Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Hoover Dam and New Mexico

I awoke to a vaguely disturbing dream about sirens, manifested by emergency vehicles running up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, just in front of our 16th floor window. No sooner than my head cleared enough for me to realize I was awake that I heard a familiar whirring and buzzing, followed by a sharp shutter click and another quick whir. I suddenly realized with a bit of dread that Dhar had just taken my picture. I immediately flipped him my middle finger in response. His response was a cheery “Too late!” Stefan and Rebecca fell victim to our early-morning shutterbug a few seconds later.

We moved surprisingly quick that morning, it took half as long to get Rebecca out of bed. We were showered and ready to go downstairs less than forty-five minutes, leaving us an hour and a half before we planned to check out, at 11:30. Prior to leaving for breakfast, we made certain that we packed up all our belongings so all we would have to do is grab our bags and exit the premises. I filled out an “Express Check Out” card that I left at Registration just before breakfast, avoiding the hassle of standing in line.

Breakfast was at the buffet, after a ten minute lineup. Rebecca held our places in line while I ventured off to find a bank machine and obtain some cash. I wasn’t certain whether my card would be able to access the CIBC network properly or not, but I figured it was worth a shot. Figuring that I had spent only $100 in the first five days, I thought another $100 should get me a fair distance further. The machine spat out $100 a moment later.

It spat out a $100 bill. At first I stared at the machine, wondering what moron would fill a bank machine with such large denominations. I actually slapped my forehead when I realized that I was in a casino, where this sort of thing was normal. But $100 was too much for me to carry around as a single banknote. I asked a nearby security guard where I could break the bill into smaller denominations. His look seemed to indicate that he thought I was a moron, but he pointed at the change booth positioned conveniently behind the bank machine. I slapped my forehead again.

Returning to the buffet restaurant, I couldn’t find Rebecca, Stefan, or Dhar. The latter two appeared a moment later, having browsed a couple slot machines while I was getting money. As it turned out, Stefan was getting money too, winning $6. We ended up having to go in through the exit line to get to Rebecca. A moment later we were sitting at a booth at the back of the room, right next to the buffet tables.

There was only a momentary pause before Stefan and I laid siege to the food. At all-you-can-eat buffets, some people make repeated trips, bringing back small portions of food each time. Stefan and I subscribe to a different philosophy: repeated trips waste calories … get it all the first time. Being buffet food, I didn’t expect a gourmet-quality repast, but for a breakfast it wasn’t too bad. What our breakfast lacked in quality, the buffet made up for with variation — cereal, fruit, steak, eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, ham, hash browns … an endless sea of morning fare.

We still had 45 minutes of free time before our planned exodus, so we decided to spend the time browsing around. This effectively split the four of us up with Stefan, Rebecca, and Dhar heading to the casino floor, and myself avoiding it. I was getting over my case of Lasvegasitis, and the constant binging and chiming was beginning to grate on my nerves. I opted to do some window shopping instead.

I was determined to leave with some reminder of our stay at Treasure Island, but very little appealed to me. A few years earlier, I would’ve bought up half a store … I guess age does affect what you think is neat. At any rate, I browsed through every store in Treasure Island two or three times before visiting another store on an upper level, near the tram to Mirage and the walkway to the parking garage. There I managed to find a dark aquamarine baseball cap with a simple logo on the front.

In finding the illusive store, I also found a piece of technology that I had heard about a couple years earlier on one of the many technology shows I watched on TV. On the escalator leading to the next floor up, riders pass by a large video wall. This in itself isn’t anything extraordinary, but if you look close you’ll see directional microphones suspended from the ceiling and jutting from the walls.

Together these elements are used to create an interactive computer effect. Somewhere deep inside Treasure Island is a computer room, and in this room a performer straps himself into a movement apparatus called a “waldo”. On the video wall the performer’s movements become a computer animated cartoon pirate, the voice also supplied by the performer. The microphones pick up the voices of the escalator riders, essentially allowing the performer to have a conversation with the riders. Unfortunately the system was either no longer used, or wasn’t on during the time I was traveling up and down the escalator.

