A Travellerspoint blog

Snakes in Albuquerque!

STATE 14 - NEW MEXICO

sunny 55 °F

We are headed into the heart of New Mexico, the 5th largest state in the US. Albuquerque here we come!

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Leaving Colorado heading southeast, the plateaus dwindled away while sandy hills took their place. There were almost no trees or vegetation. Looking on either side of the highway getting close to Albuquerque, everything was just brown. Even the houses were brown!

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I couldn't be sure, but it looked like the air conditioners were installed on top or on the side of houses rather than on the ground. I guess it was to keep them from getting clogged with sand and dirt? If someone knows for sure, let me know. Another weird thing New Mexicans do—they paint their highways turquoise and a light-brown/pinkish color!

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We arrived into Albuerque barely beating the rush hour traffic. Our destination was the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Old Town Albuquerque, the largest collection of rattlesnake species in the world.

This place had a lot of snakes. It was less of an official museum than I had anticipated (it was in the back of a souvenir shop), but the actual snake enclosures were nicer than you would typically see in zoos. Each display had information about the particular type of rattlesnake, and the snakes all looked alert and healthy. They didn't just have rattlesnakes. Other vipers like copperheads, turtles, lizards, and spiders were also on display.

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Unfortunately the snakes are fed after hours, so we didn't get to see any feedings. We also didn't get a chance to explore the rest of Old Town as everything was closing down for the night, but it looked like a lot of tourist souvenir shops and restaurants, so maybe we didn't miss that much.

We drove across town to the base of the Sandia Mountains, the towering peaks overlooking Albuquerque. Albuquerque is already at a pretty high elevation, it sits even higher than the Mile-High City of Denver. In fact, almost since we had entered Arizona, we had stayed above 5,000 ft (except obviously when we hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon). The Sandia Peak rose much higher into the sky, the summit over 10,000 ft high. You can ride a tramway up to the top of Sandia Peak, precariously dangling you over thousand foot drops along the way.

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The ride took nearly 15 minutes to get to the top, and we only passed over 2 towers to get there. The Sandia Peak Tramway has the world's third longest single span, and of course this is when you are the furthest away from the ground.

We reached the top and began walking around the platforms. During the winter, Sandia Peak offers skiing down the other side of the mountain. It was pretty quiet at the top now, the temperature too cold for hiking or biking, but too warm to keep snow on the slopes. Remember when we misjudged the distance of the Stratosphere in Vegas and I said you could see far away here in the southwest? Well, the view from the top Sandia Peak allows you to see mountains over 100 miles away. An ancient volcano looms off in the distance, and another ridge of mountains even further beyond that.

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You could see rain falling in the distance, as well as sun shining over the mountains. You could see the square borders Albuquerque. Albuquerque is bounded by an Indian reservation on one side, the air force base on another, and the third side stopped by a protected forest. We walked down to the ski slopes and took in the view the other direction. It was pretty cold at the top, so we started to head back to the tram station. We watched the tram climb up over the valley below, and then boarded to head back down to the car.

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On the way down, we asked our tram driver where to go for supper. He said if you only have one night in town, you have to eat down near University of New Mexico at Frontier Restaurant. He recommended the cheese enchilada with green chiles. Chile is the largest agricultural crop in New Mexico, and therefore New Mexicans like to put it on everything. At Frontier you can get the green chile stew or chopped green chiles on top of your burritos. I opted for the stew, which was more like a sauce. It was pretty darn good, especially when combined with the college atmosphere. We were also given sopaipillas, a flat bread, on which you spread honey.

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After supper, we walked through the middle of UNM. It was the end of March, but you could still plainly see chalk advertisements saying "Come to our show tonight! Feb 6th!". I guess it hadn't rained in a while. We found some statues, and Megan posed in some pictures. I took a picture with my Wolfpack brethren in the southwest, the Lobos.

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Apparently I was wearing the perfect urban camouflage for that picture.

We were only staying in town for one night, and thankfully I can stop having to spell the word "Albuquerque", quite possibly one of the most awkward words to have to type.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:50 Archived in USA Tagged animals museum colleges local_food Comments (0)

Mesa Verde National Park

STATE 13 - COLORADO

sunny 50 °F

I'm in the heart of the Wild West, the 4 Corners. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah all meeting in one place. I'm surrounded by Indians on all sides. What do I do? Thankfully no gun is needed, the Indians warmly welcome me to see how they live. I'm going to the high desert in Colorado to see how the Pueblo Indians built their homes in the sides of cliffs.

