Thursday, June 05, 2008

Catching Up, Part 2: The Trip West, Leg Two

The Mountain West is big country, scary big when you're in a new, tiny car and you have a couple of thousand miles to drive. Pardon the lack of photos here, but I had the need to put some miles behind me. I'll take some on the way back.

Ogalalla, Nebraska to Denver is one of the worst drives ever. It's high-plains country, with just enough signs of civilization along the way to ruin what would otherwise be an almost pastoral drive. And it's crap stuff, too: occasional storage buildings and truck stops and a wind farm off somewhere in the foothills to the west. Into northeastern Colorado, it's at least a little bit more rolling country than western Nebraska, but it's perhaps best experienced after sunset.

Denver is Denver, as I spent a week here (and at Golden) a decade ago on an old business project, researching and writing the backs for those old Coors Brewing trading cards you can find at flea markets and second-hand shops all over this part of the country. (I wrote half of the Miller Brewing set, too.)

West of Denver, I-70 goes up-up-up, climbing another mile or so within 50 or 75 miles to the Eisenhower Tunnel, well north of 11,000 feet. The temperature dropped 25 degrees in a flash, and it began to mist. I don't like heights, and I don't even like heights when I'm on the ground, even if this is truly beautiful country. I learned something about my new Yaris, too. Loaded down, and perhaps even not loaded down, it's not much of a challenge for big grades. From my cruising speed of 70-75 I'd have to pull it out of fifth, pop it into fourth, and slug along at 45-50 on the big climbs, those in the 5- or 6-degree range and/or those that held steadily upward for a mile or more. I knew there had to be a tradeoff to get the mileage, and the tradeoff, I've now learned, is in engine torque. Losing engine power in the mountains is the type of thing that makes me a bit panicky as well... at least until I can reason it through and figure out what is happening.

Past the Eisenhower it's big ski country, with the resort cities spread out like a spring of pearls -- Breckenridge, Vail, Eagle and so on. It's the Eagle River valley high up, and the Colorado River lower and further west, and the resort cities are long and skinny and strung out, at most a few hundred yards wide in the river valley with the mountains -- still white-capped, throughout the inner range -- shooting up on either side. The Loveland Gorge is another beautiful experience, but oddly enough, wasn't the deepest or longest gorge of my drive.

At long last I burst out in the early afternoon to Grand Junction, Colorado, which must be a world onto its own. It's another river-valley town, but with generally more space available. My impression of Grand Junction is that it's a place with a bright future. It's only drawback is that it's not close to anywhere else, except its access to the mountains and national parks in the region.

West from there, it's only another half-hour or so into eastern Utah, and the most rugged, desolate, perhaps beautiful part of the entire trip. For 200 miles or more there is barely even a gas station, and I encountered far too many broken down and abandoned vehicles to ever be totally at ease. The Mt. Peale area is beautiful in the distance, visible for hours off to the south. There is one stretch where it's 106 miles between services, and with some big climbs into national parks, too. Exits are sparse. Most are just "Ranch Exit" off-ramps, which run down to little dirt roads that in turn run off into the brush to homesteads unseen. There's a little blip on the map north of Arches National Park, but then nothing at all between Green Valley and the Moab exit to the arches and the Salina/Richfield, Utah pocket much farther west.

The desolation and the big climbs with a small car exhausted me. I made it through to Richfield, where I would call it a night. I stayed at a brand new Fairfield Inn that had literally just opened its doors earlier that week, and experienced not one, nor two, but three bad beats. The first was a fingernail literally snapped off trying to open a new motel-room door that hadn't been properly lubed. The second was dealing with a place with new Internet. The poor kid responsible for wiring the place was having all kinds of trouble getting the room connections to work, and neither Ethernet nor wireless would work. (I almost checked out, because this was mandatory, as I had some work to do.) But he finally got it going, though it went down for two more extended stretches during the night. I suspect that the place won't be Net-friendly for a while, even if the folks were good and tried their best to please.

They even recommended the place next door as the best burger joint in town, one of those upscale burger restaurants a la Fuddruckers in the Midwest, but with its own Mountain West flair. The prominently featured mushroom-and-Swiss burger with just a touch of teriyaki sauce and that bit of Western flair sounded okay... even if one wonders exactly which West they meant. The thing came with I think three tiny mushroom bits somewhere in the mix, and enough cheap teriyaki sauce to drown out all other flavors. Fucking waste of what was likely a good piece of ground beef. The fries were great, the iced tea good, the staff nice, though I did sweetly tell them that in my experience a little teriyaki sauce goes a long way, and if the title led off with "mushroom" there ought to have been at least one small mushroom's worth in there somewhere, not just a bit of a stem.

So I'm a bitch. It was a long drive.

Richfield is another one of these small communities onto itself, population 10,000 tucked between all the national parks. I-15 was off there somewhere to the west with one last winding through the mountains before breaking into the relatively flatter high desert of south Utah. The surprise of that part of the trip had to be St. George, one of the gateway communities to Zion National Park and what looks to be a blossoming retirement community. I could check this place out, I told myself, driving through.

The high desert continued into the northwest corner of Arizona and then down that huge mountain gorge on I-15 to the Nevada state line and the casinos at Mesquite. Zero interest in stopping. Both my sister and my sweetie called, verifying my safe arrival, and I had only 100 miles to Vegas, baby, and wanted the trip done with. The desert north of Vegas isn't quite as desolate around the interstate these days, and a little over an hour later I swung by Nellis Air Force Base -- where a pair of fighter jets were doing takeoff/landing loops -- and the Vegas Speedway just beyond. The Vegas skyscrapers really aren't visible from that far away, maybe 30 miles or so. Drive into the area as I did and you realize that those mountains that look like they're 50 miles away from the Strip really aren't that far away at all. The prominent range to the west is only 15-20 miles west of the Strip, the stuff to north only 30 miles or so distant. Southwest lies the California desert. East is Henderson and the mountain wrap-around to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, which I've only seen from the air. Northwest is desert hell, and somewhere out there, Stephen Fossett's coyote-gnawed bones. Yes, that thought occurred to me.

Soon enough, though, I reached the Flamingo Rd. exit and drove right on past the Rio and the Gold Coast, the latter which will be my home for the next seven (now six) weeks. I re-gassed the car, then ended up meeting with Caldwell only a couple of hours later for an impromptu lunch at the Ping Pang Pong inside the Gold Coast. We made a quick lap of the Rio where I said hi to another familiar face, Nolan Dalla, and introduced myself to Seth Palansky, who together are the two WSOP media gurus for the duration. Then I began the process of settling in. It's interesting when you haven't seen your boss face-to-face in two years. Welcome to the Internet era.

Miles driven: Roughly 1,750 in a little over two days. Nerves: Jangly. Many more meetings in the near future, and unwinding was tough. God, I needed a beer, but I held off for a few days. Alcohol comes out through one's pores in times of high stress, and that's no way to meet people; you can actually be cold sober and still smell like the bottom of a martini glass.

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