Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vegas Baby! (Part 2)

We awoke Thursday and agreed that before we left we should poke our heads in a casino one more time. Neither one of us had placed a bet, and I didn't want to leave Vegas without spending even a couple of minutes at a blackjack table. We packed up the car, checked out of the hotel and made our way to New York New York where I quickly found a ten dollar minimum bet table (there were no five dollar tables just then). It was just the dealer and me, and as soon as I sat down the magic started happening. I was bulletproof, and eating the dealer's hands for breakfast. 19...20...21, it seemed I couldn't lose. The pit boss walked over and stared for a few hands and a small group of people stood over my shoulder and watched. (This is might be a little cooler in my head than it actually was, but please don't burst my bubble). I was at the table for less than ten minutes before I knew it was time to leave, but when I did I had turned my $10 bet into over sixty bucks. Sixty bucks which I felt I had a civic duty to reinvest in the local economy, what with the current financial climate and all.

"Hey Sarah, what do you think rooms cost here?"

Once I factored in my new riches, we could stay at New York New York for about ten bucks, plus get a free room upgrade courtesy of my two-years expired CAA card (shhhh). Things were turning around for us in Sin City, as in the period of a couple of hours we had gone from unimpressed passersby with our car pointed out of town, to energized revelers sipping Coronas poolside. We were living large on our sixty bucks, and looking forward to a night on the town. We got sucked in, and were loving every second of it.

We briefly looked for show tickets in the afternoon, but we were a little naive in our expectations, price-wise. Unless we wanted to see a never-was magician on the downside of his career, we'd be looking at spending well into triple figures between the two of us to see a decent show. We figured that walking the strip, having dinner and maybe gambling a little bit would be a much more sensible way to spend money we don't have.

Putting on our cleanest dirty clothes from the back of the car, we emerged from our room at 9:30 and the strip was in full effect, with the daytime tourists making their final rounds and the nocturnal carousers starting to emerge from the woodwork. We saw the water show in front of the Bellagio (because water is so abundant in the desert that they can just throw it around), a fire show somewhere else and talked to Elvis impersonators as we walked. Dinner was a late one, and it was nearing midnight when we were ready to have some drinks and do some gambling with full bellies. We were getting a little sleepy, though, and in perilous danger of fading away before making guaranteed financial gains at blackjack. Luckily, a quick swing by the convenience store in New York New York for a couple of tall boy cans of Miller Genuine Draft fixed that up, and feeling brave I went back to the tables.

I found another ten dollar table, pulled twenty bucks out of my pocket and went to work. My luck from the afternoon seemed to be continuing (except for the hand where I split aces, drew another ace, split again, and ended up with a push and two losses when the dealer drew 21) and I was feeling good. I was up as much as sixty bucks on the night (the magic number) but ended up losing twenty of that, so I was up forty bucks when I stepped away. We had an awesome night altogether, cruising the casino floor, making generous new friends, playing a hand or two at a time and, well, being in Vegas. I went to bed at four o'clock, but only because I felt that I had to. I had lost all sense of time (what happens in Vegas is carefully orchestrated by the people who run the casinos) and really didn't feel like slowing down. It was time to cash in, though, and by the time we factored in Sarah's winnings the next morning (when she played her first ever hands of blackjack), and my $1.50 windfall on a Price Is Right-themed slot machine, we were up about $140 at the casinos when all was said and done (although admittedly most of that never left town, and of course I would not be so proudly crunching my gambling numbers had we not enjoyed so much dumb luck).

I have a lot of issues with Las Vegas. It really is a ridiculous city - a paradoxical beacon of overindulgence in the middle of the desert. Even for those who don't gamble, drink or overeat (and why else would you go to Vegas, really?), simply turning on the tap is an exercise in the unsustainable, and Vegas as a whole is a metaphor for North American short-sightedness if their ever was one.

But my biggest issue with Las Vegas is how much I enjoyed it. Sure, I'll hike into the backcountry, sit in the woods and read for hours or even days on end and feel a deep inner calm, self-awareness and interconnectedness with the world around me, but damned if I don't feel alive when you put a tall boy can in my left hand and a stack of chips in my right. I remain annoyed with the toll that Vegas takes on the Southwest's water supply, and the unrealistic culture of consequence-free consumption that it seeks to promote and proliferate, but my personal turmoil lies in the fact that I'm already trying to rationalize my next trip.