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In North Carolina, we have several different tribes of Native Americans, but only 1 (as far as I know) has a reservation, the Cherokee. I have driven through the Cherokee reservation, but all I remember while quickly passing through was the billboard for the casino. Leaving Arizona, it took nearly 3 hours to drive through the Navajo and Hopi Indian Reservations. As soon as one reservation ended, another started. Once we were in Colorado, we entered the Ute Indian Reservation. These Indians are all Puebloan, having left the their dwellings in the cliffs for lands in the flatlands. There were no trees in sight, and the landscape was pretty flat with plateaus at the horizon. Rock formations appeared sporadically, monuments withstanding the erosion to form artistic sculptures along the roadside.

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Arriving at Mesa Verde National Park, ice capped mountains were in one direction towards the middle of Colorado, while the red plateaus were visible in the distance back towards Arizona and Utah. Driving through the 4 Corners gave a great view of varying landscapes.

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From the entrance of Mesa Verde park, it was still another half hour drive just to reach the first of the old Pueblo Indian residences. Mesa Verde is a slanted plateau covering nearly 100 square miles. The first Puebloan people built their homes on the top of this elevated land. It was very windy on top of the plateau, and the late March air had a sharp, cold bite. Donning hats and gloves, we began to explore the earliest living spaces of the inhabitants of Mesa Verde.

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You can see how the living spaces surrounded the circular kiva. The kiva was the center of the community, a spiritual place where people came together. It was sunk deep into the ground and was entered from the roof. The buildings could be multilevels high, but only the base foundations still remain. You could see forever in every direction being on top of the plateau. The Indians also built reservoirs to hold water for irrigation. Fields surrounded the living spaces, where they grew corn and other crops.

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We continued traveling further into the park, stopping at the visitor center to learn about the Indians that lived here. They were excellent pottery makers and basket weavers, both the men and women participating. Lots of relics were found in the area, abandoned by the Indians 700 years ago.

From the visitor center, we walked down to the Spruce Tree House, a group of cliff dwellings that you can walk through. You can see them in the cliff behind Megan in the picture below.

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After living on top of Mesa Verde for 200 years, the Indians started building villages in the cliffs. Some believe this was for protection against outside hostiles, but that is not the most prevalent theory for the initial move. Walking down to the dwellings, one reason became immediately obvious. The cold bite in the air was nonexistent once you went below the cliff-line. The southward facing residences were warmed by the sun, while the cold wind blew by overhead. The cliff dwellings were still close to the fields, but added additional protection from the elements. The wild fires that often scorch the ground did not reach down into the cliffs.

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The dwellings were in great shape. The National Park Service has a policy of restoring, not rebuilding. The ruins as we saw them are almost exactly as they were when first discovered. You were allowed to walk right up next to the rooms, look down into the multiple kivas, and get a great picture for how these Pueblo Indians used to live. They even had a kiva that you could climb down into through the roof! The local Indians still consider the kivas to be holy places, so it was cool to actually have access inside.

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Fires would have normally been lit inside the kiva, and the smell of incense probably in the air. People would be congregating or weaving baskets. Air vents brought fresh air in through the bottom, while additional vents supplied air to the other kivas as well. The insides were plastered over and painted. There are still bowls carved into the stone where the Indians used to process their corn.

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After exploring Spruce Tree House, we walked back up the trail to the car. Sites just like this one are scattered all over Mesa Verde. We got back into the car to explore them from afar. Since the dwellings were all built on the south side of Mesa Verde, the plateaus of Arizona and Utah were visible off in the distance.

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Spruce Tree House is not the biggest site for cliff dwellings. Another section of cliffs had several groupings of dwellings. These seemed more specialized in purpose. One contained a large open area thought to be used for dancing and ceremonies for large gatherings. Another area was called the Fire Temple, and another the Sun Temple. The largest cliff dwelling is called Cliff Palace, holding over 150 rooms and 23 kivas.

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The last photo is of the most recently built cliff dwelling. It is creatively named Square Tower House. It rose over 4 stories, and was actually part of a much larger multistory structure. There is no easy access to this dwelling, presumably for defense. The whole complex can only be entered through a single underground tunnel. Towards the end of the time the Puebloans inhabited Mesa Verde, it seems the Indians started building the dwellings for defensive purposes.

