First guy: So do you gamble?
Second guy: Yeah
First guy: What do you play?
Second guy: Blackjack.
First guy: Ahh. The thinking man’s game.
You know you’re in Nevada, or very nearby, when you overhear conversations like this. Emma overheard this one at Badwater in Death Valley, just a stone throw away from the Nevada border, a border we crossed a short while later on route to the Grand Canyon.
We stopped that night in the mighty metropolis of Pahrump, a rough and tumble kind of place where the wealthiest of American’s do not reside. It’s a town that looks like it has been plonked down in the middle of the desert without rhyme or reason, but it had an RV park with a pool and happened to be where we were when driving no longer seemed like a good idea.
The RV park, it turned out, was right next door to at least two casinos and was very near full of the biggest RVs and caravans we’ve seen. Most guests at the Pahrump RV park didn’t travel in caravans, they travel in their own personal busses. RVs the size of coaches disappeared in row after row right back toward the pool.
The caravans that were there (more commonly known in North America as travel trailers) were equally huge. I paced out the length of the one next door to us. It was half as long again as our 28-foot behemoth and as tall as a semi-trailer. I’m not making that up, I saw another one parked next to a semi and they were the same height. To make the point I will quote the fuddling old man at the front gate who looked out his window at our RV while checking us in and said, ‘ahh you’re not that big’.
I got in trouble from the park residents after that for driving too fast. ‘Slow down’, they called in a morally superior manner but steadfastly avoiding eye contact as we hunted for our spot. I should have read the helpful tome of rules I had been handed at the gate which instruct you to ‘put your vehicle in a low gear as you enter the gate. That should help slow the vehicle to the 5 mph limit.’ I think I was doing 6 mph. But I didn’t do it again.
Fortunately for us, Pahrump was just a stopover between Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. I suspect most of our fellow travellers were in Pahrump for the long haul owing to a strong affiliation with ‘the thinking man’s game’ or maybe a slot machine. That’s just speculation of course, but there is circumstantial evidence to support the case.
Death Valley was fun. It was like nowhere else we have been, but how many times have I made that observation in the last 10 months? It’s spectacularly hot. It’s so hot that just two weeks earlier the conditions of use attached to our motorhome would have prevented our passing through. It’s so hot the average temperature on a summer day is 47 degrees Celsius in the shade. It’s so hot that for five straight days in 1913 the temperature peaked at over 54 degrees with one day setting a world record high of 57 degrees.
It’s mountainous too with road passes climbing to 1510 metres near Panamint Springs in the west before dropping on downhill drives that seemed to go on forever and crossing expansive valley floors. Badwater Basin, a salt encrusted dry-as-a-bone inland sea, is 85 metres below sea level. Even on a mild October day heat shimmers across the plain and a non-strenuous stroll of no more than 30 minutes was enough to send my urine a deeper shade of yellow.
There is barely a shred of vegetation on those parched plains and rocky slopes and little sign of life, although, as with other arid zones there is more there than meets the eye. Interpretive signs at the Mesquite Flat sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells warned of sidewinders, a particular breed of rattlesnake. We however were not so lucky as to stumble across one. The dunes were quite striking though. We didn’t linger as long as I would have liked. It was too hot. On the whole Death Valley seems to me a desert to make other deserts seem like a rainforest.
I think the heat must get to people. What other rationale could there be for the behaviour of the guy we spotted feeding a coyote by hand from the door of his RV? It’s beyond me how anyone can fail to comprehend the abundant signs saying ‘Don’t feed the wildlife’. How hard is that? Which part is not clear? By what belief system can anyone discern that such directives do not apply to them? Where is my soap box? I feel a lecture coming on…
After Pahrump and Death Valley we skirted the edges of Las Vegas, dropped in for a brief stopover at the Hoover Dam and pushed on for the long haul to the Grand Canyon. We camped one night for free in the hills surrounding the town of Chloride – population around 50 I think – but it did have a cool re-creation of the old wild west.
Another day’s drive and we made it to the Grand Canyon. I expected big things from the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those places with a reputation as large as itself to live up to. Places with grand reputations can have a tough time impressing. Our expectations play a big role in our impression of places.
The Grand Canyon however struck me as a canyon worthy of the name. Sixteen hundred metres deep, sixteen kilometres across and more than 400 kilometres long. Colourful, gaping, ravines and plateaus lie exposed, presenting billions of years of geologic deposition, uplift, and erosion – as Ranger Marker explained during her ‘geology glimpse’ lecture.
Most people, us included, can’t help but stand in front of the Grand Canyon with arms held high, or sit far closer to the edge of precipitous cliffs than is good for them in order to get a photo with that huge airy background behind them. The canyon moves you almost involuntarily to do these things. I found it fascinating and after shooting my fill of photos of the canyon, I started shooting my fill of photos of other people shooting their fill of photos of the canyon.
Still, here, like the coyote feeding fellow in Death Valley, people struggle with simple, self-evidently sensible suggestions on appropriate behaviour. ‘Stay back from the edge’ and ‘Don’t feed the wildlife’ being the most ambiguous rules to comprehend. Three people a year (on average) die by slipping over the edge accidentally and we watched multiple people feeding squirrels, sometimes within metres of signs saying it is illegal, they carry the plague, and they bite.
One woman we watched used food to entice a squirrel to sit upon her bosom in fits of hysterical laughter. After it jumped off she lured it back again! Ten people a day are treated for blood pouring forth from fingers that a squirrel thought was a carrot. I need that soap box again. I feel another lecture coming on.
We hired bikes at the Grand Canyon South Rim and cycled for two hours along its edge stopping at short intervals to stare out over the edge, watch flocks of ravens dance around the cliffs, avoid hairy tarantulas that crossed our path (very cool) and so that Amy and Oliver could track down information to complete yet another junior ranger program. Amy has gotten so into the junior ranger thing Granny bought her and Oliver very stylish junior ranger vests to keep all their badges on.
Junior rangering also saw us staring at the stars with a couple of hundred of our closest American friends on the rim of the Canyon one night and one morning listening to tales of famous Grand Canyon mules as presented by the resident rangers. The star talk was good and the milky way resplendent but we couldn’t really hear because we had too many friends. So we left early to gaze at the stars ourselves from our free camp in the forest all on our own. The mule talk was just weird. I learnt that the mules that carry people into the Canyon all stop in the same spot each and every time to do their business. It was an enriching talk, and we did stay ‘til the end.
The four of us, minus Granny, also walked two hours down the South Kaibab Trail as it descended very steeply and then just steeply below the rim along a thin plunging ridge line. Six hundred metres below the rim of the canyon we sat upon some rocks and absorbed the silence while squirrels scurried, western scrub jays flitted and tarantula wasps busily buzzed.
And that, in a nut shell, was that. We drove out of the Grand Canyon via the groovy Desert Watch Tower and stopped for lunch in the carpark of a very non-scenic Chevron. Zion National Park is next, followed by Bryce Canyon before we head back to Vegas. I’m a thinking man. You’ll find me at the Blackjack table.