Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of the US Desert Southwest

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[Diary] Each November, I attend a plenary for an international computer standards committee. It has a number of subcommittees, one of which I chair. Late in 2011, the US hosted, in San Diego, California, which is not far from the Mexican border. Mario, a colleague and friend from the German delegation, and I had been talking about doing something together afterwards. As he had never been to the desert southwest, I offered to take him on a road trip through the southern California desert, up the Colorado River in Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada. And he accepted.

The plenary ran 5½ days and, for the most part, the weather was fair-to-nice. The social event was a dinner cruise around the harbor. [San Diego is a major US Navy port, so there were plenty of naval vessels around including some large carriers.] Friday afternoon (Memorial Day), I skipped out of my conference, and took my Finnish colleague and friend, Juha, for a drive. Our first stop was Cabrillo Point, the overlook on the end of the peninsular from which one can see the Coronado Peninsular and downtown. No sooner had we arrived, right before our very eyes, Air Force One approached and landed at the Naval Air Station down in front of us. Two Air Force Fighter jets flew as escorts. President Obama (an avid basketball fan and player) was in town to witness the basketball game between two college teams that took place in the evening on the deck of an aircraft carrier moored in the harbor.

[Diary] After breakfast, I headed out to the local supermarket to lay in supplies for our trip, including some ice. By 9:30 am, I was back at the conference keeping one ear on the proceedings while I handled email. We wrapped up around 1:15 pm, at which time we said our goodbyes to the other delegates who then literally headed off to the four corners of the globe (as in South Africa, Russia, Australia, and Korea).

By 2 pm, we were on the highway in our trusty Dodge Avenger rental car, in steady rain. As we climbed into the mountains, we encountered some fog, but visibility wasn't too bad. However, the road was narrow and winding. Around 3 pm, we pulled over in a parking lot in a small town and ate a late picnic lunch in the car as it was still raining.

The initial plan had been to get to the visitor's center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park before it closed at 5 pm, but by the time we got to the town of Borrego Springs, it was getting dark and it was still raining. The first hotel we tried was full due to a vintage car club having an outing, but the next place, Hacienda del Sol (Spanish for "house of the sun"), had room for us. The friendly desk clerk got us checked in, and we each had a room with two queen-size beds. A DVD player was included, and the office had a large selection of videos at no charge. I settled on Cold Mountain, which was a bit grim. We walked to a Mexican restaurant nearby for supper where we ate and talked for a couple of hours.

[Diary] The rain stopped during the night and the sun was streaming down when I stuck my head outside around 7 am. All was right in this part of the world. The few guests had been very quiet. I decided I was in no mood for a meal, so I snacked a bit. Mario walked around to the restaurant, but once he saw the food, he too decided he really didn't need anything yet for a few hours.

A wifi signal was floating around the yard, so I hooked up my computer and got an email fix. Then I started on this diary. We arrived at the park visitor's center at 8:45. It is built underground. At 9 o'clock, a ranger opened the doors and we had a look at the exhibits, which included mounted birds and animals from the park. A stuffed mountain lion was lying atop a rock formation ready to jump on us as we rounded one corner. We watched a video that covered all four seasons in the park, and then another that featured an Australian man and his Ukrainian wife who lived out in the desert for 20+ years. They were self-sufficient and raised three kids there.

We drove out of the park through the badlands, a long stretch of rugged hills with deep gorges cut by water over the millennia. Along the way, we say a red hawk sitting on a power pole. We came across quite a few camps of motor homes with trailers full of off-road motorcycles and 4-wheel all-terrain vehicles. Eventually, we came out to the Salton Sea, a large saltwater inland lake formed 100 years ago. We found a picnic table at a yacht club where we had a picnic lunch among the palm trees while watching the pelicans and ducks. There was a lot of agriculture in the area: date palms, oranges, artichokes, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables. From there, we went east on Interstate Highway 10 for 25 miles, at which point we went north on a narrow road.

We stopped off at the ranger station for Joshua Tree National Park. Because it was the Memorial Day long weekend, park admission was free. We had an interesting chat with a ranger who had colorful tattoos on both arms. She was a member of the Shoshone Indian tribe and the artwork had some tribal significance. We stopped off at various places to take photos and shoot video, especially where a recent storm had washed out large areas near the road. At one point, a rabbit ran across the road and, 10 seconds later, a coyote followed in pursuit. We stopped to walk through a large cholla cactus garden; boy were those spines long and sharp! We also stopped at a desert campground in which the sites were mingled in and around huge boulders.

