Route 66 Day 7: Another Planet

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We left the Grand Canyon on a cold and rainy morning. Unfortunately The weather denied us one last view of the Canyon, so we packed up into our Ford Taurus and took off for fairer weather. We were not disappointed.

Within 45 minutes of leaving the park, the overcast clouds began to break up and I could feel the sun coming in through the car windows. Our first destination of the day was the wonderful little city of Flagstaff. It was a nice little town, with a charming old train station and an old section that featured century-old buildings and little boutique shops. We took took a coffee break in one of the many cafes and plotted our course east across the desert.

A few hours later we found ourselves standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. The town commemorates this famous lyric by featuring a statue of what appears to be Don Henley perched on the corner of Kinsely and Second. We took the obligatory pictures beside the statue, all the while trying to withstand the heat radiating off of the sidewalk. It’s sad to say but besides that particular attraction, Winslow appeared mostly dead. I take it that it’s never a good sign when your town’s main claim to fame is being mentioned in an Eagles song.

While we were in Winslow checked out the historic Tortuga Hotel, which catered to Route 66 travelers in the decades gone by. It was a charming old building and while they couldn’t serve us lunch, they did end point us to a local joint that could. It was there that I had my first taste of Indian Tacos, which are much like regular tacos except for the fact that they are made using a fried bread rather than a corn tortilla shell. The clientele were mostly American Indian, as were the people standing outside the building. As we entered the restaurant a couple of them made a feeble effort at panhandling, which though harmless still compelled us to cross the street when we exited.

After driving through a mostly deserted Winslow, we made our way to Petrified Forest National Park. For years my father has kept a slice of petrified wood given to him by a friend on the mantel above our fireplace. That fossilized tree always fascinated me growing up, so when we were plotting our Route 66 trip I made it a point to visit the source of this intriguing fossil. The park itself is nowhere near as large as the Grand Canyon and we were able to drive through it in little more than an hour. Along the way we saw the various rock formations and the hundreds of fossilized logs that dotted the park. We were reminded again and again not to remove any piece of petrified wood from the park and even as we were leaving we saw a sign that suggested that our vehicle may be searched to verify that we weren’t smuggling anything out of the park. Luckily, we not subjected to such a search.

The drive to the New Mexico border took no time at all and soon we were in the self-proclaimed “Land of Enchantment.” In Grants we stopped at a roadside burger joint on the original Route 66 called Blake’s Burgers. And in true New Mexico fashion, our burgers were served with a healthy helping of spicy green chilies. We ate our dinner outside and got a good look at the town, which like Winslow seemed pretty dead to our eyes.

It’s amazing to see all the history on the old Route 66, but at the same time there’s a certain sadness about passing all these decaying motels and gas stations. Many of these towns depended on the traffic that 66 brought and when the interstate was built many of them were left to wither and die. But progress has its victims, I suppose.

We pulled into Albuquerque around 9 pm and checked into the La Quinta just off of the highway. As a side note, I have to say that out of all the hotels we’ve stayed at (with the exception of the Venetian), La Quinta has had the nicest rooms and provided us the best service. As we make our way east, we have decided to book with La Quinta whenever possible. Now give me my money, La Quinta!

The scenery that we saw over this leg of the trip can only be described as surreal. Coming from the East Coast, I can say for sure that we don’t have anything comparable to the canyons and buttes that pepper this vast desert for miles and miles. It’s almost hard to believe that we were even on the same planet as LA or New York, let alone the same country.

From Albuquerque we head into the Great State of Texas, where the desert gives way to the rolling plains of the panhandle. Stay tuned!

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Route 66 Days 5 and 6: On the Mighty Colorado

Note: Due to a lack of reliable internet, there has been a slight delay on my travelogues. But rest assured I am still alive and blogging.

There was something saddening about leaving our posh Vegas hotel for a lodge in the Grand Canyon National Park. It meant exchanging all the luxuries that we enjoyed for the past few days for a simple room and the thin mountain air of one of America’s most awe inspiring natural wonders.

