Monday, 9 April 2012

Camping is Inconvenient, Las Vegas is a Shitshow, and Other Revelations

One consequence of more or less living outdoors—we recently ended a stretch of camping ten nights out of twelve—is a renewed appreciation for those civilized conveniences you camp in order to specifically avoid. Some of my discoveries on this trip include the seemingly obvious facts that refrigerators are rather more useful than plastic coolers, in that the former don’t require you to purchase new bags of ice every two days; that mattresses and beds are actually much more comfortable for sleeping than hard gravel; and that solid walls are astonishingly effective at blocking out rain, cold, and wind. More shocking than all that, however, was my discovery that electrical lighting allows you to keep doing enjoyable and productive things even after the sun goes down.

The camping set-up at Grand Canyon.
Our long stretch of camping began in Canyon de Chelly National Park in western Arizona, which Brahna described in her last post, and continued through Monument Valley and into Utah. We pulled into Moab—“the adventure capital of the world”—late one afternoon, hoping to camp in one of the Bureau of Land Management campgrounds between Colorado River and sheer canyon cliffs. After discovering, in the course of a beautiful drive through the canyon, that every single spot was taken—we’ve had the bad luck to be in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, and now California during each of their respective spring breaks—we settled for a mostly empty private campground just south of town. I tied my beloved canvas hammock to a tree on one end and to a picnic shelter on the other. We try to make these places feel like home.

The next morning we set out for Arches National Park, one of two parks in the extremely rugged canyon country surrounding Moab, the only town of any considerable size for dozens of miles in every direction. We got our cancellation stamp at the visitor’s center and watched the parks service’s video about Arches—mumbling our comments and criticisms to each other as we left the theatre, much as ordinary people might after watching a feature film. Later, we hiked into the Devil’s Garden area of the park, admiring the unbelievably chaotic and sublime red rock formations all around us—arches, bridges, needles, fins, and others I’ve forgotten. It felt more rewarding to choose one part of the park to explore by foot and at length rather than to spend too much time in the car trying and, inevitably, failing to see everything. After the hike, we stopped in Moab to participate in that old Kreitner family vacation ritual, D.D.O.I.C.—Daily Dose of Ice Cream.

Following the advice of an old book I found at a thrift store—a 1995 edition of National Parks of the West—we decided not to try to see both Arches and Canyonlands, the other Moab-area national park, in one day. Far better, the book recommended and we agreed, to stick around for another day and at least gesture towards giving each park its due. Also, considering that Canyonlands was reputedly more for serious adventurers—white-water rapids, intense rock-climbing, extremely rugged backcountry roads (4WD required)—than comparatively impotent day-trippers like Brahna and me, we decided to spend the next morning relaxing at the campground and at a café in town, before later in the day driving out to Canyonlands and seeing whatever, given Mortimer’s limitations, we could possibly see.

Once we were at the café, however, we felt so good about knocking things down—planning for the next few weeks, researching jobs for the summer and beyond, paying speeding tickets, writing for this blog, dutifully reading up on what Rick Santorum said and who was pretending to be pissed off and why—that the thought of driving 40 miles out to Canyonlands just to stop at a few overlooks became incredibly unappealing. Much more attractive was the prospect of devoting the rest of the afternoon to chilling, chilling, and, if any time remained, more chilling. After stopping in Moab for dinner supplies and beer, we went back to the campground. Brahna continued research for her last post, and I spent the day reading in the hammock. It was glorious.

Hiking in Arches National Park.
 Another great decision we made at the café that day was to ditch our earlier plans of driving hundreds of miles out of the way in order to visit both Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks before heading south to the Grand Canyon. While I was particularly excited about seeing Bryce in winter—though, at such a high elevation, the ground would still be covered in show, which means we couldn’t camp, which means we couldn’t save money—it felt like we were stretching ourselves beyond endurance. I made reservations for the campground on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the very next night. We left Moab relatively early, doubled back into the Navajo territory in Arizona, and approached the Grand Canyon from the east.