Just under 45 minutes later I was back in the room, the others waiting for my arrival. We spent little time packing up our things for our journey to the Behemoth. Returning to the lobby, we opted to go out via the parking garage instead of out the front entrance. Dhar commented on the way that the incessant tones of the slots were driving him mad. I knew exactly what he meant.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960426.115
Day 6
Leaving Las Vegas. It’s an interesting place, but only in small doses. Besides, there are a great many more things to see…
The Hoover Dam is up next, we should be in Albuquerque by tonight.

Despite the already hot temperatures, the van was actually fairly cool inside, thanks to the power of the almighty ceiling fan. We stored our gear, checked the oil, and fired up the engine. While we were waiting for the engine to warm up, I checked the battery power to see how much it had been drained in the 20 or so hours we had left it unplugged. Surprisingly, the level wasn’t terribly low.

It became fairly apparent why the level was so high when I checked the fridge … it was still set for 110 volt power. I had forgotten to change the power to 12 volt when we left the KOA the day before. I immediately set the fridge for 12 volt to keep it from getting any warmer, and prayed that what perishable food we had in there wouldn’t go bad.

That problem aside, we pulled out of the parking lot and hit the road. We traveled north on Las Vegas Boulevard to pick up with Highway 93, which would take us back to the Hoover Dam. Along the way we stopped at the Graceland Chapel so Stefan could take a picture of Dhar and Rebecca in front of it. I waited in the van since they were only gone a few minutes. That act started a rash of jokes about Dhar being married to Rebecca. Interestingly enough, the jokes didn’t seem to bug Stefan much.

And so we hit our first batch of real traffic. Like many places we had traveled through thus far, Las Vegas was doing construction work on the highway, and it was completely tying up traffic. Normally, I hate traffic. I hate it so much I now refuse to drive into Toronto unless it can’t be avoided (or I know the traffic will be light). But even though I was behind the wheel that morning, I wasn’t really bothered. About 20 minutes after entering the mess, we were clear on our way.

Nevada looks very different in the day — mostly brown and beige with a few splotches of green. Leftovers of the Rocky Mountains and its foothills give some texture to the land. Fortunately, the 30 miles from Las Vegas to the Hoover Dam go by fairly quickly.

This time Dhar and Rebecca were awake, and duly impressed with the gorge as we started to travel down the west side of the valley. Although Stefan and I got a good look at the dam some 36 hours earlier, daylight cast a whole new perspective on the massive structure.

We parked in a newly-built parking garage on the Nevada side and strolled across Highway 93 (reduced to a two lane road with a speed maximum of 15 miles an hour) to the Visitor’s Center. We immediately signed up for a tour of the dam, at a cost of five dollars apiece. At the time I considered this a reasonable price, even if the actual tour didn’t last as long as I thought it would have.

Starting at the top of the dam, we had to travel down about 600 feet to the river level. The tour group numbered about 50 to 60 people, which could be accommodated in the two immense elevators. Each of the two cars in the cylindrical shaft could carry at least 30 people, and probably closer to 50. (When you’re crammed in like sardines, trying not to grope the person next to you by accident, and ignoring the increasing heat, you tend not to notice the precise number of people in the elevator.)

At the bottom we were quickly shuffled out to the balcony of the Nevada-side generating bay. Four American football fields in length, the bay was an impressive construction. Eight massive turbine-powered generators ran the length of the bay, with a much smaller ninth generator near the front, providing power for the dam’s offices, elevators, lights and so forth.

Hoover Dam generating bay, Nevada side, 26 April 1996

A few minutes of speech from our tour guide (who constantly stepped over her own words and could barely be heard even with the use of a PA system), and she led us down a flight of stairs to the generator bay floor, and out a door to the outside. We were now where the water from the reservoir exited from the penstocks back into the Colorado River. Behind us was the towering dam, an awesome sight from below.

