The Baja Californian peninsula is adorned with stunning beaches, killer surf, whales, dolphins, turtles and little pockets of paradise. Unfortunately its also rife with American tourists and spring break binges!
North America Archive
With apologies in advance to my US friends, I never really thought I’d end up travelling much in the States for pleasure. Scarred perhaps by its aggressive foreign policies, endless consumerism, mass market chains and just an overt sense of familiarity I suppose, care of the most documented culture that’s ever existed on the planet. It’s easy to forget that the land itself is some of the most stunning you will encounter anywhere.
Our goal was to get down to Mexico from Canada and we figured the best way to do this was to hire a car and chart our own course into the US diaspora via the great National parks of the mid-west. Some 4,000 miles (about 6.000km) later after an incredible variety of scenic drives; from the valleys and streams of Montana to the cactus filled deserts of Nevada and Arizona, we pulled into San Francisco. At this point I should probably also point out, that due to an international license expiry on my part, Megumi did all the driving here – goddess that she is – chauffeured through some of nature’s finest spoils. Along the way we had found a new appreciation for the magnificent geological magician called time, that sculpted this fine land. As well as a new comprehension for the strange look that the hire car guy had given us when we resisted his upgrade pitch for our little sedan to a monster truck. Turns out that’s’ all most people drive out here when they not driving RV’s the size of semi-trailers, towing their jeep or boat along behind. It really does give you an appreciation for the various fuel crises, international conflicts and global economic dependencies forged around the USA. But I could flow forth in a lot of detail about the big side of America and sell short nature in the process. Back to the parks, below is my quick take on ‘em.
The first National Park to be created in the US and probably the best of the lot, Yellowstone is an amazing collection of bio-systems. As you drive in from the North, the great plains reveal swarms of Bison roaming the grasses, while jackals and wolves hungrily watch from the cliffs above; Giant elk and grizzly bears (yes we saw one) roam the forests floors; trout swarm in the shallow valley-bed streams and waterfalls work their way through the steep, yellow stoned coloured canyons. Dotted throughout is an endless array of geysers, hot volcanic water spouts, venting earths’ fury in angry bursts of clocklike precision. Splendid, multicoloured thermal streams mesmerize through veiled steam clouds, while sulfuric pours steep the landside in minute sculptured terraces and mud pots bubble away in fantastic patterns. It is a fantastic wonderland and a perfect introduction to the wonders of the great American frontier. The bison casually grazing among the thick yellow grasses and flat streams adjacent to our campsite, was so perfect it lulled us into a false sense of security about the idylls of camping. The inadequacies of our cheap-arse Wallmart tent and backpacking wardrobes were later glaringly exposed when faced with the sub zero temperatures.
2) Grand Teton
This one was just a drive through really on our way south to find warmer climes (or at least buy another blanket). The Grand Teton abuts the southern entrance of Yellowstone and really just serves as an extended exit. (The Yellowstone ticket also covers entrance fee) It does however feature several magnificent, snow covered peaks that provide a perfect picturesque backdrop to explorations of its surrounding lakes and valley floor. A great place for biking, kayaking and horse riding I suppose given the number of folk out there doing exactly that – it also happened to be a great place to spot a moose (wading knee high through another one of those flat rivers) which ticked a box nicely and left not too many American wild animals left on our list to see (just the cats!).
3) Antelope Island – Lake Utah
After working our way through some spectacular scenery care of the stunning, winding backcountry roads in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah we reached Salt Lake City and sidetracked a little, dodging mormons everywhere we went. We were keen to see something of the great Salt Lake since we were here and Antelope Island is joined by a 5 km or so thin land bridge from the mainland across the salt plains. There really was nothing much to see on the island despite the optimistic travel hype, horrible place to have to live even. But the drive out there with flat salt plains either side giving way to mirror-like water coverings reflecting the surrounding mountains and extending for as far as the eye could see, felt impressive. Not quite Bonneville where they set the land speed records, somewhere on the other side, but it did give you a taste of how that would all work. We didn’t stay long.