By the time we exited the park, the sun was behind the mountains, and it was getting cold as well as dark. So, we drove the few miles into the town of Twentynine Palms. It has a large US Marine Base nearby. We quickly found a decent hotel for only $50/room/night complete with king-size bed, microwave oven, fridge, and wifi connection. We'd been salivating over the idea of a pizza, so at 5:45, we headed out to Pizza Hut to satisfy our desire. 90 minutes later, we'd devoured almost all of a large, meat-lover's pizza with stuffed cheese crust, and plenty of anchovies. Yes! We waddled to the car and were back in our rooms by 7:30 after a hard day of playing tourist.

[Diary] We were up and ready to eat by 7 am. On the way into town the night before, we'd spied a Denny's restaurant (one of my favorites), so we went there. I asked the waitress for a booth in the VIP section, and she laughed and led us to a regular one by the window. There were way too many choices, but we showed great restraint by ordering smallish meals, which we finished off with coffee.

Around 9 o'clock, we headed out east on the main highway and drove through desert country for several hours, listing to country music stations along the way. We stopped at a few places to take some photos of the mountains and rock formations. Eventually, we crossed over the Colorado River into the state of Arizona, losing an hour in the process as we moved from Pacific Time to Mountain Time. We drove north along the river stopping occasionally to take photos and video.

In Lake Havasu City, we bought a few groceries and then went to see the old London Bridge. It was decommissioned around 1971 in London. A wealthy American bought it in 1968 for the princely sum of about $2.5 million, and then spent another $4.5 million to ship it to the desert of Arizona and rebuild it. It now spans water in Lake Havasu from the mainland to an island in the lake. "Build it and they will come" is a quote that came to my mind, although in all truth, one must ask "Why?" Mario certainly did!

We drove further north looking for a picnic table, but couldn't find any, so we finally settled on a small patch of grass at a gas station. It was a warm day and very pleasant out. From there, we got on Interstate Highway 40 and drove 45 minutes to Kingman. We made our way to a nice property on the famous American road, Route 66, where for $50 each, we each got a nice room with large bed, high-speed internet connection, microwave and fridge, and an entertaining desk clerk. Once we settled in, we went on-line and booked a rather special tour for a few days later, but more about that later.

At 7 pm, we drove to a wild west-style steakhouse nearby where we had pork ribs and steak with beans and salad. The food and service were great, but I took half mine away for lunch the next day.

[Diary] There was a busy train track running beyond the hill on which our hotel stood, with trains coming and going many times during the night. The hotel provided breakfast after which we climbed up the hill behind for a look around the general area. After that, we gassed up the car and headed northwest.

We arrived at Hoover Dam around 11 am, where we joined a tour group that went down inside the dam in an elevator to the power station on the Nevada side. The wall is 720 feet tall and about that thick at the base. Built in the 1930s during the Great Depression, it was completed under budget and two years ahead of schedule. It certainly is a sight to behold. We drove across the top of the dam and parked on the Arizona side where we had a picnic lunch. Afterwards, we parked near the new bridge that now spans the canyon and walked out along the bridge taking photos and video.

Early afternoon, on the Nevada side, we headed east along the Colorado River to the Valley of Fire State Park, a series of hills and rock formations that are bright orange. We caught them just at the right time with the afternoon sun streaming down. While we were there, a wedding party arrived in a limo to have their photos taken.

By the time we got to Las Vegas it was dark, so we drove along a long section of Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip) so Mario could take photos of all the dazzling light displays on the casinos and shops. We checked in at our hotel, Circus Circus. We each had a room with a king-size bed in a tower on the sprawling premises. After resort fees and taxes, it cost $48/night, which is pretty darned good for a nice room in this town. And parking was free!

After we unpacked and freshened up a bit, we walked along The Strip where we had dinner at a family restaurant. At 8:30, we stopped by the Treasure Island casino to watch the free show that is performed out front several times each night. A pirate ship meets a ship of shapely sirens who woo them onto the rocks, and the pirate ship sinks. Prior to that, cannon shots were exchanged and there were various explosions and fires. In the end, the pirates swim to the sirens' ship and, as they say in Fantasyland, "They all lived happily ever after!" Afterwards, the sunken ship (which was a pretty good size), was raised up from the bottom of the small lake on a series of hydraulics and was "sailed" back into position for the next show.

