Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Call Me Skywalker

A pic of me standing at Guano Point on the western rim of the Grand Canyon last week. The vista is about 20 miles wide from here to the furtherest viewable ridge.

From cruising altitude on a bright, mostly cloudless summer morning the landscape of our nation turns from green across the southeast gradually to tan about central Texas and then to reddish-brown somewhere over New Mexico. I flew into Phoenix last week with my boss and the other managers where I work for a meeting with a Utah-based corporation we represent throughout the south. A direct flight to Salt Lake City from Atlanta was three times as expensive as a stop-over in Arizona. So, that was the route we took.

It was the first time I’ve flown since my pleasure trip to Boston two years ago. I am a complete, unashamed tourist when it comes to flying. I prefer a window seat and I thoroughly enjoy gawking like a child at whatever might be below. I saw three rather large wind-farms along the way. The dry region of west Texas and New Mexico were speckled with numerous crop circles decorating the land like green polka dots.

We had time for a little site-seeing after we finally arrived in Salt Lake. I think the country is gorgeous up there. My previous trips to Utah have all been in winter. The snow-capped mountains set against the typically jet-blue sky is something I always find inspiring. This time virtually all the snow was gone except within some deeper crevasses near the peaks. But, the snow-melt was bountiful this year. The rivers were raging and the trees were in bright green hues set against the rocky ridgelines and blue sky.

The next day was taken up with a five-hour strategy meeting with the top corporate executives. It went smoothly enough. I had about a 20-minute presentation that turned into over an hour due to some really good interaction and discussion with all the big “wheels” of the firm. Our president was the master of ceremonies, of course. The support manager and sales manager followed me with their sections. Sales have been disappointing for everyone this year but the executives were impressed with our plans for the fall and the high probability that we will close some major business deals by year-end.

The meeting lasted so long we almost missed our flight out of Salt Lake. My boss wanted to mix a little “team-building” in with the business trip. So, it was his idea to fly us all into Las Vegas after the meeting. In my mind, of all the places I want to visit in my life, Vegas was not high on the list. Of course, it is a unique place so I was curious about it. But, my curiosity did not necessarily translate into a genuine excitement about going there. I don’t gamble. My previous experience with casinos along the Mississippi River was a depressing one. All those people mindlessly blowing all that money in one of the crassest forms of material nothingness. That’s how it all seemed to me.

It turned out that none of the guys I traveled with were into gambling. So, while we were going to Vegas and certainly intended on sampling the lively culture of the “sin city,” our broader plan was to use it as a staging area for a visit to the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Don’t think the possibilities of The Hangover (four guys headed to Vegas for entertainment purposes) was lost on me. I jokingly told Jennifer and my daughter, who both – like myself - thought that movie was hilarious, that I wanted to be the guy who was lost up on the roof. All he got out of the experience was a bad sunburn, after all.

It didn’t turn out exactly like that. Though we did celebrate the way the meeting in Utah went with a great dinner and plenty of draft beer that night in Vegas. We all got a nice buzz and one of the managers and I spent a couple of hours walking through different casinos until the wee hours. I was particularly fascinated by the craps tables and watched them with interest, trying to figure out the rules. Each casino had the same buzzing vibe and excitement.

But, before all that there was the experience of exiting the airport at Vegas and experiencing 100-plus degree heat of the day. They all say it is a “dry heat,” of course. Well, the heat in my oven at home is pretty dry too; and it cooks stuff. It was way too hot to be enjoyable. Whose idea was it to come to the desert in August anyway? Not mine I assure you.

Vegas is nothing like the Mississippi River gambling culture. In fact, Vegas is not like anything. Vegas is Vegas. It was clean, pristine, big, bold, flashy, vibrant, exciting, and surreal. We pulled in to the Luxor Hotel which was a great surprise for me. I’ve never stayed in a gigantic pyramid before. At night the pyramid is illuminated from inside the very tip, shooting a beam of bright, white light seemingly forever upward into the desert darkness. Meanwhile, the each corner of the pyramid pulsates with short beams of light that throb upward toward the peak. Not your normal hotel for sure.

Nothing normal about the interior either. It is all done in an ancient Egyptian motif. As we initially walked along the breezeway into the hotel from the parking deck, the sun was at an acute angle, bathing the off-white walkway in a deep orange hue. From the breezeway we saw hundreds of people enjoying a gigantic pool complex. Some were splashing in the water, some lounging with drinks; all like water nymphs accentuating the larger-than-life nature of the space in that particular moment. It was all so clean and positive and beautiful. Perhaps it was simple jet lag but I suddenly felt invigorated by the moment, as if I were part of some dreamscape. I tapped one of my companions on the shoulder and jokingly inquired: “Are we in heaven? Or maybe some den of iniquity?” We laughed.

They made a mistake on booking our rooms. They only had us down for one room instead of two. For the “inconvenience” we were upgraded to two enormous rooms. (Here comes The Hangover connection again.) My boss and I shared a room that was larger than my first house…1700 square feet. It was absurdly decadent and only added to the energy I was already experiencing in the moment.

