Rolling in and Busting Out of Vegas

January 26th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Meet Zoltar and your fortune.

Taxi drivers. Slot machines. Houdini. Elvis. Love gone haywire. Zoltar the mechanical fortuneteller. What do these all have in common? Where are they all pointing to? Our next destination. Vegas. And what came to be the lowest, potentially the most guttural point of this Southwest journey. It was all my idea, my desire to see first-hand this place where many of my friends and family have frequented. I was also looking for a dramatic contrast to what we had been experiencing. We definitely got that.

Let’s start with the taxi driver, perhaps the most enlightened individual in this segment of our trip. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even in Las Vegas when we ventured there for a day, but he sure did get it right when he offered his observations of a place he feels compelled to frequent.

Not to deviate once again, but what is it about taxi drivers? In our case, a taxi van driver. It doesn’t matter where you are, the moment you step into any vehicle for hire, you enter the very close quarters of someone else’s universe, with all the smells, the unkemptness, the hopefully stable state of mind of the person taking you for a ride. If someone ever hitched a ride from me, that lucky individual might very well stumble upon a stash of vitamins, a bottle of Advil and a few (unused) sanitary pads in the glove compartment, a travel brush in desperate need of being de-haired, a partially eaten PBJ sandwich snugly sandwiched within the crevice of the center console and the passenger seat, an emergency pair of undies and pants for my 4-year-old daughter, or some other embarrassment. It’s a constant challenge to keep my minivan in a presentable state. Taxis, my friend, are perhaps no different.

As a passenger of a taxi, you relinquish your control of the universe to this moveable habitat, voluntarily becoming vulnerable — trapped? — and at the mercy of a stranger. And you are compelled to listen to the chatter, and to respond. Maybe it’s just me, but my driver is usually ready to talk about his colorful background (I have yet to come upon a female cab driver, although I am certain she exists), his kids, his country of origin and all sorts of other personal chit-chat that you never would think of discussing with a perfect stranger, let alone your spouse. But it seems quite normal with the taxi driver. I’d put such a character in the same category as people you would talk total nonsense to, while at the same time unload your deepest secrets. Taxi drivers share the same inner circle as your hairstylist, your gynecologist, your local bartender or your manicurist.

I actually admire taxi drivers. They are hardworking hustlers, maneuvering through hair-raising traffic convolutions for a customer who is already late. They stay awake during late-night shifts and juggle with relative ease multiple activities all at once. I recall the varied forms of vehicles that share the same purpose in such diverse countries around the world. There’s the human-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta, and then the upgraded bicycle rickshaws of Dhaka. Or the becaks of Jakarta.

The multi-tasking bit is what was so impressive about Lon, our taxi van driver who picked us up from the Phoenix airport and saw us off at the end of the trip. His rapid-fire chatter, his allegiance to the Israeli cause, his love of his daughter and frustration at the new drivers he’s training, and his ability to hold an intelligent conversation with us while also conversing with the dispatcher and answering a myriad of calls on his cell. What a guy. I was both entertained and in awe at his ease.

Not to mention his observations about Las Vegas were right-on. He was planning yet another trip there, and we had just departed from Sin City. He does the same thing every time: Go to all his favorite all-you-can-eat buffets, catch a show, crash in a cheap hotel and then back home. When Lon was younger, an old man asked him if he wanted to know how Hell looked like. Sure, said Lon. The old man said just cut off the roof of a casino, look down, and you’ve got Hell.

Along The Strip.

That exact vision reemerged in my mind. It was Caesar’s Palace, in the slot machine areas, where people monotonously stuck quarters into the slots, pulled down the lever and watched with veiled anticipation while the symbols stop whirling in front of them. There was an eerie quietness that gave way to the methodical click-clicking of the slot machine’s arm and the spinning of the reels. This I viewed while walking with my three children through a designated pathway along the perimeter of the casino areas. If we ventured off the route, a security guard popped up to point us in the right direction. No kids allowed.