We didn't just get to see old buildings at Mesa Verde, there was plenty of wildlife too. On the drive back from viewing some of the other dwellings, we ran into a group of mule deers. Most scattered when stopped, but a couple stayed to have their picture taken. We also passed by a prairie dog, popping out of its hole.

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It was a 45 minute drive to exit Mesa Verde, but it gave us a chance to take in the beautiful views. We stopped at the mountain overlook for a quick bite to eat, and then turned south to head into New Mexico.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 18:01 Archived in USA Tagged mountains animals hiking historical national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Hiking the Grand Canyon

STATE 12 - ARIZONA

sunny 65 °F

The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, one of the largest US National Parks, and one of the most awe-inspiring places in the country. It also gives Megan a chance to prove that she can make it out of a giant canyon without the help of a mule. We're off to the Grand Canyon State, Arizona!

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The drive out to the Grand Canyon seemed to drag on forever, not because of the distance (it was only about 2 hours), but because of the anticipation and excitement. There was a little bit of nervousness mixed in too. It has been nearly a year since we hiked through the Colca Canyon in Peru. Megan had been training like crazy, whereas I had not made any changes to my normal workout routines. The view on the road was pleasant enough, we were out in the middle of nowhere. Rarely did we pass another car, and even more rarely passed an intersection or building of any kind.

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A portion of the drive took us through the Coconino National Forest. However, this was the most pathetic "forest" I had ever seen. Most of the trees struggled to get over six feet tall, and they were not very thick. I'm sure there is some reason this area is protected by the US Forestry Service instead of the National Park Service, but it seems like "forest" was a pretty generous term to describe the area. Despite the small trees, the landscape was pretty, especially with Arizona's highest peak off in the distance.

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We finally reached the park entrance, and instead of driving directly to the trails, we decided to drive by some lookout points and get a first view of the canyon. Not long after entering the park, we turned a slight bend in the road and there it was. The canyon was HUMONGOUS! I knew the canyon was a mile deep, but I was unprepared for how wide it was across.

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We took in the sight of the canyon for a couple minutes, and then I tried to convince Megan to climb over the wall to stand in front of the canyon for a picture. She was not happy about the whole situation, especially as I tried to encourage her to stand closer to the edge. It was a little freaky being that close to a sheer drop, especially since the wind was whipping around us.

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We drove a little further down the rim to see some other viewpoints, including a quick hike out to Grand View Point. It was after noon now, and we still had to hike down to the canyon floor before night settled in. We drove by the visitor's center to fill up our water bottles and change into our hiking gear. We parked the car at the top of the Bright Angel Trail and boarded a shuttle to take us over to the South Kaibab Trail. We would be hiking out of the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, even though it is a little longer, it has a place to refill water on the trail. The South Kaibab trail, our intended path down, covers more varied lookout points, so theoretically it would be a nicer view on the descent.

The shuttle arrived at the trail head, and we were finally ready to start our Grand Canyon Hike!

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The top of the South Kaibab Trail (and the rest of the rim of the canyon) was covered by patches of snow and ice. It was chilly, especially when the wind came blowing up the canyon wall. I was surprised at the number of people hiking into the canyon, especially wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes. The trail was slippery, the snow had melted to form ice and semi-frozen mud on the steep trails. The people coming up the trail were breathless, and some looked like they had just gone through pure hell. I realized that would be me with 24 hours. Here's a view looking down during the first portion of the hike.

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Here is a picture showing how steep the wall of the canyon is, it almost drops straight down. You can also see the ice and snow clinging the walls of the canyon.

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It didn't take long to get the first lookout. The trail came to a point that allowed a 270° view of the canyon. We took off our packs and crawled out between two boulders hanging over the canyon. You can't really see it in the picture, but I'm straddling a 2 foot gap in the rocks that goes down a couple hundred feet.

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In the picture above, you can see the next lookout point on the ridge just to the right of me. This was the destination of most of the people in the blue jeans and tennis shoes. It was about an hour into the hike down, and it offered the first real resting spot. A little plateau formed a flat area with a great view into the canyon. Lots of people were here soaking in the warm sun, and some were even lounging around shirtless (although I think this was more so their shirts could dry off instead of due to the warm weather). Megan and decided to scramble over the rocks of the thin ridgeline to get the best view.

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Some birds and squirrels could be seen here, apparently realizing this was the best area to grab the bits of food dropped by the resting hikers. I was anxious to leave the small crowd of people and get back on the trail. Megan was ready to continue only after a picture with a tree that she thought "looked really cool".

