Road Trip 2017 #21 – Death Valley

The twelfth day of our summer vacation began with our eighth National Park of the road trip.  Death Valley straddles Nevada and California, a vast expanse of desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Of all of America’s National Parks, it is the furthest below sea level and also holds the records as being the most dry and the most hot.  It actually holds the record as having had the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet.  That temperature was 134 degrees.  Not my ideal environment but we could not complete our horseshoe route around the southwest without taking the boys to such an (in)famous place as Death Valley.  It gained its name from some folks travelling to California as part of the Gold Rush took what they thought was a shortcut from the trail and ended up staggering their way through the valley, barely surviving.  Ideal place for a wander then!

Our first stop was at Zabriskie Point.  This area was once an ancient lake so its geology is all about sediments.  I assume that these sediments along with ashy layers from volcanic activity account for all the variations in colour in the tooth shaped peaks there – but I have a brain that doesn’t do geology so I may be wrong.  The elevation gave us a great perspective on the parched landscape and was useful in helping us point out to the boys area of salt flats and places where mines had once operated.


2017-07-03 11.50.07


When we pulled into the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek, the building’s thermometer announced it was 114 degrees and climbing.  There were also signs posted all over the place warning people not to hike as it was simply too hot to be safe.  You know it’s bad when the National Parks Service is warning people to not use its resources.  The first thing we did there was to avail ourselves of the cold water from their fountains to glug down and refill our water flagons.  Refreshed, we decided to take full advantage of their air conditioning so we had a thorough nose around the museum.  This was an exhibition about life in Death Valley – its geology, of course, but also its wildlife, the Timbishu Shoshone way of life and their legal victories to reclaim land rights, the history of European settlement and of borax mining.  What my younger boys most enjoyed was an interactive exhibit that challenged them to design, using various body parts, the uber desert creature by thinking about adaptations that would be advantageous in such a harsh environment.  We had to burst a gut laughing when most of their imaginary animals either looked distinctly phallic or like winged testicles.


2017-07-03 12.35.33

We left the air conditioned sanctuary of the Visitor Center and continued along the road.  Only I, however, opted to get out of the car at the next stop.  I thought it was an easy hop, skip, and jump to snag some interesting photos but it was so searingly hot by that juncture that even my twenty minutes round trip walk felt incredibly uncomfortable.  The spot in question was the Harmony Borax Works.  This was where borax was mined from the early 1880s and for just that decade.  The works were famous for its “twenty mule team” that hauled the borax overland to the railroad at Mojave.  On a day when I could feel myself slowly turning to dust in the intense heat, it was hard to believe that people had actually managed to live and work in such an inhospitable place.  It must have been particularly gruelling for the Chinese immigrant workers who lived in tents in the surrounding landscape.  I was able to see the ruins of the works and an example of a mule wagon before scurrying back to the car and being ever so grateful for water.



The heat was even more intense by the time we reached Stovepipe Wells and the sand dunes of Mesquite Flats.  It was actually unbearable and again I wondered how anyone – whether indigenous people or mining immigrants – had ever managed to survive in Death Valley.  Clearly they were much hardier than I am.  Though we didn’t spot any mesquite plants, there were creosote bushes galore.  There was also a large, dead-looking tree that my kids were longing to climb up but a coach load of tourists were doing just that very thing, taking turns to pose for photographs, and the kids were too hot to wait patiently for a turn.  Instead, they kicked around the dunes for as long as they could stand the heat – which was not very long.  It was time to leave Death Valley before we cooked.




Road Trip 2017 #20 – Uncanny Valley in Vegas

The eleventh day of our vacation started with an epiphany: we could park for free on the strip.  As epiphanies go, it’s hardly dramatic or captivating.  However, as a group of people who had hoofed several blocks in gross heat the night before and then taken a taxi for the return journey, this was significant news.  So used to paying hefty charges to park in city centres, it had not even crossed our minds that parking on the strip would be affordable.  We had not even thought to google it.  More fool us.  Turns out that most of the big casino hotels offer free parking.  We wished we had known that the night before but were definitely going to use free parking on our second day in Las Vegas.

We decided to let the kids determine what we did for our only full day in the city.  It probably won’t surprise you that I am an over-planner when it comes to our vacations.  I create a spreadsheet full of all the possible things we might do in all of the areas we are visiting, with the practical details and a precis of each.  The boys, therefore, had a flick through my spreadsheet, had a discussion between themselves, and informed us that they wanted to go to the Madame Tussaud’s exhibit inside the Venetian resort.  Our kids have never been to a waxworks place and I have fond memories of visiting wax museums as a kid so we agreed that was the plan.  We had, after all, done lots of National Parks so why not do something a bit wacky?

2017-07-02 11.40.43

The thing about wax models is that sometimes they can be uncannily accurate, sometimes they can be almost right but there is something awry, and sometimes they are just pure dreadful.  Half the fun of visiting a waxworks place is judging the quality of the look-a-like-ness of each model.  We had fun judging.  The Marilyn Monroe and Leonardo DiCaprio were definitely the worst.  When I was a kid, the wax models were treated like museum exhibits – look but do not touch.  I was happy, therefore, to discover that interacting with the wax models was actively encouraged at this Madame Tussaud’s.  I would not have to tell my kids to “look with your eyes and not with your hands” at all.  Yay!


