Category Archives: Nevada

Death Valley: The Largest National Park

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It is hard to truly describe what makes Death Valley such a wonderful and unique place. It is probably best known as the location of the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, located 282 feet below sea level.

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Land below sea level generally only exists in places with hot, dry climates, as otherwise, the low lying terrain would fill up with water. Death Valley certainly is dry! It receives less than 2 inches of rainfall per year. By contrast, Minneapolis, a city that would be considered neither dry nor wet, averages around 30 inches per year (including winter snowfall).

Badwater Basin, like much of Death Valley National Park, is a large scale version of everything one would imagine dryness to be.

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The entire basin, which stretches out longer than expected, is covered with salt, deposited in a honeycomb-like structure, creating a scene that appears to be out of some kind of documentary about deforestation or climate change.

Of course, not the entire park is below sea level.

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In fact, its highest point, Telescope Peak, is over 11,000 feet above sea level, and despite the dry and hot climate of the valley below it, is covered in snow, and impassible without ice gear towards the end of March. Interestingly enough, while March may be an ideal time of year to visit Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek and some of the low elevations of the park, the higher terrain makes the park actually worth visiting in the summer too (with the right hydration precautions taken of course).

At the park’s lower elevations, near and even a little bit below sea level, the hikes are a bit milder, and significantly different from a typical hike in the mountains. Shorter hikes (1 to 3 miles each way) to places like Sidewinder Canyon…

and Mosaic Canyon…

have trails that cut through the rocks, through little “slots”, and along wide flat trails that appear to have been carved out by runoff from the flash floods that occasionally occur in the park.

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Death Valley is certainly a place with some unique weather patterns, and some unique weather hazards. When most outdoor activities are planning, the weather hazards most likely to be considered are related to temperature and precipitation. Extremely hot weather is Death Valley’s most obvious weather hazard. Visiting in March, or at some other point during the cooler part of the year, definitely helps visitors avoid these extremes.

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With wide open spaces, no trees, and complicated terrain, some crazy winds can occur in Death Valley, whipping up and and dust from the dry ground below it, covering any and all things!

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Storms will pass through the complicated terrain, often first producing some interesting looking clouds.

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Then, often times, while producing decent amounts of precipitation in the higher mountains terrain, in the valley below they will mostly just manifest as strong and gusty winds.

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These winds can even be hazardous to campers, breaking tents, bending poles, and complicating campfires.

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Other than the extremes, in elevation, temperature and dryness, the rest of the park feels kind of a bit like a National Park sampler pack.

There are hikes that take visitors to amazing views of the park, but the park is not all about hiking (like Rocky Mountain National Park).

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The natural bridge is most certainly an “arch”, but Death Valley does not have the concentration of arches found at Arches National Park.

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There are a few fantastic sand dunes here, but not as many as there are at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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The park has some other unique natural features, such as the “Devil’s Golf Course”, but isn’t the constant barrage of unique features that is Yellowstone.

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One can even spot the occasional desert wildlife here.

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Those that are into numbers already know what makes Death Valley unique; elevation, temperature, dryness. Those who are more into experiences find themselves also loving the park, but in a manner that becomes harder to articulate. Often, it is just said that the place is “beautiful”, or “amazing”.

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Maybe nothing more needs to be said. After all, sometimes these commonly used descriptor words, although light on specifics, along with photographs, really do tell the story. Nature, like artwork, is open to interpretation, at the behest of the beholder.

However, when covering mile after endless mile across the park, it is hard not to observe how expansive and wide open the park feels, as a result of how dry the air is.

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Maybe that is the reason Death Valley is also the largest U.S. national park in outside of Alaska.

The First Time I Brought a Jacket to Las Vegas

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This is the third time I am writing about a trip to Las Vegas in the past two years, and my 7th visit overall. Oddly enough, all six of my previous trips took place in either August or September. It may be a coincidence, but people do generally travel more frequently in summertime, and, strangely enough, I have never visited Vegas alone.

Despite the fact that I am not opposed to solo travel, it would never occur to me to visit Vegas alone. When I think of places I travel to alone, I tend to think of long contemplative hikes or bike rides, definitely not Las Vegas.

What is odd is that, while Vegas feels more like a group activity than any other destination, I can think of few other places where it is easier for someone to entertain themselves. The shows, the games, and general sensory overload all around make it nearly impossible to imagine boredom.

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One thing every traveler knows is that it is possible to return to a place one has already visited and still get a completely different experience. This is especially true if it is a different season or under different circumstances. Vegas, in early February, during the middle of the week, is just not as crowded as it is on a weekend in the summer.

