"Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset up ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind. Ah yes. This is what it's all about."
-- Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
This post is part of a series, for part one click here.
The short version of it goes like this: I spent the first three months of my life in Pensacola, Florida, before I moved to Leigh Acres, Florida, a tiny retirement community just outside of Fort Myers. Around seven, my father's work transfered him to Mobile, Alabama, another Gulf Coast town just three hours east of New Orleans, one hour west of Pensacola, and 45 minutes from the casinos in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Now for the relevant parts: As a tween and teen, my summers and spring breaks were spent either at Perdido Beach Resort or the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi. The Beau (as they called it) was brand new, every inch of it gleamed. The banisters were gold, the potted plants in real marble vases. I can still see the floral wallpapers that hung in the public lav. The family often stayed for a few days at a time and in the evenings, my mother would lean over the edge of our tented cabana and call to me in the pool. I was always swimming. I never stopped swimming.
"Don't you want to see Cirque du Soleil?" she would ask.
"No, I'd rather keep swimming," I'd say. After supper, my sister and I would go up to the room and dance to N'sync while our parents gambled 20 floors below us. That was the first time we'd ever been left alone, our first taste of freedom. During Katrina a 30 foot storm surge obliterated The Beau and the other waterfront casinos. It was rebuilt, and my parents went back.
"It's not the same," they said. Of course it wasn't.
I considered all of this while I lay in bed in Las Vegas Wednesday morning. No wonder the casinos and the slot machines felt like more than what they were, and walking through The Bellagio lobby felt so good. It was owned by the same developers who built The Beau and even modeled after it architecturally. It was pure nostalgia. It was like reliving that time through wiser, adult eyes with deeper pockets, more freedom, more everything.
We are everything we were before now.
I turned over in bed to check the time: 9:30 am. The next few days lay scheduled before me. Even before eating, my first, initial craving was put money in a machine and push the button. Thank god I didn't live in this town, I'd never leave The Strip.
Nicole and I had two plans for Wednesday: visiting her office and the Hoover Dam. We skip breakfast but make up for it with gigantic sandwiches from Capriotti's. I shook hands with her friendly fellow-vets at the office. There was a moment when I noticed Nicole's monogrammed lab coat, her name in full with "Dr." as the prefix. My eyes watered at the reminder that we were both adults and that she had achieved her dream. I'm a sap.
After the office we hit the highway again. There's no drive in Las Vegas that isn't scenic, it seems. Beauty surrounds us on all sides as we get close to the state line.
"My mom is going to kill me," I say to Nicole. My mom has had nightmares about The Hoover Dam since I was in high school and warned me against going there for years. "I'm just not going to tell her till we're done."
"After this trip your mom is going to want to kill me," says Nicole. She puts on a voice like my mother's. "'What are you making Ariel do?'"
The car starts going up higher and higher hills. The streets are now one-laned, curving around mountains and rock formations. This is definitely the landscape that "Roadrunner" ran across when he escaped from "Wiley E. Coyote."
Nicole points to Lake Mead, which flows right up to the Hoover Dam. She can't stop talking about the water levels in Nevada, and how alarmingly low they've gotten over the years.
"See that white rock? The water used to be up to there, now look at it!" she says over and over. "I can't stay in Vegas forever, this place is going to dry up."
Traffic gets thicker as a cop waves us up another set of hills, and we park the car in a garage. We've made it to the dam. So far, I'm still alive.
We start walking the dam and admiring the view of the river all surrounded by rocks. Many of the same plaques first put on the dam still exist, the dedications on them are written in a gold, art deco font. It's cute. We cross the border into Arizona, which surprises me.
"I had no idea I'd get to go to a new state!" I exclaim.
We get a photo of me straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona. I look around at all the flags and plaques and monuments and speakers playing trumpet music -- this place feels more American than Washington D.C.
There's a road that will take you to a bridge to view the Dam from up high. We make the ascent and note that it's even more beautiful from up above and boy, what a drop to the bottom. I'm usually not afraid of heights, but my mothers dream keeps popping up in my head. We head back to the city and so far, I'm still alive.
Back at the apartment we relax. We're tired from the night out before and the early morning. We want to go out to The Strip but decide against it, we have to get up at 6 am to go to Zion National Park.
I sleep deeply and the next morning, and an hour off schedule, we're headed east toward Utah. Nicole puts on Phish.
