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A surprise detour: visiting Las Vegas! (May 15th 2019)

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Las Vegas, la ville du péché

Today we’ll be visiting Las Vegas, Nevada, after a return visit to Death Valley.

It seems that yesterday was a tiring day for us, as we don’t get up until 7:00 this morning. Our breakfast consists of bagels, peanut butter toast and a banana. I accompany it with a coffee. I take a quick shower. While Sarah takes hers, I go outside to take a series of shots. This allows me to immortalize the white-and-blue facade of the Amargosa Hotel. Right next to it is the Amargosa Opera House.

The history of Amargosa

Reading a few brochures, I learn a little about the history of these buildings. In the past, the town of Amargosa was home to over three hundred people. The town was booming at the time, thanks to the mining activity associated with borax extraction. This hotel was used to accommodate the executives and investors of the companies represented here. There were hotel rooms, a restaurant, a café and a general store. The latter was later replaced by the Opera House. Opposite, in place of the facade seen yesterday bearing the letters “GARAGE”, was a garage and service station for the refuelling and repair of vehicles passing through here.

The railroad was dismantled in the ’40s, and the premises were taken over by successive owners. In 1967, Marta Becket, an American artist, took possession of the premises in her turn. She set about renovating the buildings and renamed the place Amargosa, in reference to the name of the mining town of the time.

Now, in front of the building, a commemorative plaque thanks Marta Becket for all she has done for the place.

Dante’s View

Back at the room, I find Sarah packing her bags. We load up the car and hit the road again, heading for Dante’s View. The thermometer reads 66°F, which is very reasonable.

Our car, hill-tested

And thank goodness! The hill on the way to Dante’s View is notorious for heating up cars. I was a bit worried. Luckily, our Mitsubishi manages just fine. The view up here is sublime, despite the strong, hot, vivacious wind. Near us, the bed of the Amargosa River, whose name comes from the Spanish for “Agua Amargosa” meaning “bitter water”, rises in the hills north of Beatty, Nevada.

The Black Mountains

Today, as is often the case, it’s quite dry for most of its 185 miles. According to the signs, the river flows underground and occasionally rises to the surface. When it does, a flood fills the channel. In front of us is a mountain range known as the Black Mountains. They are part of a series of alternating, parallel mountains and valleys running north-south. They form what geologists call the Basin and Range Geologic Province. This mountain range stretches from Utah to California and from Idaho to Mexico.

Wind and solitude

We’re enjoying the moment, inspired by the silence and solitude at the top of Dante’s View. Our minds wander and rest at the same time. It’s a pleasant sensation. Once again, I note the absence of artificial light here. Like yesterday, I’m angry that I didn’t spend more time observing the Milky Way. For now, we’re enjoying the particularly pure air.

Pollution approaching

However, we can read that increased pollution from distant sources – notably from the cities of Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley – has been noted and seems to be increasing year by year. As we stand here, in the middle of Death Valley, we’re starting to feel the chill. The wind is blowing and it’s a paradox: we’re cold in the desert!

A few shots later, as we’re joined by a group of visitors, we’re off again. We’re driving back down the hill, without even touching the accelerator pedal! Sixty miles an hour at first. Then the speed fluctuates between forty and sixty all the way down, still without touching the right pedal.

Golden Canyon

We return to the Golden Canyon Trail and plan a short hike of about 3 miles. Yesterday, we were able to admire part of the Golden Canyon, but without going inland. A sign indicates that it’s not advisable to venture out on a trail after 10 am. It’s 9:30 a.m. and already 89°F and 20°F warmer than forty minutes earlier! We take a bottle of water for our short 3-mile hike. We’re in the middle of the desert, and right in front of our eyes are the backdrops of the Wild West.

Red Cathedral

Death Valley is famous for its mygales, rat-kangaroos, rattlesnakes, coyotes and foxes. All we see are lizards and a few wildflowers. As we go deeper and the trail gently climbs, we observe the magnificent colors of the aptly named Golden Canyon. We’re sweating hard, and need to drink plenty of water to keep us going for the duration of our escapade. We make our way to Red Cathedral, a geological formation of red oxidized rock and steep cliffs.

