Death Valley to Las Vegas
The ride from Bishop, CA to Death Valley National Park began with a long, slow descent through a hilly valley flanked by tall, sharp mountains. When I got started at around 8am, it was cold enough outside for a neck warmer and a heavy fleece. An hour later, I had to stop to strip off some layers. The mercury had begun to rise.
The terrain was pretty desolate. Towns were few and far between and tended to cluster around the little creeks and washes that meandered their way down from the mountains to either side. The descent continued and the heat continued to rise. When I was already forced to soak my shirt at each stop and it was still over 3000 feet of elevation, I started to worry about the heat on the valley floor. Blasts of it occasionally fanned across the road, giving me goosebumps and causing me to blink dryly.
Eventually I entered the park and made the final descent into the valley itself, which lies 282 feet below sea level:
Death Valley has a lot of different subsections. Some are basically an average desert (only hotter), others resemble the Badlands in South Dakota, and still others contain windswept sand dunes. It feels like a hodgepodge of different terrain assembled together inside a furnace set to 118 degrees. I made my way through the park, taking pictures where I could and baffling the other tourists who thought I was completely crazy for wearing jeans and a leather jacket in that heat. Strangely enough, it was actually cooler wearing the jacket (under which I had a soaking wet t-shirt) than taking it off and exposing myself to the burn of the air around.
As interesting as Death Valley was, I didn't find myself completely lost in it like I had been in some of the other national parks. In the end, it's a hot desert. I recently met a guy who lived in LA and used to escape on his motorcycle to go off-roading in Death Valley and he swore by the heat and isolation it offered, so I guess it has value for some. I do love the desert, but the true extremes of the valley just weren't my particular flavor of it. I like stupid challenges, but going to a place where a simple flat tire could kill you really motivates me to think about other, more forgiving places to find beauty and solitude.
I left the park and made my way into Nevada. The desert continued but it was markedly greener than the California side had been. I traversed seemingly endless valleys and brief mountain passes during the 100 or so miles leading to Las Vegas. Eventually, the late afternoon sun glinted off thousands of panes of glass in the next valley and I knew I was almost there.
I have to say, the ride into Vegas was disappointing. The City of Sin, a place all about image and fantasy and id, really came off as being pretty pedestrian as I rode onto the strip that late afternoon. It felt like a concrete jungle with no people in it and a total lack of soul. I walked through the casino at the Excalibur to find my room and was hardly blown away by the premises. The whole place seemed to be taking a cigarette break and waiting for something.
It became clear, once the sun went down and I ventured out to walk the strip, that Vegas only comes alive at night. The town had transformed completely. Where before I'd seen nothing but boring concrete superstructures, now the lights and people breathed new life into the wonders of the Strip. People swarmed the walkways between casinos and signs everywhere hocked high end jewelry, the latest shows, and the virtues of yard-high cocktails at a particular venue.
I found myself swept up in the enthusiasm of the crowds around me, where everyone was letting loose and looking for a good time. No one goes to Vegas without an agenda to find fun. It actually felt a bit stereotypical; I passed bachelorette parties, middle-aged housewives out for a "scandalous" night on the town (read: a couple Long-Islands and a show featuring buff, half-naked men), and hawk-eyed frat boys (and former frat boys) out looking for a score. Regardless of where they came from, everyone there had drank their Red Bulls and was ready to play. The Strip's "locals", a motley crew of promoters, drug dealers and street performers who desperately sought the attention of those same passers by, clearly had an interesting sub-culture of their own. I happily wandered around for a few hours, spent my $23 on gambling, and headed back to the hotel.
Despite its poor showing during the day, Vegas at night convinced me that it really is a good town to spend some time (and a healthy bit of money) in. The shows looked great, the restaurants were mouth-watering, and the people were endlessly amusing. I could never live there, but it's certainly got a place in the vacation roster. Heck, it'd even be worth it just to experience the otherworldly quality of their breakfast food: