Day 21 Hoover Dam Boulder City, and we are going home…

Hoover dam

From inside one of the Dam's tunnels.
From inside one of the Dam’s tunnels.
Karen in Dam tunnel...aka the Da Vinci (wo)man.
Karen in Dam tunnel…aka the Da Vinci (wo)man.

another dam pic

Hoover eagles
On the other side of the dam is Arizona, so we popped over for a few minutes and an hour, getting caught in a different time-zone as we did (Arizona is an hour in front of Nevada). Here’s the view from an hour in front…

Day 20 Las Vegas

Las vegas Paris in Vegas New York in VegasThe iconic Bellagio

We said that Vegas was a weird town in the desert, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s so incongruous, out in the middle of nowhere, like some big kid’s toybox has been spilt in the desert. But it’s exactly what you expect: excess is everywhere, and the big kids imagination is in overdrive: you want the whole of New York to be squeezed into a snapshot? You got it. What about Paris – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Mongolfier Balloon? You got it. It’s hyper everything – hyperreal, hypercrass and hypercommercial. So using language appropriate for the polarizing feelings that Vegas has provided, it’s safe to say that you’ll love it and hate it in equal measure. So here’re a few of the things that we have loved and hated.

Bellagio fountains

We loved the fountain display at the Bellagio. This is the hotel featured in the Ocean trilogy, out front of which is an enormous pond. Every so often, an amazing water display erupts, with the fountains springing everywhere in sync with the music. That really is magical, especially at night.

We hated the Bellagio. Inside, that is. And most of the other hotels, come to that. These places are so big, so ostentatious and so labyrinthine that it takes you literally half an hour or even an hour to walk round them, during which time you get increasingly lost. Finding your way out is the biggest challenge, and just when you think you have done it and you arrive on the pavement, you find yourself having to take an escalator and whoops, you’re back inside another gargantuan hotel! We got stuck for an hour in the MGM Grand before eventually making it back to the Strip.

We loved the shows we saw, and Vegas is full of these. They are very much based on spectacle and virtuosity, so don’t go expecting Chekhov. However, you can see everything from the big magicians like David Copperfield and Penn and Teller, to the singers like Donny Osmond and Olivia Newton John, to the exotic cabarets that are too numerous to mention. And then there are the Cirque du Soleil shows, for which Vegas is renowned. We saw one of these – Zarkana – and had a fabulous time. It really is just circus, but done with such lavish and spectacular glam (and skill) that you just can’t help being wowed. We also saw the Blue Man Group, who we have seen previously in New York. They never disappoint: this is funny, feel good fun, with once again an amazing degree of skill and expertise.

cirque sand scene in Zarkana Cirque...Zarkana


We hated the street preachers. As you know, Vegas is a land of vice, with all of its gambling, titillation and hedonism. But it’s also packed with plenty of naysayers, brandishing placards and megaphones and warning everybody that they are going straight to the devil. Now this isn’t our thing at the best of times, but these people showed the problems that happen when American values like freedom of speech and right-wing sentiments come face to face. When they started condemning things like homosexuality, we felt like picking our own placards up and preaching them some of our values.

We loved some of the day trips you can go on out of Vegas – it’s so well located for a number of great attractions (such as the Grand Canyon, that we didn’t do). We passed by another of these canyons, Red Rock, on our way in, though on this occasion we chose not to visit that or the Canyon of Fire, partly because we’ve seen a lot of the natural spectacles already. However, we did make a trip to a man-made spectacle, the Hoover Dam, which was truly awesome. More of that tomorrow!

We hated the prostitution laws in Nevada, and what this leads to: open pimping of young girls on the streets by people old enough to be your grandma. They’re very forthright in what they do, thrusting flyers at you even when you are walking as a couple, as if there is nothing more natural in the world. Whatever your views, it’s problematic when you come (as we do) from a culture that is so differently placed in this regard – and when you have kids who are not much younger than the girls being pimped. Even considering the pro-prostitution perspective and the postfeminist perspective, it still feels ‘off’ and wrongly balanced when you consider who is doing the selling and then who might be doing the buying – and what the ‘service providers’ are actually getting from the transaction. I am sure several people will have strong and different views to us though.