Here we were shown the transformers which took the raw power from the generators and sent it into the electrical grid. The electrical cables ran almost straight up the side of the canyon walls to towers that stood out almost on a 90 degree angle, then into Nevada. The same setup existed on the Arizona side. The wires criss-crossing the valley seemed to form an immense spider’s web. Only here, it would be the web that killed you, not the spider.

Following a quick schpeal about the transformers, the guide went on to discuss the dam itself. I already knew a fair bit from documentaries I had seen, but seeing it on TV and seeing it in reality are two totally different things. On TV, it seems like an everyday occurrence. Standing about 30 feet above the Colorado River, staring nearly 700 feet to the top of the dam is an unbelievable sight. The dam is so massive that engineers estimate that barring any major catastrophe (such as earthquake registering over 8 on the Richter scale), the dam should last about 2,000 years. Had I heard that on the documentaries, I would’ve passed it off as over-confidence. Having actually seen it, I think the estimate’s a bit low.

Dhar had been a little preoccupied with crossing the dam the first time, afraid that it might crack beneath us. Now at the bottom of the gorge, he was even more concerned. Even I was a little apprehensive. But one of the dam’s design features made Dhar all the more paranoid … it leaked. At the seams of the concrete forms, you could see the dark telltale marks of water seepage. Another tourist in our group asked about that, the tour guide promised it was designed that way.

The last stop of the tour was some 200 feet into the canyon wall. Here we were led into a room that overlooked the massive penstock pipes. These pipes came down from the intake towers in the reservoir, delivering water to the generator turbines. Some 30 or 40 feet in diametre, and using pins (rivets) that were six inches across, the pipes contained water under so much pressure that the room we stood in vibrated … and it wasn’t even directly connected to the pipe.

Here the guide told us how the water is delivered from Lake Mead to the generators, and how the water was diverted while the dam was under constructions. Another interesting fact of Hoover Dam: it has two spillways, designed to take in water in the event of a flash flood. The spillways are each large enough to contain the volume of water that goes over Niagara Falls in one second (5520 cubic metres, or about 194,940 cubic feet).

The tour thus ended. I was a little disappointed that we had seen all there was to see. I wanted to see the control room, or something else that’s usually “behind the scenes”. We were led back to the elevators to take us back to the Visitor’s Center. We opted not to see the documentary film, but decided to check out the dam for ourselves. We found our way to the Lake Mead side of the dam, where we found a gift shop. Finally I had found tacky stuff. And by tacky, I am referring to mounted heads of the illusive jackalope (a jack rabbit with antelope horns glued on for show).

I purchased a rather huge mug (the only truly tacky thing that I bought during the trip) and a rock from the canyon to give to my soon-to-be-ex-manager at a job I would quit a few days after returning home. (A very long story, summarized in that the job I was supposed to get ended up going to someone else, and I was going to be bussing tables, through no fault of my own. Thanks, but no thanks.) The rock was supposed to be from the Grand Canyon, but I had forgotten to get one. The rock here looked similar in formation (an advantage of having taken geology courses), so I figured I would at least try to pass it off. (I never did find out if she got the rock or not.)

The time came for us to hit the road again, and start gaining hours as we headed east. Stefan and Rebecca went back for the van while Dhar and I walked to Arizona, taking pictures as we went. I finished off the last of a roll of film (as did Dhar), and I took a couple pictures with my panoramic camera. Part of the way across we came by a restroom, which I desperately needed to make use of.

Most of the architecture of the dam was art deco, the style commonly used in the 1930’s, when the dam was built. Even the washrooms retained the style … the toilets actually looked like the ones installed in the 1930’s. I couldn’t help but comment on this to Dhar when I came out.