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This translates into both conveniences and inconveniences. Yes, it was a lot easier to walk around the strip. There were considerably less crowds to navigate. There were even considerably less people out there promoting things like limousines to strip clubs and shows. However, the downside was that I learned that there is indeed a time when I can walk into a casino in Las Vegas and not see a single open BlackJack table.

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That time is 8:45 A.M. on a Tuesday morning in the month of February.

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It was also necessary to walk to another resort to find an open pool.

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In some ways, it was the same Vegas experience I had always remembered; Gambling. Buffets. Staying up really late. And the random entertainment that appears out of nowhere.

In other ways it was different.

I learned that the Flamingo Hotel, which is the original Las Vegas hotel, actually has live flamingos there!

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Walking through this exhibit was an interesting experience. It was the first time I had ever seen a significant number of children anywhere in the City of Las Vegas! Families and drunk people in the same place just always feels odd to me.

It is also interesting to observe how quickly any particular place can change. My last visit to Las Vegas was a mere six months ago! Yet, I noticed for the first time a pedestrian mall, with shops and restaurants, like In-N-Out Burger, between the Linq and Harrahs in the middle of the strip.

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Freemont Street, the original Vegas dating back to the middle part of the 20th Century, seems to be undergoing some sort of major revival, with concerts, street performers, and a good number of people walking around on a Tuesday night!

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Even the table games seemed to have increased in stakes!

With the world, and particularly cities in a constant state of flux, as long as we do not have a mechanism to travel through time, one can never travel to the EXACT same place already visited. Something will always be different.

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Given the kinds of experiences I typically write about on this blog, and the types of topics I regularly discuss, it may come as surprising to some that I love Las Vegas. I always talk about getting outdoors, staying healthy, and avoiding the dangers of materialism. Las Vegas, at its core, is the antithesis of all this.

I just love to observe how Las Vegas has this power to transform people. Some would say for the better, others would say for the worse, and both would have a valid point. Feeling like a different person, as I do every time I come to Vegas, can be thought of as a form of escapism. However, I feel that it is not about escapism at all.

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At some point in time, we have all heard someone say “I need to go find myself”, as if the “self” is something that somehow gets lost and needs to be located just like a set of keys or a glove. While I may be getting hung up on semantics here, I honestly believe that nobody ever fully loses themselves. They may be afraid to be their true selves, or be in a setting that brings out only one component of their more complicated selves. This is when it is good to find a different environment for a while, which Las Vegas most certainly is for nearly all people.

Las Vegas has a strange way of demonstrating that all accepted societal norms are malleable and negotiable, but end up as what they are for a reason. Las Vegas does not accept norms such as not drinking on a weekday and going to bed by a certain time. However, there are other norms that develop in Vegas based on that setting. It is expected that nobody splits 10s at a blackjack table, and, at said tables I’d be shocked to see male dancers.

Nearly all people have at least one behavior or interest that surprises people because, on the surface, it does not jive with their other interests. However, there is always a common thread, which often can be found by digging deeper. Whether we are getting to know ourselves, or trying to understand someone else, determining the common thread between these seemingly unrelated interests can help us all reach a deeper understanding.

Three Days Without Rules

One of the most reckless and euphoric weekends of my life had a bizarre beginning. As my flight was landing at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, I removed my headphones. First, I hear the woman next to me, talking to her teenage daughter about how tired she was, having been traveling for 15 hours. “I’m going straight to bed as soon as we get home”. Less than half a second later, I hear the two guys sitting in the row behind them talking about something going on in their Vegas-bound lives. “She was seriously a hoe”.


I wondered what it’s like to live in a place like this. I visit Las Vegas regularly, but never think of it as a place where people live. Most visitors just think of it as some sort of crazy amusement park-like place of gambling and entertainment. Nobody thinks of people working, raising a family, and doing normal life things here, but it does happen.

Do people who live in Las Vegas just become accustomed to being surrounded by talk of partying, gambling, and debauchery, the same way New Yorkers don’t think much of crowds and pollution, and people in West Texas don’t think much of the smell of feedlots? How would one go about raising a daughter in this town?

The majority of trips to Las Vegas don’t go anywhere beyond the Strip. However, Vegas does have more to offer. Like most other cities in Western North America, Vegas is surrounded by mountains, and recreation opportunities.


Only half an hour West of town is Red Rock Canyon National Preserve, the most high profile place for hikes and scenic drives in the vicinity of Las Vegas.


