Bright Light City

Frickin’ Vegas baby!

After my trip to the Grand Canyon, the next day saw me heading back west, over the Hoover Dam into Nevada, and to Las Vegas. Vegas is one of the many places in America I’ve wanted to go to for a long time, and I probably would have been going on this trip anyway, but happily my trip to the States also coincided with The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 (TAM8), the critical thinking and skepticism conference organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). 

TAM8 was held at the South Point Casino which is about 2 miles south of the main strip. That didn’t matter though, when I pulled up outside and walked through the front door, right into all the sounds and lights of a real Las Vegas casino. It was another one of those real ‘just like the movies’ moments. And when I’d checked in and seen the size of my (£28 a night) room I actually jumped up and down like an excited child.

I met up with my friend Liza (@wickedlibrarian), who had travelled down from her home in Illinois with her husband Bill (@billtannica) for TAM. It was great to see Liza again having met her previously on her trip to the UK last autumn, and to meet Bill. And after 10 days travelling alone, as much fun as that had been, it was lovely to see some familiar faces.

Although I was mainly in Vegas for TAM, and to experience all that it would have to offer, I was also determined to see ‘Las Vegas’ too. After checking into the hotel I had to take my now beloved Dodge back to the car rental place at the airport, but before I did that I had just enough time to take a drive down the strip and see some of the world famous hotels. There really is something very surreal about an almost life size Eiffel Tower in the middle of the Nevada desert! 

I got a chance to see some more of the strip on my second day in Vegas – we met Bill’s cousins for lunch, next to the Trevi Fountain in Caesar’s Palace (like you do) and then after getting a lift down to the Stratosphere at the north end of the strip then walked back through some of the other hotels – notably the Venetian, Paris, and the new City Centre. Luckily a lot of the hotels are connected, requiring minimal time to be spent outside in the ridiculous desert heat – I swear the soles on my Converse were actually melting!

The three days of speakers and events of TAM were brilliant – if you haven’t heard of TAM and have no idea what I’m talking about there’s a good summary here. I’m not going to go into masses of detail about what happened and who I saw here but I will mention a few highlights. After about 18 months of listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe it was very exciting to be witness to two live recordings (even if they were at 8am and I was still eating breakfast at the time) and I got to speak to one of the hosts, Jay Novella, when I was buying an SGU t-shirt. Also, getting to hear James Randi himself speaking (particularly his very interesting reminisces about his many appearances on the Johnny Carson TV show) and to see the tiny man himself in the corridors (although I didn’t have the balls to actually speak to him) was pretty awesome. Other great speakers for me were Michael Shermer, Simon Singh (as always), Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, Paul Provenza and the now infamous ‘Don’t be a dick’ speech by Phil Plait (you can read a transcript here). 

And of course, I can’t forget to mention the Skepchick‘s Bordello Party, which took place about a mile from the hotel at a cabin in the desert. It was a lot of fun and I got to speak to current JREF president DJ Grothe, and talk to fellow Brit, Sid Rodrigues.

On my last night in Las Vegas (which was also my last night in America) I headed back down the strip to get the full on night time Vegas experience. And I loved it! I saw the pirate show at Treasure Island, went into even more of the hotels including the Luxor, Excaliber, New York, New York and my favourite; the Bellagio. I also saw the fountains at the Bellagio a couple of times. They are amazing, and I think probably my favourite thing in Vegas.

And that was it. I left Vegas and flew back to the UK (spending two hours in Houston, Texas on the way). It was the end of my American adventure but not the end of my holiday. I still had another ten days to spend in London and at Latitude Festival before I finally made it home.

This really was a trip of a lifetime. I knew when I was planning it that it was going to be brilliant but I didn’t realise just how amazing it was going to be. I packed so much into my 19 nights that it felt like I had been there months. And there was another thing that made my trip even more amazing than I could have imagined….and that was something that has turned into an entirely new adventure….

You see, I had company on my trip. Not actual physical company, but virtual company from a boy; a boy I had met on my last trip to London and had started chatting to online before setting off on my trip. All the time I was 5000 miles and 8 hours away, we exchanged emails and tweets and texts, then phone calls for hours (oh, how I love the wonder that is Skype), and somehow, despite the strangeness of the circumstances our friendship and later mutual admiration grew. And this weekend, 8 weeks and 10500 miles after first meeting, I went to see him at home in Manchester….and we started our new adventure together. It seems you really do find love when you least expect it after all. 