The first night we didn’t really explore the canyon at all, except for stopping at a few overlooks on the drive in. We had a home to set up, after all, and extremely overpriced grocery shopping to do at the market in Grand Canyon Village. We enjoyed a much-needed campfire for the first time since Louisiana—the Southwest is seemingly under one massive burn-ban—and tried to endure the sub-freezing nighttime temperatures, layered in almost every cold-weather item we each had, gripping those 99-cent hand-warmers, and burrowed deep inside our mummy bags. 

As Brahna has noted, sleeping in the cold is completely exhausting. After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we went down to the visitor’s center, collecting our stamp and watching the park’s suspiciously well-produced introduction video. We were exhausted walking along the paved rim trail, though obviously reveling in the view. After picnicking on a small peninsula with a particularly sheer drop-off and expansive view—perhaps, hopefully, precisely one of those edges my father, when I first visited the canyon seven years ago, barred me from even approaching—we turned back, assuming the view would be much the same around the next bend, and retired to the campsite to—what else?—chill.

Overlooking the Grand Canyon

We struggled through another night, this one even colder. In the morning we hardly had the energy to start a presumably intensive hike into the canyon, which we had put on the day’s schedule. We did it anyway, and enjoyed another picnic lunch with an unbeliavable view. After a short nap, we assessed our situation. The plan had been to stay at Grand Canyon one more night and to leave early the next morning for Las Vegas. But that second night camping had really done us in. It was our eighth night camping in a row—doubling our previous all-time couple record. We were tired, cold, and dirty. With uncharacteristic profligacy, we decided to abandon the $18 we’d already paid for the Grand Canyon campsite for that third night. We climbed out of the canyon—truthfully, we hadn’t gone that far down—and returning to the campsite, hastily packed everything into the car and drove off, assuming we’d find one of our beloved old motels. At the Ash Fork Inn in the tiny town of Ash Fork, Arizona (whose fortunes apparently rose and fell with Route 66), Brahna cranked the heat and we ate leftovers before collapsing into a long sleep.

Feeling refreshed, we ate breakfast the next morning at a local diner, where Brahna was a bit taken aback when she saw a guy walk in behind me with a handgun very visibly attached to his thigh. Then we drove for about 100 miles on the old Route 66, the longest stretch in the country where the original road remains intact. We stopped at Oatman, an "ghost town" which still hosts descendents of wild burros around from the mining days. What with all the businesses on the main street trading on the town's past, it sure didn't seem like a ghost town, until I realized that a ghost is merely a new incarnation, in a scarier form, of what came before. The obscene commercialization of "ghost towns," ironically, would seem to fulfill the requirements of the term.

Ice cream and a wild burro.
While in Moab I had reserved a room in the Vegas Club and Casino—seemingly just off the Strip—for a surprising $58. Though the whole Vegas thing seemed, in advance, somewhat antithetic to our personalities, values, and budget, we were looking forward to walking the Strip and wasting a few dollars on slots and generally taking in the whole tableau. Despite our tight budget, we were looking forward to letting loose for a night and letting the chips, so to speak, fall where they may. Though we had spent the previous night in a motel for a change, we still felt alien to all the big-city trappings that, back east, we wouldn’t think twice about. The “h” in the “hotel” sign seemed to indicate a level of luxury for which have been habituated into no longer considering ourselves eligible. We marveled at the parking garage, and at the option, though we declined it, of leaving Mortimer to a valet. By normal standards, of course, the hotel was nothing to marvel at, but for us it was spectacular.

We spent the afternoon and early evening calling our families and preparing ourselves for what I’m told real people call “a night out.” Brahna wore what I think she called a “dress” and I managed to dig out of my duffel bag a button-up shirt, before Brahna had me replace it with another. We left the hotel and immediately encountered a large crowd gathered around some country music performance. We walked a few more blocks to Las Vegas Boulevard, where, in place of the massive casinos and wild light and water shows we had expected, we found a typical sleepy downtown thoroughfare, not just empty, but alarmingly so.