Let’s take a step back and start with our journey into Las Vegas. The day before, we had experienced the magnificent Zion National Park. We were back on the road in our rented Cruise America RV and just passed a sign that said Rockville, Nevada, population 237. Another sign read Las Vegas, 97 miles.  On US 95 South, we traveled through a desert valley with clumps of brush as the only sign of vegetation. A dramatic landscape once again emerges: rock formations jutted out from different angles as we cross a sandy Virgin River. We are in Arizona now, and just as soon as we entered a different state, the dramatic rock mountains ended and there was flatland as far as the horizon can be seen. Desert Springs.

Arizona didn’t last long, and now we were in Nevada, and with it came bigger clumps of grass and cacti springing out of nowhere. Then humanity entered the picture: Billboards began popping up of adult shops, bankruptcy attorneys, McDonalds and gambling casinos. Vegas, baby!

We decided on overnighting at a KOA, and proceeded to wedge our RV into a sea of other similar RVs in this faceless RV park behind Circus Circus. We bought 24-hour bus passes that allowed us to go up and down the long Strip for $7 apiece. What a mistake. Our goal was to go all the way to the other end of the strip, about seven miles, to Chili’s. I had a few gift cards that I was hankering to use. We didn’t go further than two miles in a sweaty, overcrowded double-decker bus before we had to bale out. Visually, Las Vegas was stimulating and even energizing. But that energy was quickly sapped out of us, and we wondered why we ever came here. Maybe it was because of the kids that brought a different reality to our environment. It seems to be a place for men on the prowl, or girls out to party, or to get in a good show perhaps, at its best.

Las Vegas actually became downright ugly to us within a short period of time. After a hundred-dollar dinner at a burger joint in a nameless casino, we waited outside for our overcrowded double decker bus. Suddenly there was an outburst. A belligerent man came within inches of his girlfriend and called her “bitch” over and over again. He raged on and on and I was waiting for him to physically wail on her. She tried to calm him down and even said, “There are children here.” That didn’t stop him at all. If anything, that seemed to enrage him even more. John took the boys away while I held a sleeping Francesca and sat on a slate bench, waiting for the damn bus to finally arrive. I didn’t want to cause a bigger scene but was this far away from laying into him. I didn’t want the woman to get in more trouble than she already was. So I just watched quietly as my boys gaped, feeling bad for the girl who just sat there with her head in her hands. I was at a loss for this woman who had to succumb to the rantings of a man, knowing that there is no way to win and challenging would mean worse than losing. “I felt so sorry for her,” my oldest son echoed later. (We lost sight of them after boarding the bus, but spotted them later sitting in the back, his arm around her shoulders and both sipping stiff drinks from tiny glasses. Another shining example of what this city evokes.)

It was the hottest of any place we had been. A furnace. Why did anyone want to live here? No ocean around, the spectacular natural scenery is at least two hours away. Why do people go to Vegas? To win after losing so much? Friends of mine, brothers even, love to go and gamble. Seedy is too complex of an adjective to put on something like this. It brings images of the underworld, of the dark layers within someone’s psyche. But this is just so literal, so contrived.  I must say, though, that I desperately wanted to see Elvis. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Plenty of Elvises for everyone.

A day before, we were climbing the sides of cliffs. Now we were climbing escalators and  diverting human traffic as we maneuvered around slot machines and poker tables and unnaturally large-bosomed dealers. There was absolutely nothing natural about this desert oasis. But its extremeness was almost as unnatural as the otherworldly beauty of Monument Valley. It was mind-bending in the realization that this was real. And we existed within all these elements and contributed to their creation and their longevity.

It really wasn’t all bad. We ventured into Houdini’s Magic Shop, where employees performed feats of magic for us for the next 30 minutes. I watched, mesmerized as an employee at the front counter tossed a playing card in front of him that circled him in mid air without any sign of attachment. We walked out with a small bundle of tricks, eager to try them on my poor sister, Maria, the brunt of many of John’s antics. Now he was training the boys in subversive escapades. (The snake popping out of a Pringles can was a real hit.)