Chased through the desert

On the way back, we are first overtaken by a woman, running at full speed under the sweltering sun. She’s heading straight for the canyon entrance, but it’s hard to tell whether she’s heading for her car or the toilet. A few seconds later, an imposing, shirtless man walks quickly and purposefully in the same direction. For a moment, we wonder if there’s a causal link. We later realize that no, it was pure coincidence and that the marathon runner only needed to use the toilet urgently. As for us, in front of the Mitsubishi’s trunk, we take plenty of water from our 10-litre canister. It’s already 99°F.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Our next stop is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. As a child and a big Star Wars fan, I had to see them for myself. Scenes from George Lucas’ saga were filmed here, as were many other films featuring dunes. This immense mass of sand seems to have originated from the grains of quartz and feldspar that gradually break away from the Cottonwood Mountains to the northwest as the wind and mountain erosion take their toll. Here, the largest dune (Star Dune) has a depth of over 40 metres – no mean feat, but not very deep when compared with other Death Valley dunes reaching up to 200 metres.

Wildlife in Death Valley

We can read that the best time for a walk here is at dawn, when you can observe the tracks left in the sand by nocturnal animals, or in the evening for the colors this place offers. Sarah and I are reminded, however, to watch out for snakes if we decide to come at night. We walk a little along the dunes, enjoying the moment and admiring the few creosote and mesquite bushes whose long, wide roots reach deep into the sand to fetch the water they need to survive.

The French are everywhere!

We meet a good number of French tourists, including a couple who arrive at speed in a 6th-generation Ford Mustang, only to find themselves unable to retract the convertible once they’ve stopped.

Badwater Saloon

We return to our vehicle and stop off near California Historical Landmark 848: Eichbaum Toll Road. Here we find the Badwater Saloon and Stovepipe Wells General Store, as well as a number of carcasses of vintage vehicles, including several with German plates – don’t ask me why – and others from Michigan and South Carolina. Time to take a few photos, look at the map and we leave the national park for Rhyolite, a ghost town in Nevada, just a stone’s throw from here.

Welcome to Nevada!

We quickly entered the neighboring state, greeted by the “Welcome to Nevada” sign, and entered the historic site of Rhyolite, where gold was discovered in 1904, and mining camps were developed all around.


By 1905, the town had been founded and was the talk of neighboring states. Its reputation as a city of dreams, gold, prosperity, greed and speculation quickly preceded it. By 1906, Rhyolite was being transformed into a modern town with, for example, electricity and indoor plumbing. By 1907, Rhyolite had a population of around 6,000, with numerous saloons, grocery stores, hotels, gaming tables, a few doctors, barbers and bakeries, as well as three railroads. However, the dream was short-lived. By 1910, the mines were going bankrupt, people were leaving and the mines were closing. While most of the town has now disappeared from the landscape, we know that some buildings were moved to other towns, while others were destroyed or dismantled to salvage their materials.

Tom Kelly Bottle House

Today, we’re greeted by the rusting hulk of a Fifties pick-up truck – with its skip missing – near the Tom Kelly Bottle House. This house, part of whose walls are made of glass bottles and mortar, is astonishing. When a certain Tom Kelly decided to settle here around 1905, he noted the lack of wood to build his house and took advantage of the number of saloons – there are said to be around 50 – operating in the town of Rhyolite to collect no less than 50,000 bottles in less than six months. For him, that’s enough to build a three-room house with a porch.

We turn around the house, admiring the work done, and head a little further afield to observe other abandoned buildings such as the Rhyolite Train Depot, the rusting cistern and Union Pacific wagon left next door. With rail service having ended in 1916, the tracks were removed and the building successively converted into a house, store, casino and restaurant before being finally abandoned.

Visiting Las Vegas

This was our last destination here, and we’re now heading to Las Vegas. This wasn’t in our plans at all, but a few days ago, while looking over our itinerary, Sarah suggested we make a detour to Sin City before heading back to Los Angeles. I finally agreed.

Beatty and Amargosa Valley

The road is quite long, and we pass through the town of Beatty, “Gateway to Death Valley“, where we see a superb Volkswagen Combi in its juice. Later, we stop in Amargosa Valley, Nevada – which still exists, unlike the one in California – for a bite to eat at Amargosa Castle. We take the opportunity to visit the Area 51 Alien Travel Center, a kind of coffee shop next to the area we’re in, and take a few amusing photos. Next door, the Alamo Fireworks building displays the world’s largest firecracker.