Using Brahna’s trusty iPhone to calculate the walking directions from us to the MGM Grand, we realized that the great Vegas Club and Casino is nearly six miles from the real action on the Las Vegas Strip. Thus, of course, the $58 room. We didn’t want to bring Mortimer down there, afraid of what the parking situation might be, and didn’t want to spend the money on a cab, so we found a city bus that would bring us downtown for just $2 each. We shouldn’t have been surprised to learn, for neither the first nor the last time that night, that you ultimately always get what you pay for.
We appeared to be the only Strip-goers on the city bus that night. It would seem that most people who can afford to blow hundreds of dollars in one night on booze, slots, and strippers can probably also afford to either stay closer to the action or at least take a cab to it. Who knew? 

On the first stop after we got on, the bus driver knelt the bus down to accommodate a black woman in a wheelchair, gripping a McDonald’s bag, and a young man who appeared to be her helper, getting on the bus. Clicking her wheelchair into the floor, the driver caught sight of something in her McDonald’s bag and, assuming an official posture, issued his verdict and sentence: “No open bottles on the bus, ma’am, you’re going to have to leave the bus.” A private security guard, gun in holster, approached the woman from behind and starting to help the bus driver eject her chair from the fasteners in the floor. All this time, the woman protested that the bottle was not hers, that it was given to her, and kept trying to hand it to her helper to toss into the garbage can next to the bus. The driver and the armed guard continued to struggle with her chair and actually began to roll her out the door. Brahna and I were startled by the scene, but didn’t say anything. All I could find the power to do was keep watching and hope the driver and guard would notice that people were watching. Eventually, they allowed her to throw the bottle out and stay on the bus.

Brahna and I talked about what we’d seen over a brutally unsatisfying dinner at a Denny’s on the Strip (the only cheap eat, it was late, and we were super hungry). While Las Vegas obviously has problems with drunkenness and all kinds of public nuisance, both in the street and on public transit, I couldn’t get the picture out of my head of an armed private citizen forcing a handicapped woman off a public bus for the crime of drinking. While I know that alcohol has negative consequences on both personal and social levels, I just can’t convince myself that what we saw on the bus is the way things should be. 

The driver could have chosen not to look inside the McDonald’s bag, or could have asked her politely to choose between the bus and the bottle. The guard could have, generally speaking, chosen not to make himself a professional prick. I don’t have any concrete proposals here, but the mere possibility that they would have kicked that woman out onto the windy Vegas streets made my heart a little sick. It at least dampened my enthusiasm for drinking and gambling alongside my fellow advantaged citizens on the Strip. Brahna and I just walked around the casinos watching other people do their thing. We caught a midnight bus back toward our hotel’s neighborhood, having bought not a single drink and having wasted $6 trying to figure out how to work the slots.

Making the best of it in Vegas.
The next stop on the itinerary was Death Valley, which became the first national park I ever visited on a family trip in 1995. True to its reputation, the valley proved an inconvenient place to expose oneself to the elements. Fierce and steady winds swept over the badlands and the parking-lot-like campground, making our typical home-making routine pretty difficult. The hard ground made staking out the tent impossible, so we filled it with shoebox-size rocks and tied others to the tent fly. I also maneuvered Morty into position as a windbreaker and tied the tent through the window to the steering wheel for anchor. As difficult as the operation was, it felt good later that night as we sat inside the tent and didn’t have to worry about our shelter. A group of French campers in the spot next to us didn’t even try to set up the tent, and slept in their sleeping bags without any protection from the wind.

