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July 4, 2006

Vegas, baby. Vegas!

The Travel Channel

We had planned to leave on our roadtrip to Las Vegas at about 9a.m in the morning, but as usual with such plans they didn't quite happen the way we intended. Since both me and Carina were staying at Alex's place from the reception last night we had to get up and find our way back to Mountain View to pack our stuff before we could get on our way, so before everything were in order the clock was nearing 11a.m already, and then we also had to stop at SafeWay to stock up on food an water for the days in the desert.

However just after noon on friday Arthur, Jessie, Carina and myself were finally cruising south under the sun on Highway 101. Our first stop was to be the Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park, so we had a long way to go and drove almost non-stop through Bakersfield and Ridgecrest into the blasting heat of the central Californian desert. After a 6 hour drive it was about time to get some food, so in the small township of Trona we first located a store and then asked directions for the nearest cafè. We were shown to a small burger-joint in a worn down building just off the main road. Outside the temperature was well above 40°C, so we hoped for some airconditioning inside, and while the temperature inside actually were decent we were struck by a raw penetrating stench of grease upon opening the door. However much we wanted to leave it was the only open diner in town, so we decided to try out a some food nonetheless. The burgers were decent, just below the typical McDonalds standard, but the fries were literally dripping with bad grease to the point where we ended up just throwing them away. But at least we had eaten something, so we pushed on into Death Valley. It got dark just after we passed the park border, but even when we made a pitstop to get some brochures on the park at Stovepipe Wells Village at 9p.m it was still over 40°C outside and residents were relaxing in the outdoor pool. After another hour of driving through the desert at night we finally arrived at Furnace Creek Ranch and checked into our room. Dinner consisted of hot-dogs and beer at the local Saloon before we took a drive out into the desert to view the amazing clarity of the night skies far from the light-pollution of big cities.

We got up early on saturday morning to explore the deserts of Death Valley, home of the Timbisha Shoshone indians, starting with the general store at the ranch were we both got souvernirs and breakfast. Then we started by going to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center where we walked through the DV museum and viewed a short introductory movie about the valley and the highlighted sights, before heading south to Badwater at 80 meters elevation below sealevel; the dryest, hottest and lowest place in North America. Starting out as a lake a few thousand years ago Badwater is now a mere pond surrounded by an immense area of pure salt streching several kilometres across. Like in the Dead Sea the water has evaporated and left behind salt and minerals, and despite tasting it straight from the ground it was the best mineral salt I have -ever- tasted! It was simply an amazing sight, and 0% air-moisture combined with a temperature of 54°C really gave it all an alien feel. From dripping of sweat inside an airconditioned car, you dry up in a matter of seconds just by opening the door and going outside. Heading back from Badwater we stopped by the Natural Bridge, but found it to be too long a hike in the blasting heat, so we continued to the Golden Canyon and walked a bit up the gullys leading towards Zabriskie Point. Again the hike all the way up would have been too long, so we got back in our car and drove around and up to Dante's View, where we got an amazing panorama of the entire valley from a height of almost 1800 meters above Badwater. Due to the height this was actually the most comfortable stop as the temperatures were acceptable at around 35 degrees, but we had more to see and headed down to the drive-in entrance to Zabrisikie Point for another spectacular panorama, and after a short lunch-stop at the ranch we headed onwards to Devils Cornfield and the Sand Dunes of Stovepipe Wells, the most perfect beach you can imagine but with hot hot sands and no water to be found. By now it was nearing 4p.m, and our visit to Death Valley was near its end. We headed out towards the township of Beatty stopping at Rhyolite, the ghost town remains where more than ten-thousand people lived at the turn of the 19th century. A sad and desolate sight, with barely half a dozen ruins left standing, so we didn't spend much time there but quickly continued toward our final destination, Las Vegas!

