BigWeather's Blog

August 6, 2013

Southwestern USA trip wrap-up

Filed under: Travel — Tags: — BigWeather @ 11:59 pm

I realized I never did a wrap-up post for the Southwestern USA trip in July and August of 2013.  Not much of note happened that final day, mainly waking up, packing, and heading to the airport.  We did pass the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign (sadly, my camera was packed at the time).  The flight (non-stop, yay!) went smoothly and we arrived at home safely with Adrianne picking us up at the airport.  We drove well over 3,000 miles and saw many cool things.  Michelle and I agreed that we enjoyed Bryce Canyon National Park the most but there were several other contenders.

Our actual route for the Southwestern USA trip

August 5, 2013

(Pin)ballin’ in Vegas

Filed under: Travel — Tags: — BigWeather @ 11:59 pm

We got out later than I had hoped, partially because I spent some time cleaning out the rental car in preparation for our turning it in on Tuesday (as Monday night it’d be in valet parking).  Headed out of Kingman, Arizona on route 93.  Some really desolate terrain and the heat was already rising up there, even before 10a.  During the nearly one hour drive to Hoover Dam we steadily lost elevation (and gained temperature, to the point that it was over 100F by the time we got to the dam).

The dam turned out to be a non-event for us.  The consensus going in was that we didn’t want to take a tour or anything, just see it.  Turns out that by staying on route 93 we entered Nevada with nary a sight of the dam.  Had to exit and work our way back to the dam on a lesser, windy route that took us by an inspection station and everything (though they just waved us on —  I guess we look pretty harmless).  We got to a point where they wanted us to pay $7 to park so we U-turned out of there and pulled over at a viewpoint that gave great views of the impressive route 93 bridge as well as “ok” views of Hoover Dam.  Took some pictures, good enough for me!  Hopped back in the car and headed toward Las Vegas, arriving about twenty minutes later.  As it was nearly noon we got a bite to eat at Arby’s on Tropicana Avenue (that after trying another place that was closed despite its operating hours claiming otherwise).  It was… well, Arby’s.

Hoover Dam

Route 93 bridge

We arrived at our first (and I think coolest) Las Vegas destination a bit after noon — the Pinball Hall of Fame on 1610 East Tropicana Avenue.  Started by Tim Arnold, who found success as an arcade owner during the early 80s, the Pinball Hall of Fame houses a couple hundred of his machines (with more in storage so the collection on display can be rotated to keep it fresh).  There is no entrance fee but it costs quarters to play the tables.  Many of the tables are set to five balls and also give a discount for multiple plays.  He runs it as a 503(c), any profits are given to the Salvation Army.  If you love pinball or just want to revisit some childhood memories (or both!) it is well worth a visit!

Pinball Hall of Fame exterior

I played many of the tables that are represented in my current video game obsession The Pinball Arcade like Monster Bash, Tales of the Arabian Nights (if I could own a table, that’d be the one I’d choose), Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, Pin*Bot, you name it.  A very good mix of EMs (tables from before the late 70s), SSs (mostly 80s), and DMDs (since the early 90s).  Unfortunately Black Hole, one my favorites, wasn’t working, nor was Haunted House, a game I had wanted to play.  In fact, in the three hours we were there a couple of tables that had been working had encountered difficulties.  That’s the main fear I’d have owning a table — they require a bit of work to keep running and I simply don’t have the expertise.  Gorgar also wasn’t on display, unfortunately.  I also got to see and play many tables I hadn’t encountered — Wizard of Oz (just released in April), Doctor Who, WHO dunnit, Metallica (also recently released), etc.  Michelle and the kids had a ball, especially Genetta who has become quite a fan of pinball.  Addison played several games of Air Hockey with Michelle and I which was fun as well.

Some of the Pinball Hall of Fame's EM tables

Pinball Hall of Fame's SSs and DMDs

Williams' Tales of the Arabian Nights

Wizard of Oz pinball -- note the flippers are the ruby slippers

Though not pinball related, they had some classic arcade games including Space Invaders Deluxe.  I hadn’t seen one in such amazing condition.  I’m always amazed at how the older video game machines compensated for their low technology.  Space Invaders is a monochrome game but through the use of a colorful bezel as well as projecting the display onto a painted color backdrop (via a mirror — the monitor is actually mounted below the playfield) it comes across really well.

