Still a strange thing, I find, waking up in one city - say, Chicago - and proceed bleary-eyed to the airport, there to warily board a pressurized tube and be propelled to 35,000 feet in the sky, only to be dropped in another part of the country, another part of the world. All the more strange if that pressurized tube touches down in Las Vegas.
But there I landed. And very comfortably ensconced in my black Chevy Impala with all the mod cons. - satellite radio, rearview camera, blind spot warning lights, etc. - I proceeded north from McCarran Airport up Las Vegas Boulevard, essentially experiencing the history of the city in reverse.
It says something about where my Las Vegas interest lies, my temporal bias exists, that my first stop - having an hour to kill before checking into my hotel - took me to the Neon Museum. I may well walk right into my death some day, gaping at a neon sign, walking into the middle of some busy street. At least at the Neon Boneyard there was no chance of my being run over.
I was impressed both with the museum and my tour guide. I've done far worse with architectural docents in Chicago. I expected something more casual, but the museum well organized while still a very friendly place. Among their other accomplishments in preserving the great history of sign-making in the city - for much of its modern era, Las Vegas was more a city of signs than buildings - they have placed several old upright neon gems back out in place about the downtown area.
|Something went wrong in our country when establishments stopped offering "free aspirin and tender sympathy." Neon Museum, Las Vegas.|
As for my dwelling for the night, I eschewed the Strip in favor of the old school, The El Cortez Hotel and Casino. The El Cortez is the longest-running casino in the city, once owned by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, before the former's fateful involvement with The Flamingo. The El Cortez is modest by the standards of the mega resorts of South Las Vegas Boulevard, but still I was overwhelmed by the sprawl of the place as I merely tried to find the reception desk among the many rooms devoted to gaming. Had I needed the use of one the men's rooms as I wandered about, I wouldn't have been surprised to find a slot machine in there.
This was essentially the first time I had alit in Las Vegas, having only driven through town once in 2005. Much as one knows that this is a gambling mecca, the presence of gaming machines from the time you emerge from the plane in McCarran is overwhelming. I observed quite a few people with motorized scooters and walkers intently gazing at their respective machines as I looped around the main floor, looking for reception. I first thought that the El Cortez might be a favorite gambling location for those of such limited mobility. But then I realized that what I was seeing was probably not an unusual sight in Las Vegas, particularly in lesser casinos off The Strip like the El Cortez.
Even more than could be explained by my intense sleep deprivation, I didn't feel well the first day of my trip, and got out only once after checkin to wander down "The Fremont Street Experience." This the downtown center and locus for gambling before the emergence of The Strip. The city has covered four blocks of Fremont, including the section known as "Glitter Gulch" with a canopy barrel vault. As curated tourist experiences go - comparing favorably with the likes of Navy Pier in Chicago - Fremont Street does have an unquenchable personality, provided largely by old casinos like The Fremont and Golden Nugget, along with the famous upright of cowboy Vegas Vick, of the former Pioneer Club. So many of the garish old casinos still line the street, the broad expanse of the entrances like the maws of hungry beasts, forever agape, slot machines flashing like gold teeth just inside.
|The El Cortez, downtown Las Vegas. In the foreground, a couple of the old signs placed anew by the Neon Museum.|
In utter contrast to Las Vegas, I was in southern Utah the next morning. I dropped out of the traffic bound for Zion National Park long enough to double back a few miles to check out the ghost town of Grafton, coating my rental car in red dust.
Grafton is just a few buildings and really more of an open air museum than bonafide ghost town. But the modest cemetery was worth a look. 1866 turned out to be a particularly rough year for Grafton, with 13 deaths in fairly quick succession. Among the perhaps predictable deaths by diphtheria and scarlet fever, the settlement lost two of its number because the "swing broke." You might think after one such tragedy, somebody might move the swing from above the perilously deep ravine....Rough year indeed.
In trying to complete a moderate hike and climb to the Upper Emerald Pool in the Zion Canyon, I realized that something was truly amiss in my own body, even if not beset by diptheria or scarlet fever. I grew faint at one point, necessitating a prolonged water and snack break. Fortunately, I was able to slog my way up the the Upper Emerald Pool and enjoy the majestic canyon during a near-perfect afternoon. All's well that doesn't end in the sweaty man having to be medivacked out of the canyon.