We didn’t get to linger in everything that the Hotel and Vegas had to offer, however. The next morning we were enjoying a hearty breakfast at 8AM at a local IHOP before venturing out into the Nevada and Arizona desert to visit the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. The drive through the desert was interesting at first. Eventually, it became rather monotonous for me. Scrubby land, obscure towns in the distance, lots of weathered ridges. Quite a contrast to the Salt Lake area with its greenery and abundance of snowmelt fresh water.

Before monotony had a chance to set in, however, we reached the Hoover Dam, which is a short drive from Vegas. It is an impressive site, a fairly huge human footprint in the midst of the Colorado River. The enormous construction is matched by the massive man-made Lake Mead which formed after the dam was completed. We took a complete tour of the dam which is one of the most complex engineering achievements I’ve ever witnessed. I could appreciate its historic, political, and economic value.

Also appreciated was the fact that it was 108 degrees when we came out of the tour. One of the observation decks for photo taking featured a nice, wide brass hand rail. It burned my hand slightly as I thoughtlessly leaned into it a bit while positioning myself for a pic. Dumb move on my part. I wasn’t perspiring much in the arid conditions but I certainly was far from comfortable.

After admiring the achievement of the Hoover Dam we were back in our rented van headed two more hours east through Arizona to the western rim of the Grand Canyon. The National Park would have taken us almost another two hours by van. This was the much more practical solution as we had to catch a flight out of Vegas later that evening.

We didn’t realize we were headed into the middle of nowhere, however. This part of Arizona does not impress me. It is miles and miles of sameness. From past experiences, Washington state, Colorado, and Utah are more interesting to travel through.

At any rate we arrived at the turn-off for the west rim, located about 49 miles away. The road took us through the mysterious town of Dolan Springs. I say mysterious because it seems to be a collection of trailers and small houses scattered amongst the dirty brush and Joshua trees that are so prevalent in this area. We have no idea what these people do for a living. There is no business in Dolan Springs except for a few localized eating establishments, a gas station, and a Family Dollar Store. It is an hour to the nearest grocer. Why these people are there and what they do befuddled us. Perhaps they are all a bunch of very cold-natured retirees that prefer 100-plus degree days without any shade. Who knows?

There were several scattered groups of long-horned cattle roaming freely out beyond Dolan Springs. You had to watch for them as they have a tendency to wander into the road. Then, about halfway to the Grand Canyon, the pavement ended. We ventured onward through the dust of on-coming traffic and the teeth rattling, uneven, wash-board dirt road surface for another 14 miles. In the middle of all this there was a sign advertising 180 acres for sale – zoned commercial. It was so bizarre we could help but laugh. But, we managed to rumble through it all until the road became paved again and we finally arrived at the western rim of the canyon.

This is Havasupai Indian land and the native-Americans run the tours for this section of the canyon. We took a bus tour out to two viewing locations for taking the panoramic view of this incredible natural wonder. The highlight of the tour was a new attraction called the Skywalk. The building for the Skywalk, intended to be a museum and gift shop, is still under construction but the Skywalk itself was fully complete.

It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The magnificence of the Grand Canyon was pretty mind-blowing in itself. But, to walk out onto a glass floor in the shape of a large horseshoe hanging out over a cliff hundreds of feet high is not something everyone can handle. It was a bit intimidating at first. But soon I was shuffling along in the special footie’s you must slip on over your shoes.

There we were out in the hot sun looking down at the valley sloping deep toward the Colorado River underneath our feet. My boss felt a bit uneasy about the whole thing and preferred to walk along the railings on the sides which are covered with about 18 inches of concrete flooring so you at least have something besides clear glass under your feet. I have plenty of anxiety about certain things but a fear of heights is not one of them. It was truly an extraordinary experience to literally walk the sky. Worth the whole trip by itself. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed on the viewing platform but you can see what it was like in the Skywalk links provided above.

Afterwards, we took in some native-American exhibits, watched some visiting Navajo Indians do a few of their traditional dances and enjoyed some good barbeque at the third stop on our canyon tour – a rustic looking, recreation of a old western town complete with horse rides, gunfights, and other ways that white men managed to screw up the cultural heritage of the western native peoples. Good food though. And water. I drank like a fish the whole time.

Back over the unpaved road and through mysterious Dolan Springs and through the, by now, unimpressive Arizona desert. Back to Vegas just at sunset. The city stretches on in the darkness in all directions with light provided by the giant turbines of Hoover Dam. It was 100 degrees in the twilight of evening. We boarded the red-eye flight out of Vegas back to Atlanta. I slept about 3 and a half hours before landing at Hartsfield at about 6:30 Saturday morning, blurry minded and trying to appreciate the whirlwind tour of three western states in about 72 hours.

I’m glad we made the journey and walked in the sky; both over the canyon by foot and over the country by plane. The American West is big. Big sky, big space, big dams, big canyons, big casinos. It draws people from all over the world. I saw and heard Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Italians, Germans, Brazilians, and who knows what all. Vegas is a huge magnet for people looking for a unique experience and the trip was certainly that; for me, even bigger than Vegas itself. Vegas is all glitz and glitter and energized activity. Walking the sky is not so commercial, though it is certainly a thrill surpassing in my mind the collective neon in all those signs powered by a concrete monstrosity mastered by engineers many decades ago.

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