Space Invaders Deluxe's clever illusion

We left the Pinball Hall of Fame about 3 or 3:30p and were hit with 108F temperatures — ouch!  Dry heat, my butt!  Drove the short distance to the Strip and our hotel, the Cosmopolitan.  Traffic was terrible, but we made it through fine.  I’ve never seen a hotel this big — tons of people arriving, the staff operating like a well-oiled machine.  The lobby was really cool — tall pillars covered in large screens depicting all sorts of scientific diagrams of flora and such.  We checked in and were led to a bank of six elevators (one of three banks) that serviced the floor we were staying on — the 24th (of 60 or so).  The elevator zipped us rapidly up to our floor.  The room was great — particularly the beds (so soft), view of the Bellagio and Paris casinos, and bathroom.  The shower was odd, though.  A walk-in but with a window opening to the room proper with a shade covering it.  The shade, though, had its “controls” in the room itself, not the shower.  I guess what stays in Vegas…

The Cosmopolitan's lobby

The Cosmopolitan's check-in desks

View from our room at the Cosmopolitan

We spent some time trying to decide what to eat and ended up eating at the Cosmopolitan’s buffet, Wicked Spoon.  Considered to be one of the best buffets in Las Vegas, it was a bit pricey but great.  There were some odd foods mixed in, however — marrow, roasted goat, etc.  I stuck to the safer stuff like prime rib, stir fry beef, macaroni, and some wonderful desserts like raspberry tort, coffee gelato, and chocolate-covered strawberries.  Good stuff!

Our dinner was at the Wicken Spoon, a magnificent buffet

Addison wasn’t feeling great so headed to the room while Michelle, Genetta, and I walked about the hotel.  They had these odd steam punk looking things scattered about as well as giant shoes.  Vegas, man.  There was also a bar called The Chandelier that was basically a giant multi-story bar without walls but rather was a chandelier.  Crazy.  There were a number of shops, all very, very expensive.  One had hundreds of antique sewing machines in its windows for some reason.  We left the Cosmopolitan and walked north along the Strip, first checking out the Bellagio’s fountain show.  It was choreographed to music and had many jets of water shooting far into the sky.  Lots of people, way too many people, were milling about, as well as people handing out fliers that were less than appropriate for my daughter to see.  And the heat, even after dark, ugh.

Steampunk-y... uh... something?

Glimpse of the casino floor in the Cosmopolitan

The Chandelier, unholy spawn of a bar and a chandelier

A store displaying many sewing machines for some reason...

Paris on the Las Vegas Strip

The Bellagio's fountain show

The Cosmopolitan as seen from the Strip

Went into Caesar’s Palace casino and walked through the casino area.  We couldn’t linger as Genetta was with us, but that’s fine.  Saw a large room with many screens for sports betting as well as the Coliseum, Caesar’s Palace’s theater.  Soon came upon the Forum Shops, the shopping center within Caesar’s Palace.  It was pretty amazing — it had spiral escalators!  Also the stores all were unified in decor to look like a Roman city.  The ceiling was painted to look like a sky with some wispy clouds.  The light cycled between day, evening, night, and dawn.  There was even an aquarium in one part.  There was a Sony store which had a 84″ 4K TV on display — very cool, but not $25,000 cool (you know it is going to be pricey when the tag says “Save $4,099!”  Quite a few art galleries (with art in the $15,000 and up range), a Tiffany & Co., etc.  Not surprisingly there were a lot of people walking around gawking but very few full shopping bags to be found.

Caesar's Palace casino floor

Sports betting area, Caesar's Palace

Spiral escalators at Caesar's Palace Forum Shops

Cool decor and night/day cycle at Forum Shops

More Forum Shops decor

We were going to try and make it to the Venetian but it was already past 10p.  So we exited the Forum Shops and crossed Las Vegas Blvd to quickly zip through the Miracle Mile Shops.  We first grabbed some water and Genetta a frappacino from Starbucks.  Genetta found a cool top at some store while I just waited outside and took pictures.  Like the Forum Shops it was decorated in a theme, this one being Moroccan / North African.  They even had an indoor rain storm that would happen every so often but sadly, as it was late, we missed it.  Left about 11p and headed back to the room as the shops were closing.  At this hour the crowd was skewing much younger and “prettier”, lots of club goers and such.  It was time for this old fogey to go back to the room and blog and get ready for the trip home the next day.