4) Arches National Park
Basing ourselves in nearby Moab the adventure capital of Utah we found ourselves in a camp / RV park that would be the rival of most hotels – full RV connections here mean water, electricity, ASDL cable and 100 channels of cable TV, hardly roughing it. The campsite even had wifi. Arches National Park is a network of large deep, red, vein-like rock promontories eroded and carved over time into all sorts of formations, including as the name suggest some 2000 or so naturally occurring arches. It’s a simple drive around to see most of the key sites which sit just a few minutes walk from the main roads, but we decided to do a 5 hour, trek into the “Devils Garden” to get out among the early morning light and more authentic experience. Clamouring over endless red rocks pathways to find the various if predictably named archways and new photographic angles among the vivid red, blue and yellow landscapes, was lots fun. The contrast of the colours made this park one of the most enjoyable.
5) CanyonLands & Dead Horse Point
Around Moab, there are 3 or more other national parks spread along the winding paths of the Colorado river canyons full of opportunities for treks, rafting and panoramic canyon views of the Colorado. All are quite stunning, but the views from Dead Horse Point was perhaps the highlight of all the different perspectives of the Colorado canyons that we got to savour, including the Grand Canyon itself. As ever though, the camera just wasn’t up to the task, there is simply too much to try in take in amongst this scenery. With more time, we would have loved to have explored these more from the riverbed.
6) Bryce National Park
One of my absolute favourites, the drive from Moab around to Bryce National Park is simply stunning, with each new corner revealing another natural wonder from multi-coloured canyon walls, ancient petroglyphs to finally the unique orange, pink and white wonderland marvels of the Bryce set of Amphitheatres. Sunrise and sunsets here, reveal a whole new set of subtle colour shades but the millions of hoodoos are simply too much to take in for any camera – try as we might. We spent the night here camping which gave us a good opportunity to explore the park at first light and sunrise.
7) Zion National Park
Set along a deep set gorge, Zion is a rock-climbers paradise. The drive in is especially spectacular, passing alongside huge sandstone cliff walls and then tunneling through into the actual valley itself. You can’t drive into the park, so you have to park and take a train which stops off at the various key points along the way, many launching points for numerous longer trails and treks. I found this to be a little too packaged to my taste – unfortunately creating accessibility sometimes ruins the exoticness of the experience. At the end of the canyon there is a small river that winds it way through steep canyon cliffs. You can wade along the riverbed for several kilometres into the canyon itself, which is a great experience. Barefoot, the river stones are hard on the feet though, so we only got 1 km or so in.
8) Monument Valley
Probably my favourite of all the parks we visited. The stunning landscape of the Monoliths manifesting themselves from the desert floor is a familiar site from numerous classic Western films, but it is a very sacred place in person. You can feel the powerful energies at work here. Complementing the landscape, the parks full immersion and intrinsic attachment to the Navajo Native American people really resonates here. This is much more than a national park – it is a complex cultural canvas, a spiritual union between earth and man.
Monument Valley is located inside Navajo nation, so everything is owned and operated by the Navajo people here. It does make it expensive hotel wise (ie no competition), but as you drive around the 18 km of dodgy dirt roads (thank god for hire cars), winding your way at 5km an hour through each of the impressive monuments you have plenty of time to reflect on appreciate that each of these hold a particular ceremonial and ritual significance to the Navajo people and their mythology. Boasting names such as ‘Rain God Mesa, Thunderbird Mesa, Elephant Butte, Spearhead Mesa or Totem Pole – you feel yourself entering this ancient dreamscape and the energy of the place captivates the imagination. Of course the entire park is surrounded by Native American craft markets on all fronts and souvenir shopping is almost impossible to avoid. None of this stuff is made in China though, it’s all authentic, an absolute rarity during our US experience.
9) The Grand Canyon
Had to do this one of course and while it didn’t disappoint I think we were almost canyoned out by the time we got there. The Grand Canyon is so vast and hard to comprehend in a single view that it is almost impossible to photograph. We only visited the South side, the most popular side of the canyon and camped just the one night here. It was a really pleasant campground, as all of them were in the national parks – pleasantly spaced, each with its own grill for a campfire. We would have liked to trek down to the floor of the canyon and camp, but this would have required booking months in advance.
The canyon itself is a 25km or so stretch with numerous viewpoints spaced every few kilometres along the way, highlighting new views or perspectives. Our highlight though was not the canyon views as good as they were, but in actually spotting a wild Lynx roaming across the road.
10) Sequoia National Park
The last park we visited as it turns out. The giant tree’s here are very impressive, the Sherman tree is supposedly the biggest tree by mass in the world and anywhere I have ever seen giant tree’s there is a peace and special energy to the place. They were not nearly as big as I was expecting though, the giant redwoods of Yakushima in Japan are much more impressive in their setting and also energetically compelling I think. We didn’t get to see the Northern Califormia redwoods so its hard to compare. It was by now a freebie though. We had acquired 8 national park entrance tickets which qualifies you for free National Park membership.
