Friday, May 12th, 2006 – Distance Travelled 238 miles

When I woke up in the morning, my head felt thick and horrible and my tongue felt like sand. I did not think could remember being more thirsty, but then I remembered a time in North Africa – but it was probably close. I guessed I must have dried out far more than I had realised the day before.

I dragged myself from my comfy bed and, as I crossed the road for a bit of breakfast at the Crowbar Cafe, I realised I had slept pretty late and that it was already after nine o’clock. I was not really hungry, but the chirpy waitress persuaded me to try what they call a “short stack” of pancakes. My life, it was about two or three times what I wanted ! I would hate to be confronted with a “long stack” or even, for that matter, a “stack”. I smothered them with syrup and somehow forced them down. My spirits immediately lifted, try eating a pound of sugar, you will get the idea. I also drank about a gallon of water, while I waited for the pancakes to arrive, but it scarcely seemed to moisten my tongue.

All that sugar had buoyed me up considerably. I overtipped the waitress and walked back to the motel to check out. It was already bright and getting hotter by the second. There was something about the northern end of Shoshone that was very “western” in a cowboy sort of way. There was a little bit of blowing dust, some rail fences and, of course, the still pungent aroma of the sage. Only the Chevron station spoiled the illusion.

I checked out, filled up at the Chevron (under $3 a gallon) and took the Route 127 southward towards Interstate 15 and Las Vegas. There were a couple of of side roads that would probably have shortened the trip, but the road surfaces looked a bit dubious and I was still a tiny bit thick-headed. One of these was to the Nevada town of Pahrump and a number of billboards highlighted the slightly dubious pleasures available at places like the Crazy Horse Saloon. Put it this way, it is not only gambling that is legal in Nevada ! I ignored them, obviously.

I did not have too far to go, I estimated not much over two hundred and twenty miles, so I just cruised. There was nothing really to see, because, to coin a phrase, I was surrounded on all sides by a whole lot of nothing. Vistas stretched away to the horizon on both sides of the road with the grey-green of the sage brush slowly giving way to the oranges and browns of the arid countryside. It was beautiful, but a bit disquieting to the European psyche. One or two places were specifically signposted as this or that “Wilderness Area” – how they could tell where those started or ended is beyond me.

At the town of Baker, I left the Route 127 and turned north east toward Las Vegas on the Interstate 15. This was a much more serious road and fairly crowded in both directions with people who were aiming to lose all their money going in my direction and those who had already lost it coming back towards me.

A few times in the past I have watched some fascinating documentaries on the construction of the Boulder Dam, which was renamed the Hoover Dam in 1947. The bulk of the construction work needed to confront previously unimagined problems and was, at the time, truly groundbreaking in a lot of ways. Seeing how the various unforeseen setbacks, that chiefly arose from all the new techniques that were needing to be used, were resolved with human ingenuity makes fascinating viewing. The dam lies slightly to the south and east of Las Vegas itself, so I had decided to go there first.

Interstate 15 hugged the northern edge of the Mojave Desert and was indeed dubbed the “Mojave Highway” as it wound through the orangey-brown and dusty desolation. Reading the previous line, I realised that I had, by that time, become used to the scenery. Compared with most of Europe, it was unbelievably wide, open and expansive with its own lonely grandeur. It was like living in a cowboy film, albeit on a steel horse and it had become commonplace.

As I was heading to the east of Las Vegas, when the Interstate came out of the less than inventively named “Mountain Pass” and turned north, I kept straight ahead on Route 164. I crossed the State Line, into Nevada and drove through a few more miles of nothing until I came to the town of Searchlight. Here I did turn north, onto Route 95 and about thirty miles later I arrived at the outskirts of Boulder City. That was where the construction workers for the dam had lived and for which it was, initially at least, eponymously named.

Signs for the dam pointed at both Interstate 11 and Route 93, so I passed under the former and took the latter for the final half dozen miles.

I came to the dam and pulled up on the broad shoulder beside the road. As so often, in America, there was a plethora of posted information in what is very much a tourist mecca.

The dam was constructed over a five year period beginning in 1931 and blocks the Colorado River in Black Canyon, right on the border of Nevada and Arizona.

Behind it lies Lake Meade which is the largest reservoir in the United States. There is over two and a half million cubic metres of concrete contained in the dam itself with an additional million or so cubic metres in the ancillary constructions. To aid understanding of this volume, that is, the notice proudly proclaims, enough concrete to build a two lane highway all the way from San Francisco to New York. Concrete creates heat as it solidifies and cooling it was a major construction headache. There is almost 600 miles (1000km) of cooling pipes embedded within the structure which is still hardening to this very day. Another list reminds us that over one hundred people lost their lives during the construction.

Perhaps aided by the bright sunshine and the lovely azure shade of the water, the dam is actually a thing of some grace and beauty. It has, as everything is eventually, been superseded by far larger dams in other places. Aswan, on the Nile in Egypt is over ten times the size, for instance. But the Hoover Dam has an indefinable style and, when it was constructed, it represented the peak of mankind’s ingenuity in finding solutions to logistical problems. I cruised slowly over it on Route 93 and tried not to think about the lives and labour it had cost to build. Crossing it was a majestic experience and one that may be lost to a lot of people when a bypass route, for which I saw construction and signs, is finished.