"With views like these, we should be listening to Aaron Copland," I say. "We're in the heartland!"
("My heart feels like an alligator!")
We whirl through the Virgin River Gorge, a weaving road between rock formations. We make a pit stop in a tiny little Utah town for In and Out burgers on a street named after Brigham Young.
"Nicole I just realized I'm wearing leggings. We can't get out of the car," I say. She bursts out laughing.
"They won't do anything!"
"Do you know how many blog posts I've seen about how unholy it is for women to wear leggings? I'm hiking but I should have brought jeans. I don't want to disrespect their community..." I say quickly.
The prudish side of me, the side that likes to conform with the ideals of the religious world, comes out. It hadn't made an appearance since I landed in Las Vegas. I love protocol, I love showing people that I respect them (through my actions, my dress, etc.) even if I don't always agree with them. I just didn't know that Zion Canyon was in Utah.
"No ones going to care!" says Nicole.
"We're in Mormon country!" I say. "Oh my gosh I'm wearing an Obama sweatshirt, too."
"Don't worry, we're going through the drive through. Just don't laugh at my order," Nicole says. She rattles off a list of secret-menu items and asks for "stickers, and a hat too." We tear into our burgers the rest of the drive, following the signs to Zion. After passing through several sleepy towns, we meet the park, and it is impressive.
Nicole describes all the different hiking trails we can go on. She points to the tallest formation at the place, Angels Landing, the hardest trail.
"I did that one. There were so many switchbacks. Its really dangerous. Some of the trails have a chain up for you to hold on to, and if you make a wrong step, you could die. But the view is worth it," she says. "When I was doing that trail I saw this little eight-year-old girl doing the trail by herself. I told her it was too dangerous to do alone, her mother was waiting for her at the bottom. I told her I would do the trail with her. We have all of these photos together and I told her I would send them, but she gave me the wrong email address. I'll never know who she was."
"You saved her life," I said. "Seriously."
The hike to Angel's Landing intrigues me, but we stick to the easy trails. We start with a short drive, then park and take a tram to the Emerald Pools. The trail takes us around a rock and through it, where small waterfalls graze the sides of the path. We share the trail with families, couples and hard-core outdoors-y types with expensive looking gear. But we have moments of solitude where I forget that I'm at a National Park and I realize that I'm in the most naturally majestic place I've ever been. The rocks are unreal.
We do a second easy trail, The Riverside Walk. The temperature drops and the path is too crowded by selfie sticks, but the views are worth it.
We decide we're tired and hop on a tram back to the car. Tourists from everywhere spit-off Italian and German and Midwestern-American-English on our ride, I try to catch bits of conversations for my notebook . An Italian man closes the bus porthole window without permission, then looks about himself sheepishly.
"We can do this because...AMERICA!" he grunts.
A little before sundown we leave the park. I'm sad to see the rocks disappearing behind us. We exit back through the tiny towns of Utah making a pit stop at River Rock Roasters. I order the cold brew. The barista is confident that I'll like it, and after I take a sip, exclaim, "This is the best cold brew I've ever had!" He seems proud that a "New Yorker" likes it. This throws me.
When you travel as a New Yorker, people assume you're used to the best of the best. It's an odd feeling to live in a place that has become "the standard" when New Yorkers walk around all day thinking that everywhere else is far more normal, far more civilized than the hype machine. Sure, in New York you can get it, but is it the real thing? Is it the corporate, high-priced, pretentious it? Is it still it if it's the trained in Lyon, sabbatical in Thailand, gourmet version of it? Is it still it if it's new spin on it that's organic and gluten free, or "inspired by?" Don't they know that New Yorkers travel outside the city to get it the real it, to talk about it and it Insta-Tweet it and eventually blog about it when "oh my gosh they're opening one up in East Village." So often in Alabama do waiters hand me a meal with an apology, "I'm sure it's not as good as anything you have in New York," and I want to tell them, "Its probably better."
Believe me, the best cold brew is in Utah.
We have to go meet Christian for dinner at a thai restaurant. I'm about to have an evening that teaches me the biggest lesson I would learn this year, but I don't know it yet. The sun starts to set, leaving its glow at the tops of the rocks and the peaks making the journey home even more beautiful.
I sigh between bites of elk jerky. "Daaahhhmmmnnn Utah. At it again with the canyons."