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For the next hour or so, we moved steadily down the trail occasionally stopping for a drink or to take in the view. The canyon seemed to change color as the sun kept moving further down the horizon. I told Megan to walk ahead so I could take here picture with a wide shot of the canyon in the background.

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I took the picture, then began making my way down the trail after her. Just about then, I heard a Megan-pitched squeal come echoing up from below, something like "EEEEEEEIIIIIIIIKKKKKK!". I hustled down the trail thinking that she was standing face to face with a mountain lion or something worse. As I turned the corner, I see her crouched down with her camera in her hand. She had found a lizard.

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It wasn't that she was scared of the lizard, she was excited that she could take the picture of one and show it to the six year-old she nannied. Thankfully the lizard scurried away so that we could continue our hike down the trail.

Here are some more views from the middle portion of the hike.

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It was starting to get later into the evening, and we still had a couple more miles until we reached the canyon floor. Just as I was wondering if we would make it to camp before the sun went over the wall of the canyon, I saw three guys come walking up the trail. They were easily 3 hours from the top at a quick pace, weren't carrying any water, and were all sunburned. They barely acknowledged us as they passed, and I think they realized the difficult hike out in front of them, especially as night was falling.

Until this point, we couldn't really see the Colorado River. The sounds of the rushing water had been echoing up off the canyon walls. We finally reach a ridge that presented us with a view of the river and the bottom of the canyon. Some buildings were visible, presumably the ranch at the bottom of the canyon.

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We reached one last resting spot that offered an overlook of the canyon. We stopped to refuel on some crackers and watch the sun sink lower. The air was much warmer down here as compared to the rim of the canyon.

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Instead of hugging the canyon wall, the trail began weaving through boulders and rock formations near the canyon floor. The trail was still steep at times, but we no longer followed a lot of zig-zags. We were definitely getting closer to the end of walk downwards.

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We eventually reached the Colorado River. Up close you could see how fast the water was moving through the canyon. This was not a lazy river winding through the canyon, but a powerful, gushing river that had carved tons and tons of rock to form the canyon over the last 17 million years.

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Crossing the river, we passed by the ruins of a village from the Indians that used to live in the canyon. You can see the square rooms lined up next to one another and the circular, sunken common space that was used for religious purposes.

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After walking one final, flat mile, we reached Phantom Ranch lodge. Phantom Ranch has a common space for serving meals and four separate bunks (2 for males, 2 for females) with 10 beds in each. I was surprised that the ranch actually had flushing toilets and running water for a fresh shower. Megan and I had passed on the meals and chose to hike our own food to the bottom of the canyon, $40 a piece was a little too pricey for the convenience of hot food.

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After a refreshing shower and a picnic dinner, we walked down to the banks of the Little Colorado. Phantom Ranch lies off the Little Colorado river, which runs into the Colorado river near where we crossed the steel bridge. The water was crystal clear, and some people were soaking their feet after the long hike. We walked further down stream towards the ranger house to catch the nightly presentation, which that night it was about the California Condors. It was surprisingly an excellent presentation, and really the only thing to do to pass the time since it was pitch black in the camp. Megan and I wandered back towards the bunk, pausing to lay down on the ground and stare at the stars. One of my life goals is to see the Milky Way (living in Raleigh doesn't provide clear enough nights), but it was the wrong time of year to see the it. However, there were more stars than I had ever seen (even in the middle of the Australian Outback).

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We decided to get to bed early (although we were the last ones each to make it to our bunks). I slept like a baby on the cheap mattress. At 5am the next morning, someone came by to bang on the door to wake up those who had paid for a hot breakfast. I got up, put on my boots, and waited for Megan outside. The sun still wasn't up, but I was eager to get on the trail. Megan came down to the picnic table and began to gingerly eat some crackers. I told her she needed to eat a heartier meal to have enough for the energy out, but she resisted defiantly saying she wasn't hungry. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, we started off from the camp.

We made it back to the bridge, and the rushing water providing the only sound early in the morning. The sun just started coming up over the ridge of the canyon.

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We had picked to hike up the Bright Angel Trail because it was longer, and therefore theoretically less steep, but I realized that wasn't quite the case. The trail winded along the Colorado River and through a shallow canyon for several miles. Streams cut across the trail at several points, providing tricky maneuvering for Megan.