On the way to the Grand Canyon, we decided to make a stop at Hoover Dam. We took advantage of the one of the guided tours which showed us the history of the project and gave us a brief overview about what goes on today inside the dam. What struck me about the structure was the sheer drop that can be seen from the roadway that runs across the top of the dam. For the first time in my life, I actually felt dizzy from looking down the side of the dam that led all the way to the Colorado River at the bottom.

There is a fascinating reaction that many people get when they stand at the edge of a great fall. As you walk towards the edge, there is the ever so slight impulse to jump. Of course that thought by itself doesn’t mean that the person thinking it is at all suicidal. On the contrary, it is scientifically proven that this feeling comes even to people in perfect mental health. There is an article here that explains more about this phenomena and what is says about the human psyche.

After the tour of the dam (which luckily did not result in anyone jumping), we departed on our way to the Grand Canyon. As we got closer to the park I could feel the change of elevation and I gradually started to experience the effects of altitude sickness. The Grand Canyon Village, which is where our lodge was located, had an elevation of a little more than 6,000 feet. For someone coming from New York, where the elevation is in the double digits, that’s quite the transition.

We arrived early in the evening and got settled in at the Maswik Lodge. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared, and they even had a TV and free (albeit unreliable) wifi. For dinner we dined at the magnificent El Tovar Hotel, which is possibly the fanciest restaurant located in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, I was a bit too lightheaded to a fully appreciate the wonderful cuisine, but nevertheless I was able to enjoy my veal schnitzel.

This wasn’t my first time at the Canyon and it wasn’t my first time I experienced altitude sickness while I was there. I first visited the park about 15 years ago, and one thing I clearly remember was an unfortunate incident that involved altitude-related nausea and mushrooms, which resulted in a decade long aversion to fungi. Luckily, this time around I was able to keep my meal down.

The next morning we were dismayed to find that the whole area had been fogged in. At the nearest viewpoint of the Canyon, which was just a few blocks from our lodge, we could see nothing but clouds for miles and miles. As the morning progressed and we made our way west along the rim, the clouds began to break up and we were given tantalizingly brief moments where portions of the Canyon were visible. By the afternoon, most of the fog had cleared up and we were treated to fantastic views of the vast expanse of the Canyon.

We then decided to take a hike part of the way down into the Canyon. Going down was the easy part and it was quite enjoyable to look at the various rock formations and to appreciate the fantastic views. However, as we started to make our return journey the skies opened up and a torrential downpour left us with a long trudge back up to the rim. By the time we emerged from the Canyon we were soaking wet and shivering from the cold. Exhausted from our ordeal, we spent the rest of the afternoon in the lodge recuperating in our beds.

The one thing that I thought that I could rely on was the fact that in the Southwest it would be hot and dry. Even if it wasn’t one of those things, at least it would be the other. What I didn’t expect was that it could be both cold and wet at the same time. I mean for Christ’s sake it’s the desert! I blame global warming.

Another thing that stood out for me was the number of European tourists at the Grand Canyon. I must have heard a half a dozen different languages spoken on the shuttle bus over the two days I was there. Before this visit I was not aware of the fact that  this place was that popular with international travelers, many of whom spoke only the smallest amount of English. It just goes to show that the Grand Canyon is not only a national treasure, but wonder of the world.

The next leg finds me standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and enjoying a forest millions of years in the making. Stay tuned!

Route Day 66 Days 3 and 4: Desert Storm

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We got on the road early Friday morning, departing from our hotel in Hollywood and heading west on Santa Monica Boulevard. Amazingly, the traffic was not bad at all and we made pretty good time through Pasadena. LA has dozens of distinct neighborhoods and it was nice to drive through parts of the city that we hadn’t seen already. That being said, we also saw places like San Bernadino that looked like they’ve seen better times.

After driving the Cajon Pass, we arrived in Victorville. While in Victorville we stopped for lunch at a Del Taco, which can be best described as a better Taco Bell. Nothing too special, but it was pretty good for fast food.

Lunch was followed by a short drive to the California Route 66 Museum. The place was with old trinkets and friendly staff who seemed to be genuinely dedicated to preserving the history of this legendary highway.