If anything, I’d say the boys and Francesca did most of the gambling, or a legal-for-children version of it in the Adventuredome in Circus Circus, with its myriad of carnival games. Monday morning, we ventured back into the dome and Richard braved the double-looped roller coaster with John before we high-tailed it out of Vegas, in search of higher ground.

The bright lights.

Coming of Age at Monument Valley

December 29th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Hanging out in Monument Valley.

John was getting more than a little frustrated at my map-reading skills as he steered us onward. Frustration won out, and he pulled off to the side of the highway not only to get a final view of magnificent Grand Canyon, but also to turn the wheel over to me. It was about time; I took the reins, and he headed to the kids’ zone at the rear of the RV.

In the driver’s seat, I noticed something was remiss. Music. I popped in the Indigo Girls, then barreled onward to Monument Valley. It was a perfect choice. I’ve always felt connected to this genre of music: reflective, yearning, insightful. And just fun. It reminded me of my desire for more out of life, while savoring what I already have. One such refrain from “Closer to Fine”:

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in a crooked line

And the less I seek my source for some definitive 

The closer I am to fine.

I hit replay. This sort of lyrical connection transcended to other artists like Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman, and emerging, equally dynamic ones (which my husband and 12-year-old son play over and over) such as Chris Pureka and Danielle Ate the Sandwich. For now, the Indigo Girls were just the right fit as we traversed through more incredible landscape.

Monument Valley is, coincidentally, the name of the middle school that my son is attending. It’s his first year there, sixth grade, and the challenges and promises and dreams of the future are just emerging in his psyche. It’s quite different than where he had been attending classes, at an elementary school down the street in a village within the Berkshires, with one class per grade, and with peers who were quite respectful but not connecting with him. They seem preoccupied with hunting, guns, going out with dad, tracking game, and, just to mix it up a bit, daggers, knives and other instruments to prey. That is very much a part of reality among quite a few individuals in this area, but my reality lies elsewhere.

It was a tough decision, this changing schools, with inspirationals such as the larger-than-life 5th grade teacher Mr. Keller, and the talented, somewhat (lovingly) scattered and tremendously supportive music teacher Ms. Petty pulling us back. (When I was in 5th grade, teachers like Mr. Hostetler at Farmingville Elementary School in Ridgefield, Conn., nurtured my love for writing and for learning, two important elements in my trade as a journalist.) Despite the exceptional teachers and the school’s close proximity, I knew that Richard had to move on and we had to mix it up a bit, introducing him to kids from all over and a jazz band program that was unequal in the region. He was at the edge of entering adult reality, trying to figure out and explore life, and we wanted to open the door a bit wider for him before he stepped in.

My thoughts veer back to the road. This remote corner in northeastern Arizona is staggering in its beauty. I have also never seen so many mobile homes peppering the stark landscape, which, although breathtaking, seems as inhabitable as the lunar landscape. The mobile homes look pristine next to the few rundown wooden structures barely able to stand up. It’s a harsh life here: little work, land where farming is futile, and a sense of utter remoteness. The juxtaposition of these box homes seemed out of place against the scale of beauty where they inhabited, with natural temples borne out of sand, and where desert life in any form or species has got to have it rough.

I have read about the mesas in Lonely Planet Guide to Southwest USA, and have come across that term and another one that is not so dreamy — butte — in other readings. If I were to write a guide book and came to this section of the journey that lies along Highway 163 on the Arizona-Utah border, I would put aside my more descriptive inclinations and put down the following: Go to Monument Valley! You have to make the stop and stay overnight. Your life will be completely changed and you will realize the grandeur of this universe. It’s indescribable.

A magnificent mesa within Monument Valley.

