Oh, what a time was had. Let’s start at the beginning…
Wednesday: The drive was long, stressful, and tedious. I didn’t get out the door until 9-ish. The strip of road to get from Berkeley to 5 was quite nice, but 5 was unpleasant. It was hot and went on forever, with me sticking to the right lanes. I’d started out with about half a tank, and in some stretch of nowhere I filled it up from two bars. I stopped a second time due to needing to use the bathroom/stretch at some little kitschy orchard-barn place. Besides these two breaks I kept plowing on, with my handy-dandy GPS telling me where to go. A couple of wrong turns were made, but nothing devastating. When I got into Twentynine Palms I needed gas again, for the next day’s driving. By then it was around 6-something, I’d already missed the check-in time, and so I got to the Indian Cove campground, and after a bit of finagling, found my site and set up camp.
I had never been camping by myself prior to this trip. It was something of a mistake. With no one to talk to, play cards with, or build a fire with, there’s very little to do at all. My campsite was great, #90, surrounded by impressive boulders and such. I thought of wandering over to other campsites and being neighborly, but they were all families, and I figured that’d be weird. Perhaps if they’d been inhabited by other groups of sociable twenty and thirty-somethings my experience would have been very different. Perhaps not. Anyway, after a dinner of rolls with cheese I headed to bed around 7:30, very tired from the day’s drive, and read a bit of Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Fell asleep around an hour later, not particularly comfortable, and with very heavy winds.
Indian Cove. As usual, the photos are not mine.
Thursday: I woke up with my alarm, around 8:15, well-ish rested. Near my campsite was a trail off into the rocks. I followed it, a short thing, prior to breakfast and got some nice pictures of flowers and morning light. I’d decided on the road I wanted to take earlier and headed out around 9:45 into Twentynine Palms to enter the Park at the Oasis Visitor’s Center. I was being very careful to drink plenty of water. After a quick stop in the center to buy a magnet I drove into the Park and headed towards the Ocatillo Patch – on the way stopping frequently for signs, exhibits, and miniature side-hikes. It was very photogenic, but even at my leisurely pace I’d reached the patch before noon. Lots of interesting rocks, yucca, Joshua trees, and some nice flowering things, though not quite as many as expected for the Spring season. I decided to take in Keys View, which was a little busy, and stopped there to have lunch (polishing off the cheese and more bread). I was debating whether to take the Western fork or backtrack to the Oasis where, incredibly, I’d forgotten to look at the oasis. Having never seen one in real life, I decided on the latter option.
When I got back to the visitor’s center the oasis was dry. And cordoned off. And dying. I’d gone with the sentiment, ‘you regret the things you don’t do, not the things you do’ but admittedly this was disappointing. It was too hot to hike and to backtrack all the way to the road not taken seemed silly – not to mention that I’d chosen my initial road for the reasons of its being what I thought was coolest. Perhaps Twentynine Palms had a movie theater where I could cool off for a couple of hours? Alas it did not. So, hot and tired, I went to the one public place I could find I knew would have air-conditioning, the library. By now it was 2:30 or so. I waited around for a good while, wondering what to do next during the heat of the day. I decided on Fortynine Palms – but when I got there it said it was a three hour hike, and strenuous – something not mentioned in the literature. I’m a decent hiker, but I trusted its claims, especially given a steep ascent it promised. So once again I was flummoxed, and thus headed to Joshua Tree, the adjacent town. Another visitor’s center provided more air-conditioning and rest, and finally I found one kitsch-tastic little shop near the center, since Twentynine Palms had none. The whole afternoon, however, had been an exercise in using up time. The book had recommended half a day, and they weren’t kidding. Eventually it was late enough I could go back to Indian Cove and eat supper, bread with sardines, before retiring around the same time as the night before. This time, however, since I was not tired out from a very long drive I didn’t go to sleep until around 11, and read much Naipaul, as well as enjoying the desert’s stars.
Night in the desert.