Before getting mired in the standard Las Vegas activities, I explored the place a little bit, driving to a few scenic overlooks, and going for a moderate length hike.


It was a good opportunity to get a little sun and exercise.


And even draw on the rocks to gave myself some good vibes for my upcoming gambling.


After last year’s trip to Vegas, I concluded that “The common thread to everything that goes on here is that people are enjoying themselves, embracing their wild sides, in their own way, and letting go of at least some component of the restriction they live under during their normal lives…” This year, possibly due to my current frame of mind, I felt even more free spirited, even more liberated. It felt like ALL THE RULES WERE LITERALLY GONE!

 


Nothing felt off limits.

It was as if everything external that had been stopping me from ever doing anything was just gone. Expectations from others. Fear of bad outcomes. Even the law of averages.


I rolled for 30 minutes at the craps table, winning myself some money, but winning some others at the table some obscene amounts of money. Some even made bets on my behalf out of appreciation!

While there were a couple of places where I lost a little bit of money, the winnings just kept on coming. All three nights I won big!

 


The drinks just kept coming, free when gambling.


Unlike in normal life, hangovers never set in, and I never felt like sleeping.

Normally, if I sleep only six hours (as opposed to the usual 7.5) on a given night, I am drowsy. On this 72-hour binge of over-stimulation, 90 minutes felt sufficient.

The overall stats for the trip….

  • Three days in town
  • Approximately 75 alcoholic beverages consumed
  • Total sleep 7.5 hours
  • Approximately 26 hours of total gambling
  • Winnings of approximately $850
    • Nearly all of which was on $10 tables
  • Everything else: Well, as the saying goes “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas”


Except my money! That comes back with me!

To make that happen takes self-restraint. When people win money in Las Vegas, Las Vegas tries to take it back! First, by getting people to gamble more through a combination of free drinks and making it difficult to find the exit to any casino. It takes some discipline to “Quit while you’re ahead”.


If one can leave the casinos without gambling away those winnings, Las Vegas will try to get it back on the Strip. I found out first had that Las Vegas has a way of spotting a winner. Maybe they can see it in people’s eyes, smiles, behavior and expressions of confidence. But they seem to know who is winning, and come after them.


Promoters trying to get people to go to clubs, sex workers, people trying to sell stuff both legal and illegal, even random strangers. They came for me, and, it felt like the more I won, the more aggressively they came. After the second night of wining, a promoter walked with my friend and I six blocks up the Strip trying to convince us to go to a strip club. After the third night of winning, I had to navigate through what felt like a mine field of sex workers who, when I told them I was good, responded “No you’re not, you’re alone.”


I did not need a set of rules, government involvement, societal pressure, or anyone watching over me to restrain from most of what Las Vegas was trying to get me to do. Nor did I have to take advantage of every single opportunity presented to me to feel as free spirited as I had felt in my entire life. I was liberated from external rules and expectations, not my own judgement. I confidently decided for myself what activities I wanted to take part in, without letting fear stop me, but also without letting fear of missing out (commonly referred to as FOMO) get met to do things I did not want to do or spend money I did not want to spend.

Going back to regular life after a weekend like this is difficult. Regular life, the average day, well there is no way it will ever compare.

Of course, this all was not in the least bit sustainable. My body could not handle even one more day of this. Anyone remotely close to my age seemed to be in suspended disbelief that I could handle what I did.

It is such as crazy mystery of life. Why are unsustainable habits frequently more desirable than sustainable ones? Why does it seem like the things we are told are good for us make us feel bad, and that the things that we are told are bad for us make us feel good? And why does the result of such things rarely seem to fit the narrative we are given?

I don’t profess to know everything about life, but this year I finally processed through a lot of what I had been observing over the past decade. We are taught so many things, through school, work, media, etc. about the way life is supposed to be lived. Assumptions are ingrained into our heads to the point where we do not even realize we are making them in our life decisions. These assumptions can, at times, be misguided, and even hold us back from making the most of our lives.

With no assumptions. With no “you should do this”, or fear of what happens when you “don’t do that”, life made more sense. It is just about getting over the fear of the unknown that lies beyond the divide. I do not know what is going to happen when I return to normal life. And, while I have no plans to run on two hours of sleep, or start drinking at noon, I do hope I can bring the confidence and spirit of self-determination back to “regular life” going forward. Many people look to rules to protect them. Like my weekend in Vegas, I would rather trust my own judgement to bring  me to the right outcomes.

