A.J. Walker


Leaving Las Vegas for the Grand Canyon

It had been an interesting day driving through Death Valley on my way to Las Vegas. It started with snow blocked roads into the National Park, before passing through the dry flat bottomed valley with its harsh white salt flats, sided by steep rising multi layered rocky hills with sparse but variable, and sometimes, bright intricate flowers. It was spring and death seemed a misnomer.

Toward the end of the day I had driven south through several passes and could finally see Las Vegas. The sleet smeared windows and wipers blurred the view of the brightly lit city like a Photoshop effect, the colours were still a shock after the largely monochrome day of salt, snow and rock.

I had come to Vegas as a stepping stone to visit the Grand Canyon, but it would have been churlish not to sample some of the atmosphere. I was staying in the Rumor hotel just east of Las Vegas Boulevard, more commonly known as the Strip, which acted like a garish neon lighthouse. Or more like a siren.

The following morning I sat down at the bar for my usual breakfast of coffee. Cue my first electrical disaster. The bar top was installed with electronic poker machines tempting you to slip in your dollars. I managed to send the full cup of coffee flying over a machine I had just put my dollar into. On a caffeine high the machine stopped working, while the barman gave me an unimpressed look. A long ten minutes later the machine started working again, definitely built for purpose. I went off to the Strip feeling much better, if a couple of dollars lighter.

In the daytime the Strip seems more naff than in the vivid neon night, perhaps because the plastic colours of New York, Venice and Paris are more obvious. The size of the casinos is impressive at any time of the day, be it the black mirrored Luxor pyramid or the Bellagio behemoth with its dancing fountains. The recession though is hitting Vegas hard with several casinos closing, even big names like the Sahara.

I avoided the cards and roulette not trusting myself that the pressure from people would make me stay longer or up my stakes - with slots I could stare them down or walk away. The most disconcerting thing walking along the Strip is the multitude trying to push cards into you hand advertising professional services, while the sidewalk was littered with papers stuffed with sleazy adverts.

The day of sunny intervals and casino darkness passed quickly, along with one hundred of my dollars. Despite the loss I felt that the entertainment was worth the cost, just an entrance price into this ultimate amusement park.

At the Rumor I headed to the bar for some liquid refreshment. A white haired guy looking disinteresting in life was perched on a stool and I pulled up two stools away. He didn’t look up from his drink as I ordered a pint of Blue Moon. The pint arrived with a chunk of orange in it, as a young lady sat in the stool between us. This was the catalyst for the fifty year old Lothario to come to life, and he spent the next 45 minutes trying to chat up the attractive Puerto Rican.
‘Hi, my names Mark, what’s yours and what are you doing here?’ for the first time looking away from his glass.
‘Maria,’ she said, ‘Just here for a drink’.
‘But what are you doing here? Why are you alone? What’s your story? I can tell you have an interesting story,’ he nodded his head as if it would add some momentum to Maria’s reply.
‘I’m just here for a drink,’ she said curtly.
Maria turned to the barman and asked for a glass of white wine and the menu.
She looked at me and smiled as I rolled my eyes to the ceiling and she laughed, while the barman studiously avoided the conversation.
Forty minutes and a similar number of ‘What’s your story?’ later and Mark decided to play his last card.
‘I really am genuinely interested in talking to you, but I am tired and going back to my room now’, he said with the sincerity of a politician, ‘My room is 314’. He pushed himself away from the bar, going back to his room with at least some hope, if not expectation.
One more drink and it was time to bid farewell to Maria and the barman. The next day it was the Grand Canyon.

I don’t plan my trips with military precision, I plan the broad edges of it then go-with-the-flow, however my trip to the Grand Canyon was a cock-up. I had taken two snippets of information: that Las Vegas is two hours from the Grand Canyon and; that the most popular place to see the canyon is the south rim. So of course the south rim, where I wanted to go, must be two hours from Vegas...

As I would be out for the day and had plenty of time I decided to go for a solid breakfast at a table, away from all electronics other than my Kindle. Two sunny-side ups and one sad strip of brittle bacon later and it was time to head south. The bones of the plan were: drive south to the Hoover Dam; carry on east to the south rim; spend 4 hours or so at the Grand Canyon; return to Vegas and get in a couple of hours on the Strip. A fine plan for a memorable day. It proved to be a flawed plan.

The first problem was getting out of the city. Road names are everywhere but few signs say where the roads go. If you don’t have a detailed map a rudimentary idea of compass directions and the time of day are essential. Twenty not completely sure I am on the right road minutes later and I filled up with another $25 of petrol, and checked the free maps at the gas station. I was on the right road to the Hoover Dam.

An hour or so after leaving Las Vegas I was at the dam. I walked down in to the warm sun on to the dam. It was the first day since picking up the car that I had not seen rain or snow.

The dam was completed two years ahead of schedule in 1936 and during the five years of construction 112 lives were lost. It is an impressive piece of engineering and is elegant too. It seems as much a monument to human endeavour and the loss of life. I was keen to get on though, excited to be only an hour away from the Grand Canyon.

An hour later along the freeway and I had yet to see a sign for the canyon, but was not perturbed knowing the infrequency of distance signs. Then I saw a sign for the canyon ‘Skywalk’. I didn’t want to go to the skywalk, which is a private enterprise industrial strength perspex ledge above a canyon. It is not actually within the National Park, I knew that much, but didn’t realise by how much.

What seemed like an age later I finally saw a sign for the Grand Canyon N.P., as it flashed by it read 220 miles. TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILES! While pretty annoyed with myself I didn’t think twice about whether to go on, it was one of the reasons I had come to the US, and if I went back it would still be the same distance from Vegas the next day. I turned my music up and put my foot down eventually arriving at the south rim at 4.10pm just 2.5 hrs before sunset.

I stepped out in to the snow covered car park and headed straight through the trees to the edge of the canyon. Despite the years of exposure to posters and television vistas of the canyon the first view stopped me dead. The sky was clear but it was hazy and the view across to the north rim was through a soft blurred veil. The distances both horizontal and vertical were difficult to comprehend. It was stunning.

The park gets 5 million visitors a year, but being early spring with snow still on the ground it was not too busy. After walking for a mile or so I sat on a ridge relaxing after the drive to watch the sunset and see the ever changing colours and textures of the rocks. A beautiful old Ansell Adams type camera was set up beside me by a keen young photographer going old school. Dozens of people had now gathered on the small bluff and were clicking away with their somewhat simpler and more portable cameras. As the orange disc fell through the dark smudge of haze the cold got deeper and I propped myself up off the rock on to my day-sack which was a little uncomfortable due to its contents but kept me bum from freezing.

As the sun disappeared the cold bit hard and the crowd dissipated quickly like a satisfied theatre audience after the curtain has dropped. After an uneventful drive back with my music blaring, supported only by a quarter pounder with fries and some coconut M&Ms, I could relax at the hotel bar once more with no desire to go to the Strip - it was 11.30pm a mere five hours later than anticipated, having driven 550 miles. After chugging down a pint of Sierra Nevada I took the Kindle from my bag. The screen was broken, now how did that happen? Oh, sitting on your bag could do that.