A few minutes later we stood on the Arizona side waiting for Rebecca and Stefan to drive by. They barely stopped, just long enough for us to dive in the side door before continuing on. Our next intended stop was to be in Flagstaff.

My dad had drilled into me for years that engine oil needed to be changed every 5,000 kilometres, no matter what. The Behemoth would hit the mark just outside of Flagstaff, making it the ideal place to get an oil change. But first we had to cross over three and a half hours of Arizona, and it was already 14:00 Mountain time.

We drove down to Kingman again, pausing only long enough to hop from Highway 93 to the I-40 to head east. The trip was fairly uneventful, we found various ways to amuse ourselves including playing Stefan’s favourite song, Sugar Sugar. (This was from my Saturday Morning CD, a compilation of themes from old Saturday morning cartoon shows, remade by current alternative bands.) Previously a song from the Archies, Sugar Sugar was remade by Mary Lou Lord with Semisonic. It was just as sugary-sweet as the original song (no pun intended), and just as evilly catchy. Several times Stefan would unconsciously start humming it, which led to at least one other person humming it, which lead to someone realizing that it was being hummed, which led to conscious thought and the realization that the song was actually very annoying.

We had a reasonably extensive CD collection with us, most of them from my “store”. I use the term as a result of all the chiding I received from my friends. At the time of the trip, I had in excess of 435 CDs. An impressive collection perhaps, but no more so than a few people I know who have over 1,200 CDs in addition to endless boxes of LPs and the few hundred-odd cassette tapes.

Long before my family had even bought the Behemoth, I had sent a request to Stefan and Rebecca to decide what music to listen to, sending them a list of every album I owned. I personally had no qualms about what they chose — my logic was straightforward, whatever they wanted to listen I owned anyway. After a bit of prodding I finally got a list in return that contained what I would consider “easy-listening” music. What I didn’t know was that they listened to music that was as every bit as harsh as some of the music I listened to, and we had many similarities in our likes and dislikes. In theory, I could have grabbed a bunch of CDs at random and it wouldn’t have mattered.

To give you an idea of what we did listen to, here’s the list:

1996 Grammy Nominees, ABBA, Aerosmith, Blue Rodeo, Cirque du Soliel’s Mystére, Crash Test Dummies, Enya, Eurythmics, Fine Young Cannibals, Great Big Sea, Harry Connick Jr., Jimmy George, Led Zeppelin, Monty Python, Pink Floyd, Prince, Pulp Fiction Soundtrack, REM, Sarah MacLachlan, Saturday Morning (Cartoon’s Greatest Hits), Saturday Night Fever, Spirit Of The West, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Sting, Supertramp, Tesla, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Cranberries, The Gone Jackals, The Guess Who, The Police, The Rolling Stones, The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty, Traveling Wilburys, U2, Van Halen, Weird Al Yankovic, ZZ Top

There were several other CDs in the pack I brought along, but we never got a chance to listen to them. Several of the albums were chosen by me for a specific contribution to the trip: theme music. ZZ Top was included for their rendition of Viva Las Vegas. The Tragically Hip supplied New Orleans Is Sinking. REM gave us Drive. Unfortunately I had neglected to bring Sheryl Crow (Leaving Las Vegas), any Elvis albums, Paul Simon (Graceland), or Phil Collins (Take Me Home).

About a third of the way across Arizona, we realized our gasoline supply was dwindling fast. We also knew that the western end of Arizona had much higher gas prices than the eastern end. We tried our best to keep the supply running as long as we could, but soon it became all too clear that no matter what we did, we needed fuel and we needed it quickly.

We pulled off at Seligman, some tiny speck on the map, where we hoped there would be an open gas bar. We crossed to the north side of I-40, and turned east onto a small road. Turning left, we headed over to a dusty gas station, in the middle of a small dusty town. There were hardly any trees, virtually no green grass … there were hardly any people. Except for the ones driving in the replica roadsters. We’d seen a few of them earlier as we were driving, but couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many of them. When we saw the sign, it all came much clearer:

Welcome to Seligman. Birthplace of Historic Route 66.