Flamingo Casino lights

Miracle Mile Shops decor

More Miracle Mile Shops decor

Route for Monday, August 5th, 2013

August 4, 2013

All Along the Watchtower

Filed under: Travel — Tags: — BigWeather @ 11:59 pm

Michelle woke me up shortly after 6a so that we could go watch the dawn over the Grand Canyon.  I’d love to be able to say that we were out before dawn and walked miles to the best spot to see the dawn but we didn’t — we got out shortly after dawn and camped out in front of El Tovar.  Though I prefer sunset more, I think, the dawn was still spectacular.  It was amazing how minute to minute the light changed the way the canyon looked.  After about thirty minutes or so we went back to our rooms.

Grand Canyon at sunrise

Grand Canyon at sunrise

El Tovar's entrance

A bit later we woke the kids and headed to breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge.  It was not bad at all, and reasonably (for Grand Canyon Village, at least) priced.  Afterwards we checked out the some of the history of the lodge including a fireplace with stones retrieved from the different layers of the canyon and stacked up in the same order, so that the bottom of the fireplace were the oldest rocks (about two billion years old) and the top was the most recent type of rock.  We also learned about the architect of many of the distinctive buildings in the park, Mary Jane Colter.  She designed the Hopi House, The Lookout, Hermit’s Rest, and the Desert View Watchtower (more on that below) for the Fred Harvey company.

Grand Canyon at morning

Headed back to the room and checked-out, heading toward the east entrance of the park.  We stopped at a few viewpoints, like Grandview, but they were already quite crowded.  At the very eastern part of the park is a seventy foot tall stone (with steel innards) tower built in the early 1900s and commanding an amazing view of the canyon, including a great view of the Colorado far below.  There was also a marker describing the tragic crash of two passenger planes in 1956 that killed all 128 people — and was catalyst for the founding of the FAA.

Grand Canyon from east entrance road viewpoint

Another view of the Grand Canyon from Grandview Point

Grand Canyon from Desert View

Colorado River as seen from Desert View

Addison and I climbed up to the top of the tower while the ladies remained below in a gift shop.  The steps were a bit narrow but overall not too bad.  The inside of the tower consisted of a few floors, each of which had walls painted with Indian motifs.  Very cool.  After climbing down we went to the snack bar for a quick lunch, I had a turkey and American cheese sandwich and a banana.  Yummy.

Desert View Watchtower, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Another view of the canyon from Desert View Watchtower

Interior of Desert View Watchtower

Hopped back into the car and left the park.  By this time an impressive thunderstorm had brewed up with lots of cloud-to-ground lightning.  We stopped at a scenic view just outside of the park near the spectacular (and very narrow, in contrast to the main canyon) gorge formed by the Little Colorado River to check out the storm.  As it started to rain (for those keeping score at home, that is 12 of 15 days of rain so far), we decided it best to hop back in the car and start driving the loop road that wound through Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater National Monument.

Very narrow Little Colorado River gorge

In 1085 or so there was an eruption that formed several cones, including Sunset Crater.  The material spewed from the eruptions provided fertile soil for farming, leading to several Indian groups moving to the area and staying the 150 years before the soil was depleted.  They built several pueblos in an area now encompassed by Wupatki National Monument.  The whole area is beautiful, probably helped by the rain — yellow, orange, and violet flowers contrasting with dark black soil (from the eruptions) and red rocks scattered about.  First we saw The Citadel, a pueblo built on top of a small hill.  As it was raining at quite a clip we didn’t get out and explore.  A few more miles down the road we came upon the visitor’s center.  Luckily the rain had let up so we were able to take the half mile trail around Wupatki Pueblo.