Pure Magic

Las Vegas, Nevada!  Magical!

IMG_7480.jpgWhile I am not sure everyone agrees, it is one of those rare situations where, at least from my perspective, one word can be used to sum up a place.

The word magic itself can be a tricky one to pin down.  Most people think of magicians pulling rabbits out of hats.  Some people think about some kind of supernatural force, something that cannot be explained by science and logic, which, for many, has a negative connotation.

To me, magic is the power to transform.  No illusions are necessary, nor are any supernatural powers (although, as an open minded individual I will not rule them out).  I find it “magical” anytime a specific situation has the power to transform something into something else, regardless of whether anything that can be considered supernatural is involved.  Magic can occur in the standard magician situation, like when one sits there wondering how the four of hearts suddenly became a mountain goat.  But, it can also happen when someone meets a new person, when a rainbow suddenly appears, or when a new experience leads to people viewing the world a different way.  All of these “transformations” occur well within the realm of what can physically be explained by either science or logic.

As soon as I set foot in Las Vegas, I see a world transformed into something completely different.

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Paris is a mile from New York, and just across the street from Caesar’s Palace.  Less than a mile up the road is Treasure Island.

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Suddenly midnight is “early”, and 3 A.M. is not too particularly “late”.

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Money transforms from paper into little round discs.  Suddenly, $5 is a “nickel”, and $25 is a “quarter”.

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People are suddenly willing to take on all sorts of risks they’d otherwise be unable to fathom.

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And, those weighing over 350 pounds, most likely typically shamed in their day-to-day life, can eat for free at a place called the Heart Attack Grill!

When I think of the people I talk to, or have talked to on a regular basis, I would say that Las Vegas appeals to roughly 2/3 of the population.  I do frequently encounter people who tell me they have no interest in visiting Vegas.  It is, after all, somewhat of a hyperbole for a certain aspect of adult life, particularly young adult life, that is wild and unrestricted, but also potentially destructive in multiple ways.

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Vegas got its start as a gambling destination.  Gambling is still probably the first thing anyone would think of when the think of Las Vegas.

Gambling in Las Vegas can be a number of different types of experiences.  There are plenty of different kinds of games and plenty of different kinds of experiences, from the fancier resorts, like Aria and the Wynn, to more affordable places like Casino Royale and Circus Circus.

Those that prefer lower stakes can opt for a change of pace at the Freemont Street Experience.  This was the original Las Vegas, and some of these casinos, right in the heart of what is considered Downtown Las Vegas, a few miles north of the strip, are among the first ones developed here in the middle part of the 20th Century.

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The pedestrian mall in some ways is reminiscent of similar streets in other major cities.  The street almost becomes a non-stop party, with attractions, tons of places to drink (and in this case gamble), and areas where stages are commonly set up for bands to play.

My primary gambling mode is, and probably always will be, table games, usually black jack or craps.  On this particular trip, I found my sweet spot at places that fit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, such as the Flamingo, Cromwell, Ballys and Treasure Island.

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But Vegas is more than gambling.  In fact, there are plenty of visitors that come and do very little gambling, preferring to spend their time at the clubs, at pools, shopping, or taking part in another activity altogether.

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The common thread to everything that goes on here is that people are enjoying themselves, embracing their wild sides, in their own way, and letting go of at least some component of the restriction they live under during their normal lives, even if it’s as simple as piling up large amounts of foods that do not typically “go together” at a buffet.

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As a single entity, Vegas makes me think of what it would be like to live in a movie, or on some natural version of a drug high.  Everything feels more significant.  The dull parts are cut out.  There is no doing laundry, ironing shirts or anything like that.  Heck, even sleeping is reduced.  Decorations and shows appear everywhere in a manner that stimulates all five senses until they are overloaded.

I’d say the “real world” (however you want to define it) is not magical, but whose fault is that?  Could I be missing the “magic” that does occur on a day-to-day basis?  As people become entrepreneurs, find new relationships, have the courage to leave bad relationships, discover who they truly are, and go on life changing trips.  Could I be failing to take the opportunities to create “magic” when they present themselves?  When someone needs help, when someone has an idea, or when a truly splendid rainbow appears in the sky, just begging me to stop what I am doing, forget whatever my mind is currently fixated on, and just allow myself to take in the experience.

The truth is, with a good enough imagination, enough confidence, and a willingness to act, any place can be “magical”.  But, whenever I lose sight of that, I know I can always go back to Vegas to reconnect with it.