The final stop in Victorville was the local airport, which is notable for its airplane graveyard. When an airline doesn’t a particular airplane any more, one of the places they can send it to is Victorville Logistics. Once it’s there the plane sits out in the desert for months, sometimes even years. If a new buyer isn’t found, the plane is unceremoniously cut up and sold for scrap. While they didn’t let us into the airport, we were able to drive around a bit and see some of the planes up close. After snapping a few pictures, we turned around and headed back towards 66.

Leaving Victorville, we drove along the two-lane highway to Barstow. To be honest, there wasn’t that much to see in that town and we mainly used it as an opportunity to take a break from the road and get something to drink at Church’s Chicken. From Barstow we took I-15 all the way across the state line towards Vegas. Along the way we encountered stormy weather, with downpours so strong that not even our windshieldwipers could keep up. Between the reduced visibility and the traffic jam it caused, the storm must have cost us a good hour between Barstow and Vegas. So much for the desert being “dry.”

We finally pulled into Vegas at around 7 o’clock. The luminous thoroughfare that is the Las Vegas strip was a welcome reminder of civilization after hours spent crossing the empty desert. My anticipation grew as we walked into the hotel lobby to check into our room. Coming from a Holiday Inn Express, this was paradise.

We finished up the day by eating dinner at one of the many restaurants that the hotel offered. The best description of a Vegas hotel is a luxury cruise ship that sits in the middle of the Nevada desert. The sheer size of this places is mind boggling, with thousands upon thousands rooms stacked on top of each other. My hotel has at least three separate pools, including a giant in-ground Jacuzzi! There must be dozens of shoppes and stores within the hotel, the equivalent of a good sized shopping mall. Now I’m not big on shopping myself, but even I still marvel at the sheer scale of it all.

I was able to sleep in on Saturday morning, which is a welcome change from waking up at 6 am three days in a row. After a quiet morning lounging around the hotel room, I set off to try my luck in the world of gambling.

The last time I visited Las Vegas was over ten years ago when I stayed at the amazing Bellagio. Now that I was back, I noticed that I appreciated the luxury of it all way more than when I was just a kid. And now that I’m 21, I could finally stand in the casino without getting hassled by the employees. Not to mention the alcohol!

So rather than spend all my time at my hotel, I decided to walk up and down the strip to play at multiple casinos. At the Venetian, I had no luck whatsoever. The slots were killing me and I was in no mood for card games at a place like that. After losing a good 10 dollars on a penny slot, I walked south along the strip, poking my head into the various casinos to scope out the field.

Slowly but surely I found out that while these hotels may look wildly different on the outside, from inside the casino it’s hard to tell if you’re at Bally’s or Harrah’s or MGM Grand. After scouting a few places, I decided to try my luck at the Monte Carlo.

My first (and only hand) of casino poker ended up being a massive disappointment. It was Texas Hold’em, and I had 9-10-J-Q-K diamond flush. There was only one possible hand that could have beaten me, and I put most of my money on that one game. So guess what happened: some guy got a royal flush and I lost most of my gambling money in one disastrous moment.

Utterly dejected, I started on the long shuffle down the Strip back towards my hotel. Losing big time can make a man hungry, so on the way I popped into Planet Hollywood for a snack. For reasons I cannot explain, I found my self inserting a dollar into the nearest slot machine and pulling the lever down like it was a mere extension of my arm.

And I won.

Not huge, but from my $1 bet I got $20 in winnings. After thanking Lady Luck for this splendid miracle, I did the smart thing and cashed my ticket right away. And while I still lost money that day, I had fun doing it and I’d like do it again the next time I come here. And by “it” I mean having fun, not losing money.

Route 66 Day 2: LA Gets a Proper Introduction

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After yesterday’s haphazard introduction to the City of Angels, today was the first real day of the trip. This time around I got to see a more nuanced version of the city and my initial disappointment turned into a deeper appreciation of what LA has to offer.

We woke up at around 6 o’clock and enjoyed a complimentary breakfast at the hotel, where I was introduced to the concept of a “pancake printer”. I’m not exactly sure how this device works, but all I had to do was press a button at one end of the machine and pancakes came out of the other. Thank God for technology.