On the other side, which was actually in the State of Arizona, I just sat and gazed for a while. When you travel the way I do, it is all too easy to take a quick picture and move on but I felt almost compelled to linger. Because of how the dam is positioned, it actually appears smaller than it really is. As I looked down, the cars crossing the top appeared small, but they were not. It really does have something special about it as a structure and, in my mind, I pictured the footage from the documentary showing those thousands of labourers toiling in the Nevada heat to build it all those years ago.

Somehow, I resisted the temptation to just sit there all day. I climbed back on the Harley, recrossed the dam back into Nevada and this time I did take the Interstate 11 as I headed towards the City of Lights.

Signage in America is generally good, but in Las Vegas they want your money so badly the sign posting is simply wonderful. With no need to hesitate I swapped the I-11 for Interstate 215 that soon passed by an airport crammed with executive jets. This was followed by a brief sojourn on Interstate 15 and then a descent to the streets and the clearly signposted “Strip”.

Well, we have all seen it in the movies and on television, but the famous boulevard is something else in real life. It is quickly obvious why it is normally shown at night as, despite the size and magnificence of the hotels and casinos, in bright daylight it has a sad and somewhat tawdry air. Even so, I slowly drove the whole length of it and back a few times just so that I could say that I had. I stopped to take a few photographs but it seemed impossible to capture the “sense” of the place. It seemed to be an endless parade of motorised gawkers, which I suppose included me and huge stretch limousines conveying the proverbial “high-rollers” from place to place behind darkened windows. Despite the drone of the traffic, it was possible to hear the excited laughter and shouts of the guests being disgorged, often by the coach load, into the covered porticos of the hotels.

Dusk was approaching. It seemed scarcely possible that it was already 24 hours since I had experienced the sunset in Death Valley, but the darkness came on just as rapidly. This time though, instead of inky blackness, the fading light was superceded by the glow and glitter of countless bulbs. The darker it got, the brighter they seemed to be and, at ground level, it was almost as bright as noon. It was truly spectacular.

I had noticed a flashing sign for a motel off to my right on one of my passes up the strip and now I drove there. Thus, I found myself at the City Center Motel (700 Fremont St, Las Vegas, NV 89101) where I obtained a room within easy walking distance of the so called “action” and at what I thought was a more than keen price. Strangely, the receptionist, who was an Indian (in the turban sense), did not seem to understand my English at all. There was nothing at all special about the motel, but although small, my room was clean as a new pin and had a bed, a tv and a shower. I did not need anything else. Best of all, I could park the Harley off of the street. This was, after all, Las Vegas.

I was quite hungry and there are more places to eat in Las Vegas than you could possibly count. As soon as I left the motel on foot, I was surrounded by options. Spoiled for choice, I chose the Andiamo Steakhouse (301 Fremont St, Las Vegas, NV 89101), just a few blocks from the motel. It was not quite as swanky as it looked, nothing in Las Vegas is once you scratch the surface, but I got a very nice steak indeed. I suppose ferocious local competition helps to keep the quality up, but it was truly good. Most of the so-called top chefs in Prague could learn something from a short-order cook in the United States.

As I have already said, in darkness, Las Vegas is truly spectacular. The lights, the fountains, the glitz is amazing and it all looks a lot less tacky when that is all you can see. The fronts of the hotel/casino complexes were absolutely thronged with people and in the end I decided to risk a few dollars of my hard earned cash myself.

I am not a gambler, I never have been, so I did not really know what to do. The lobby, which means the entire ground floor, was crammed with what Americans call “slots” and which we English call, with very good reason “one-armed bandits”. Even I knew what to do there. I presented a $10 bill at the cashiers’ cubicle and received a neat roll of quarters. At the time, the United States was issuing commemorative “quarters” (25 cent coins), one for each State, in the order that it had joined the Union. I am a bit of a kleptomaniac and I already had over 30 different ones in my luggage. My roll contained two I did not yet have, so I put those in my pocket. In the sea of occupied machines, I eventually found a vacant one and went to work on my nine and a half dollar stake. It is pretty easy, you put in a coin, you pull a handle, the little rollers change position and nothing else happens. Repeat sequence. All around me, people of every sex, age and ethnicity you can possibly imagine were doing exactly the same thing. So rapt was their general air of concentration on the little rollers that a Hollywood car chase up the aisle between the machines would have passed unnoticed. It was eerie. Some had large drink-style cups full of coins, by my estimation over $100 dollars worth, in their hands, with others waiting at their feet as they robotically lost their cash. When I had just two quarters left, my machine gave a different musical note and a red button illuminated. I pressed it and, with a whirr, a small slip of paper came out of a slot. It stated I had won fifteen dollars. Result ! I put the remaining two quarters in my pocket, cashed in my paper with the cashier and, like Elvis, I left the building. I had beaten the bank. Not by much, I admit, but beaten it I had. Six dollars is not a fortune, but a return on any investment of 67% in ten minutes cannot be sniffed at.

Enervated by my win, I spent another hour or so wandering up and down the “strip”. Expensive sports cars screamed past, limousines wended their stately way and passers by looked either expectant or defeated. I took a few photographs, but here was nothing there to really interest me so I eventually ambled back to the motel. I actually turned on the television, the first time I had done it, that far, on my trip. Most of the channels were either sports that I did not understand the rules of, or “local” news feeds that seemed to operate almost at individual street level. I noted there had been two murders in Las Vegas that day. Still, the door was locked and the chain was on. I found a documentary channel and, with that weird synchronicity that always exists, I watched a familiar black and white documentary about the construction of the Hoover Dam. I drifted off to sleep accompanied by endless streams of cascading concrete.