I get my kicks on Route 66

I’ve totally neglected this blogging thing…but it’s such a pain in the arse to do on my phone, and I’m guessing most of you who read this have seen my updates on Twitter and Facebook anyway. Still, I’m going to try and do a quick round up of what I’ve been doing since that last blog post.

Wednesday – Shannon and I went and did the tourist thing in LA. We drove down the coast past the stupidly expensive beach front houses of Malibu, and the amusement park on Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach, with the delayed reaction instructions of the satnav on my phone causing much hilarity along the way.

We saw all the sights of Venice Beach – a man wearing tiny shorts and working out at Muscle Beach, skaters and cyclists, hippies and street traders, and not forgetting the several offices of Marijuana Doctors! And I bought a new hat from a man who called himself ‘Hat Dog’ and kept randomly making me try on different hats while telling me, several times, how nobody new more about hats than him, and how Angelina Jolie had bought 17 hats off him! He was hilarious, but I think if I hadn’t been with Shannon I would have been a little bit terrified.

After some lunch we drove to Hollywood Boulevard through Beverley Hills and past Rodeo Drive – which I was very excited about due to their prominence in Pretty Woman! On Hollywood Boulevard we looked at the Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk, saw the Kodak Theater where the Oscars are held and, my favourite bit, saw all the hand and footprints outside Graumann’s Chinese Theater. You could spend hours there just comparing the size of your hands and feet to all the celebrities!

After a quick glimpse of the Hollywood sign and (more) ice cream we headed back up to Shannon’s house. But a bit bizarrely to a different house to the one we left in the morning. I have to thank Shannon and Jeremy so much for their hospitality – I don’t think I would want a guest when I was literally in the middle of moving house! And despite my worries I wasn’t even very allergic to their cute little dogs Austin and Marvin.

I loved LA and it was great to see all the famous sights and the places you recognise from the movies, but I don’t think I could spend any longer than a day there!

Thursday – A fairly early start, a little bit if shopping at the outlet mall where I wanted to buy new Converse but ended up with a Gap hoody too, and then I was back on the road heading for Palm Springs, a place I’d heard of but didn’t know much about. A pretty boring drive down the Interstate later and I was stepping out of the car into 110 degree heat – that’s about 43 centigrade. I’ve experienced that kind of heat before, in the heatwave of 2003 when I was working in the Dordogne. But this was desert heat, and it’s like actually being in an oven! A quick enquiry at the visitor centre and I’d landed a room at a fairly swanky hotel (with a pool) for the bargain price of $40. In the evening I had a wander round the street market they have on the main street every Thursday evening, and along with some corn on the cob and fresh lemonade, I also got a massage from a Chinese man. Excellent.

Friday – The reason I was in Palm Springs was to go the 2.5 miles up Mount Saint Jacinta on the Arial Tramway as recommended by my friends Claire and Dave. And boy am I glad I followed their recommendation.

I was up and about early enough to get the first car up the mountain at 10am, with an assortment of ill-prepared tourists and over-equipped hikers, and I’m glad I did, because when I went on the 1.5 mile Desert View loop there was no-one else around to spoil my enjoyment of the absolutely awesome fucking views. It was just staggering – we just don’t get vistas that…big in Europe. It’s really hard to explain just how breathtaking it was, hopefully when I get home and get the photos off my actual camera some of them will do it justice. And it was also a blessedly cool 20 centigrade up there. I spent an hour or so admiring the views then came back down and set off on my drive to Yuma, right on the California/ Arizona border, and the Yuma of the film ‘3.10 to Yuma’ fame. I found a motel, had some food and got I think the earliest night of my whole holiday. Man I was tired!

Saturday – After a look round the Quatermaster’s Store, a preserved military depot from the 19th Century and the Yuma Territorial Prison museum, I set off on the drive North to Kingman on Route 66. And the first few hours of that drive were up the US 95 which runs up through Arizona. It is one of those roads that looks like someone has drawn it on the map with a ruler. Running perfectly North/South in the straightest line you’ve ever seen. I turned on the cruise control and rested my fingertips on the wheel, and that was about all I needed to do!

As I drove further north the road got a bit more interesting as it ran alongside the Colorado river (which seemed to be full of people in speedboats and on jet skis enjoying the holiday weekend). When I hit the I-40 I actually had to drive a little way in the wrong direction so I could get on to ‘Historic Route 66’ and yes, I did play the song at full blast as soon as I hit my first actual bit of the old road! The bit I drove winds its way through the Black Mountains and the town of Oatman, which really is still like the the old Wild West, wooden sidewalks, wild donkeys and all!