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A mule deer ran across the trail, directly in front of us, which startled me because I hadn't expected to see something so big on the canyon floor. The ranger had warned that mountain lions are in the area, but still I didn't seriously consider that a large animal could survive in the bottom of the canyon.

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After about an hour into our hike, a loud thumping sound could be heard coming up the trail behind us. A mule train was making its way up the trail at a vigorous pace. We scrambled off the trail just as the mules ran past. They had large bags on either side of them that could easily knock you off the trail. They were already soaked with sweat in the cool morning, obviously the driver was eager to get them out of the canyon before the trails got too busy.

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We took a break, and again I encouraged Megan to eat the rest of her breakfast. She was not happy at my nagging, and then glared at me like a little kid who has been told to eat her vegetables. She then got up, and started away at a pace matching the mule train.

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The gently sloping trail suddenly turned steep, and the real work began. We paused occasionally to take in the view, but we were both more eager to make it out of the canyon.

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The trail zig-zagged up the same cliff face, allowing us to measure how high were going since the view staying pretty much the same for the steepest part of the trail. Here is pretty much the last 3 hours of the trail.

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Once we got to the last mile, the trail got thicker with people doing a quick hike from rim. The air was much cooler, and the trail got muddy and icy. I was glad I had boots on, and felt sorry for those wearing nice tennis shoes through the slippery, goopy mud. At one point, I started to slide down the ice to the edge of a cliff, but thankfully I regained traction. After seeing that, Megan was a lot more cautious climbing up the icy path.

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We finally reached the top, gave each other a quick hug, and then found our way to the car. We had hiked 18 miles through the canyon, 1 mile vertically down, and 1 mile back up. It had taken 6 hours to hike out of the canyon, but we still had 5 hours of driving to do that afternoon. Our next stop is Colorado and the high desert!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 15:25 Archived in USA Tagged hiking national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Hoover Dam

NEVADA - PART II

sunny 70 °F

With our time in Sin City over, Megan and I headed along the highway out of Las Vegas towards Arizona. The flat Las Vegas landscape gave way to sharp, brown hills surrounding the city. The was little vegetation, the ground mostly made up of exposed, sandy dirt. The dry landscape was a stark contrast to the largest man made lake in the United States lurking on the horizon, Lake Mead.

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The road took us along the western edge of the Mojave Desert. You are blinded to the fact that Vegas is located in the middle of a desert when you are on the strip, but leaving the bright lights of the city, the desert stretches as far as the eye can see.

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The desert was not our reason for leaving Vegas. 45 minutes down the road, we pulled up to our first stop, the Hoover Dam!

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The dam is humongous, but most of its size is hidden from you. The dam is almost as thick as it is tall, over 2 football fields thick at its base. The dam doesn't go straight across the canyon, but instead curves into the lake to help support against the weight of the held water.

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The water stored in Lake Mead is used by Nevada, Arizona, and California. The dam provides electricity to even more states. You can walk across the damn and peer down both sides of it. In fact, the highway used to run across the dam until just a few years ago! As impressive as the dam was from the outside, I had to get my engineer on and see the dam from the inside.

Megan and I purchased our dam tickets to go on a dam tour, and the park ranger promised we'd have a dam good time. We got in the elevator at the visitor center and went straight down to the bottom of the dam. Our first stop was to see the massive 50ft tunnels cut into the walls of the canyon that feed water through the generators.

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It is a little hard to see, but there is a massive pipe in the background. This pipe went directly underneath our feet. The force of so much water running through the pipe caused the entire room to vibrate, and the air was filled with a humming sound. Our guide talked about how the dam functioned, 4 intake tubes take the water from the lake, split it between the turbines, and then releases the water out the bottom of the dam. We went back to the elevator, went up 1 stop, and then proceeded to the generator room.

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You can see the Nevada side of the Hoover dam (the damn is located half in Nevada, and half in Arizona). The windows on the left allow daylight to come in at the bottom of dam, while the wall to the right is made up of hundreds of feet of concrete. The dam looked pretty fancy on the inside, several artistic designs and granite chips making up the floors. We were ushered back through the rock walkway, and back into the elevator to go back up to the top of the dam.

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A lot of engineering had to be put into the construction of the dam. For instance, they couldn't just pour the entire slab of concrete at once. It would take over 125 years for the heat to dissipate from the curing concrete, and the resulting stresses would leave the dam cracked and unusable. Instead, they poured the walls a few inches at a time and cooled each block of concrete with refrigerated water. The pipes used by the dam were too big to transport, so they had to build the steel factory on site to make the pipes. The water had to be diverted around the construction site, so tunnels had to be created through the walls of the canyon. It was pretty impressive.