Friday: I got up a little later, and after breakfast (granola and dried pineapple) began driving towards Vegas. The drive was excellent – I went through the Mojave and on Kelbaker Rd (I think) drove through a veritable forest of Joshua trees – as far as the eye could see. Very cool. It took just about four hours on delightful back roads to get to the Mardi Gras Hotel and Casino. (There was a big accident near my hotel’s off-ramp, so that took a while.) I got there around 1:00, I think, a bit early for check-in, but they said no problem and put me up in nice room. Spacious, clean linens, no surprises. Walls a little thin, but all in all a nice enough place. After resting for a bit – and, more importantly, showering for the first time in days – I headed out on the town. I was staying not far from a monorail stop. Apparently Las Vegas has a monorail, which was unknown to me prior to my arrival, and which I decided to take advantage of for the duration of my stay, not driving once. (I’d made it to Vegas from Twentynine Palms on the same tank of gas I’d filled up with on arriving to the Park, and, thanks to the monorail, didn’t need to fill up again until a decent distance outside of town on Sunday.) I got on the rail around 4 in the evening, and headed to the Strip, where I wandered from the Flamingo, the point at which I’d alighted, down to the Excalibur. I took a great many photos, of course, and wandered in and out of the casinos and resorts. I was struck by the number of shops, especially for high-end wares. The sheer cash value of stuff on display in that short distance was somewhat mind-boggling, and this is not coming from some back-country rube. Also worrisome was the number of people being paid to stand around and do nothing. For example, at a fancy watch store, there were five vested people standing there willing to assist your purchase of a $2,000 watch. No one was in the store. And what sort of rush could ever be expected that would require five people to be engaged simultaneously? I thought of Veblen, and conspicuous consumption. This city should not exist. At all. It is capitalism at its most primitive, base, and wasteful. It is an environmental atrocity.
As night came on I decided to get dinner and the highly-praised Bacchanal Buffet. I figured it would be weird to go to a buffet alone, but not quite as weird as a restaurant, since I could hop up and grab more food and not be forced to stare into the void of the empty chair in front of me/my soul. Besides, in casino towns the buffets are part of the experience, I feel.
So I wandered over to the Bellagio again and got in line, for about 45 minutes, and paid the Friday night fare, which was around $75. I certainly got my money’s worth, though – after three trips I’d consumed plenty of peking duck and dim sum, huge ribs, cocktail shrimp, rabbit, truffle soup, crispy pork tacos, and a whole plate of desserts ranging from crème brulee to sago and jasmine puddings, to chocolate cake and ginger squares. Excellent food, I must say. Satiated, I wandered through the Linq and called it a night around 8:30, heading back to my hotel after four hours of walking and standing and weaving through crowds of spring breakers. More Naipaul was read, and then sleep.
Saturday: Having seen much of the Strip the day before I woke up late and left my room around 11, walking up the road to Circus Circus. There I took in a free show, a foot juggler who was quite good, at noon, and explored their weird ‘adventure dome’ before continuing on to explore the north end of the Strip, from Circus Circus to the Flamingo/ Harrah’s. It was very much the same, and I was beginning to tire of taking the same sorts of photos over and over. Leisurely heading on past the Venetian and the rest of them I’d ended up at the Linq again, and since it was before 6 pm (it was around 2:30), and my feet were tired, I forked over $26 to ride the world’s tallest observation wheel, the High Roller. Not surprisingly I got some nice photos of the surrounding desert, and with two brief (less than five minute) stops we made the rotation in just about 30 minutes, as promised. By now, back at Harrah’s around 4, and decided to take the free shuttle to the Rio, and maybe get a haircut. First I had an early dinner, at what I thought was an average American restaurant in the casino, but turned out to be fabulous as well – some of the best pork ribs I’ve ever had. Then off to the barbers to kill time and get a much-needed cut, but alas! I was too late, they all closed around 6. So I now had an unexpected quantity of time to kill in the Rio until the theater opened at 8:00 for Penn and Teller – the reason I had come to Vegas. I don’t drink or gamble, so I’m pretty low on vices for ‘sin city’ – it had all been leading up to this show. I sat around, wandered, looked in at the shops, and eventually the time to enter rolled around.
