Monday, October 29, 2007

New York, New York...

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
Under construction...
New York, New York

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Your friendly Wyoming law enforcement...

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
Under construction...
Lander, Wyoming Highway Cops, Vail & Denver

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The world of Yellowstone...

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
Under construction...
Yellowstone National Park

Monday, October 22, 2007

Devils Tower Wyoming

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
Without gushing superlatives, this was a very special part of our trip. Ever since first watching "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" many, many years ago (then plenty of times since), I'd wanted to see the Devils Tower for myself. One of those all-time movie location holy grails. But Wyoming is one of those difficult places to get to. It's not like getting on a plane to Los Angeles or New York. You have to plan a journey, rent a car. You have to approach the tower, drive around it, see it from different angles, get the dawn & dusk views. It is wonderous, spectacular - different in it's physical aspect from how I'd imagined, and possibly somewhat smaller than imagined too, but sheer and mystical all the same. From outside the monument, I pictured every view of the tower from the perspective of the movie lens - putting every scene into place. We had a truly wonderful afternoon and morning here. You can't spend much more time than that really, as the activities are limited and you soon discover the location is quite remote really. There isn't a whole lot else around!
Devils Tower is a National Monument, entry US$10 for 7 days. You'll probably spend a few hours or a day, unless you want to study the prairie dogs and take every back country hike. On our first afternoon, we drove up to the visitor centre and took a quick walk up to the rock. Being off season, there was hardly anyone here. After checking things out, we parked beside a hill outside the monument, and I took loads & loads of sunset photos while I slowly froze. But it was all worth it. We ate some chips & dips and marvelled at the whole thing. Back into the car, and a short distance back to the Best Western Devils Tower Inn at Hulett. Looking like a log cabin on steroids, this was a very nice & very new motel with huge rooms and really comfortable beds. Highly recommended. If you blink, you'll miss Hulett (pop. 408). We had a burger at little tavern just down the street, then slept well while the aliens made their plans round the back of the tower, in the darkness...
After a waffle breakfast, we were back at the tower. We did the circuit walk around the base. Again, there were few people around. Some climbers sauntered past us on the path, then we watched as they scaled the east face. They looked like little ants in 'The North Face' jackets. Our experience was over, and we left the monument between 11 and 12, saying goodbye to the prairie dogs on the way out! We had a massive drive ahead of us.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

South Dakota to Wyoming

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
We left the Black Hills today, but only after a fun morning at Bear Country USA, a drive through wildlife park where bears (and other animals) literally tussled in front of our car then plonked themselves down in the road, so it was careful going. The bears could smell food in our car too. I didn't want to explain that damage story to the rental car people! They also had a zoo section with cute baby animals, including red foxes. The park was almost deserted being so late in the season, but the website says they're open until the end of November.
Back on the I-90, we headed northwest towards Deadwood. This was a slightly weird frontier town in the hills, famous for the gold rush days - Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and a recent tv series (which didn't show in Australia as far as I know). Whilst quite historic and well detailed, nowadays Deadwood is famous for casinos and all-you-can-eat buffets, so we drove through quickly and kept driving as we could see snow further up the mountain. Just past the town of Lead, things had turned white all around and we pulled into a forest to throw some snowballs (the crazy Aussies seeking out snow wherever we go!) We came down the mountain via the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a wonderful drive made all the more spectacular by the snow in the trees. We were quite lucky there.
We joined the I-90 again at the town of Spearfish and crossed the state border from South Dakota to Wyoming. We'd already decided to stop at the next town of Sundance. However, as we drove along the quiet main street, we soon discovered this was not the Sundance famous for the film festival. We really should have done our research! So, with Sundance devoid of food (bar the local service station) and the Devils Tower a little over an hour away across the Bear Lodge Mountains, we decided to backtrack to Spearfish for a food stop. Just off the I-90 we found another American family diner with good food, endless drink refills and impossibly low prices (especially compared to Ireland). After the refreshment stop we drove back into into Wyoming again, and approached the Devils Tower from the northeast side (Belle Fourche & Hulett). Looking back, we could never say we didn't cover these roads thoroughly!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

