Soma and I had a visit to Death Valley in the plans for quite some time. It was a chance call from Hilton Grand Vacations, for one of their marketing offers for a weekend in Vegas, how the plans turned real. We gladly accepted the offer to spend 2 nights in a luxury time-sharing "apartment" in Vegas, in return for 2 hours of excrutiating endurance of their marketing department. Then we noted, since we were flying to the other coast anyway, it's better if we club something more on top of it. The "something more" expanded into a week-long affair, with a 3-night stay in Death Valley - my longest ever, and Soma's first.
Vegas is Vegas - as far away from reality as possible, a complete surreal take on life in general and riches in particular. The buffets were splendid - this was the first time I was staying long enough to venture out of the usual lunch buffet at the MGM Grand. MGM, of course, was visited, and lived up to the expectations. Alladin was a notch better - I agree to their tagline, "In a land of buffets, we are the killer whale". Well, not quite that disproportionate, but their Middle Eastern table was lip-smacking, and their endless supply of raw oysters kept me busy by the dozens.
As far as chronology is concerned - it's hard to keep track in Vegas, naturally, with all the casinos being sans-clocks and the nights bright as day, but I'll do my best.
We landed at McCarran 9-ish on Saturday night - late afternoon by Vegas standards. Our first night was the least luxurious of the entire trip - at the Howard Johnson nearest to the airport. A drive down the Strip got our brains adjusting to the paradigm shift, and the tired day quickly led to hitting the sack.
The next morning, we got searching for a tailor - I forgot to trim down the length of my new EMS convertible hiking pants, and needed one right away. Needless to say, Vegas outside the strip is as interesting as remote corners of Pennsylvania. Then again - PA is more interesting - at least it has a pretty scenery with trees and whatnots. Also, tailors are on their break on Sundays - what with the creation going on for the first 6 days and all. From the tailor hunt, we proceeded to checking into the Hilton Grand Vacations for our 48-hour stay. The jacuzzi in the bedroom was irresistable, so it took us a while to hit the streets. Lunch was at the MGM grand, where hogging is the norm, followed by walking tours of a few casinos around the area.
As promised, a little over 2 hours of our morning - from 9 to 11:30 - went into listening to the marketing talk from Hilton Grand Vacations. This was payback time for all the soak-ins in the in-room jaccuzzi. We almost got convinced that we absolutely need to spend $9k a year and buy vacation property on a time-sharing basis. Then we realized that we don't have any money left over, what with the new car and the apartment and the home search in India and all that, so we had to reluctantly pass it. And then, what do you know, we'ev never even thought about our strong need for vacation rentals! That was a rather short lived need.
Hungry after hearing all that talk about money and vacations, we hit the buffet at Alladin. This was the first time I was entering into this casino. The buffet was huge - with selections that we had not seen in the other places. Soma got trapped in the Middle Eastern section, and could not come out of it before she was stuffed like a Python after a full meal. I was doing good until I chanced upon the raw bar with oysters on the half shell, and dug in by the dozens.
Lazy breakfasts are hardly the norm on this trip. Besides, we had to check out of the hotel and hit the road early. After one last soak in the in-room jacuzzi, we hit the Las Vegas Hilton. My $25 in chips made their way into the machines fairly quickly, never to be seen again. Soma was a little better at managing hers, and we ended up with $15 in hand before we quit. The time was right to make use of our gift certificates for a free lunch at the Hilton buffet.
Of course, the Hilton is no Alladin or MGM - in fact, in a world of buffets, it's more like an "off-Broadway" show that's far out in one corner. Selections were almost comparable to the free continental breakfast fare at a regular Hilton. But then we had probably gained a ton in the last couple of days, so it was a relief to be able to walk off a lunch and still be able to carry myself on my legs.
Shortly after noon, we hit the road. It took us a fair amount of time to cross the strip, even on the expressway, and make our way through some construction zones - that done, we were on our way to Pahrump, and onwards to Death Valley.
Pahrump came and went - the only reason we were forced to notice it was the lower speed. The person behind the helpdesk at Hilton had given us directions that were really easy to follow - when you get to Pahrump and come to a T-junction, turn left. Which is exactly what we did. That led us to Shoshone, where we turned right, and that got us to 190, the road that goes right through the Death Valley National Park.
Having reached our destination about 4-ish, we directly proceeded to the visitor's center at Furnace Creek. The car was fed its due of gas - at $3.40, gas prices in Death Valley had lost their sting - back in '00, the price of gas inside the park was about double of that in the rest of the US - now, I'm paying more at the local gas stop in Long Island than in the remote confines of the desert!
With the light fading, the first thing we had to do was to get the tent up. Easier said than done - with the huge 4-person tent, and the strong wind blowing everything off, it was a struggle that lasted the better part of an hour - at the end of which we had a nice looking tent tucked into the shade and safety of a large tree, and a very nicely located spot in the campground. It was payback time for early reservations.
All settled, we ventured out to - where else - the sand dunes. Just about 20 minutes (20 miles) from Furnace Creek, as brilliant a place as any I have ever seen. The sand was warm to the touch, and the sunset was beautiful.