As I watch John photograph the monoliths that night, shifting from one spot to another with his lens on his tripod, I am struck with the thought that even he won’t capture the essence that surrounded us. It’s too huge. It’s too overwhelming, and the magnitude is too awesome to encapsulate in a single image. Or two. Or more. And I sit outside our RV at the edge of several buttes, with a glass of wine in one hand, my head up to the sheet of stars covering the sky, and a group of people sitting by a campfire talking about their day in the near distance, it suddenly strikes me. The enormity of the sky, the stars, the moon, have found their balance in the largess of the mesas that lay before me. And the Grand Canyon that I experienced for the first time just a few days ago has now found a balance. My concept of dimension and size have been blown out of the water. The vast ocean, the endless sky, the moon and the sun have found companions on earth with these natural wonders.

I took a three-hour tour the next day with a Navajo woman named Hope, who was barely voting age, and we climbed into a beat-up jeep that took us across the sand dunes and into the land of the gods. Her slight physique and gentle talk was transformed into this focused, almost possessed guide who took control of some of the roughest terrain that I have ever driven through. As I careened from left to right, trying with all my might to keep from being jettisoned into the landscape, I was struck by the revelation that I was actually not in a foreign country.

I was mildly impressed when Hope spouted off butte trivia. John Wayne made films out here, she said as she pulled into a makeshift tourist stop. And there he was: A life-sized photo cutout of the Duke in all of his cowboy regalia was looking out from a glassless window within a makeshift plywood cluster of buildings where Navajo-made silver and turquoise jewelry was sold. I was aching for a cold Diet Coke and eyed an oasis of a cooler in front of one of these structures. A handwritten sign in front of it said, “Cold Drinks.” Here was my chance. I questioned its validity, though, when I was within a meter of it and a half-sleeping man sat nearby, his chair pitched on its two back legs. “Not cold, only water,” he said. I had to see for myself. I opened the lid and there they were, two bottles of water at the bottom of a bone-dry cooler. Bummer.

The Duke makes a reappearance.

I had some time to talk to Hope as our children tumbled again and again down the sand dunes. She graduated early from high school and needed to make money to go to business school. At first she wanted to be a veterinarian, but channeled that desire into helping stray dogs and other animals in her Navajo community by one day opening up a business. There are plenty of stray dogs roaming these tourist points and campgrounds, scavenging food. It was reminiscent of our days traveling around the Yukatan Peninsula in Mexico, where dogs were left to fend for themselves. My sister, our travel partner at the time, befriended a dog and named it Celestune, which we still talk about.

Hope continued on her tour-guide rhetoric, noting that Metallica made a music video atop one of the mesas, on a restricted area only accessible by helicopter and adventurers driven to scale the steep inclines. Tom Cruise filmed a piece of his Mission Impossible 2 over there. And Clint Eastwood even scaled one of the tall fingers for one of his flicks.

Now it was my children’s turn at stunt making. They tumbled down again and again the steep sand dunes, rolling out of control with the fine crimson dust splaying from their tiny bodies and long hair. They scaled the base of these monuments and looked even more diminutive than they already were, but just as fearless as Tom or Clint. To do all this in the playground of the gods was something I hope they keep with them for a lifetime. We stopped at different sandstone formations with names such as Sun’s Eye and Ear to the Wind, and for each of them I had to throw my head back and look up to the sky to take in the massiveness.

And the small details are just as inspiring: a small creek running through the sandy terrain, a smattering of greenish of green bushes and flowers, their colors vibrant despite their diminutive size against the massive backdrop. Wholly cow.

I was transported back 20 years ago  — was it that long ago?  — when I stood at the precipice of a valley in the chilly early morning hours in Nepal, struck by the emerging beauty of the Himalayas. Another wholly cow. Here we are at Monument Valley, with just a third of a tank of water left in the RV tank, no water source to hook up to, and all of us caked in red sandy dust. The plan was to strip naked outside the van in the darkness, brush off as much of the earth as possible and then shower in the closet-sized bathroom by turning the water on and off between sudsing. The boys’ faces were thickly painted with the red sand, and they quite possibly swallowed a good handful during their tumbling escapades.  When all was said and done, when everyone was washed, I fried up homemade burgers and baked beans for dinner, we ate outside under velvet black sky punctured by incredibly bright stars and called it a night.

Wandering through the land of the gods.