While cheap, Vegas is known to be expensive and this turned out to be very true. It even started before we even entered the city when a cop pulled us over for speeding, resulting in a $300 fine. But we didn't let that get our spirits down and arrived at The Strip just 15 minutes later where we got treated to the pirate show at Treasure Island while beeing stuck in traffic. Eventually we made our way down to MGM Grand and got checked into our room, and what an amazing hotel it is! Previously largest in the world with 5000 rooms, 17 resturants and more than 50 shops its like a city by itself, and there are a dozen other hotels like it in Vegas! And it takes some effort to manage all of that efficiently, so upon arrival there was a 10 lane (!) valet parking service and at least 30 check-in counters inside. Crazy city!
Our room had a direct view of the reception area and across the street to the Hooters Hotel and Casino, and it felt really great to be able to shower off the salty desert and get ready to hit the town. The girls took their time in the bathroom, so we ended up running a bit late and by chance sat down for dinner at Wolfgang Puck Bar&Grill, where we got great food and excellent service. Dining out appears to be one of the things that Vegas really excels in. After dinner we played some cards first and then decided to walk over to Ceasars Palace and check out Pure Bar, reportedly the hottest club in the United States at the moment. Getting there however did take us a while, as we took the wrong direction out and ended up walking along a no-sidewalks highway instead of on the Strip, so we spent almost 2 hours getting there before we got into the line for another 2 hours of waiting, and to top it off my black Nikes were not good enough for them so I had to locate a new pair of shoes at 2a.m in the morning. Not an easy feat, but eventually I managed to borrow a decent pair from the bellman, so all of us did get inside after paying the ridiculous $30 cover charge and buying equally expensive drinks. According to the bouncers the club held about 3000 people that night and it was really awesome, especially when we found the roof terrace with an amazing night-time view of the Strip! Getting somewhere to sit down turned out to be another problem however, as all tables were reservation only and you had to book them several weeks in advance, but by getting in touch with some people that had a table we cleared that hurdle as well, and just enjoyed the rest of the night until closing time at 4:30a.m. That really disappointed me as Vegas is known to be the 24 hour city, but it was about time to get to bed anyways if we were to see Vegas in the daytime.

After staying out late we slept in at sunday and walked through NewYork NewYork on our way to the Bellagio where we was having lunch. The Buffet had closed down when we got there, so we ate at the Cafè Bellagio instead before spending several hours at the amazing indoor arabian style shopping mall at the Aladdin, which has an outdoor feel with 3 story buildings and even artificial storms and rainfall. To avoid running into more shoe-troubles I got a new pair as well as a shirt and a bunch of souvenirs before we headed back to MGM, which was only a block away but it still took a 30 minute walk.
We had secured tickets to the David Copperfield show that night, so after a while the girls joined us at the hotel and we went to be dazzeled by the art of illusion of the most acclaimed magician in the world. It was truly amazing, and while I botched a chance to actually be -in- the show the show would have been worth the trip by itself. This wasn't just some cheap tricks thats for sure!
After the show we went to Tabu, an r&b club at MGM that was really nice. Great music, good atmosphere and we got to witness an impromptu old-school hip-hop dance-off with some incredible talents in breakdancing. It was another great night and the wee hours of the morning as usual arrived way too soon, but since we were checking out the next morning we had to get up early.

After checking out we spent some time on Star Lane Shopping getting more souvernirs from MGM Grand, before heading back to Bellagio to try out their famous resturant The Buffet, where $30 buys you all you can eat from a luxurious buffet with all kinds of gastronomical delights. It was the meal of the year, so after spending several hours there we headed up the Strip to the Stratosphere hotel to get a birds-eye view of the city as the last thing we did. I went up alone to save on cash and saved several hours in line by paying $10 to go express, and afterwards we found plenty of shopping oppourtunities there as well, and amongst other things I got myself a genuine Corona beer t-shirt. This final stop marked the end of our stay in Vegas, and after loading up on gas we set a course south along Highway 15 towads Los Angeles taking the shortest route home, only stopping at Mad Greek in Baker for some shakes on the way. Other than still holding on to the genuine american road-trip feeling, the following 8 hour drive were quite eventless, and as night fell we neared in on Mountain View once again, arriving just after 2a.m and finally getting into our own beds for some much needed rest after a great trip!

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