The theater was nice, and my seat was great. I was in D 11, exactly centered in the first row past the orchestra, just behind the effects booth. I had a great view of the stage, and enjoyed listening to Penn on bass and Mike Jones on piano for the opening jazz intro. The seats were only reserved for the first half hour, so it was important to claim them, even though the show didn’t begin until 9:00. And now, spoilers re: Penn & Teller (Skip to the red text below to avoid):
Background: I know Penn and Teller fairly well. Meaning: I’ve seen a lot of their work on YouTube. The first trick was one of their best – theoretically I sort of half know how they did it, but damn. But it set the tone for the evening’s show in two ways. But before that, let me say why I like Penn and Teller – they let you know it is a trick. They introduce you, had you not known already, to magician’s vocabulary such as ‘palm’, ‘vanish’ and sleight of hand basics. So the cool thing about their show is that even if you know the basic concepts, they do tricks where darned if you can’t figure them out anyway. That’s their supreme talent – telling you how they’re going to do something, doing it, and doing it so well you don’t see the moves. Back to the two ways the first trick set the tone for the evening. First: Teller couldn’t find someone who had the right sort of phone. Penn actually ran out of patter, and the timing was all off. This became theme number one. Second: Penn made a quip “you may have even seen us perform this trick on YouTube”. Yes. I had. I figured it would be the opener, but this became a problem as the show progressed.
After the phone trick, which despite the aforementioned was still good, there was the rabbit trick. Again – I’d already seen it, and I felt, upon seeing it the first time, that it wasn’t great. Seeing it live didn’t help, as Teller nearly flubbed a critical part. The show next did a lengthy segment on the TSA and libertarian rights. Preachy, and a wee bit long, but the ending was very, very good. Along with the phone trick, Teller’s reveal was a highlight. This was a good example of what I mentioned earlier – I theoretically know how he must’ve done it, and still couldn’t figure it out. It was followed by a really lousy “trick” – routine is the better word – of Penn eating fire. This is street magic stuff. Then Teller did the old card classic with a corner ripped off, and said two words at the end – but the timing was off, and no one could understand what the words were. I should note that at this point I was becoming disillusioned. It got worse with the next bit, a very odd segment with balloon animals – if there was any trick, I missed it. It was more of a performance? Thing? There was a hoop trick, which had one really nice move. And a barrel trick, which, frankly, was pretty lame because I know something about contortionist barrels. Most astoundingly – and not in a good way – they actually did the ripped newspaper trick. I couldn’t believe, at this point, people had paid what they had for this. Earlier they had done a similar stunt with the cut rope – this is basic, high school magic stuff. The timing was truly atrocious for a video camera act, so much so that it was embarrassingly off. People around me were impressed, which is great, I guess, I suppose they got their money’s worth – but I was so underwhelmed. A group audience trick went well, rather advanced card counting required, and then we got Teller’s famous goldfish act, which had two really nice moves, but, like the rabbit, hoop, and phone, I’d already seen. Unfortunately, seeing it live, I have a better understanding of how it was done. The trick’s ending is somewhat lazy, but that wasn’t new.
All in all, up to this point, we’d been very light on Vegas-style showmanship. I was hoping for a grand finale – the bullet-catching trick, for example, which, even having seen it before, would be impressive to view live. Or the inflation trick. Or the water tank – I wanted a classic piece of showmanship. Teller, dangling upside-down above a vat of acid or something.
Instead I got a special vanish. A very decent vanish, but still. It was designed to be cheesy, and indeed it was. So much so as to be a bit off-putting. I should mention this was the second act, the TSA being the first, where they egregiously hawked wares for sale in the lobby after the show. The accompanying video was so dated, this clearly had been a trick they’d performed for many years.
I left having enjoyed two tricks and appreciating another three or four individual moves. It was something of a let-down. After working together for forty years, perhaps it is time they hung up the act – or maybe I just saw an off night. Either way, a disappointment. I took the shuttle back to Harrah’s, the monorail back to my hotel, and called it an evening. To add insult to injury, housekeeping had replaced my towels and linens, which now weren’t clean but sort of gross.