As we were working our way through the park, the temperature plummeted and rain suddenly became hail covering the road in white powder. We stopped for a while, but since it was unrelenting decided to make a run for it before the roads closed – neither of us felt like being forced to camp in snow / hail. Unfortunately though, the weather meant that we had to forego Yosemite National Park, the other major park that we were really keen to see.
Vegas is one of those places – seen a hundred movies, read the books, but was never really able to comprehend it properly until I got there and saw it in all its glory and context. It looked much as I’d expected only more, but the energy was different altogether, something I probably hadn’t really thought through. Around the Vegan fringes lurks and hides all sorts of sadness and depression, just conveniently out of focus, while the epicenter is all bling and the spectacular. Its a weird, soul-less place at the heart of a fraudulent Western capitalism and greed ideal, trying seductively to assert a distracting hedonistic pleasure into the hungry gaping souls of its eager participants. As you can probably gather I wasn’t all that impressed!
We arrived quite late, driving in from the desert around deep afternoon and proceeded to lap the main strip – Sunset Boulevard; all the casino’ s arrayed before us. Seen at first glance like this Vegas overwhelms, the streets teem with people, cars and it buzzes. From the huge black Pyramid on, each casino in the procession castes its large beckoning shadow across the strip – the New York skyline with Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the castles of treasure island, Big Tops, Fashion shows and the more traditional exotically sculptured skyscrapers.
Attracted more by morbid curiosity, but keen not to spend a fortune here (and being quite ignorant of how the place works), we headed to the North end, thinking we would just find a cheap motor inn to stay and then head down the strip to explore. This part of town is seriously dodgy though; sex shops and ‘drive through chapels’ abound (I couldn’t tempt Megumi!). The first place we tried the owner couldn’t be found and they didn’t seem interested in tenants which was a bit strange. But after seeing 2 haggard old prostitutes emerge from one of the rooms, I gathered it was geared towards either the extremely short term or much longer term rentals. We tried another one – this had all the atmosphere of a gangster film, complete with lurking homies – no way our car would be safe here for a night as cheap as it was. Chastened, but quickly educated on the fringe realities, we lapped back to the main drag and decided to try one of the casino’s instead.
The nearest and most accessible of these was the ‘Circus Circus’, good enough for me it summed up Vegas nicely I thought. The other logic being that the least tempting place to stay was also going to save us the most money, plus I always loved that scene from “Fear & Loathing” the movie – stuck late at night at the revolving Circus bar. The “Circus Circus” Casino offered rooms for about $40 a night, only about $5 more expensive than the dodgy Motor Inns, plus gave us a whole ticket book of freebies and incentives (gosh thanks). This would do though, tired from the journey we couldn’t really be bothered shopping for a better (or indeed any type of alternative deal).
The Circus Circus is aimed at families and its entrance was like a fun-park free for all – kids and groups scrambling everywhere. Complete with a circus and adventure theme park to complement all the slots and betting tables, it is designed to trap and preoccupy in as many ways as possible. As one of my friends put it, the place gives of the air of a Western Sydney RSL club, although I would take the RSL every-time I think. There is an overarching atmosphere of despondency here though, a morbid gloom and décor reminiscent of a heyday somewhere back in the 70’s. No amount of scrubbing can remove this many scars to the soul, let alone mask the lingering musk of stale beer and cigarettes. The clown staring down overseeing everything feels kind of sinister after a while.
Checked in, we wandering out the front door and started to work our way down the footpath toward the other casino’s. The footpaths were strewn with American’s of just about all walks of life. What immediately struck me though, was the complete lack of fashion or style here. Its almost as though Vegas intrinsically attracts bad taste. Young people walk around with yard long Margarita glasses and straws hanging from their neck straight out of spring break, lots of middle aged, belly-fat barely concealed beneath dodgy Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. (The whole Hawaiian thing really mystifies me actually). In Europe or Japan when people go to a party or a resort they tend to try and look the part, why American’s go the other way when they are out spending all their money I don’t really know? Wandering into a few places we soon realized we didn’t have the energy to match the lights and pace of the place. We were drowning in the torrent of distractions; rather than push it too hard we decided to take stock, relax and settle in. Best to stay an extra night, relax to do ‘Vegas’ properly with the help of the following day. Hardly an unusual reaction to the place I would wager, it suggestively hints at this approach in its every design. ‘One more day’, you can almost hear the street itself whisper.
