Four Corners, Part I

Despite my continuing inability to get my vacation pics onto the web, I've finally decided to quit waiting around to share my account of the trip.  I mean, if I've got any kind of reputation, it's as a writer, not a photographer.  But given the expanse of territory we covered--five states and better than two thousand miles of road (plus elevation changes of better than 7000 feet), I think perhaps a park-by-park approach is the best way to manage the narrative.  Here, then, is the Table of Contents for the Tale of the Four Corners trip:

Red Rock Canyon * Zion * Bryce Canyon * Capitol Reef * Arches * Mesa Verde * Monument Valley * Grand Canyon

Those are the eight parks Dad and I visited between March 5th and 12th, and we could easily have done several other parks as well, but the natural wonders in the Southwest's parklands do require spending at least SOME time looking around in each.

In order start the trip with the proper degree of appreciation for said natural wonders, however, we spent our first day getting a thorough feel for the unnatural: we flew into Las Vegas.

For a Southerner/Easterner, Vegas is almost a parody of a city.  Around here, cities spring up because there's eomething nearby--a river, say, or a harbor, or a sheltered valley, or at the very least a convenient intersection of roads and/or train tracks.  That little bit of realistic grit produces the irritation that lies at the core of the urban pearl, so to speak..  But Vegas has no grit inside.  It's a spectacularly shiny bit of costume jewelry, flashing brilliantly in front of the onlookers, but all you have to do to understand it is drive to its edge and look back at it:  it's the Emerald City, except that all the poppies around it seem to have been evaporated by a series of nuclear blasts, but in terms of its overall character (and quite possibly its civic leadership), all it needs is a little yellow-brick repaving.  (In fact, if MGM isn't planning a theme hotel based on the Oz books at this very moment, it's only because they feel it would be redundant.)

The other impression I got from Vegas was this: nakedness.  And no, I don't mean toplessness, which is yet another feature of the, um, landscape.  I mean nakedness in a more existential sense.  There's absolutely nothing for Vegas to hide behind--no trees, no hills, no river.  You can circle it in your car and see it from all sides.  Go around it clockwise and look right: city.  Look left: desert.  You'll see yuccas and Joshua trees, maybe an odd cactus or two, and some interestingly eroded sandstone, but you'll be heading waaaaay out of town before you get to the one bit of natural beauty you can always see in Vegas: the surrounding mountains, which were still capped with snow in many places when we arrived.

And when you arrive, I must say that the city lets you know exactly what it wants: your money.  It's admirably up front about it, honestly.  The first thing you see when you get off the plane is a bank of slot machines, right there in the terminal.  If you're willing to give it money--whether by gambling, eating, drinking, lodging, or some other method perhaps better left unspecified--it will do its damnedest to keep you entertained, and it will entertain you with all the energy, maturity, and sophistication of a fourteen-year-old.

Yes, Vegas is basically Disney World, but Mickey's testicles have finally dropped.  It's big, it's loud, it's obvious it's rebellious.  You're not the boss of it.  And it will not, will not, will not hear anything about "consequences."  There ARE no consequences in Vegas.  You can cram for the test on the bus.  They won't know you're drunk if you eat this.  You can't get pregnant the first time.  You'll live forever!

Thus the place is full of what a fourteen-year-old would want if he had all the money in the world.  You'll be stopped at a traffic light and suddenly a roller coaster car full of screaming tourists will whip out of a nearby building, hurtle over your head for a moment, and then disappear into the bowels of another building.  The New York New York complex features a miniaturized NYC skyline--a thirty-story Empire State Building, a seventy-foot Statue of Liberty, basically a sub-adult Big Apple, with a police force that's deeply interested in keeping the peace, but probably doesn't use toilet plungers to do so.  (I shudder to think what they might use.)  Between the roller coaster, the live medieval battle at the Excalibur, and the Maxim-style gymnastics of the Cirque du Soleil troupe, all the place really needed was a few Bob Marley banners and a Jessica Simpson poster to look like a Woodberry dorm room writ large.

But the weirdest vibe in the airport may have been the ads.  Vegas shows are advertised with an aggressiveness I've only seen in internet pop-ups.  They leap out at you from every angle, on buildings, billboards, taxicabs, t-shirts, trailers, buses, anything that's moving slowly enough for a poster-hanger to catch up with it.  And weirdly, at least in the airport, every single ad seemed to be for performers who were at one time edgy.  Okay, not Barry Manilow, who has no more edge than a soap bubble, but just about everyone else:  semi-maniacal magician/comedians Penn & Teller ("Fewer audience injuries than last year!" said their poster) had a headlining gig.  Performance artists Blue Man Group, whom Kelly had seen in New York back before our kids were born, had a similar gig.  The off-broadway found-percussion show Stomp!, which we saw in NYC when Dixon was an infant (and which may have been what turned his brain toward percussion, for all we know) had one too.  I was halfway terrified that Laurie Anderson might be playing the Circus Circus, doing "O Superman" with a big band and special guests Steve and Eydie.