The Penn & Teller Theater
Sunday: Woke up early based on the long day ahead of me, and got on the road at 7:45, arriving at Manzanar National Historic Site at 12:30. I’d long wanted to see this site, and pay tribute. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but not at all in a bad way. Austere, lonely, and vacant, there was lots of good information, moving tributes, and a pervading sense of woundedness. I stayed until 2:00, having explored the place thoroughly. I wrote the following reflection on Facebook:
“Since I learned of the existence of Manzanar I've been fascinated by it. It would be glib to compare the internment of Americans to slavery, or to the holocaust of native peoples. It is not a tragedy on that scale. Nothing is. Yet it is one of our defining moments as a country, for it is one of the most important griefs in our country's history. A great wrong, perpetrated by us against our own people, enacted through government policy and with police oversight. It ranks with suppression of unions at the turn of the century; the denial at the ballot box if you are poor or black - to this day; it even stands with the United States Government opening fire upon our own veterans, the 'Bonus Army', during the Great Depression. For Manzanar did take lives, as is true of any "concentration camp" to use President Roosevelt's own terminology for that site. I know it took lives, for I went today and stood at their graves, in a little patch of desert; a patch nearly forgotten for decades, having quickly torn down the buildings where this crime had been committed.
At the end of the exhibit the book asked visitors to record their thoughts on visiting this place. Some were just names and dates, others told personal stories, many were written in Japanese. I wrote the following:
"I find it - 'disturbing' is not the right word, nor 'troubling' - *horrifying* that the sentiments which created this place are again a part of America's public discourse in 2016. I will fight to ensure such a tragedy never takes place again. 3/27/2016"
Manzanar left me stunned, and very appreciative for having taking the time to go – before I left I got two postcards of paintings drawn by victims. I then needed to drive another four hours or so to Ventura. To put this in perspective, Las Vegas is at latitude 36 degrees north, 115 degrees longitude west. Manzanar is around 37 degrees north, and roughly 119 degrees west. Ventura – 34 degrees north, 119 degrees west. I drove 244 miles north-ish to Manzanar, and then almost the same amount, 247 miles south-ish. But it felt worth it. The drive to Manzanar I’d partially done last year, from Vegas to Death Valley, and it was stunningly beautiful. Likewise, the drive down to Ventura in the evening light was also gorgeous. It’s funny – excepting Wednesday’s long haul, the drives were some of the nicest parts of the trip, and they were what I had dreaded the most. By comparison the National Park and Penn and Teller, what I was excited for, had both been busts. I arrived in Ventura at 6:00, and checked into my cute hotel, The Clocktower Inn. I was quite hungry and wandered to the main downtown, to a restaurant called Lure Fish House. The meal was very good, even though I was a bit under-dressed for Easter Sunday dinner. At this point I had no shame sitting alone in a nice restaurant where everyone else is fancy. I was hungry and the waiter was kind of a douche bro. After a quick stroll through a closed downtown I went back to the hotel.
Monday: My body woke me up too early, and then I received a phone call around 8:00 (thank goodness I’d not decided to try sleeping in). Apparently all trips to the Islands were cancelled due to winds. I’d come to Ventura to see the Channel Islands National Park. Would there be availability tomorrow? No. Friday at the earliest. Well, I couldn’t sit around a wait, so they refunded my ticket.
This meant spending the day, rather unexpectedly, in Ventura - since I was meeting a friend for dinner that evening and my hotel was already booked for two nights. Ventura is somewhat quaint in the downtown, and remarkably full of small antiques stores and thrift shops and the like. After a leisurely morning (finishing Naipaul) I went ahead and explored them, and, as it happens, finally got that haircut. As the afternoon progressed I finished up the last roll of film I'd brought (intended for the Channel Islands) while wandering around the town and chatting with locals. I spent so much time in a local used bookshop I was compelled to by a novel by Miguel Asturias. As the afternoon progressed the wind picked up quite violently, and I could see why they had cancelled the trips. Palm fronds were falling off trees, people were struggling to walk down the street, cars got in accidents - quite a mess. Pleasantly, it was more or less done by the time my friend arrived for a nice dinner.
The next day I drove six hours back up 101 to Berkeley and home. 4,000 miles in total.