The horizontal bands of color in the Zion canyon reminded me of the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. As if the towering peaks of Zion were compressed to the more squat hills of John Day, concentrating the bands of color as is the case in the Oregon site(s).
|Like this but even better - Zion National Park.|
A couple of shuttle bus rides and I was back to my car in the nearby town of Springdale, weary but happy to find it where I thought I left it earlier. And yet, I had three hours of driving ahead of me before I would reach my destination for the evening, Gunnison.
Fortunately, southern Utah's otherworldly beauty extends beyond the many national parks that are strewn across the lower part of the state. Merely driving along one of the U.S. highways, you are assailed by beauty of the landscape. I drove toward a mesa to my east and thought, "this must be Bryce Canyon." But no, just a hill with mesmerizing bands of buff and scarlet stone. As I proceed up US-89, I passed a series of vertical rock formations like smoke stacks. Whether seemingly melting or being forged into existence, it was difficult to characterize, but the upright orange forms look something rendered by Gaudi or one of his Modernista contemporaries in Barcelona. Further up the road, I drove alongside a mesa for some time whose exposed, oxidized rock face was aglow in the afternoon sun, occasionally doused in the dark projections of drifting cumulus.
As is so often the case, I try to fit too much into these road trip days. I arrived in Gunnison just as the coming attractions were finishing in the town's Casino Star Theater, slightly startled by the bull dog statuettes at the either side of the vestibule as I entered. I took a take a seat in the auditorium - apparently knocking down the median age of the crowd a good bit - just as Son of God began.
First we got a nice Old Testament recap, sort of a "previously on Christianity," narrated by the Apostle John. In a great sweep of CGI John tells us that God was there: in the Garden of Eden (Eve looking babe-o-licious in the brief glimpse we were given), when the Israelites escaped their Egyptian captivity, at the great flood, etc. God was there. All of these events presented like so many news highlights.
|Sorry, no falafel today....but fish and bread for everyone!|
Once we're caught up on all Old Testament drama, Son of God becomes something of a Jesus Greatest Hits Collection. We see him liberating eventual followers from their dreary day jobs. A crafty Jesus down at the Sea of Galilee, filling Peter's net with fish like a politician doling out the pork barrel bounty during an election year. Jesus feeding five thousand from just a few measly fish and a little pita. Jesus and his followers like a rock band on tour, making a triumphant return to the home town of Nazareth (Roma Downey as Mary; take a moment to fill in your own Touched By An Angel joke...). And of course, the Son of God into the tomb of Lazarus - dead and four days stinky - to reacquaint him with his mortal coil and very pleasantly surprised family. After a kiss to the top of the head of the supine figure, even Jesus seems quite impressed with himself, his look of wonderment seeming to say, "I don't believe that actually worked!"
For the sake of simplicity, most everyone in Son of God speaks in an English accent, Jews and Romans alike. This is fine for Pontius Pilate, played by Greg Hicks (with a closed mouth expression that usually comes down somewhere between contemptuous and constipated), who has the advantage of actually being English. Less ideal for the likes of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, given the large sandals to fill as Jesus, whose accent is wavering at best, and often drifts home to Portuguese. Morgado's main virtues seem to be a resemblance to a younger Brad Pitt, animating Jesus as a dreamy fellow with a good dental plan and lustrous hair.
I didn't think I would have 139 minutes of Jesus in me that night, given the full day and my general lack of vitality. And yea, verily, I departed as the messiah and his apostles were partaking of their last supper together. Apparently that malcontent, Judas (clad appropriately in Satanic scarlet, sporting a goatee of dark hair and a lean, sinister mien; John Hawkes would play him in a good version of the film, or maybe he would play Jesus), was going to rat on the son of God. But I didn't stay nearly long enough to see how it all plays out. Guess I'll have to read the book.
Having gone straight to the theater in Gunnison, I was eager to see if any there was any establishment thereabouts that might have a room at their inn for me. Fortunately, it came to pass that I was able to procure the last king single at the Econo Lodge in Salina, some 13 miles south. And there was much rejoicing, if not quality sleep, owing to the reverberation of the building's plumbing. That and the fact that such cheaply constructed chain motels only enhance my slight phobia about being set upon in the night by malefactors, intent to do me harm or at least steal my stuff (not the iPhone...I just got it!). This fear further exacerbated by the friendly proprietors of such businesses, ever placed at the dark outskirts of their towns, who always seem to banish me to some room at the farthest extreme of their property. Okay, you're going to be in number 51 round the back, just adjacent to the gravel pit and cinder block wall with all the spooky graffiti....