You’ll love Vegas and hate it, as we’ve said. We certainly don’t regret coming, and we’ve had a ball during our stay. Will we come back? Dunno. Perhaps it’s somewhere you have to experience once, but perhaps that’s all you need.

Day 19: Zabriskie Point and Death Valley Junction

Today has been a real day of inspiration. It was our last day in California (as we crossed into Nevada), but what a great way to leave the Golden State behind.

Zabriskie Point WP_20150831_011 WP_20150831_012 WP_20150831_016

First stop was Zabriskie Point, only a few minutes’ drive from Furnace Creek, and the location of not only some of the most spectacular views in Death Valley, but also a wealth of pop culture references. This was the location for Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriksie Point, in which the young lovers get together in a stylised love scene in the dunes, staged with performers from California’s Open Theater. This is art cinema at its best and worst – a terrible flop at the box office, but interesting nonetheless. But that’s not all: Zabriskie Point was also the scene for the cover image of U2’s album The Joshua Tree. Not the shot with the actual tree in it, mind – that was taken on the other side of Death Valley not far from Lone Pine, though the tree itself has now fallen down and all that is left is a shrine to U2. The front of the album, though, has one of those black-and-white rock-stars-looking-arty-and-serious-in-the-desert-pics. And that was shot here. But that’s not all either! Perhaps most interesting to us was the fact that the French philosopher Michel Foucault was brought here in 1975, and invited to go on a trip of a different sort. He took LSD, an experience he later said was the best in his life, and perhaps one that influenced some of his later writings. It’s obviously been an alluring place for people, and the fact that there have been so many interesting connections with Zabriskie Point meant that we had to visit it!

20 mule drive

Shortly after that, we took a detour off the main road to journey round Twenty Mule Drive, a scenic route of just a few miles between more wind-blown cliff faces and rocky sand dunes. This was part of the route of the original Twenty Mule team that transported Borax in the late-nineteenth century. Spectacular again, though there is so much spectacular stuff to see in Death Valley that you can get rather blasé about it all.

As we came to the end of our Death Valley odyssey, we drew into Death Valley Junction, a tiny village that was once the main artery of the Borax trade. We were keen to come here for a different reason: it’s the site of Amargosa Opera House, one of the most extraordinary theatres in the world.

Amargosa Opera House WP_20150831_040 WP_20150831_055 WP_20150831_076

This was set up in the 1920s as part of the mining village, which became a ghost town when the Borax industry left. However, in the 1960s, the ballet dancer and Broadway star Marta Becket discovered it when she got a flat tyre on a trip through Death Valley. At that point, the theatre building was disused and fallen into disrepair. In an instant she decided to renovate it, and over the next few years she lovingly restored it and started performing her one-woman show there. Now, there are not many residents in Death Valley Junction, so audience figures were low. So she decided to paint an audience on the walls of the theatre. The whole process took her 6 years, but the result is the most amazing set of murals on the walls and ceiling of this tiny jewel of a theatre. We were shown around by Gregory, who now runs the attached hotel and performs in the theatre during the winter months. He is absolutely passionate about the theatre, about Marta Becket’s work, and about the legacy she has left – and rightly so. This is really one of the most admirable projects we have ever encountered, and Marta Becket (now 91) must go down as one of the most inspirational women we have come across.

We said our good-byes to Amargosa Opera House to continue our journey. Lunching at a one-horse roadside town called Shoshone (named for the local Native Americans), we then took one of the most desolate roads we have yet travelled towards our final destination. For forty miles, the road meandered through stunning nothingness, sometimes in twists and turns, sometimes in long, straight, never-ending stretches of asphalt. In the course of that hour, we saw just four other cars. This was even quieter than Death Valley!

Nevada the road to Nevada

We had reached Nevada, whose landscape is subtly different than California – red rocks rather than sandy, and the occasional mountain goat in amongst the Joshua Trees. Eventually, we came across the major highway, and it wasn’t long then before we caught sight of our next destination: Las Vegas, aka Weird Town in the Desert.