After breakfast we made our way to Paramount Studios for a tour of the facilities. Our guide was a page from the South, so obviously the first thing that came into my mind was Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock. Like Kenneth, our page was extremely personable and genuinely enthralled by show business. He told us about the history of the studios and showed us where the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Lucile Ball worked back in the day. Then he gave us a golf cart tour of the various sound stages, where shows like Glee and Community were being filmed. And though we drove by the trailers of the various stars, I did not see any famous faces during the tour.

The studio tour finished up around lunch time and it was then that we made the obligatory visit to In-N-Out Burger. I found the name itself kind of ironic considering the fact that the wait time was significantly longer than that of other fast food joints like McDonalds or Burger King. However, I’m quite happy to report that the burgers were well worth the wait. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of the fries. Supposedly “fresh,” they tasted more like Trader Joe’s Veggie Sticks than good old American french fries. I blame the fact that they fry them in vegetable oil rather than good old animal fat. Shame on you, In-N-Out.

After lunch we visited the La Brea Tar Pits, which is one of the most fascinating paleontological sites that is open to the public. We took a tour of the museum, where we saw the various fossils that had been excavated over the past 100 years. They even had a fishbowl laboratory where we could watch the researchers working on identifying and cleaning even the smallest of fossils. Afterwards we got to see the tar pits themselves, which were not so much tar lakes but rather places in the ground where the black stuff bubbled up from below. I felt like I was in the title sequence from Beverly Hillbillies.

We finished the day at Venice Beach, where we walked along the boardwalk and enjoyed some drinks and fish tacos. The boardwalk was lined with shops selling cheap trinkets and t-shirts aimed at tourists and 15-year-olds. There were also a plethora of “medical” marijuana clinics, complete with doctors dressed in neon green scrubs and sunglasses. And it just so happened that there always a smoke shop next door selling “tobacco” pipes and bongs.

Then we walked out to the shoreline and got our feet wet in the great Pacific Ocean. The water was freezing, but it felt great to be at beach for the first time in a couple years. As I watched the waves roll in, I noticed that there were several black objects in the sand. They looked like rocks at first, but as I picked them up I noticed that they were as soft as silly putty. They were tar balls! These form when oil leaks into the ocean from oil spills or other man-made or natural processes.

I picked up a bunch of them and rolled them up into one larger mass about the size of a ping pong ball. I thought I had myself a nice little souvenir, but as I walked back towards the boardwalk I noticed that the tar ball was starting to melt in my hand. By the time we reached the edge of the sand my hand was covered in a black sticky mess. And no matter how hard I scrubbed I couldn’t for the life of me get the tar off. We had to go to a nearby bike shop to get some Goo Gone, which is a solvent for things like oil and tar. A few dabs of that stuff and like magic the tar was easily wiped away. Lesson learned: don’t touch the tar.

As a side note, as I was googling tarballs I saw an article that says that they carry an increased risk for a flesh-eating bacteria. Yikes! Granted, this study was done in the Gulf of Mexico, where the bacteria is present in higher concentrations. And it’s mostly people with weakened immune systems that get infected and that overall it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Still, it’s not the best thing to think about on a vacation.

After a day like today I am utterly exhausted, but I am eagerly anticipating the start of my long journey tomorrow. My next update will be from the Happiest Place on Earth: Las Vegas, Nevada.

Route 66 Day 1: Trouble in Tinseltown

Today marks the first day of my Route 66 journey, which will take me from all the way across the country from Los Angeles to Chicago. I will do my best to posting daily updates as I make my way east. I not exactly sure what to expect out on the road, but it will be an amazing experience to see what this huge country has to offer. So without further ado, I give you day one:

We arrived at LAX at around 11:30am on a flight from JFK. I made the decision to purchase the in-flight wifi and I do not regret it in the slightest. The flight time was 5 hours and during that time there was never a moment I was bored. I had my music, I had my sudoku in the in-flight magazine, and I had (almost) full access to the world wide web. The wifi allowed me to surf pretty much any website and I was able to check my email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. I was even able to write a post on Bradley Manning from the comfort of my economy class seat. The downside is that the service doesn’t allow for streaming video, so I had to hold off on Netflix and Youtube. My main issue with the wifi is that they charge the same price for using it regardless of whether the flight is two hours or ten hours. So while I don’t usually spring the extra money for wifi when I’m traveling between New York and Chicago, on longer flights it is totally worth the cost.