Pleasure is Vegas's business, and they are good at it. They know exactly what buttons to push and how much of Pandora's Box to show you in order to rope you in, and it is all at your fingertips 24 hours a day. If we hadn't been able to gamble early in the day before we had planned to leave town, or buy cheap alcohol late at night from a convenience store in our hotel, we would not have spent as much money there as we did (which really wasn't a lot, even if it was more than we had planned), and wouldn't be talking about a return trip. Like six year-olds drawn to the cereal box with the coolest picture on it, we both fell for the inauthentic and fleeting satisfaction provided by a blindingly bright and placeless landscape.

Moderation is not something that you think of when Las Vegas is mentioned, but if I tell myself that future visits can be as budget-friendly and freakin' awesome as my first one was, perhaps I can justify poking my head in again at some point down the road. If anyone cares to come along, I'll buy the first round of tall boys.



Vegas Baby? (Part 1)

The morning after our late-night brush with megafauna we were at a slight crossroad. We could either head back into California - possibly as far as the coast - and look for jobs, or continue the trip by heading to points east. Heading east would mean going at least as far as Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, and after a bit of head scratching we figured that we would be foolish not to take advantage of the chance to extend things a little bit. Plus, we would have to drive right through Vegas on the way, meaning we could cruise down the strip once just to say we did it.

On our way to Vegas and Grand Canyon we spent two restful nights at the Grover Hot Springs State Park. Located at elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the park has naturally fed mineral hot pools in the midst of a mountain meadow, which make for a soothing cap off to any day. We had a great site - on a bluff overlooking the park, with dense forests behind us - and deer would wander through our living area at dusk. It was almost over-the-top idyllic. After two days there where we didn't do much other than relax, we were headed to Grand Canyon, via Sin City.

The drive through the interior of Nevada is, well, depressing. If Vegas is the city that made it big gambling, then the small towns you have to pass through to get there are the ones who got addicted and lost everything. Boarded up businesses seem to outnumber those that are still clinging to operation, there are rows of slot machines crammed into every dingy convenience store, and I half expected to see tumbleweed instead of locals whenever we stopped for gas or food. All of this isolation and hardship is all the more pronounced when contrasted with a destination that is renowned for the way that people and money flow through its revolving doors at a mind boggling rate.

We pulled onto Las Vegas Boulevard ("the strip") just after dark on a Wednesday (June 10th), much to the shock of our wilderness-oriented systems (our time in L.A. and San Francisco notwithstanding). The lights were flashing, the music was blaring and the sidewalks seemed to be one continuous line of people, three abreast, on either side of the street. We weren't sure that time in Vegas would be to the enjoyment of either one of us, but it was getting late and we managed to find a modestly priced Travelodge in the heart of the strip, so we pulled in for the night. (While we paid a nightly rate at the Travelodge, there were enterprising young women in short skirts spending time in the parking lot and going in and out of rooms with a frequency which would indicate the inn might have had some sort of hourly special that night, but I digress).

After showers we cruised the strip, a daunting task in and of itself. Single resort/casinos take up entire blocks, so passing by only a few of them can take a while when you factor in the slow-moving pedestrian traffic. Added to that is the fact that they are all mazes on the inside (deliberately, of course) so "Let's go into the MGM to grab something to drink" can quickly turn into a forty minute side trip into a labyrinth of indulgence. New York New York looked inviting enough, so we wandered in just to spend a little time on the floor of a casino.

We were wearily making our way across the floor, both acknowledging that we probably weren't in the right frame of mind for a Vegas trip, when I heard "Hart? Hart Shouldice? Is that you?" Turning around and drawing a brief blank I saw an acquaintance from my days at school in New Brunswick. It was as surprising as it was comforting to see someone who had been a friend years ago so far from the last place we had been in contact. He was there with his girlfriend and another couple, also from our alma mater (Mount Allison University), and we had a pleasant though brief catchup. They were on their way to Utah for some hiking the next day, so we wished them well and continued our dazed meander, as I extolled to Sarah for the billionth time the virtues of going to a small school with a well-defined sense of community and a warm social network that an alumnus never seems to be far from.