Black soil in Wupatki National Monument, Arizona

The pueblo itself had over a hundred rooms.  The ruins had been partially restored in the early 1900s and even used for the Ranger’s living quarters and monument office at the time.  That is a pretty common story, the same thing happened at Mesa Verde.  The approach of the National Park Service is quite different today — never reconstruct or rebuild.  Past the main group of rooms and down the hill there was a ceremonial building — but not a kiva as it was above ground and there was no evidence of a roof.  Further downhill was a ball court, the furthest north example.  As there had been a lot of rain recently it was filled with water.  Right next to the ball court was a “blow hole”, a natural phenomena that occurs when a narrow shaft drops into a cavern.  Depending on the air pressure the hole will either blow or suck — today it was blowing and I was amazed at the air it put out.  It was probably as good as a modern AC unit!

Wupatki Pueblo ruins

Closer view of Wupatki Pueblo ruins

Rubble strewn about the Wupatki Pueblo ruins

Beautiful terrain in Wupatki National Monument

Flooded ball court in Wupatki Pueblo

Wupatki National Monument, Arizona

The rain started up again so we got in the car and drove to the next pueblo, Wukoki, also perched on a hillside like The Citadel.  As it was raining we only took a few pictures from the parking lot and headed on out to Sunset Crater National Monument.  Sunset Crater is not hikeable but still is impressive — its colors range from black through reds to tan.  Two large lava flows occurred, leading to whole areas of missing forest occupied by sharp, jagged black rocks.  The rain continued and it was getting late so we didn’t stop.

Wukoki Pueblo ruins, Wupatki National Monument

Lava flow, Sunset Crater National Monument, Arizona

Rain clouds lifting over Humphreys Peak, Arizona

Returned to Flagstaff via route 89 then hit I-40 to Kingman, about 120 miles away.  Along the way we got some gas — $4.19/gallon.  Really?!?  Interesting change in terrain from forested hills at 6000 feet or so (and temperatures around 65F) to scrub and jagged rocky hills at 2000 feet (and temperatures nearing 100F).  Checked in to the hotel and got a recommendation for a nearby Mexican and Seafood (ruh-roh, danger!) restaurant.  It was actually quite good, I had a taco and two cheese enchiladas.  Returned to the hotel, cleaned out the car, re-packed in preparation for our flight on Tuesday, and blogged.

Route for Sunday, August 4th, 2013

August 3, 2013


Filed under: Travel — Tags: — BigWeather @ 11:59 pm

Checked out and headed out of Flagstaff on route 180.  Early on we passed Humphreys Peak, tallest point in Arizona.  After that the trees thinned out a bit and it was mostly scrub and some small trees.  There was quite a line to get into Grand Canyon National Park, mostly because people kept clogging the “pass only” lane and paying the entrance fee (which took forever, as many were paying with credit cards).  We did get in about noon, though, and parked at the visitor’s center near Grand Canyon Village.  We bought a few light sandwiches for lunch, I got a peanut butter, jelly, and honey on wheat.  None of the sandwiches were that great but at that point we’d have eaten anything.  An elk came up while we were eating — no fear at all.

Humphreys Peak, Arizona's highest point

Afterwards we walked out to Mather Point, which was packed, and took some pictures.  I think the wife and kids (who had never seen the canyon) had the same reaction I did when I first saw it in 1991 — bewilderment.  It’s just really hard to process, it’s so huge.  A full mile deep and twenty miles or so wide, and nearly 300 miles long it’s just massive.  Though the canyon itself is quite young, the rock it cuts through at the bottom is nearly two billion years old — old enough that there are no fossils as there were no significant living organisms at the time.  It made me feel so insignificant.

View from Mather Point, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

View from Mather Point

View from Mather Point, with a small glimpse of the Colorado River far below

We turned back to the visitor’s center and looked through their few exhibits, including a bulky wooden boat that was used to survey the Colorado in the 1920s.  A quick trip to the gift shop yielded a few magnets (yay!) then we watched a pretty decent movie about the canyon.  Hopped back in the car and were very fortunate to find a parking space very close to our hotel, El Tovar.  El Tovar is impressive lodge built in 1905 and has hosted good ol’ Teddy Roosevelt.  We got two rooms, both on the floor below the lobby and across the hall from each other.  We decided to walk around a bit before getting all of our luggage to our rooms.  While the others went to the Hopi House, an Indian gift shop across from the hotel, I went down the small hill to take pictures of the passenger train that runs from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon.  On return I went into the Hopi House briefly and saw a rather macabre book that detailed all 700+ of the deaths in the canyon since the 1800s.  On the way out I smacked my head on the top of the door — ouch!