We went up to the observation deck and got some of the best views of the canyon. Megan was a little nervous leaning over the railing (look how tightly she is holding onto the railing). I was able to get her close enough to the side of the wall to get one picture. You can see the Hoover Dam bypass where the cars now travel. Looking below you can also see the state line painted on the dam marking the division between Nevada and Arizona.

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We walked to the back of the dam to see Lake Mead up close. The water level was not close to the top (the lake can be 660 feet deep), but the water does rise close to the top of the dam during the spring melt (the water can only get to 4 feet from top before water is diverted around the dam). You can see the intake towers in the background.

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After walking across the dam, we turned around went back to the car. Our destination for the night was Flagstaff, Arizona.

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It was all uphill to Flagstaff, which sits at an elevation close to 7,000 feet above sea level (5,000 ft higher than Las Vegas). Snow was scattered across the ground, and there was a distinct chill in the air. The area wasn't really mountainous, but the highest peaks in Arizona are located in Flagstaff. We arrived in early evening, and since we had run out of daylight, we decided to go to a place best visited at night time—Lowell Observatory.

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The observatory is located on top of a hill overlooking Flagstaff and presented a nice view.

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Lowell Observatory is part museum, part research facility, and part hands on. They have some gigantic telescopes scattered across their campus, and they let you go into the different observatories to see them.

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The Lowell Observatory is best known for first discovering Pluto, so it was a hit to their ego when Pluto was demoted to non-planet status. Percival Lowell also spent a large portion of his career studying Mars. He theorized that Mars had series of canals which could be used to prove that live once existed on Mars.

The observatory had setup the telescopes so we could see star clusters, nebulae, and other astral bodies. The didn't just show them to you, but the astronomers talked about what exactly you were looking at and why it was unique. They were very eager to answer questions, and you tell the were enthusiastic about looking into the sky. After walking between the various telescopes we made our way back to the car and back into the city for dinner. We needed to get some rest, tomorrow we hike into the Grand Canyon!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 14:28 Archived in USA Tagged desert museum tour Comments (0)

Vegas Baby, Vegas!

STATE 11 - NEVADA

sunny 70 °F

I'm gonna be rich! I'm gonna be famous! I'm gonna have the time of my life, I'm going to Vegas!

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Frank Sinatra once said "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day." What does that have to do with my trip to Vegas? Nothing directly, I guess. But I feel the only way to start to start talking about Vegas is to quote Frank Sinatra. Megan convinced me to start a western road trip in Sin City, so I got out my finest suit, polished my fanciest shoes, and prepared to accept a bunch of free drinks while throwing money away.

Our flight landed just as night began to fall over Las Vegas, so Megan and I quickly dropped off our bags and headed to the strip. I have never been to Las Vegas, but I thought I was prepared for all the lights, crowds, and gambling. I had seen the movies. My friends can get pretty crazy. But the extravagance and overindulgence was beyond my expectations. Arriving on the strip, you can't help but look at the enormous hotels and casinos piled on top of each other. Each is fighting for your attention by trying to be the biggest, brightest, or most richly decorated. 19 of the 25 largest hotels in the world are located here. Looking one direction, the spotlight of the Luxor loomed overhead. In the other direction, neon lights, thousands of people walking up and down the street, and the potential for an amazing night laid ahead.

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I didn't take a picture of every casino, I'm sure you can find professional photos of every casino in Las Vegas online. I will highlight some of my favorites though. We started to walk from the southern end of the strip northward. We walked past the Luxor (a pyramid with a light emitting from the top) and the New York New York (looks like a city skyline), two of the cooler looking casinos.

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As we crossed the street, I had my first experience with another famed Las Vegas tradition—prostitution. Now, there are no girls walking the streets, but some of the greasiest, grungiest guys you have ever seen are there in their place.