The strip was too much to take, plain and simple, so we headed back to the Travelodge, looking forward to Grand Canyon the next day.

Monday, June 15, 2009

San Francisco, Tahoe and a Late Night Visitor

Eviction notice in hand, we turned North out of Malibu and headed back up the Pacific Coast Highway. We spent a night deep in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, waking up above the clouds after a night so still that we barely heard a single leaf rustle as we slept under a blanket of stars with the roof of our tent open. From there we spent one night at a motel on the beach in Cayucos (where we could see gray whales from our room), and then back to Big Sur for a night which affirmed my burgeoning affection for that most inspiring stretch of coastline. From Big Sur, it was on to San Francisco.

I had been a little bit nervous at the trip's outset about spending time in large cities with so much of our material lives packed into the car. I have come to realize, however, that there is not a car alarm on the planet that can hold a candle to the AMC system that I had installed in my '99 Subaru before Sarah and I left Victoria. AMC, of course, stands for "All My Crap." Our car is so loaded down at the moment that I can't imagine any nighttime prowler wanting to take the time to sort through our mass of blankets, bikes and bagels to possibly find a stray dollar bill under the floor mats. It's like sifting through the twisted metal on a redneck's front yard in the hopes of finding a stray gold nugget. You'd be better off stealing lottery tickets. With that piece of mind, we drove into the Bay Area on Tuesday night, June 2nd.

Our time in San Francisco was great. We did the touristy thing but catered to our own tastes, meaning that while we went to the Japanese Tea Gardens, we also made sure to pay our respects at Jerry Garcia's old house in Haight Ashbury (indeed, 710 Ashbury Street was where all of the Grateful Dead lived for a couple of years in the mid-60s). The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Chinatown - we really made the rounds (almost entirely on foot) and made sure to breathe in the colourful houses, hilly streets and salty air as we went. There are three enduring observations/recommendations I took from my time in San Francisco that I feel compelled to pass on:

1. If you are ever on a road trip, of limited financial means, and need a brake job in San Francisco, make sure to go see Garry at Emerald Auto and Brake, 645 Judah Street. He will take pity on you and stop charging labour as he finds more and more that needs fixing with your car before he can let you take it on the highway again in good conscience.

2. Alcatraz was cold and lonesome, but the most sadistic aspect of punishment on the Rock would have been to spend your days locked up being able to see and hear people frolicking in their sailboats on San Francisco Bay. I think I would rather do my time at the center of the earth.

3. If you meet a kind older man named Danny with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Grateful Dead and mountain biking and he sells you concert tickets, the concert will have been made up and you will have likely just donated twelve dollars to the local meth trade.

With a fixed car we pulled out of the Bay Area on Saturday morning and opted to go inland again to Lake Tahoe, located along the California/Nevada border. After camping in the middle of nowhere on Saturday night, we arrived at the lake on Sunday and first spent time in Lake Tahoe City, a rather modest town on the lake's Northwest edge with all of the charm and slow-going of a natural (read: non-Intrawest) mountain resort. It was great. We decided not to stay in Tahoe City, though, and instead drove further down the lake to South Lake Tahoe.

The drive to South Tahoe was beautiful, up and down ridges overlooking crystalline waters of the lake's outer bays to our left, with towering pines to our right. South Lake Tahoe itself is considerably bigger than Tahoe City, and boasts more than its share of retail and nightlife...uuhhh...culture(?). The town also straddles the California/Nevada state line, and lest anyone get confused as to where that line is, two massive hotel and casino complexes can be found on either side of the street about six inches on the Nevada side of the border. High roller that I am, I stopped off at a blackjack table and won ten dollars while wearing my bathing suit. I still don't know why they didn't comp us a room.

We camped just outside of South Lake Tahoe in a campground that had locking metal chests - also known as bear-proof food storage - at each site. We didn't think much of it, as we have camped at several such sites on the trip, so we safely stowed our food for the night and climbed into the tent to read a little bit before falling asleep.