Birthplace of Highway 66, Seligman, Arizona, 26 April 1996

So we were on the infamous Route 66. We didn’t get any kicks … except in the ass when we saw the price of gas. But when you’re too low to know whether or not you’ll get to the next station, you don’t quibble about it. Instead we tossed in about $10, praying it would get us to our next stop. We spent only enough time in Seligman to buy the gas and record the fact that we’d been there. We then peeled rubber to get out of there — it was a little too backwater for our liking.

We arrived in Flagstaff about 19:00 that evening, which was an hour too late to get an oil change. We didn’t realize this until we had already spent a half hour searching through phone books for lube garages in the area and drove around trying to find them. Already about 150 kilometres over the 5,000 kilometre mark, I was a little apprehensive about driving any further for fear of damaging a new engine. But staying in Flagstaff overnight meant a delay in our schedule, possibly meaning we would have to sacrifice one of our planned destinations. It was four and three quarter hours from Flagstaff to Albuquerque, a distance I wasn’t too keen on traveling, but in the long run it was better for us to do so.

With some trepidation, we jumped back on I-40 and continued our eastern haul. We drove for about 40 miles before pulling into one of the Arizona rest stops, about 20 miles west of Winslow. Resting in one of the many vast endless terrains in the south-west, the rest stop intruded as little into the area as possible. The only significant structures were the washroom building and the picnic shelters.

Inhabiting one of the picnic sites, we set up our portable barbeque on one of the concrete tables and fired it up to cook the hot dogs. While we were stopped, I also took the liberty of switching the fridge over to the propane supply to try and drop the temperature. The 12 volt system was really only good for keeping the contents at a specific temperature, you needed the 110 volt supply or the propane supply to really get the fridge cold.

Our picnic site had three partial (non-contacting) walls and a flat roof, all made from poured concrete. Behind us was a small rock formation, bearing a sign to watch for scorpions and rattlesnakes. We neither saw or heard any of the dangerous beasties, but the sign wouldn’t have been there if the danger wasn’t real. After eating most of the hot dogs (a fortunate idea, preventing them from going bad), Rebecca and Dhar strolled onto the rocks to look into the setting western sun. Their report stated the view would have been much better if some schmuck hadn’t built his house next to the rest stop.

We flirted with the idea of locking up for the night and sleeping there. But my sense of rules came back into play again, and I flat-out refused to. I hated playing the asshole, but my inability to “colour outside the lines” pretty much prohibited rebellion. A long list of rules posted at the front of every rest stop prohibited camping overnight. A truck pulling an Airstream trailer wasn’t so picky, they had dropped anchor for the night and didn’t appear to be moving any time before morning.

The sun had set almost entirely by the time we pulled back onto the I-40. What light that was left cast some of the most beautiful deep red light onto the rock and sand, it looked like we were driving over an open wound in the Earth’s skin.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary
So much for oil changes – by the time we got to Flagstaff all the lube shops and gas stations had closed.

We had dinner at one of the Arizona rest stops tonight. We had to be on the watch for rattlesnakes and scorpions. We didn’t see any. 280 miles to Albuquerque.

It took only a few minutes for us to get bored. Driving across Arizona was in many respects like driving across Kansas — it was so dull your brain doesn’t work properly. As such, my memory of crossing Arizona the second time is rather non-existant. Though most likely we gabbed for a good portion of the distance. Either that or Stefan and Rebecca went to sleep, Dhar drove and I rode shotgun. (It was a commonly enough done theme that I tend to forget when it was done.)

At midnight, we were possessed with a serious case of the munchies. Barely inside New Mexico, we pulled into the first major city would could find. Gallup was hardly major by our standards, a population of only 19,200, but when considered the population of New Mexico was only 1.5 million and most of the cities had less than 100,000 residents, Gallup became a fair bit more significant than in other places of the country.