Train running between Williams, Arizona and Grand Canyon National Park

Santa Fe Depot, built in 1909

Hopi House

Hopi House roof

Walked a little farther to the east before turning back and grabbing our luggage.  Dropped it off in our rooms then went to dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge.  It wasn’t great, oh well.  I had pork loin and green beans so at least it was a bit healthy.  Afterwards we walked west to the Bright Angel trailhead and read about the mules they use to carry people down into the canyon, most of which are bought from farms in Tennessee.  Passed the Kolb Studio and its competitor back when the park was young, Lookout Studio.  We hung out at the Lookout a while and watched the sunset.  Genetta and I went to a lower viewpoint while Michelle and Addison stayed above.  Continued to walk back towards El Tovar as the sun set and got a espresso chip milkshake.  Yum!

View of the Grand Canyon

View of the Grand Canyon

View of the Grand Canyon

View of the Grand Canyon

View of the Grand Canyon

El Tovar, Grand Canyon Village, Arizona

El Tovar, perched on the canyon's south rim

Grand Canyon at sunset

Grand Canyon at sunset

Grand Canyon at sunset

Grand Canyon at sunset

Grand Canyon at sunset

In front of El Tovar was an elk with a huge rack of antlers, then later another four elk came by.  We stayed on a bench on the rim for a while, then El Tovar’s porch, as the last of the day faded and the stars and the gorgeous milky way made me feel insignificant yet again.

Elk in front of El Tovar

Grand Canyon at sunset

Route for Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

August 2, 2013

Petrified “Forest”

Filed under: Travel — Tags: — BigWeather @ 11:59 pm

We headed out a bit later than I’d have liked, mainly due to me taking my sweet time getting us packed up and out.  Took the short drive up route 77 to Holbrook (during which the terrain went from hilly and forested to barren scrub land) and then hopped on I-40 east for a few mile to the entrance to the Painted Desert part of Petrified Forest National Park.  We poked around a tiny bit in the visitor’s center and watched a film.  They had a serious of eight or so retro posters of other National Parks on the wall and it was startling to realize that we had been to every single one with the exception of Grand Canyon (well, I’ve been there, but not the whole family), and that was to be rectified on Saturday.  We really have been to a lot of cool places.  They had Yosemite, Lassen, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Ranier, Smokey, Zion, Grand Canyon, at least represented.

Set out in our car around the scenic drive — not a loop this time but a route that hooked around and down to the visitor’s center at the south end where the Petrified Forest part of the National Park was.  First up was the Painted Desert, coined by a Spanish explorer in the 1500s.  Amazing splashes of red and purple and beautiful views extending out a hundred or more miles to the north towards the Navajo Nation.  Also there was a beautiful old building called the Painted Desert Inn that was built in the 1930s.  Shortly before crossing I-40 and into the southern part of the park we crossed where old route 66 ran, marked by a rusty old car sitting in the grass and a chrome bumper with a plaque.

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Painted Desert

Painted Desert Inn, built in the 1930s

Painted Desert

Route 66 site, I-40 is in the background

Just south of I-40 are the remains of a pueblo, Puerco Pueblo.  Home to two hundred or so people with just over one hundred rooms arranged around a central plaza, the pueblo was occupied around 1000 through 1300AD or so.  In addition to the rooms’ foundations there was also a kiva as well as a nice group of petroglyphs.  One of the petroglyphs was carved such that a beam of light would hit it at the height of the summer solstice.  There was one particularly awesome petroglyph of a ibis-like bird eating a frog (or something that looked like a frog).  Some speculated that it was just that, while others thought it may be a representation of a Hopi story about a giant bird that would eat kids that were rotten.  I like that interpretation!  To close out the Indian ruins portion of the park we visited Newspaper Rock which had even more petroglyphs but, as they were a bit further away, it wasn’t as impressive.

Puerco Pueblo ruins, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

At the bottom is the petroglyph of the Ibis and the Frog (or Child...)