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So instead of actually seeing the product before you buy, rough looking guys stand on every street corner and try to hand you cards with a girl's picture on it. The approach doesn't quite seem logical to me. A middle-aged man, wearing a neon colored t-shirt, who doesn't even look like he speaks English, is supposed to attract me to call his service? These guys have a strategy though. They constantly slap the stack of cards they hand out on their wrists, I guess so you say to yourself, "What is that sound? It sounds enticing, perhaps I should take this dirty little card that is being shoved in my face and seriously consider buying sex from this man". The only people grabbing these cards were a couple of thirteen year old boys ogling the almost nude pictures of girls, while everyone else seemingly turned their noses up in disgust. However, I did start to notice people subtly grab the cards as they walked by, kind of like how the drug swap happens on TV crime dramas. I guess the strategy works for the intended market.

I was going to make a joke about how I even saw Megan subtly take a couple of the cards, but then thought better of it. I can feel her glaring at me before she even reads this. So let me say this plainly, Megan never took ANY of the cards.

...that I saw.

So anyways, as we walked down the strip, each hotel and casino seemed to be just as extravagant as the last. We passed the MGM Grande and the Cosmopolitan and arrived at one of the most famous spots in Las Vegas, the fountain in front of the Bellagio.

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Every 15 minutes geysers, fountains, and lights shoot up from the lake synchronized to music. It was mesmerizing. The water doesn't just shoot straight up, but in every direction. The show we watched started by creating a fog over the whole lake and then did a real dramatic, rapid firing sequence. Here is a video of another show (filmed by someone else).

We continued moving up the strip, but there is no direct path. For one, as I already mentioned, you have to sidestep dirty old men handing out prostitution advertisements. You also have to crisscross over the road every other block. I assume the crosswalks were built to keep people out of the intersections, but the casinos use this to force you inside the extravagant shopping complexes they have built around the casinos. In one such case, Megan and I decided to take a detour through the hotel and casino. Unsurprisingly, we got lost.

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Luckily we got lost in Caesar's Palace, which was fabulously designed on the inside (the whole place seemed covered in marble). Megan posed in front of one of the fountains for a picture, we meandered through zigzagging corridor of shops, but never really being sure how far we had walked or what time it actually was. Even though it was night time outside, the inside of the mall was painted to look like twilight. Fake clouds were painted on the round ceiling, all the shops decorated to make it look like we were outside, and each section of hallway was only about 50 yards long before it angled away out of sight. Eventually I broke down and consulted a map, and we were able to find our way outside. On our way out, we looked around a collectibles store filled with celebrity owned guitars and clothing, but the coolest object was sitting right out in front.

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Caesar's palace was even more impressive from the outside.

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We passed about some other incredible hotels. The Paris hotel has a replica of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe out in front, and is one of the brightest spots on the strip at night. The Venetian is also one of the most extravagantly decorated hotels as well. It has canals circling the hotel replicating the canals of Venice. Both were spectacular.

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It was nearing one in the morning, which was really 4am Raleigh time. We had walked a large portion of the strip, and it was time to head back to our hotel and get some sleep. We were staying in an area called the South Strip, but honestly, our hotel looked like the only one in the area. We were staying at the Southpoint Hotel, which was humongous as well, but didn't have any grandiose outside theme.

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The hotel did have a very comfortable bed, which was more important to me than decorations at the time.

The next morning we took the shuttle back to the strip. We purchased discount tickets to V: The Variety Show. The discounted tickets had to be redeemed in person, so we had to walk all the way back down the strip to the Planet Hollywood hotel and casino. We took our time and went into some of the casinos that we didn't go into the night before. Around lunch time, we took a detour and headed off the strip to eat lunch at the largest buffet in the world—the Carnival World Buffet. I convinced Megan to walk there so that we could get some exercise before we gorged ourselves. Approaching Rio (the casino where the buffet was located), I saw a giant ad for Chippendales, and became suddenly skeptical of Megan's interest in this particular buffet. Upon arriving at the casino (and much to my relief), a scantily clad female walked past delivering drinks, and not a single bare-chested man was in sight.

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The buffet was enormous, it reminded me of the new Golden Corral back home in Raleigh. Mexican, sushi, Italian, Chinese, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, it was all there and more (for $30 a plate, they better have just about everything). The food was very nice, and I tried to only get a tiny bit of everything to save room for repeat trips.

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Here is where the "overindulgence" part of Vegas is personified. Megan and I made several trips, but I think we did a good job restraining ourselves from eating too much. That wasn't the case for most of the other people in the restaurant. People had plates and plates of food, stuffing as much as they could into their mouths. We took our time eating, so we were there for a decent amount of time. The people sitting on either side of us had looked like they had been there a while when we arrived, and they were still going strong when we left. Only in Vegas can you convince yourself that it is OK to overindulge continuously on your whole trip.

