Operation Desert Storm

2-7 April 2024

random trip report

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I love Death Valley, and the desert in general. Noah is going off to college in the fall, and who knows how many trips we'll take after that. So I figure this week - his spring break - would be a good time to show him Death Valley - and also Las Vegas, at the other end of the spectrum. I also invite M., like me a profound lover of nature.

Tues 2 April

We fly to Vegas on Southwest. The crowded terminal is full of new-style slot machines, with tall curved displays and fancy graphics.

Glitch #1: I've reserved a compact SUV (RAV-4 or similar) from Budget. But at the desk the guy says they have none, and would I like a full-size sedan instead? I say no. He says I can take the sedan and come back tomorrow morning to switch to an SUV. I say OK; I have no choice.

We drive to the Downtown Grand on Fremont St.

Glitch #2: I reserved 2 rooms on Hotels.com: one with my name, the other with Noah's. But at the hotel the clerk knows of only the first. I show her the email from Hotels.com saying I've reserved two rooms. She says that's not her problem, and that I need to sort it out with Hotels.com. Unhelpful and a bit confrontational. I buy another room.

Getting to the rooms requires taking an elevator, walking across a long 'sky bridge', then taking another elevator to the 18th floor.

Up in the room, I go to Hotels.com and try to find a Support link. There is none - just a bunch of FAQs. There's a place where you can look at your bookings; I enter the confirmation number from the email and it says 'Details not found'.

Finally I find a chatbot link, and after a while I reach a human on chat, and then eventually a human on the phone. But it's someone from the Indian subcontinent who has trouble grasping the situation. He eventually calls the hotel front desk, but is put on hold and eventually disconnected. Then I get disconnected from him, and I give up.

A muffled, bass-heavy roar fills the room. It's coming from a rock band playing outdoors down on Fremont St. We go out and walk up the street, looking for a place to eat. The band is playing note-for-note renditions of old rock songs.

The street is full of archetypal Las Vegas tourists. There's something physically wrong with nearly all of them: they're obese, or stunted, or walk with a limp; some have goiter or rare skin conditions. They shamble around like zombies - drinking, putting money into slot machines, apparently programmed by giant LED billboards to think that this constitutes having a good time. I suspect that most of them are MAGAts.

One of them walks right in front of me. I continue as if he hadn't, resulting in a minor but satisfying collision.

There are pairs of women in showgirl-type outfits - apparently hawkers of some sort. The thong-type garments reveal blotchy, amorphous and cellulite-laced buttocks in their entirety. I avert my gaze.

We eventually get Ramen noodles in a food court, which is not bad. Noah retires. M. and I go the hotel bar - the Fat Cat - which is quiet, dark, and nearly empty, with jazz and blues playing not too loud. We share an IPA. This will turn out to be the only pleasant place that we find in Vegas.

The rock music continues until about 1 AM, after which I'm able to sleep (but not much).

Wed 3 April

We check out and return to the airport rental car center.

Glitch #3: there's a line at the Budget kiosk, and a sign saying '30 min wait'. When I finally get to the front, they in fact do NOT have a compact SUV. They offer me a Toyota Forerunner - a large, 4WD, gas-guzzling SUV that seats 7. That seems to be the only option so I say OK. But wait! The car is being washed and won't actually be available for another 30 min! So we wait. My irritation level creeps toward the Red Zone.

Finally - after wasting about an hour - we're on the road; we head to Red Rocks state park.

Glitch #4: Red Rocks now has a reservation system, and they're booked up until noon! You need to make a reservation on their web site. But there's no cell signal, so you can't! We drive back toward Vegas until there's signal. Noah makes a reservation. I'm starting to feel that Fate is conspiring against us.

We finally get into Red Rocks and make a long stop at the first turnout, Calico Hills.

I rediscover the cave in the east-facing wall.

We continue to Sandstone Quarry and do the hike toward Turtlehead Peak. The trail goes up a wash, then turns right and becomes progressively more steep and rocky. M. stops; Noah and I continue for a bit, turning around maybe halfway up.

The wash; Turtlehead Peak in the distance

We finish the Scenic Loop and drive on to Pahrump, where we stay at the Nugget Casino; it's no great shakes but at least we check in successfully.

We have dinner at 'Mom's Place', a classic diner not unlike Nicely's in Lee Vining. M. is intrigued by a guy with muscles, a very deep tan, lots of arm tattoos, and a ripped-up tank top (AKA wife-beater).

I get the meat loaf special (OK but salty). Noah gets the chicken-fried steak. M and I share an odd bread pudding for dessert.

On the way back we notice a 'French Bakery and Patisserie'. We stop at the Walmart, where I buy sunscreen and a pair of shorts (cotton, $10 - nice).