On the way home, we stopped off at a very up-scale McDonalds for coffee. After a hard day of playing tourist, we had an early night.

[Diary] My 6:45 am wake-up call came a minute after I woke up. An hour later, we were sitting in the sun out front of our hotel waiting for a shuttle bus to take us on our tour. It came soon after and then proceeded to pick up others at various hotels before driving 30 minutes to Boulder City to the south. At that city's airport, we checked in and got our safety instructions for a flight.

It was close to 10 o'clock when Emily, our pilot, herded us out to her helicopter, a sleek machine for which her company paid $2.5 million new. She sat in the left front with two passengers on her right. Four other passengers sat across the back. It was a typically sunny and warm morning and soon we were circling Hoover Dam. From there, we headed out across the desert and mountains to the western end of the 270-mile-long Grand Canyon, at about 4,500 feet. Once we were inside the canyon, we circled around and put down at a spot up a small hill at an altitude of about 1,400 feet, which overlooked the brown Colorado River. There we were served a picnic lunch with champagne, and we shot film and video of the surrounding canyon walls. A number of ground squirrels came begging for food. We flew back along a more southerly route and saw the river below Hoover Dam. At the airport, the shuttle bus took us back to the tour company's depot in Las Vegas, where we were informed that we'd be taken back to our hotel in a stretched limousine. So, we climbed into the back of that sleek, black monster for the short ride. By the time we got back to our hotel, some five hours had passed; however, it was worth it.

At 6:30 pm, we headed out along The Strip stopping to take the occasional photo. It took us more than an hour to get down to the MGM Grand Hotel, where we went to the box office to pick up tickets we'd reserved online. Nearby, we found a Chinese fast-food place where we enjoyed a feast and a drink. Soon after 9 pm, we walked back to the MGM Grand, and by 9:15 we were seated front and center, three rows back in a very large and tall, custom-built theater. Promptly at 9:30, the KÀ Cirque du Soleil show began. And what a spectacular it was! Cirque du Soleil is a French-Canadian company that has performed daring acrobatics for years, and their traveling groups tour the world. Currently, they have seven different troupes in "permanent" theaters in Las Vegas. It really is impossible to describe their aerial acrobatics; you simply just have to see it for yourself.

After 90 minutes of non-stop action, we walked to a McDonald's nearby for coffee and hot chocolate, and to rest. I was tired out just watching! We caught a taxi back to our hotel. Lights out around 12:30 am.

[Diary] We were packed, loaded, and checked-out of our hotel by 9:30 am, and at a supermarket stocking up for the next stage of our road trip. By 10 o'clock, we were on the road to Death Valley, the lowest place in the US (282 feet below sea level). We stopped off at various places and got to the visitor's center well after 1 pm. We had a picnic lunch and a rest there for a while before driving out the western side into the mountains.

By 5 o'clock, it was quite dark, but we decided to push on a bit further. We forewent a couple of small motels in pokey towns, and then couldn't find a place to stay when we needed one. We finished up driving some distance off the main highway until we found just the right place. I stayed in for the evening and snacked a bit while Mario went to the pizza place next door for supper.

[Diary] It was another clear, warm morning in the desert, but the wind was picking up and dust was blowing from the north. The hotel provided a decent selection of light breakfast foods, and I got talking to a retired couple that was passing through the area. By the time we packed up and checked out, it was 9:30 am. We drove south on the main highway for 90 minutes by which time we were out of the desert. However, there was a great cloud over us that looked a lot like pollution from Los Angeles, which was not far away. Once we got on the interstate highway, the speed limit went up to 70 mph, so we really covered some distance. Along the way, we stopped for coffee and some bread. As there were no roadside stops, we finally took an exit into a town and looked for a place to eat lunch. With no parks or picnic tables in sight, we improvised up a back road.

After four hours, we arrived in Escondido, a town in the mountains some 30 miles from San Diego. There, we found a hotel and booked in for two nights. It was adequate, but nothing special. It did have a great family restaurant next door. At 7 pm we went there and had a nice, but quite large, meal. Our waitress was a bubbly young woman from Serbia. Back in my room, I listened to some music while playing games on my computer.