It’s amazing to think that this steep, winding, probably somewhat treacherous road was once (and until fairly recently – well the late 70s/ early 80s anyway) the main thoroughfare across the States. After driving through the hills from Oatman I arrived in Kingman. Which in the words of the song sits between ‘Flagstaff Arizona, don’t forget Winona…’ and ‘Barstow, San Bernadino’. Kingman has a rich Route 66 history and I stayed in the properly old school Hill Top Motel, and further indulged my love of 50s diners at Mr D’s.

Sunday – Independence Day
After a look round the excellent Route 66 museum and the pancakes for breakfast that I’d been holding out for. I was intending on driving east to Meteor Crater then back west to spend the night in Flagstaff but I mentioned it on Twitter the lovely Liza (@wickedlibrarian) did some research online for me and found out the July 4th Fireworks had been cancelled due to the high fire risk. She suggested I try Sedona which is about 30 miles south of Flagstaff.

But first I went to the Arizona Meteor Crater, another thing I wouldn’t have done were it not for a recommendation, this time from the awesome @BarrySkellern. The crater was formed 50,000 years ago by a 150 foot meteor and it was really impressive to see. The little museum there was great too, with lots of interactive exhibits.

So then I set of back west heading for Sedona, what I didn’t realise was that once I left the Interstate at Flagstaff I would be driving right through Oak Creek Canyon, another spectacular experience. It took a bit of driving about to find a motel and when I did the only room they had left was a ‘jacuzzi room’ so they gave it me at a discount and I actually had an anteroom off the bedroom just for the jacuzzi!

A short drive down the road took me to Cottonwood and the fireworks display. I managed to find it somewhat accidentally then found myself in a field full of hundreds of Americans and more glowsticks than I’ve ever seen before in my life! I had a hot dog and ooh’ed and ahh’ed with the rest of ’em. It was almost like being a native!

Monday – Back to Flagstaff and a look round the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was first discovered. When i arrived they were doing solar viewings with a specially filtered telescope and I got to look at the sun and see a tiny black sunspot which is actually the size of the Earth! We got to in one of the domes and see the original telescope Lowell himself used when he was looking for life on Mars in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. That was really cool and then I had a very quick look round the exhibits…but I think I’m a bit over -spaced at the moment, certainly at the level of space information available in tourist attractions!

After the observatory I carried on west to Williams and to the first accommodation I’d actually booked in advance since San Francisco. It’s a little B&B called the Canyon Country Inn right on Route 66. I did make a bit of a school boy error when booking because it doesn’t have wifi but then when I booked I didn’t realise how much I would be relying on internet access during this trip. Still all it took was a short stroll down the main street to find wifi spilling out of all the other motels.

Before I went out for dinner I sat out on the little porch outside my room, playing my ukulele and drinking a beer. Living. The. Dream.

Tuesday – I took the old Grand Canyon Railway which has period cars and provides information and entertainment en route to the Canyon. It takes about two and a half hours to get there, and it was a joy to have a day off from driving.

The Canyon was pretty much exactly as I expected. It’s very impressive, especially the first five minutes of staring at it in wonder. And it’s also heaving with tourists, exactly as I expected. From the train depot (which is at the South Rim) I walked west along the rim trail then followed the Bright Angel trail down into the Canyon. This is one of the trails that leads all the way down to the Colorado river, if you follow it long enough. I only walked down a mile or so and found a little spot in the shade, just off the trail to eat my lunch. While I was there I saw a mule train coming back up the trail. That’s got to be the easy way to do it! Once I came back up I walked a bit further along the rim trail then headed back for the train back to Williams.

The Grand Canyon is an impressive place and if I ever went back I’d love to the overnight hike right down to the river. But because it was precisely what I was expecting, and because it was so full of tourists it can’t beat that view and the peace and quiet at the top of that cable car above Palm Springs.

Tomorrow I’m entering into Phase 3 of my trip. I’m driving to Vegas, dropping off my Dodge and spending the next four days at The Amaz!ng Meeting. I’ll be meeting up with Liza (and Bill, her husband too) which I’m really looking forward, especially since I’ve not seen her since October!

It feels like a month since I was in San Francisco, not a week. I don’t think I could’ve crammed any more into this holiday if I tried. It is officially The Best Holiday Ever.

For now, thanks for reading and I bid you adieu.

Adventures in Southern California: The Return

Oh dear blog reader, how I’ve been neglecting you…but I’ve just been so gosh-darned busy over here in the US of A.