Thu 4 April

We go to the French bakery. The pastries are disappointing and expensive. For Noah, we get drive-through fast food, which is not in fact fast.

The drive to Death Valley is stunning. We pass the Amargosa Opera House.

It's very windy, with dust devils here and there, and a pale cloud of dust hangs over the whole valley.

We drive down to Badwater and walk around briefly. The lakebed is dry.

For long stretches the salt has a bright green color; not sure why.

Note green color

We return via the Artist's Drive, which is great; we stop and do a short hike amid red, purple, and green patches of hillside.

We stop at Golden Canyon and hike most of the way up. The wind gusts this way and that. Noah is tired - he didn't sleep well - so we turn around.

We continue past Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, and turn off on the dirt road to Mosaic Canyon.

Mosaic Canyon - which I called a must-see on a previous trip - is a tad disappointing. It starts off with about a mile of a boring wash.

Then there are some rocks you have to climb up. M. stops here - her knee problems have flared up, and she's walking with a significant limp. Noah and I continue. More rock climbing. Noah turns around, I continue for another 10 min. I keep thinking there's a 'good part' somewhere ahead, but I never reach it. Maybe it doesn't exit.

Nice colors

We meet up back at the car and drive West, out of Death Valley, across the beautiful Panamint Valley,

Mysterious pyramid

Panamint Valley, looking E

and to the Panamint Springs Resort, which is up in the hills a bit. It's a primitive place: a general store, a restaurant, and various rustic accommodations: RV spots, tent sites, tent cabins. We're in tiny wooden cabins with no amenities. But the heater works, and the cabins are OK albeit expensive (> $200).

We eat at the diner-type restaurant. I get the LGBT sandwich (lettuce, guacamole, bacon, tomato); it's good. The waiters are super nice.

Fri 5 April

We sleep in, then breakfast at the diner.

I had planned on doing the hike to Darwin Mines, with its waterfall and watercress, but the 2-mile road leading to the trailhead is washed out and closed. We could hike it but that doesn't sound like fun.

Instead we improvise. We drive to the Father Crowley overlook, which has a spectacular view of the valley. I do a little scramble down the hillside; there is an incredible range of interesting and beautiful plants.

Desert Trumpet Buckwheat

Cloud of tiny yellow flowers, hard to see

M. and Noah join me eventually.

Next turn off the highway onto a small road that leads to the town of Darwin. It's a mining town - the quarry is still active - but it's halfway to being a ghost town. Most of the shacks are collapsing, and the occupied ones are in bad repair. Rusting ancient cars abound.

But curiously there are sculptures everywhere - abstract swirly things made from polished rock, mostly the local white dolomite. Most them are by Jim Hunolt, who grew up on the Bay Area and Monterey. The remaining occupants - a couple dozen - are off-the-grid weathered ex-hippies.

For more on Darwin, see essays by Kathy Park and Kathy Goss (possibly the same person).

M. talks to a friendly local carrying some celery (of unknown provenance - there are no stores). He directs us to a 'sculpture circle', which doubles as a community center and yoga studio.

Darwin fills me with joy. People there live in a way that's based on their authentic, unique, and creative values; and with a sense of community. Not (like in Vegas) from a shallow, bizarre, and greed-based construct of corporate capitalism.

We continue, over beautiful mountains, down into the Owens valley, past Lake Owens, which is salty and mostly dry.

We pull into Lone Pine, which hasn't changed since I was here 25 year ago to climb Mt. Whitney with Mike O'Brien. Our motel - the Trails Motel - is next to the Western film museum. It's a nice place, run (like most motels on 395) by an Indian family. Our room looks out over the Sierra, which today are shrouded with clouds but you can make out Mt. Whitney.

Whitney visible just R of center

Noah rests while M. and I drive to Alabama Hills. Whitney Portal Rd. is washed out near the start, but there's pretty cool detour (Tuttle Rd.) that winds through rock formations.

We drive down Film Rd. a bit, park at a random place, and walk across the desert to a large rock pile. I clamber around a bit.

Looks like I'm holding up enormous rock

The tallest rock has some bolts and anchors. I examine the start. It's probably 5.11 but feels impossibly hard.

We return to the motel and look for restaurants on the web. Apparently the Mt. Whitney diner has cheap ($10) burgers of various sorts; for a it more you can get buffalo, ostrich, venison, or elk. So we go there, but it turns out the burgers are $18 and there are no game options.

Sat 6 April

It dawns completely clear and there's a great view of the Sierra and Whitney.

We get some food to go at the Alabama Hills Bakery and chat with couple who are separated by jobs.

We visit the Western film museum, which is fabulous. We return to Alabama Hills, drive a bit farther than yesterday, park near a random rock pile, and scramble to the top.