Feeling quite full, our walk back to the strip took a little longer after lunch. Thankfully Planet Hollywood and the Miracle Mile shops were just a couple blocks away. Just like the other hotels, Planet Hollywood is gigantic. It is so large that the ring of shops circling underneath the hotel forms a loop 1.5 miles long, hence the name Miracle Mile. Of course the Theater we were heading to was in the very back, which required walking past the shops that circled the casino in the center. Just like Caesar's Palace, clouds are painted on the ceiling to make it feel like you are outside, and the row of shops curves away so you never see more than 10 or 15 shops at a time. After going to 3 different theaters, we finally found the V Theater.

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After picking up our show tickets for that evening, we made our way back outside. Having already walked the length of the strip twice in 24 hours, and having walked off the strip for lunch, we decided to take a break. I noticed Megan had been eyeballing the "yard of margarita" glasses that people had been carrying around the mall, so we stopped at a bar that specialized in the tall drinks. In true Megan fashion, she had the bartender mix mango and strawberry flavored daiquiri in alternating layers. The afternoon beer special was $2 anything, so I was happy to stay there as long as it took her to finish her drink. We found a nice spot in the shade overlooking the strip to people watch. In fact, we got so comfortable, we stayed there all afternoon, almost right up until the time for the show. We rushed back to the theater, were some of the last people in, but still got the best seats in the house (not sure how that worked out).

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V: The Variety Show is just as is it sounds, a variety of acts including juggling, contortion, acrobatics, and multiple comedy acts. Each act was about 10 minutes long, and they were all excellent. Half way through the show, I was already glad we didn't shell out $100 a piece to see Ray Romano and had picked this show instead. The host of the show is Fast Wally Eastwood, the self proclaimed fastest juggler in the world. Juggling doesn't sound too exciting, but he was able to jazz it up with a lot of humor and was actually very entertaining. His final act, playing the piano with juggling balls, was the perfect finale to the show. Here is a clip of Fast Wally doing his juggling routines.

We left the show, and still feeling a little full from lunch, we decided to walk around a few more of the casinos. Off in the distance, the Stratosphere towered the horizon in the distance. I was intrigued to go up to the top, and potentially convince Megan to do one of the rides. Taxis can only stop in front of hotels on the strip, and the taxi line was at least 200 people deep. The tower only looked a few blocks away, so we decided to walk.

Here is where I made my mistake. In Raleigh, if you can see a building, it is usually safe to assume you can walk there. The trees and hills block line of sight to any structure not in the immediate vicinity. However, as I was to learn on this trip out west, that rule does not apply in the open west. While the Stratosphere did only look a couple blocks away, it is the 5th tallest building in the US, and is visible from most of Las Vegas and always looks like it is right around the corner. I realized this mistake halfway there as the Stratosphere never seemed to get any closer. And of course, we were in no man's land as far as cabs were concerned, so we had no choice but to keep walking. At this halfway point, here is a picture looking back at the end of the strip, and how far we still have to go to get to the Stratosphere (see how close it looks, this was only half way!).

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After finally reaching the Stratosphere, we had walked over 3 miles. However, it did make us appreciate the view from the top all that much more.

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When we got to the top, there were 5 guys waiting to jump off. The Stratosphere allows you to pay $100, strap yourself to a steel cable, and then launch yourself from the top of the building. I love adrenaline rushes, but even this was too much for me. Like I said, the Stratosphere is really tall, the 5th tallest building in the US. Megan wouldn't even look over the edge without holding onto one of the support columns.

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We watched the guys jump off the platform, grabbed a couple bottles of water, and sat on one of the couches in the viewing deck. We still hadn't eaten dinner or even gambled yet, but we were both exhausted. We didn't even think about walking back to the strip, we waited in the taxi line and went straight back to our hotel. We got a couple pizzas, tried to stay up through a late night movie, but eventually both passed out.

The next morning, before checking out of the hotel, Megan had one last craving to indulge—the ability to use the bathroom and talk on the phone at the same time.

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For some reason, there was a phone directly next to the crapper. I guess it's there in case you really don't want to wait to order room service. Only in Vegas. A little disappointed we didn't waste any money gambling, Megan took a single dollar, inserted it into the slots, and played until there was no more left. Our time in Vegas was over, but our western road trip was just beginning.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 15:00 Archived in USA Tagged desert leisure Comments (0)

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