[Diary] I was awake early, so started reading a novel in bed, after which I snacked on some leftover food. At 8:30 am, I filled the cooler with ice and prepared our picnic lunch. Mario slept late and grabbed a coffee. Just before 10 o'clock, in very light rain we arrived at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Safari Park, several thousand acres of natural habitat for a large selection of animals from around the world. Although I'd visited it a number of times, the last time was more than 10 years ago, and things had changed, some for the better and some for the worse, but I guess that's called "progress." We rode the tram around half of the park taking in many animals from Africa. Then we walked the trails to look at numerous other habitats and to take in a bird show. We had our picnic lunch outside the park and went back in for more walking and looking. It's definitely an impressive place and helps preserve and reintroduce species back into the wild. The rain held off all day until we drove out the park.

By mid-afternoon, we were back at our hotel resting up. Being a tourist sure can be hard work!

At 7 pm, we went to the restaurant next door for supper. As they served breakfast all day, I decided that was what I wanted, so I ordered a chicken-fried steak with eggs and sausage gravy. Mario had a salad followed by a combo-dinner of steak, chicken, and shrimp. He thought he might like desert, so he ordered a slice of apple pie with a scoop of ice cream. However, when it arrived, it was a huge serving, so reluctantly I forced myself to help him devour it. Afterwards, we waddled across to our rooms.

[Diary] We were up by 8 am and light rain was falling. By the time we packed, grabbed hot drinks, and checked out, it was around 9 o'clock. We took the interstate highway right into downtown San Diego, and the weather was clear, but with a cool wind blowing. A leg of the America's Cup yacht race was taking place at the waterfront, so police were out in force redirecting traffic. Being a Sunday, we parked for free right at the water's edge.

Right next door was the aircraft carrier USS Midway, commissioned in 1945, and decommissioned in 1992. It had been turned into a floating museum. We spent more than five hours onboard taking in all the exhibits, listening to the details from the audio tour, and watching videos. The crew consisted of 4,500 men (women were not permitted as crew members back then). Each day, 13,500 meals were served, which included 3,000 potatoes, 1,000 loaves of bread, 4,500 lbs. of beef, and 500 pies. Of the crew, 600 worked in engineering, 225 were cooks, 40 were corpsmen, five were physicians, and three were dentists. We toured the bridge as well as the Captain and Executive Officer's quarters. During Operation Desert Storm, the initial air attack on Bagdad, Iraq, was coordinated by an Admiral on the Midway, managing that and three other carriers. When it was built, it was the biggest ship in the world, and it held that title for 10 years.

By 4:30, we were at our hotel. By then, the rain was coming down hard. We watched some news on TV for a couple of hours, after which I drove Mario to the airport for his flight home to Hamburg, Germany. On the way back to my hotel, I stopped off at a supermarket to buy some emergency rations. There was flooding in the streets as the rain pelted down. It was a good night to stay indoors.

[Diary] The rain had stopped, and the sun was out in force. I spent the whole day in my room snacking on all my leftover food, drinking hot tea, and working. Yes, as in working for money! After six hours at the laptop keyboard, I'd completed a major editing effort.

I spent the evening writing some essays for my blog, reading a newspaper, and listening to music. Then I finished my novel.

[Diary] I was wide-awake before 6 am; don't you just hate that when that happens? I lay in bed for a while and started a new novel. Then I finished up the last of my food, packed my gear, and watched some news programs. Despite the number of channels available, there was a dearth of content actually worth watching. [I've been without cable TV now for more than a year, and I don't miss it one bit.]

Once I checked out of my hotel, I gassed up the rental car, and coasted some five miles to the airport. The sun was shining and was quite warm. The courtesy bus dropped me at Terminal 1, and I was checked in immediately. Security was quick, and soon after I was sitting in United Airline's business lounge updating this diary. There were some mechanical difficulties with the in-bound plane, and I was switched to a flight that required me to change planes in Chicago. Once that was done, my original flight was restored, and I was changed back again. However, I was upgraded to First Class and my luggage survived the swaps. On the smooth flight home, I was served a nice lunch and I slept for a couple of hours. As I got in the taxi for the ride home from IAD, the Heavens opened, and very heavy rain fell all the way home. That coupled with low-lying fog made for low visibility.

Once home, I proceeded to unpack and take care of numerous things before going to bed around midnight. However, after a couple of sleepless hours, I got up, and cooked and ate a meal. It rained throughout the night and I listened to it through an open window as the temperature outside was quite reasonable.