We couldn’t eat anything that we were carrying with us, the only thing we had left were uncooked potatoes (and although mashed potatoes are always a welcome meal, we didn’t have any way of cooking them quickly), a little bit of salsa (which despite the fact that I don’t eat salsa, we had nothing for it to go with), and a couple boxes of President’s Choice White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese Dinner (a much fancier version of Kraft Dinner). Suffice to say, none of us were in the cooking mood.

Rebecca wanted KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), to which Dhar was objecting (with good reason). I wasn’t that hungry, so I played indifferent to the whole deal. But by the time we found a KFC, we found it had already closed. A McDonald’s lurked nearby, so we opted to buy something from there instead. The lobby looked closed, so we pulled into the drive-through and sat next to the speaker waiting for someone to take our order.

And we sat. And sat, and sat, and sat. After about ten minutes it was becoming pretty damn clear that no-one was going to take our order. A car in front of us seemed to have already given an order, and was waiting for the order to be filled. Our little lineup hadn’t gone unnoticed, more cars appeared behind us. But our patience had worn completely thin. Well pulled out of the line and drove out to the road we came in on. When we looked back as we drove off, the lights in the McDonald’s were turned off. We were none too impressed with the lack of service.

Gallup had few roads that led to interchanges with the I-40. As a result, we ended up having to drive quite a distance before finding the next interchange. But the drive wasn’t without fortune, as we found a 24 hour restaurant just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Interstate. Hunger now getting the best of us, we pulled in to obtain sustenance.

The restaurant (the name of which escapes me … c’mon, it was nothing to celebrate — if it was, I’d let you know) was one of a small chain of eateries that ran through the south-west. The general premise was, as usual, “home-cooking”. That is the single most over-used and under-achieving terms I have ever heard. This particular restaurant was sparsely populated, and even then the waitress seated us away from everyone else. Somehow, someone was tracking us and warning others of our imminent arrival.

The meals were nothing spectacular, we quickly figured out why the restaurant chain was only in three states. Dhar’s spicy chicken wasn’t, my roast beef drowned in the gravy, Rebecca’s dinner was nearly unspeakable, and Stefan’s hamburger wasn’t fit for a dog (or Stefan, for that matter). But hunger is a strange thing — you’ll eat nearly anything to calm that rumbling stomach.

About half an hour to 40 minutes later, we boarded the Behemoth, and I took over driving for the rest of the night. The temperature in New Mexico was rather chilly, so we actually ended up using the car heater for a while until we were a bit warmer. Out we pulled and hit the road once again.

The rest of the drive to Albuquerque was uneventful. Somewhere around 02:00, we pulled into New Mexico’s largest city and started searching for the KOA. Fortunately for us, the KOA Catalogue provided excellent maps for finding the often hard-to-find campgrounds. We pretty much had to drive to the opposite side of the city before getting off the I-40 to get onto Central Avenue.

As was becoming a regular occurrence, Stefan had to do a late check-in. All of us were on the verge of dropping off to sleep (Rebecca had already passed out), and the sooner that we park and slept, the better. Stefan returned in a few minutes and directed us to a slot about 200 metres from the main office, conveniently located next to the washrooms.

Dhar made an immediate run for the toilet, as we hadn’t stopped for an hour or so and his bladder was on the verge of springing a leak (pun intended). But as we quickly found out, the washrooms were closed for the season. This I found rather odd — what seasons are there in New Mexico other than summer and not-quite-as-warm-as-summer-but-better-than-winter? Nevertheless, Stefan and Dhar when hunting for the washrooms. Being too tired to care (or urinate, for that matter), I just pulled my bed out, drew most of the blinds, crawled into my sleeping bag and started to nod off.

Stefan and Dhar returned a moment or two later, reporting that the only washroom they could find had a combination lock on it, prevent us from getting in that night. Dhar ended up relieving himself on the right front tire.