It was around eleven o'clock and we had been in the tent for about twenty minutes when we had a visitor. He wasn't around long - just running through our campsite for a few seconds - but his proximity to our tent made for one of the most intense experiences we've had thus far. Despite the brevity of the visit, there was no question that it was a black bear that had just run through our site. Not just through our site, but within five feet of our tent, as we confirmed in the morning when we figured out where he would have had to run in order to get between the tent and the trees. He was so close that we could hear his every snorting breath and feel the pounding of his feet - like a thoroughbred wearing work boots - in the pits of our stomachs. Indeed, we saw this bear. Perhaps not with our eyes, but with other senses that remained on edge for the rest of the night.

Which isn't to say that I was scared. I know that the bear would want no part of us, and that he would smell us in the tent and not come knocking. But I was definitely on instinctual alert for the next little while, and every sound I heard come across the still night air was another one of Yogi's cousins. A distant airplane was a flying bear. A rustle of leaves was a bear climbing trees. South-of-the-border rumbling in my sleeping bag was a bear who should have stopped at one serving of chili before bed. I felt like the prairie dog on his hind legs who just smelled a predator in the distance, and while there was never imminent danger to us (possibly even because there was no real danger), I relished the fleeting sentiment of vulnerability in the presence of a creature so awesome.

Feeling hard core after our brush with the big fella (whom Sarah heard again an hour later as we were dozing off), we packed up from Tahoe and decided to take a random left turn and head toward Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. We spent a month in Vegas last Thursday night and have been in Zion Canyon, Utah, for three days on our way to the Grand Canyon, but all of that will have to wait for another posting.

Until then, please stow your food safely.



Saturday, June 6, 2009

Beverly. The Hills, that is.

It was tough leaving Big Sur behind, but I know it's not going anywhere anytime soon. We left our campsite on the Friday of the Memorial Day long weekend, which in retrospect wasn't the best move. Apparently there was some sort of mass urban evacuation in place, as every city dweller in central California decided to camp for the weekend. We tried unsuccessfully at every campground we could find, but no amount of bearded charm could land us a campsite, so we had to stay in hotels for the Friday and Saturday. Mercifully we found a county park just north of Los Angeles with plenty of open sites and great mountain views for the Sunday night.

We awoke Sunday morning and knew that we were so close to L.A. - a place that we had both sworn we had no interest in and weren't going to bother with - that we would be remiss if we didn't check it out. A peek at the atlas showed some available camping in Malibu, so not knowing what to expect but figuring we'd only be there for a night or two, we cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway and followed the smell of Botox. What follows is a blow-by-blow account.

Monday - Arrive in Malibu. Without a doubt, one of the fifteen or twenty nicest beach towns I've seen in the past month. Seriously, is there really this much hype over a thirty mile stretch of gas stations, fish and chips restaurants and out-of-business surf shops? Granted, the houses in the hills immediately to the east of the highway are impressive, and yeah, the ocean is right there, but Malibu might be the most underwhelmingest place I've ever seen, relative to its hype. We're talking Ottawa-Senators-in-the-postseason letdown. Ouch. At least we have a campsite at the less-than-escapist Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Tuesday - I lock the bikes to a tree at our site (better to not have anything on our roof if we want to fit in underground garages) and we head into L.A. It takes around an hour for us to pull into Beverly Hills, and our dusty station wagon loaded to the gills with our stuff feels right at home amidst the parade of 7-series BMWs and other paycheques on wheels. We park off Rodeo Drive (this must be where the cowboys hang out) and launch on a self-guided walking tour. We see Beverly Hills, Sunset and Hollywood Blvds., the Walk of Fame, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, etc. etc. etc. Highlights of the day include seeing Slash's hand prints in the cement and talking with a friendly local in a neighbouring car at three consecutive traffic lights as we were driving out of town, with her giving us tips on what we should see. The Venice Boardwalk should be high on our list, she says. We head back to the illustrious Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground, thinking that Hollywood isn't nearly as shiny as we had thought.

Wednesday - We take our new friend's advice and head to the boardwalk at Venice Beach. We quickly realize that it is just like the county fair, if everyone at the county fair was either selling t-shirts, slightly strung out, or selling t-shirts while slightly strung out. It's quite the urban bazaar, and unless you are in dire need of a handmade hemp necklace or pink shorts that have B-I-T-C-H bedazzled across the ass, you can probably skip it on your next trip to Southern California. A man pulling a little red wagon gives us "free tickets" to the next day's taping of Real Time with Bill Maher in L.A. We're suspicious, but take them since they're free.