It's raining in Rapid City

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
It's raining in Rapid City, South Dakota. We stopped for dinner this evening at Red Lobster on the I-90, where dinner comes in 3 sizes - big, bigger & biggest, much like the eager patrons. Clare ran across the wet carpark to Target (none in Ireland!) to buy some clothes, while I waited in the restaurant lobby with the buzzer that vibrates when your table is ready. About 25 minutes later it went off, and we chose our delicious seafood meals & cocktails, which came in the same gigantic sizes as the meals (my strawberry Lobsterita was exceptional!) We had a friendly table visit from the manager, Kent French, who wanted to talk to the only Australians in town that night and told us he was a world "clapping" champion, video here. Nice guy! I finished up my Lobsterita as the people on the next table were offered another plate of endless shrimp... We drove back across the hills to our lovely hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Keystone (about US $58/nt) and hit the sack.
We'd started the previous day collecting our Hertz Rental Car at Denver Airport. Flicked on the Sat Nav and headed north on the I-25 past Loveland & Fort Collins, Colorado - with huge RV sales yards and shopping malls on the highway. Traffic thinned out as we entered Wyoming. We stopped for food nr. Cheyenne - BIG food & huge trucks in the parking lot with gun racks & "hunter" bumper stickers. This was the real American homeland - wide open spaces and about as far away from Washington DC or Seattle as you can get! It was getting dark as we kept going north, eventually climbing in elevation as we left Wyoming and entered the far southwest corner of South Dakota (our forth state for the day!) We got to Keystone late that night.
When it comes to blurbs about tourist towns, sometimes the local tourist authorities put it best, so here you go: Keystone... The “Home of Mount Rushmore” and truly a “City of Gold”. Rich in gold mining history the quaint town of Keystone is just two miles from Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Once a gold mining boomtown and later the location of the monumental carving of Mount Rushmore, Keystone was also the adult home of Carrie Ingalls of “Little House on the Prairie” fame. With all this to offer who needs more? But there is a lot more. There are historic and Presidential museums where you can learn about the history of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum – Sculptor of Mount Rushmore, United States Presidents, Keystone and Carrie Ingalls. An alpine slide and Tramway with great views of Mount Rushmore and the surrounding area; an actual gold mine that you can tour and then learn to pan for gold; a Historic 1880 Train ride that takes you through some of the most beautiful Black Hills scenery around; beautiful caves that boast some of the largest formations around, and a Historic Walking tour that takes you on a trip back in time!
It was well & truly off season in Keystone and things were really quiet. We waited a while for service in the local diner to get some breakfast. Then straight up to Mount Rushmore (annual parking pass US $8). An attractive family of rocky mountain goats were munching on the plants in the multi-storey carpark (this place was really built for summer crowds). We took lots of photos of course. Mount Rushmore is suitably impressive like all the pictures you see, but we were told the nearby Crazy Horse Monument was better, although it has decades of blasting and chiselling to go before any sign of completion. Anyway, we did the little walking circuit under the Presidents' faces and admired this patriotic salute to all things American. Time to move on.
We headed down from the Black Hills towards Badlands National Park and made stops on the way, firstly to talk to a rancher, Ken Wilson, who had 5,000 head of cattle on 40,000 acres. We'd stopped at the end of his driveway to take some pics of the fall foliage. Like so many other friendly people we came across, I guess they were happy to chat with anyone that stopped, especially Australians! At the next settlement (ghost town!) of Scenic, Clare was given a little history by a first nation guy sitting outside the local store. The glory days of Scenic had long since passed, and this was literally a tumbleweed town where we expected to see Wylie Coyote chasing the roadrunner down the street with some Acme TNT. We gave the guy a few bucks and carried on.
The weather was doing weird things as we drive across the amazingly flat South Dakota landscape towards Badlands. The towns out here along the I-90 started to resemble what you might imagine of the American "outback" - dusty, trailer park homes, quite rundown, etc. We established pretty quickly we definitely wouldn't want to live out here. This is the area where America once kept it's "Minuteman" longrange nuclear missiles, but the vistor centre was closed so we moved on. The open air Prairie Homestead along the road was also closed for the season (it looked abandoned), so we scaled the fences to take a look around. Lots of cute prairie dogs popping their heads out of their burrows. We tore off into Badlands and made a few scenic stops along the way. Thick cloud had moved across now, and any hint of the fabulous colours that this area is famous for were well and truly washed out. But the views were still amazing and it was worth the drive. Rain & darkness were falling as we took the I-90 back into Rapid City, past Ellsworth Air Force Base, more trailer park homes and finally to our table at the Red Lobster... God Bless America!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Elvis does his stuff