So everything went smooth with our arrival at LAX and at the car rental my family and I picked out a Ford Taurus as our trusty steed for the long journey ahead. The first leg was a short one; up to our hotel in Hollywood. The ride was stereotypical LA, complete with the sunny weather, the palm trees, and of course the infamous traffic. Unfortunately our hotel didn’t have a room ready for us when we arrived, so while we waited for a room to open up we decided to walk a few blocks down to a Mexican restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. The food there was fine, but there was something off about our waiter. I can’t put my finger on it, but maybe it’s the New Yorker in me having a negative gut reaction to a typical LA waiter/actor type.

After lunch, we took a walked down the Boulevard along the Walk of Fame. I have to say that this was the one part of the day that really bummed me out. Of course I expected the Walk to be an overcrowded tourist spot, but there were so many panhandlers and people trying to sell me CDs and guided tours. Every block there would be somebody walking up beside you and shoving some flyer in your face. It was worse than Times Square.

As we walked west towards Vine St, I couldn’t help but notice the urban decay that was all around me. There was a seemingly endless procession of caged up storefronts and dilapidated theaters that lined Hollywood Boulevard, the ruins of a bygone era. The shops that were open looked like they belonged in an low-end outlet mall rather than Hollywood.

And then there were the panhandlers, homeless, and drug addicts that could be found on every corner. I read that LA has had a large homeless population, but I didn’t expect to see it up close and personal in Hollywood of all places. Some of vocally begged for money, others wandered around like zombies, but most simply sat on the sidewalk with nothing but an empty cup and a thousand-yard stare.

After an hour and a half of walking around, we returned to the hotel and checked into our room. My family went a bit later that evening with my uncle, but I wasn’t feeling feel so I recuperated in the hotel room. I had been up at 3 am Pacific time and I was exhausted after travelling across the country and doing a walking tour of Hollywood Boulevard.

I have to admit that my first day was a little disappointing. Tinseltown isn’t really that glamorous, and LA has a way of looking gloomy even if there isn’t a cloud in the sky. Still, it’s not that bad of a city and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow, when I’ll be heading to Paramount Studios and the La Brea Tar Pits, along with other LA landmarks. Stay tuned!

Bradley Manning Sentenced to 35 Years

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From Reuters:
“Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier convicted of the biggest breach of classified data in the nation’s history by providing files to WikiLeaks, was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Wednesday.
Judge Colonel Denise Lind, who last found Manning guilty of 20 charges including espionage and theft, could have sentenced him to as many as 90 years in prison. Prosecutors had asked for 60 years.”

Normally I think any sentence over 25 years is excessive for anything short of rape or murder, especially since the federal justice system usually doesn’t allow for any type of parole. One of the few exceptions to this rule are military court maritals, which allow for convicts to be released after serving at least a third of their sentence. Given that Manning will be getting credit for time served, it is possible that he may spend a little more than a decade behind bars.

It is important to stress that Manning was by no means the ideal whistleblower. He was indiscriminate in choosing which documents to reveal and he choose to go to a foreign platform (Wikileaks, which is headed by Australian Julian Assange) to reveal them.. And while his intentions were admirable, this type of reckless behavior obviously cannot encouraged.

At the same time, this ruling may act as a chilling effect on other would-be whistleblowers who would not be as cavalier in their revelations. The worst case scenario is that the threat of prosecution will deter perfectly lawful leaks that bring accountability to the activities of our government. This should be an ongoing concern for this executive branch, which has prosecuted whistleblowers at an unprecedented rate over the past few years. We as a nation are better off when the actions of those in power are subject to scrutiny, whether it’s from inside the government or the public sphere. The President and his Justice Department should keep that in mind as the continue to levy charges against leakers.