We roll back into Malibu in the early evening and decide to hit a coffee shop for some e-mailing. I park the car without paying much attention to our surroundings, only to return a couple hours later to find it in a lineup of cars that went: Bentley, Bentley, Subaru with shoddy brakes and a Phish sticker, Bentley. Also, their are paparazzi swarming around. Apparently I have inadvertently parked in front of one of Malibu's poshest restaurants. My bad. Kenny G is emerging as we return to the car (we should have shared curl-enhancing techniques) and the paparazzi tell me that Lisa Rinna is inside. They then tell me who Lisa Rinna is. We see her blow past in her blue Bentley as we start to make our way back to the friendly confines of Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Thursday - We head to the "taping" of Bill Maher's show. Unfortunately, even though the tickets were free, this is just a rehearsal for Friday's show, with the host running through his monologue, some jokes, and his closing commentary. It's entertaining, but feels a little like a bait and switch. The consolation is that it is filmed in the studio where they do The Price is Right, so I have successfully completed a pilgrimage I promised my ten-year-old self I would make. We also put our names down for Friday night when they tape the actual show.

After Bill Maher we make our way to Sunset Blvd., where a band we both enjoy - moe. - was playing that night at the Roxy. Seeing a band we dig at a legendary Hollywood venue is not something we want to pass up, and the show is rockin' despite a tragic dearth of overindulgent celebrities passed out in bathroom stalls. Apparently Sunset isn't all it's cracked up to be.

It's a late night and we return to camp at around 2:00 in the A.M. and find to our very brief amusement that they lock the gates of the campground at 10:00 P.M. Apparently the California State Parks system thinks it is our mother and has decided to impose a curfew. We try unsuccessfully to rig something up with rocks and a hockey stick (don't leave home without it) to drive over the spikes in place to prevent you from driving in through the out door. Unable to do so, and unwilling to leave our car packed with most of our worldlies out at the highway, we resolve ourselves to an uncomfortable few hours sleeping in the car (can't recline the seats in a car full of stuff) while we wait for the 7:00 A.M. opening of the gates. The novelty of saying "Yeah man, after that show at the Roxy I passed out in my car in Malibu," wears off quickly, although we remain mindful of the fact that there are many in the world who would think it a privilege to have a warm, dry and safe car to sleep in. We don't sleep much, but the time passes rather quickly and we didn't pay for that nights accommodation, so all in all it wasn't a horrible experience. At 7:01 Friday morning we are nestled snugly in our tent at the paternalistic Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Friday - Back into town to catch the actual taping of Real Time with Bill Maher. Aside from the novelty of being in a studio audience, the show is engaging and thought-provoking, with discussion ranging from corporatization of food to the newest appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want to go for a drink afterwards, but if we're not home by 10:00 we get in soooooo much trouble. We agree that as soon as we graduate we are so moving out of the tyrannical Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

Saturday - We are awoken by an apparent combination of Smokey the Bear and Rod Farva telling us that there seems to be some confusion about what nights we have paid for, and that all sites are reserved on weekends so we have overstayed our welcome. We are to proceed to the front kiosk at once to get things sorted out. We pack up and leave without stopping to pay for the night we had to sleep outside the gate. I think we may have made the prestigious lifetime ban list at the world renown Leo Carillo State Beach and Campground.

And that was L.A. for us.

If there is one enduring sentiment we left with, it's that L.A. itself might be the world's biggest movie star. It's image of beauty, perfection and glamour pervades popular consciousness and is carefully crafted and maintained. Even a cursory glance at the city without the magic of television, however, reveals a decidedly grittier reality - even in Beverly Hills and Malibu, and especially in Hollywood. We were both glad to see L.A., but in a way it was like waking up next to the prom queen and seeing her without her makeup on. Warts and all it was a fun few days, but neither one of us was sad to pull out of Malibu and make a run for the mountains.

And we both sincerely hope that there will be but one "sleeping in the car" story upon the trip's conclusion.