So, when I left you it was Friday and I’d just spent my first full day in San Francisco. Here’s what happened next (in brief)…

Saturday –
I hired a bike and rode from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge (only about 3 miles). I only rode to the middle of the bridge and back because despite it being really sunny and hot at sea level it was still misty (and freezing) on the bridge.

There was a great spot to take photos on the way down though with brilliant views over the city. A nice man offered to take this photo for me but I’m sticking to principle that every photo of me on this holiday will be taken by me with only the views in the background changing!

After that I had a wander in Fisherman’s Wharf which is really tacky- just like the Golden Mile back home in Blackpool really! Then I rode the cable car all the way back downtown. I was hanging off the side like a real tourist which is pretty scary when you start going down those hills!

The weather was really hot, but quite windy so you didn’t notice it so much. When I was on the bike I had leggings and my converse boots on and managed to sunburn the 4 inches of exposed flesh! And my nose a bit too… My legs now look completely ridiculous with their stripy sections!

Sunday –
I was awake at 7am to watch the football (don’t know why I bothered!), then I went to watch some of the Gay Pride parade which was cool – very flamboyant! One whole section was just cheerleaders and they were my favourites, even when it seemed like they were about to throw people into the overhead electric cables that the buses run on!

After that I walked miles to the Golden Gate park and went to the Academy of Sciences – the guy working on reception at the hotel had recommended it. It was good too – the planetarium was my favourite bit, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg no less! And it has a ‘living roof’ which was really cool, and, I believe, inspired by the Teletubbies!

After that I got the bus to the pier for the boat to Alcatraz. And there it is…The Rock.

It was brilliant- there was an audio tour of the cellhouse narrated by former officers and inmates then a talk about some of the escape attempts. And I spent most of the time trying to spot film locations!

I went on the evening tour so the boat back was at 8.40 just as the sun was setting- the views were amazing. Then on the way back to my hotel I had pasta in Little Italy then went to a bar as recommended by Michael Legge…where they filmed a bit of Basic Instinct apparently!

Monday –
I checked out of the hotel and picked up my rental car – a Dodge Caliber…it’s pretty big but not massive. And I managed to drive out of San Fran without crashing or dying, despite the best efforts of the satnav to make me turn left when I wasn’t allowed… and I keep trying to change gear! From San Francisco I went to Walnut Creek, over the Oakland bridge to the San Francisco Creamery for ice cream. I saw it on Man v. Food and had to go there! I had a corned beef sandwich with actual corned beef that didn’t come out of a tin, and then had the biggest dish of apple pie flavour ice cream ever made, and that was a small!

From there I headed down Highway 1; the Pacific Coast Highway, to a place called San Simeon where William Randolph Hearst built a castle…the barman at the hotel in San Francisco recommended it, and it’s about half way to Oxnard where I was going next to meet my Twitter friend Shannon (@monasmith).

The views down the coast were amazing. I realised I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean before. It’s a really great drive along the winding coast road, if you ever find yourself in that part of the world I would definitely recommend it over the main Highway 101.

There isn’t really anything in San Simeon itself except a load of motels but I was excited to stay in a motel right on the coast, just like in the movies with drive up rooms and everything!

I got up pretty early and was at Hearst Castle by 9.30am but it seems you really need to book in advance because the next available tour wasn’t until 11.50am. I really didn’t want to wait around that long but I did see the really good 40 minute film about the history of the castle and had a look round the exhibits in the visitor centre. I didn’t even get a glimpse of the castle in the ended because it’s way up on the hill and was completely hidden in the mist!

From San Simeon I carried on South to Oxnard where I was going to stay with Shannon, only stopping for lunch in a cute little town called Summerland, oh and being baffled when trying to fill the car with petrol…it turned out I had to leave my credit card with the cashier before they would turn the pump on….I eventually discovered when the lady in the shop spoke to me through the pump!

I arrived at Shannon’s at about 4pm (I don’t know how I would be managing without the satnav on my phone by the way) and we had a good catch up before I went to watch her Roller Derby practice. I knew a bit about derby but it’s pretty brutal! Looks like a lot of fun though. After practice we headed back to Shannon’s and bed.

I’m going to leave this here for now as it’s already miles long. Yesterday I spent the day being a tourist LA and Hollywood with Shannon and today I drove to Palm Springs….which is definitely the hottest place so far, I suppose it is in the desert after all…but I’m going to save the details for another day. Rest assured though, I think so far this is the best holiday I’ve ever had…and I’ve still got 10 days to go!

As always, thanks for reading. Until next time….