OK, one more pic of Whitney

Time, alas, to return to Vegas. Noah wants to go the fastest way (the way we came) because his left knee has been getting sore on long drives. But I overrule him, and we take a different and slighly longer route that goes through Independence (where we stop for gas at an American Indian place) and then at Big Pine turns E onto 168.

The original plan was to drive up toward White Mt. and see bristlecone pines, but apparently this is closed for the winter.

But the drive is spectacular in itself, going over a couple of passes at c. 7500'. Patches of snow dot the side of the road. We stop at a random point and clamber up a hillside, covered with several kinds of pine. Noah and I throw snowballs at each other and slide on our butts down some snow.

It's completely quiet and the air is completely pure. It's cool but the sun is warm. I tell Noah that I'd be happy to sit here all day long.

We continue east, eventually hitting 95 and going south. The road flattens out and is straight for tens of miles. There are distant mountain ranges on all sides. The scenery changes but at a much slower pace.

Finally we get into Vegas, and vast house developments under construction. Loathing for humanity returns to my blood.

Glitch #4: we get to our hotel - the Fremont Hotel and Casino. They have our reservations, but they refuse to check in Noah because he's under 21. We suggest that they simply change the name to M. But no! Any change has to come from Hotels.com (i.e. Expedia). So I spend another unpleasant 30 minutes, sitting in the lobby, trying the 800 number several times; each time it doesn't recognize the conf # and hangs up. Finally I get through on the chatbot / human agent interface, and get them to call the hotel. Things get sorted out but I'm left in a bad mood.

It turns our rooms are directly above Fremont St., so the rock-music noise is even louder than before!

I've promised Noah a Las Vegas buffet, and we manage to find one a short (but unpleasant) walk away. More repellant 'showgirls' and boozed-up cretins.

The buffet is actually very nice. There's no line, and the dining room is large, high-ceilinged, and beautifully decorated. The waitress is super nice. M. gets a big glass of Chardonnay for just $5.

The food is OK. I get prime rib, fish, and yummy caramelized sweet potatoes. And then later some shrimp, clams, and potatoes au gratin. The deserts are uninspired. Noah has some of everything and is pleased.

We avoid Fremont St. on the way back. Noah retires, and M. and I return to the Fat Cat bar, which once again is delightful. A tall black guy sitting across the room does some tap-dancing motions to the Dixieland jazz. I make eye contact, and point to the stage, suggesting that he go up there. He signals ME to go up there instead. We both smile and do a couple of hand-wave dance moves.

Again, the rock music continues until c. 1 AM. After that I sleep OK.

Sunday 7 April

Our flight isn't until 9:25 PM, so we have to pass the day in Vegas somehow.

First we go to the Springs Preserve, which has a state historical museum (pretty good, and with a wonderful Liberace exhibit)

and some outdoor / botanical garden stuff, which is highly manicured and - having just been in the real desert - kinda lame.

We continue to Area 15 (a 'clever' riff on Area 51, I guess) and Meow Wolf.

The latter is expensive ($64 each) and - on second viewing - unimpressive. Lots of the interactive stuff seems to be broken. M. and I enjoy the psychedelic video in the central grotto. Noah isn't really into it; we leave.

We continue on to the Strip, parking at the Cromwell. We walk across a pedestrian overpass and tour the Paris casino. I'm looking for Lynne Rutter's French Rococo ceiling but don't find it. We do find the huge stained glass dome ceiling, which I remember as being nearby.

We walk across the (giant) street to the Bellagio (or as I call it, the Fellagio). We're all getting tired and look for a place to sit and rest. There is none. Zero. The lobbies have no seats. The only seats are at money-extraction sites: bars and slot machines.

We go outside and take in the 4:30 water fountain show, which is mildly impressive - and there's a rainbow.

We return to the Paris, looking for food. We try the Cafe Americano, but M. just wants a drink, and if you go there you have to order food! So we go to a nearby place that sells plastic-wrapped sandwiches and salads; it fills the bill nicely.

M. is allergic to the Vegas airport (for good reason) so we need to kill a bit more time. We return to the Cromwell, which miraculously has a sofa and comfy chair in its small lobby. I get M.'s iPad and my laptop from the car, and we sit there happily for an hour or so, processing email.

We gas up the car (expensive) and return it without incident.

The flight back is uneventful. We call the Express Parking van and soon are in our car, driving home.


For me, the trip didn't quite live up to my hopes. There were lots of glitches and stress, and it was mostly places I'd seen before. However, there were some wonderful surprises - Darwin, the Fat Cat, and that snowy hillside in the White Mountains.

But what really matters is the experience of M. and Noah. And I think they loved it. M. had the full desert experience, and was blown away. Noah's reaction was muted; perhaps his main take-away is how bizarre Las Vegas is.

Copyright 2024 © David P. Anderson