The first time I visited Death Valley - in '00 - we hardly had any time for sightseeing, since the Telescope Peak hike was the primary focus. The next time around, we had the knowledge and the time, but the car made it impossible to make our way - we came the first half mile from the turnoff at Ubehebe, and turned back. This time, I was determined - with a 3-night stay at DV, the Racetrack was one spot I did not want to miss. Also, this was the only reason we were moving around in a ridiculous SUV instead of a more comfortable and cheaper "full size" car.
The day before, we had been to the visitor's center - where they scared us with their usual theatrics - "the road will rip through the tires" and "rental vehicle contracts never allow off road driving" and "towing charges are usually in the range of $1000-plus" and so on. It was difficult to believe we were not a part of a movie. However, what they did not mention was any sort of a rule of thumb, and I'll say that for you - "If you can't cover the first 2 miles at a comfortable pace of 15-20 mph, turn back". Last time around, all I saw was the first half mile. This time, we thought the first half mile was intentionally kept badly maintained. Unfortunately, by the time we figured that the first 2 miles are actually better than the rest of the road, it was too late. So, before I get lost in describing the racetrack, I should mention the bottomline - it's a great place to visit, if you can make it to the track in 1.5 hours or so. We took close to 2.5, which made it a gruelling 5 hour ride on roads that bring shame to the mining roads of Dhanbad. At the end of it, we were disappointed by the "goal" - it's calm, and serene, and great for people who want to get "far from the maddenning crowd" and all that - but those are not the thoughts that come across your mind after spending close to 3 hours on a jumping vehicle with the constant fear that the tires will rip or the steering wheel will come out loose on your hand. Also worth mentioning- every one else on the road - in Jeeps and other heavier SUVs - were going at at least double our speed.
So, if you are reading this and thinking of a trip down there, make sure your vehicle is capable of serious off-roading - and if you can't cover the first 2 miles in under 10 minutes, head back - it'll take you way too long to cover all 26 miles and back.
That said, it was a rather pretty place - and very, very surreal. Also, very windy, specially in the late afternoon.
Ghost towns appealed to me in concept for quite some time - but the ones in NJ, featured in the likes of "weirdnj.com", were too risky - the abandoned cities were supposed to be dens of the dark forces, and if nothing else, would surely lead to an arrest and/or questioning by the police. Rhyolite, in the Death Valley National Park, presents no such risks. Of course, being a ghost town in the middle of the 20th century, this is no Mohenjodaro or Nalanda - but still, it's very eerie - and very surreal.
Of course, as ghost towns go, Rhyolite is rather famous - it's one of the larger ones in the US, if not the largest. It has also been touted in tourist books for a while. So some of the things to see - like the ghost statues, emphasizing on the ghost-town-ness of it all - were created after this got famous as a ghost town. The statues, very nicely, are called "The Last Supper". A little way down to the "town center", we saw the bank building - with just the facade remaining - and only a visitor's marker showing the building in its full glory.
We had originally planned to do one major hike in Death Valley. Telescope Peak was my obvious choice - it's one I have done before, and it's the best there is to see the contrast in DV. However, the ranger's words ruled that out - he said the ones that ventured to the Telescope Peak are very daring, and that at a minimum, they would need to have snow shoes and crampons. We had neither, and did not want to follow the footsteps of the type anyway, so the ranger recommended we do the Wildrose Peak instead. As per our original plan, where we had assumed the Racetrack to be a leisurly ride for 4 hours max, we were to do this hike today. Such was not to be - our 5+ hour jarring ride to the racetrack had left our bodies feeling we had just returned from one of the extreme day hikes, and we were not looking for more. Hence, we did go out to the Wildrose peak trailhead, and appreciated the charcoal kilns and the scenery in general, but decided to shy out of the trail itself. Unlike the rest of Death Valley, this is on the other side of the mountains - and is a very green area, full of lush vegetation and cool trees. This was also a good 20 degrees cooler than the valley area, being much higher up.
The dunes are, well, the dunes. Nothing better than to soak one's feet into the warm sand at the end of a long day and watch the sun set behind the dunes. I spent too much time searching for the perfect spot to take the sunset pictures from - and ended up getting tired. Every dune that I climbed looked smaller than the next one that appeared to be just beyond. We decided to take a break, and relaxed the rest of the time until sunset lying down on the sand and looking around.
Today was our last in Death Valley - and we had all the tourist attractions postponed to now. All the regular attractions are on our way back to Vegas anyway, so this was a good optimization. Plus, by this time, we were tired, and these attractions were made with the physically not-so-fit in mind, so we fit in perfectly.
Colorful, majestic, and very weird. Looks even better in pictures after using the "I'm feeling lucky" filter on Picasa - but are wonderful nevertheless. Plus, I really like the road that leads to the palette - ups and downs like no other.
Badwater is, well, not really a spectacular place by itself - just one with great numbers, like the hottest place in the US, and the lowest place, being much below sea level, and all that. With some renovation and nature restoration efforts having kicked in, they have a boardwalk made now, and some fencing, to guard the little water that's still around.