Shale (?) rock

Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock in Petrfied Forest National Park

View near Newspaper Rock

The southernmost portion of the park is the whole reason the park exists in the first place — the petrified forest.  It isn’t really a forest, but rather more like a petrified log fall.  None of the logs are standing, rather they are part of a three hundred foot deep layer — a forest 225 million years ago that was covered and had the organic wood replaced with minerals.  As the badlands are constantly eroding they reveal more and more of the petrified wood.  In the late-1800s and early-1900s tourism greatly increased and much of the petrified wood then visible was removed — sometimes even by dynamite to get to amethyst and quartz crystals in the petrified logs.  The government finally stepped in and set aside the area as a National Park in the early 1900s.

Beautiful colors in Petrified Forest Nationall Park

Beautiful colors in Petrified Forest Nationall Park

Blue Mesa area, note the log in the middle just laying there

View from Blue Mesa area of Petrified Forest National Park

More views near Blue Mesa

The logs were really colorful and it was remarkable how much they did look like wood.  I particularly liked the logs just being exposed, barely seen above the grass and shrubs.  We saw whole valleys with hundreds of pieces of logs strewn about.  Amazing.  At the very southern tip of the park we saw “Old Faithful”, the largest petrified log in the park.  The visitor’s center there also had a small, but fascinating, overview of the fossil record of the park and informed us that the National Park is the home of several holotypes, meaning the first ever fossil found for that species.

Petrified logs

Close-up of colorful petrified logs

Petrified log splitting apart

More petrified logs

Petrified log

Petrified log and "chips" that flaked off of it

Beautiful color

"Old Faithful", largest petrified log in the National Park

The rain that had been threatening for the past few hours — with ominous gray skies and jagged cloud-to-ground lightning (not fun when you realize you are — by far — the tallest thing around) and a wonderful cool breeze — finally broke.  Perfect timing, we piled into the car and headed back to Holbrook via route 180 then hit I-40 to the road to Meteor Crater.

As we approached the crater from the north we could clearly see the rim of the crater rising up above the open scrub land.  After paying a princely sum of $48 for the four of us to enter we poked around the museum and saw a movie.  The museum wasn’t bad, actually, and Addison had fun using a simulator to create meteors and test the effects of their impact.  It also showed where other impact craters could be found around the world as well as the effects of a comet being captured by Jupiter, torn apart, then impacting on the surface — one of the 22 impacts from the torn-apart comet created an Earth-sized impact zone.  Also I didn’t know that Gene Shoemaker, geologist and planetary scientist, had wanted to go to the moon but had a medical condition that prevented it.  When he died, however, he became the first person to be laid to rest on another celestial body when some of his ashes were carried to the moon by a probe.  In life he had helped train some of the Apollo astronauts at the crater in preparation for their moon landing.

Meteor Crater as seen from the approach road

The meteor that created the crater was moving about 40,000 miles per hour and was 150 feet in diameter and struck about 50,000 years ago.  Only a small fragment has been recovered, the rest having vaporized in the atmosphere or been pulverized on impact.  On impact a 500km/h wind carrying some molten material would’ve washed over the area.  Ouch!  The crater itself is nearly a mile in diameter and 550 feet deep, though it was originally about 700 feet deep.  Twenty football games could be held in the crater at once, with two million spectators on the slopes.  Putting it another way, the central business district of San Francisco would fit in the crater and the Washington Monument, if placed at the center of the crater, would not peek above the rim.

The crater was very impressive, though very, very windy.  There were three observation platforms to visit, and great pictures to take, though it proved impossible to get without taking a panoramic photo due to its width.  I actually wished for a coat.  As the crater was nearing closing time we hit the road for Flagstaff.

Meteor Crater, Arizona

Rim of Meteor Crater

Along the way to Flagstaff we saw the most beautiful sunset right behind Humphreys Peak, largest mountain in Arizona at about 12,600 feet.  As Flagstaff is already over a mile in elevation it doesn’t look that tall from the road.  Arrived in Flagstaff before 8p and decided to eat at the Outback practically adjacent to our hotel.  Great food!  Fully satiated, headed to the hotel to check-in and blog the day’s events.

Stormy sunset over Humphreys Peak, Arizona

Sunset over Humphreys Peak, Arizona

Route for Friday, August 2nd, 2013

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