them how lucky I think they are, for having such great job security. This place is always falling apart, otherwise no one would come here. So, always fixing, always conditioning, clearing debris, tree bits, building up trail sections that are just as vulnerable to the vagaries of good old-fashioned erosion as all the non-man-made rocks in the park.

The hike down the Queen's Garden trail is a bit precipitous and could use a few more switchbacks, though I'm not sure where they'd put them. You drop down the 320 foot elevation change in the first half mile or so, and I'd say the first hundred feet of that is over in less than a tenth of a mile. In other words - steeeeeep.

Funny, funny shoes
We were stopped repeatedly by folks coming up the other way to ask RG about her shoes. She was wearing her pink FiveFingers hikers, and no one could imagine them being comfortable. I was wearing a pair of hiking shoes I'd bought in case I didn't like my own red FiveFingers, and I was so sorry I hadn't worn my Funnyshoes. I ended up with blisters and RG really only suffered from a sort of general fatigue (from, you know, hiking).

Big damn rocks
So we got to the bottom of the trail, into a kind of cul de sac where the formation that looks like Queen Victoria with her bustle appears high above you (and once someone points it out, it's hard to see anything else). The queen is on the left in this picture.

So we're down here, enjoying the amazing formations, when a fellow walks up with his three sons, and says, "doesn't look like Queen Victoria to me. I think it's a wise man bringing gifts to Jesus."

Not amused
Well, isn't that nice.

The hike out was, at first, no big deal, lots of gentle ups and downs. As we got closer to the base of the main incline, RG and I were both stopping at every switchback to catch our breath, swig a little water. As we went up the final ascent, it wasn't until afterwards that we both admitted to feeling not a little lightheaded, and possibly suffering from tunnel vision at one point. My heart felt like a jackhammer and my lungs were wheezing (to quote Salieri) "like an old rusty squeezebox."

I can't wait to go back and do it again.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Day after that Kodachrome Basin. Originally named Kodachrome Flat, the name was changed to Chimney Rock State Park, due to fears of the Wrath of Kodak. Kodak turned out to be Amused by someone naming a State Park after their film (gee, I can't imagine why), so eventually it became known as Kodachrome Basin State Park.

On a side note: if you stay at Ruby's Inn and want to buy groceries, I'd seriously recommend driving nine miles down UT-12 to the small town of Tropic and go to the grocery store there. A larger variety of food, and certainly more reasonable prices. We had a burger at the restaurant part of the restaurant/grocery store/gas station. Pretty darn good food. Beer selection's limited, but hey - it's Utah.

After lunch, we hit the Shakespeare Arch, a half a mile through very very dusty environs, lots of ups and downs and ups and downs. The arch itself is far overhead, and is quite an impressive structure.

A nice boulder
Then we hit the upper half of the park. Longer hike, flatter, up close and personal with some pretty massive sandstone formations. My understanding of sandstone is that it was once plain old sand or dirt of one kind or another (mostly sand), that got layers and layers of crap laid onto it over the years, eventually concreting into a single mass, and then a lot of the crap ended up weathering away, to give all of us the appearance of giant rounded lumps of stone with interesting erosion marks all over, strange formations that appear to be teetering on the edge of collapse (which they are, but very, very slowly).

The other odd things are the holes in all the walls, in some cases in neat little rows, way up the side of a massive formation, that speak to tiny imperfections becoming larger and larger erosion pits. More fun occurs later (after a few hundred years) when rain slowly pulls the sand off the sandstone and forms little mud castles inside these same erosion holes. It's been pointed out by smarter people than I that any natural formation at its edges looks like a smaller version of the bigger formation, and this fractalization extends all the way down to the molecular level. The tiny sandstone formations in these holes is awesome proof of that.

Another thing, which my pictures don't do justice to, (but some of the digitals might) is the ridiculous variety of color within the sandstones. There's iron for red, manganese for purple, and yellow for straight feldspar (which is common in sandstones). Then there's the white limestone intrusions everywhere.

After the hike, swimming and something akin to a buffet at Ruby's. Overcooked carrots, undercooked pork, properly cooked beef (in "cowboy" gravy - didn't taste like cowboy to me), roasted chicken parts, mashed potato paste, Rice-A-Roni (really), decent mac'n'cheese, and corms. The dessert pile consisted of a lot of stuff that might have been Sara Lee, and a frogurt bar. Back to the room and into a food coma.