In Vegas, every casino has a show or a feature event going on. Something special to attract and entertain the crowds – to bring the people in, to brand themselves versus their competitors. Accordingly there is a fixed schedule to all this, you don’t need to spend all your time in the casino itself around the tables or whatever. There is enough entertainment to be had for free just wandering from casino to casino, checking out each of the showcases which all works rather perfectly for 2 backpackers with little inclination to do otherwise. Dressed up and loaded in true Johnny Depp fashion, armed with a rough map and schedule we loosed ourselves upon the place. Catching a bus to the far end of the strip, we commenced working our way through them one by one. I won’t go into everything here, but we did have a lot of fun. Some of the following gives you a flavour of the bigger free highlights on show.
– MGM Grand – as well as a studio, they have a multi-million dollar, lion habitat. Megumi got stuck here for a good hour, leaning against the glass playing with 2 lion cubs.
– Sirens of Treasure Island – probably the pick of the lot. Siren show girls dance and pantomime repelling an attack from a pirate ship floating on water, while a bunch of pirates on another pirate ship attempt to board. Ships sinking, explosions and fireballs going off and water sprays everywhere – its great entertainment.
– Fountains at the Bellagio – these go off every 15 minutes in the huge lake outside the Bellagio casino, each movement is different and set to a different soundtack. Very easy on the eye. The conservatory at the Bellagio is also pretty good there was a Halloween special of sculpted plants, orchids and monstrous plants which was fun.
– Volvano at the Mirage – erupts on the hour. A huge pyrotechnic show, earthquake grumbles, music and finally lava flowing across the ponds and the mini mountain.
In total it took us more than 14 hours to wander through everything. No one really cares about you for the most part. You can happily turn up in the middle of a high end casino floor and wander around tables checking things out or sit outside and take in the many other sidewalk acts and people watch along the way. Most of the casino are pretty casual affairs, light, noisy and soulless. Occasionally though, we found ourselves in a high stakes area where the energies were noticeably a lot more intense – big money, egos and serious demeanors. We quickly moved on, mostly for the cigar smoke. Everywhere there are special shows and ticket scalpers for concerts from show girl strippers to fights, magic acts, Cirque du Soleil even Cher. Surprisingly the biggest act in town seems to be an Australian boy band.
I guess a big part of the experience here is to impress the girlfriend, companion, friends or kids etc by procuring those hard to get tickets to the hottest show in town. There are a million services queuing at every whim or beck n call to help assist you in the pursuit of the perfect night out or at least separate you from your cash. Limousines, special offers, even lines of Mexicans on street corners handing out flyers and wearing t-shirts emblazoned with ‘girls 2 your door in under 10 minutes’. Most disorientating perhaps is the role for kids in all this – M&M’s world, the circuses and fun parks, its really positioned as a family affair, 24 x7.
Breathing in all this, I felt alien, separated almost racially from the people around me. Who are they? Seemingly millions are here, but in 2 days we had barely the merest hint of a kindred spirit – our fun largely generated purely from immersing ourselves in the absurd, oddity of it all. But we felt like we were operating on a different tangent (Well, we were!), in a bubble completely out of our relational zone. I realized I don’t understand this pursuit or even its motivation anymore, the greed, desire to get rich or simply the skin deep hedonistic lust for an outrageous time, an extreme self-indulgence for a weekend. Perhaps I did once, but all this travel and those seedy Tokyo nights have broken me of it somewhere, perhaps too I have just gotten old somewhere along the way. Using money and trinkets to feed a soulful hunger is no longer an option for me, a shame to think it ever was I guess, but regardless it is a satisfying realization.
And did I gamble – not really. I love a game of poker and thrive on any competitive challenge usually, but surprised myself by having no real inclination for the casino form. I did throw a few dollars into the odd slot machine, largely out of boredom (ie waiting for Megumi to finish playing with lions). It is nice to face off to that whole luck, chance, get rich desire thing and know that it really doesn’t float your boat. Perhaps it would be interesting to do Vegas the other way around, cashed up, dressed up and VIP – intrinsically I doubt the experience would be any different though. As we drove out of town, petrol stations with casino’s offered a last chance to gamble tax-free all the way to the Californian border – I have no inclination to stop or even look back!