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
After a couple of days in Las Vegas, we'd settled in. Well, as much as having Bloody Mary's for breakfast is settling in to anywhere. Hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! Our hotel room facing the strip had a wonderful view, but absorbed the full cacophony of wailing sirens 24 hours a day and sightseeing helicopters returning to the nearby Airport in a constant stream like the evacuation of Saigon. Nice. We soon met Mahia & Trent (and various friends & family members) and started planning some little activities, all leading up to their afternoon wedding at "A Little White Chapel" at the other end of the strip. We all hit the factory outlet stores (outstanding value for clothes & shoes) and a bunch of us had a very entertaining time at the Madame Tussauds Las Vegas. We poked some good fun at George Bush and got a great pic with Elvis (the first of our Elvis experiences). This was located at The Venetian, which, while spectacular in it's own right (along with other Vegas casinos), does not replicate Italy. As much as I can be a philistine of fine arts, even I can see the value in visiting the real historical places in our world (like Italy), versus the Las Vegas or theme park version. In the mean time, Clare was enjoying the poolside cocktails and catching up on yet more work. We had a brilliant 2nd Anniversay dinner at Sushi Roku Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. After missing sushi in Ireland this was truly superb - sashimi, soft-shell crab, lobster, yet more cocktails, etc... in a "Blade Runner" Meets Ginza interior design... A bit dark for reading the menu but all very good with friendly service.
The afternoon of the wedding rolled around, and we all made our way to "A Little White Chapel" for the ultimate Las Vegas wedding. I knew this place had old movie star folklore, but it was far smaller and pokier than one might have expected - but all part of the experience. We eventually filed into the small chapel (would fit maybe 20 people max.) and an Elvis impersonator opened the proceedings with "Viva Las Vegas", followed by another quick number while the webcam was activated... Australia, you're live! Mahia wore a red Chinese dress with Trent in a black suit. The wedding celebrant was a funny little lady - not sure if there was much scripting to it all. Vows were exchanged, another famous number from Elvis, a few photos, and things were wrapped up. As the next wedding started inside, we all congregrated outside watching the girls on the swings over the road under the giant NUDE sign. We took the a stretch limo ride back to the Excalibur, with the driver telling us about his most famous customers. That night we ventured out through more smoky casino floors to "Gonzalez Y Gonzalez" at New York New York for plastic souvenir yardglasses filled with frozen margaritas (I still have mine!) and obscenely large plates of Mexican food. Very Las Vegas...
The next morning we braved our way through the TSA security processing and had breakfast at the Airport. I had my final win on the slots (Star Wars), and we flew off to Denver with United Airlines. That's enough of Vegas for another few years!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Viva Las Vegas!

USA blogs, October 2007:
1. Viva Las Vegas!
2. Elvis does his stuff
3. It's raining in Rapid City
4. South Dakota to Wyoming
5. Devils Tower Wyoming
6. The world of Yellowstone...
7. Your friendly Wyoming law enforcement...
8. New York, New York...

flickr photo link: <USA, Oct 07>
15 Oct 07 CO127 DUB/EWR 1045/1305
15 Oct 07 CO1468 EWR/LAS 1615/1847
19 Oct 07 UA1610 LAS/DEN 1100/1356
26 Oct 07 CO629 DEN/EWR 1225/1810
27 Oct 07 CO126 EWR/DUB 2155/0825+1
Well here we are at the centre of decadence in the western world, and Las Vegas is still well and truly living up to the hype! From the astonishingly huge themed casinos to the endless magic & Cirque Du Soleil shows, Vegas is still pulling them in thanks to slick marketing and a genuine wow factor. We're staying at Excalibur (around US $100/nt but varies massively), and with 4,008 rooms this is the 7th largest hotel in the world. Thankfully, we don't think it's quite full right now! Punters play in the smoky air-conditioned comfort of the casino floor (more than 100,000 square feet) and feed money into the slot machines, then retreat to the myriad of food options including 24 hour McDonald's & Krispy Kreme Donuts, etc, etc. Clare and I have successfully avoided the junk however, and had some some of the best sushi we've ever had at Suski Roku, where everything is flown in daily (more in the next update). So each casino is a slight variation of the next - the outside might be Caesar's or Venetian or Paris, etc. and the rooms might be more plush, but the same smoky darkness and bling-bling machines dominate every design.
I find Vegas very interesting as I first came here in my travel industry days (early 90's). Many of the older casinos have been demolished, leaving huge dusty sites along the strip, and the city is well and truly in the grips of another casino building boom. Everything being built seems to appeal to a hip new demographic, which seems strange as the average age of visitor this week seems like 50+. Certainly the "family" pitch which existed a few years back seems to have disappeared, with less fun park rides now, replaced by more designer shops and casino floor space. Gambling revenues are still the key to the existence of this city. People stroll along the strip each night with their souvenir cups filled to the brim with frozen margaritas, while hordes of marketing canvassers flog time share with "free" shows and cards for call girls. But sorry, no such thing as free round here. And of course once you get away from the strip you quickly see a more real side to Vegas, cookie-cutter apartment blocks sprawled across the desert floor to support the 100's of 1000's of low income service workers here.
Now we're in Vegas as my friends Mahia & Trent are getting married here. So more on that in the next blog update. Bye for now!