An old railroad car in a ghost town (a real one this time) near Death Valley.
Cooking that night was difficult, and I had to resort to using lighter fuel to get a campfire going. The wind stoked the fire continuously, and our four logs—bought for an arm and a leg at the only store nearby—didn’t last long. Though the temperature at Death Valley’s famously low elevation was much warmer than it had been atop the Grand Canyon, the intense winds made for an uneasy night. The next morning we tentatively unhitched the tent from the steering wheel, and left it for the day, hoping it’d be there when we returned.

As we did at Arches National Park, we decided not to spend the day in the car driving around the whole park—we were surprised to learn that it’s the largest national park outside Alaska—and instead chose one particular hike to explore at length. This hike led up a relatively young canyon, winding through tiny passageways at some points and across broad flood plains at others. The trail ended at a dry waterfall, where we relaxed for a while and picnicked in the shade. Afterward, we drove back down an bumpy, rocky road—I constantly have to remind myself that we still need to get the car, somehow, back to New Jersey—and bought some ice cream and beer. We borrowed a picnic table at a nearby campground so we could cook our dinner before the sun went down, and, barefoot, brought our spaghetti and beer to the top of one of the tallest sand dunes in the park. We watched the sun go down over the Panamint Mountains, and stayed on the dune for a while afterward. It was almost completely dark when we walked, accompanied by circling bats overhead, back to the car and drove the 30 miles back to the campground.

Our hike in Death Valley.

Sunset on the sand dunes. The canyon we hiked during the day is in the mountains in the background.
We woke around 5:30 a.m., broke down the tent in the dark, and drove to Zabriskie Point, which our National Parks of the West book said was the best place to see the sunrise in the park. We were surprised, upon arriving at the landmark, to find that the other sunrise watchers were facing the Panamint Mountains to the west, with their backs to the Funeral Mountains in the east. Only as we waited for the sun to rise over the mountains did we realize that the real show at Zabriskie at dawn is not the sun coming up in the east, but the shadows of night dropping off in the west. As the Funeral Mountains blocked us from the already-risen sun, the towering summits of the Panamints started glowing. Gradually, more and more of the mountains to the west were receiving direct light and irradiated an almost pinkish glow, while we, situated at the base of the eastern mountains, had to wait for the shadow to recede down the mountains and across the valley floor to meet us. Eventually it did, and the shadows playing across the badlands in front of us gave the impression of black and white marble pudding. It was one of the best sunrises I’d ever seen, though our backs were to the east the entire time.

The Panamint Mountains at sunrise.
A few minutes later, as we strolled across the salt flats at Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level), Brahna and I decided, for the third or fourth time in a week, to cut out a superfluous, though enticing, part of our schedule, and to give ourselves the R&R we really quite desperately needed. Instead of proceeding to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, which I had been looking forward to, we decided to drive immediately, however long it took, to my aunt in Orange County. For weeks, Aunt Rieva’s house had appeared to us like a civilized beacon in the cold, windy, savage night, and we couldn’t bear the thought of delaying our arrival there as we camped one or two more nights. Besides that, we had been in the desert for nearly the mythical forty days and forty nights—about a month since San Antonio—and even if we forced ourselves to go to Joshua Tree (“a desert park,” its website warns) we knew we wouldn’t appreciate it. Enough with rock formations and sand and badlands and cacti! Screw you and your yucca plants! “Is the desert totally dead and lifeless,” we’d ask each other, mocking the parks service brochures, “or is there more than meets the eye?”

We drove out of the desert, filling the tank with only a few gallons at a time of their insanely-priced gasoline, and hopped on the freeway heading west. It seemed, by the time we knocked on my aunt’s door, that if the drive across the country—9,000 miles in seven weeks—had taken another minute more, one or both of us might have collapsed.

Offended by gas prices in Death Valley. Chevron is consistently 25 cents more expensive.


  1. great blog piece- laughed out loud

    love the kreitner family reference
    and the last picture

    the mother

  2. And you're standing on their golf course sign you douchebag