The kids had an absolute whale of a time adopting poses next to the various celebrity models.  In some cases props were provided so they could set up little vignettes and pose for photographs.  The place was organised in themed sections.  The first section was all about movie stars.  I noted that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were standing in different areas of the room, presumably having originally been together.  The next section was about sports stars.  Most, I confess, we did not recognise.  I am not someone who follows sports.  However, there were lots of props and sets in this section so the kids were able to set up scenarios like boxing Muhammad Ali.








The music section was fun too.  We even got to have a go at karaoke.  We had a total giggle singing along to ‘Suspicious Minds’, though I am not sure our fellow visitors appreciated our singing as much as we were enjoying it.  My little Hendrix fan – who happened to be wearing a Hendrix t-shirt – was super excited to stand beside Waxy Jimi as if they were jamming together.  There was a large section devoted to celebrities associated with Las Vegas.  I got to pretend I was performing with the Rat Pack and the kids got to hang out with not one but two Elvises (Elvii?).







The section my younger boys were most excited about, however, was the one devoted to Marvel characters.  There were a few wax models and then there was a 4D show that was fun and really well done.  My little Marvel nuts thought it was brilliant.  The whole Madame Tussaud’s experience was a bit too brief and skimpy for my liking but the kids had fun so it was worth it.





We decided to have a wander around Caesar’s Palace.  We looked around lots of the crazy shops full of expensively flashy whatnots and blingy trifles, the kids sat inside chairs shaped like Emperor heads, we went up and down curving escalators – which I was way more excited about than a woman in her 40s should be – and the kids ate expensive but divine gelato.  We also took in another free show, this one about the Fall of Atlantis.  At the appointed time, a fountain transformed into a show about warring animatronic gods.  It was utterly silly but fun and, just behind the fountain, there was a bonus fish tank that was huge and filled with exotic fish and happy looking rays.






We decided we should eat a a buffet in Las Vegas, since the city is all about excess and gluttony of one kind or another.  We also love a good buffet since it means the kids are more open to experimentation with food.  We were told the buffet at the Aria was amazing.  They weren’t wrong.  The price almost made me choke but the food was completely and utterly amazing.  It was arranged by food culture and each thing I sampled was delectable.  I was especially smitten with the curries and the naan breads.  My 11 year old particularly adored all of the sushi and the crab.  We were all stuffed but decided we had enough space in the Dessert Annex space of our stomachs for sampling desserts.  Those sweet treats were gorgeous and were beautifully constructed miniature confections.  I ended up feeling grotesquely sick but I have no regrets.  I did regret it that evening and the next day because I felt intensely queasy.  I also regret it because my youngest son was sick during the night and we had to clean him and strip the bed.  But no long term regrets.

Road Trip 2017 #19 – Evening in Las Vegas

After spending all day in the searing heat, I had never been so glad to flop onto a bed in an air conditioned room as I was when I entered our hotel room in Las Vegas.  You may have noticed, however, that we don’t do relaxation on our road trips.  Nope, it is all about cramming as many experiences into our time as possible.  We, therefore, had a quick refresh and then we headed back out for the evening.  Partly this was because we were hungry and had to go in search of food, since we had no kitchen or dining facilities in our hotel accommodation, and mostly it was because we felt the kids should see the lights of Vegas in the darkness.

We were staying in a hotel a good few blocks away from the strip so we travelled by Shank’s Pony towards Las Vegas Boulevard.  For various ridiculous and unplanned reasons, we ended up eating in the Hard Rock Casino.  We are not gambling people so were fairly clueless when it came to the rules about where the children could and could not be inside the casino, something we had to navigate since there was no completely clear border between the casino floor and the areas designated for dining.  We asked a member of staff who explained that the children could actually cross the gambling area of the casino (the area was machines rather than the gaming tables) in order to do things like access the restrooms but the rule was that they could not stand still.  I suppose the rationale is that the children could be protected from gambling so long as they were only observing it at a passing glance rather than spectating.  In any case, my youngest son took this to mean that he could not stand still at all ever when inside a casino so he spent all his time acting like he had medieval dancing mania.  The ridiculous thing was that the children could sit still in the eating area and completely observe the folks who were attached to the gambling machines, firing in money on repeat, and pressing buttons.  It certainly held little interest on no appeal to my kids.  Anyway, the food we ate at the Hard Rock Casino was surprisingly good and the service was efficient so we were fed, happy, and back out walking in no time at all.


Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Las Vegas.  I don’t gamble, I despise crowds, I hate feeling hassled, I dislike loud noise, I am not into lavish excess, all the things that the city is famous for.  However, I do think that Las Vegas looks at its best at night time when all those lights and neon prettify the place.  The first place we headed to was the Bellagio – or rather the exterior of the Bellagio.  We wanted to see the fountain display.  We dodged and ducked through the crowds and darted across the wide roads and made it in time for the show and even managed to get a decent viewing spot.  The fountain display takes place on a lake in front of the casino.  It’s basically just some dancing water synchronised to music and it is pretty brief but it is well done and it’s free.  Free is one of my favourite words when travelling so, from the Bellagio, we walked further along the Boulevard in order to find a spot near the Mirage.  Despite the throng, we lucked out and found a great viewing spot for their volcano show.  Both Mr Pict and I thought it had improved since we saw it.  It was a pretty impressive display of lights and flames.





After witnessing two outdoor shows, between the temperatures (it was still almost 100 degrees despite being late at night) and the crowds, we were all feeling really hot and bothered.  We, therefore, headed into the Venetian because I remembered being impressed by it when I was last in Vegas and – more critically – it was nearby and had air conditioning.  The kids, however, were not feeling it.  They perked up a bit when they thought they might go on a gondola ride but I burst their bubbles and that made them even more mopey.  In fairness, we had been to Zion National Park, Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam, and Las Vegas all in one day.  It was time to call it quits and head back to our hotel.  We all contemplated the long walk home in the sticky heat.  We decided to treat ourselves to a cab ride.  It was a good investment.  The hotel pool was open 24 hours a day so – although it was after 10pm – they decided to go have a swim and play in the pool.  Vegas is the party city after all!




Road Trip 2017 #18 – Lake Mead and Hoover Dam

After lunching in Utah, we crossed the border into Nevada.  Too early to check into our hotel, we actually drove straight through Las Vegas and headed towards the Hoover Dam.  Our route took us past Lake Mead and Mr Pict decided to be spontaneous and head to the beach.  The air temperature was at least 110 degrees and the water temperature of the lake was apparently 83 but the kids were up for the idea so I went with the flow.

Lake Mead was created by the construction of the Hoover Dam and is apparently the largest reservoir by volume in the country.  I suppose that is what is required if you are going to have people build cities in the desert.  The majority of its water comes from snow melt and, strangely enough, it experiences a lot of drought and has not been at capacity for over 30 years.  Of course, if the water level dropped too low then the Dam would cease to function so all sorts of engineering has gone into preventing that from happening.  An awful lot of resources go into allowing cities to continue existing in the desert.

Lake Mead might be a National Park but it definitely lacked the facilities and polish of all the other National Parks we had been to.  It reminded me a lot of the lake we had visited in West Virginia last year.  That wasn’t a good thing.  The surface was so bad I thought our car axle might break from driving on such uneven roads and then the beach was rubbly, grubby, muddy, and messy.  Nevertheless, the kids quickly changed into their swimming clothes and merrily galloped into the water.  Mr Pict and I stayed on the shore and did not even paddle our feet.  It just looked so gross.  Our feral kids didn’t seem to mind the mudlark quality of their experience.




When we reached the Hoover Dam, the air felt like a constant blast from a hot oven.  It was pretty grim.  Our kids actually had zero interest in visiting the Hoover Dam.  None whatsoever.  When I last visited the Hoover Dam, it was possible for tourists to drive across it.  That is no longer permitted, for understandable security reasons, so wasn’t a compromise we could offer the kids.  Instead we had to park up and then walk along the crest of the Dam.  Trying to persuade the kids that they wanted to spend some time in the baking, parched heat to see a work of engineering they had no inclination to see was a bit of an ordeal to say the least.  Our parenting is a benevolent dictatorship rather than a democracy, however, so we prized them out of the sanctuary of the air conditioned car and forced them to see the Dam whether they appreciated it now or later.



The Hoover Dam was famously built during the Great Depression and put thousands of people to work (and killed about a hundred of them).  It created the aforementioned Lake Mead and generates the electricity that allows for cities to exist in the middle of the desert.  It also created nearby Boulder City, founded to house all the workers.  It was a massive undertaking and an amazing feat of engineering involving much engineering but incredibly it was completed two years ahead of schedule.  It is possible to view the Hoover Dam as symbolising good and bad aspects of America: it is large and impresses through its scale; it serves a practical function rather than just being for show; it is all about power; it is apsirational, given that it allowed for the creation of a city in a location where a city had no business being built; it was massively challenge yet was accomplished; and it brought people together in a time of terrible desperation; on the other hand, however, the environmental damage was and continues to be pretty appalling; its creation was disastrous for rural communities, particularly indigenous people, because freedom for some is so often at the cost of freedom for others.





The kids remained resolutely uninterested in the Hoover Dam.  We were not as fussed about them being impressed with it as we had been about them seeing the Grand Canyon but it is another one to file under “One day they may be grateful”.  Their reaction was more a desultory, “Yeah, it’s big. Can we get out of this heat now?”  The younger boys did perk up when we happened across a memorial to and grave of  a dog who had been the mascot of the Dam.  He accompanied the workers everywhere, he had a packed lunch each day, and chased ring-tailed cats in his free time.  Tragically, one day a worker accidentally drove over the dog as he slept and that was the end of the beloved mascot’s life.