We had arrived early enough in the day to see no point in going to our hotel, so we loaded our bags into our rented Silverado and headed out into the desert toward Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  We did feel compelled to stop for lunch, however, and I got to pick the first restaurant: I opted for a Jack in the Box.  Hey, we don't have them back east, it was on the right-hand side of the road, and I like their goofy ads featuring the giant bulb-headed mascot.  Two things about this stop were surprising.  The first was ornithological: there was the life bird in the parking lot.  This was my first-ever Great-tailed Grackle, though not my last.  Looking much like its cousin the Boat-tailed Grackle, except for the yellow eyes, these large blackbirds turned up in nearly every parking lot in Vegas, making noises that seems less like birds than like car alarms.  The second surprise was demographic: against all odds, the customers in the Jack in the Box, numbering over a dozen, were all men.  What are the odds?

But our sirloin burgers didn't take us long to power down, so we were soon heading west to Red Rock Canyon.  The desertedness of the desert was a stark contrast to the remarkable sprawl of Vegas, where everything--EVERYTHING--seemed to be either being renovated, landscaped, expanded, paved, or built.  The place was like a mating ground for hard hats.  Just a few miles toward the mountains, however, there were only a few homesteads plopped onto the reddish dirt, with barbed wire and a few slightly tended ornamental trees offering the only signs of occupancy.  The mountains kept looming, though, and as we got about twenty minutes outside the city, the desert stopped looking like a city that hadn't quite taken yet and began looking like an actively different kind of place, in this case one with yuccas, Joshua trees, and the occasional small cactus.  Huge rock walls rose up before us, startlingly red, especially if you're used to the blue-grey granite of the Appalachians.  And by the time we circled around to the entrance to the NCA, it was clear that we were in a landscape utterly unlike anything I'd seen before.

The mountains themselves were simply more abrupt than I'd consider normal: a bit too sharp, a bit too tall, a bit too bare.  But they were also layered.  These were sedimentary rocks, stratum upon stratum, different colors of sand fused into stone: red, yellow, brown, even coral-pink.  My first impression upon looking at them was that someone had been dickering with the Paint program, pouring a different fill color into each polygon.  The contrast with the blue sky (and with the occasional pair of Common Ravens flying by) made them seem even more fiery and abnormal.  They were also, I realized soon, much much farther away than I'd first thought.  With my binoculars, I was able to pick out a few human figures--rock climbers scaling one dark patch, and a few mountaineers high atop one reddish peak.  It's a sign that I've now spent enough time rock climbing, I suppose, to consider myself a climber.  I immediately began asking myself "I wonder how high that pitch is?  Are they top-belaying?" and wondering if my friend Ken had ever done any climbing here.

I wasn't distracted completely from the birding, however.  In addition to the ubiquitous ravens--the only bird we would see on every day of the trip, for what it's worth--I caught sight of something strange and sort of Mockingbird-ish near the visitor's center rest rooms.  It was about the right size for a Mocker, but its movements reminded me of something else.  It was rich brown on the back, and pale underneath, but speckled everywhere, with the dark flecks on its breast gathering in a large spot on the chest.  It was, I quickly realized, a Cactus Wren.  The largest North American wren by far, it does move like its tinier brethren, but being roughly the size of a Cardinal, it's not a bird that shrieks "WREN!" to the inexperienced viewer.  I watched this one join its partner, pulling fibers out of a nearby yucca for nesting material, and was satisfied.  I'm never going to complain about getting a life bird in a parking lot, but this was somewhat more like the way I'd imagined seeing desert birds.

We spent an hour or two poking into the visitor's center and driving the truck around the scenic ring road.  I took a ridiculous number of pictures, none of which came even close to capturing the beautiful colors of the place and the day, and as check-in time finally rolled around, we set the truck back on the road to Sin City.  It's a surprisingly short drive--thirty minutes from the Canyon to the Strip would be my guess.

We made it back to our hotel--the great black glass pyramid of the Luxor, where the headliner was loathesome prop comedian Carrot Top--and from there headed to dinner.  We wandered by NYNY and saw a sign for an Irish pub, which sounded about up our alley, which is how we ended up eating bangers and mash with a pint of Smithwick at Nine Fine Irishmen.  Yum.

We didn't know it yet, but we had already eaten the finest meal of the trip--and the only one where the service was not provided by the Differently Competent.  The next day we'd be off to Utah, and I realized, not for the first time, that I had perhaps made a bad move by recently re-reading Jon Kraukauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.

IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT: Weeping Rocks!  Magpie Speciation!  Snow!  And more adventures with food service workers!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 25, 2008 7:21 PM.

Peeling Out was the previous entry in this blog.

Four Corners, Part II is the next entry in this blog.

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