Las Vegas, baby!

Two hours later, we’re at the entrance to Las Vegas, in the flow of traffic. In the distance, you can see the skyline of the world’s entertainment capital. The first few turns of the wheel here aren’t exactly glorious: lots of people, traffic that doesn’t flow very smoothly, many poor neighbourhoods, and so on. For us, it’s a shock. Over the last few days, we’d become accustomed to the calm, silence and autonomy. We didn’t expect this when we came for visiting Las Vegas.

A 4-star hotel on a budget

We manage to drive all the way to our hotel, the Tahiti Village Resort, that green spot in the middle of the desert on the outskirts of downtown Las Vegas. This 4* hotel is accessible to us thanks to last-minute rates. Yes, until a few days ago, we hadn’t planned visiting Las Vegas at all. We feel the weight of each star as we check in and take our luggage upstairs.

“Hum, hum.”

In the elevator, we meet up with a hotel employee. When I greet him with a “Good afternoon“, he curtly replies “What level!?“. I tell him he’s already pressed 3 and that’s where I’m going, so we’re good to go. At the exit, as I attempt a “Have a good one!”, I’m treated to a line (“hum hum“) that will live long in my memory. Very nice!

It’s only 4 p.m., so we can rest a little, write a few lines for my blog article and go to the swimming pool.

Visiting the Strip in Las Vegas!

A little later, we take the hotel shuttle to the Strip. It’s not very far – only 2.5 miles – but we’re already in for a real treat, as the scenery flashes by all around us: advertising signs worthy of New York, a street crowded with tourists like the Hollywood Boulevard, and roads like I’ve never seen before (twice 6 lanes!).

Visiting Las Vegas Boulevard and hearing the slot machines

We get off the shuttle and take the opportunity to stroll along Las Vegas Boulevard. Here, everything is organized around large, interconnected hotel complexes, with numerous fast-food, outlets and boutiques (clothing, cosmetics, etc.). When we enter one of them, on the lowest level are hundreds of slot machines. We’re not tempted, because we’re simply not interested, but many people play mechanically, with a sandwich in one hand and the other on the machine.

Getting around Las Vegas by monorail

We expected something original when we came to visit Las Vegas, but it’s more than we imagined. Sarah and I spend a lot of time in the streets and stores, more looking than buying. We use the shuttle bus between the Luxor and the Mandalay Bay. We’re each attracted by different things. While I ogle a Reese’s sweatshirt, Sarah indulges in a Hershey’s milkshake. A little later, Sarah takes a package of Kit Kat into her hands. Until then, we’d never known such a large package existed: it’s enormous!

Visiting iconic landmarks and admiring Las Vegas hotel shows

As the sun sets, we head to the Strip’s luxury hotels to admire the shows. The first is the Bellagio. Here, ten-minute-long animations take place in the huge pool in front of the hotel, combining music, lights and water projections. Our next stop is the Mirage. This is a reproduction of a boiling volcano with real flames.

We pass as many landmarks as famous monuments such as the Excalibur and MGM signs, the Freedom Tower, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Haussmann buildings, the Trevi Fountain, the Las Vegas theme park, the Flamingo, Caesars Palace, the Tropicana and Luxor, the Giant Sphinx, and many more. Countless brands are represented here.

Eating on the Strip

Finally, we look for a place to eat. We’re spoilt for choice in a place like this, and perhaps that’s the problem. We’re both in the mood for sushi, but here, fast food is ubiquitous. At first, we let ourselves be tempted by one of Gordon Ramsay’s three restaurants, but the wait combined with the prices eventually put us off.

After a good while of walking, and passing a French restaurant a few times – which boasts a green facade, a tense one and red parasols and chairs that are unmistakably reminiscent of Paris – we decide on Chilli’s. Sarah chooses a simple salad, while I indulge in a burger and fries. It’s a shame, we’re visiting Las Vegas and eat fast food, but we’re hungry! Before leaving, we spot a green Hummer limousine. It’s crazy!

A mixed bag for our visit to Las Vegas

The Las Vegas paradox

We returned home with the impression that we had completed a necessary step in getting to know the United States, but also with a feeling of disappointment. Throughout the evening, we saw, alas, many homeless people, often former GI’s who had fought for their country, in the midst of this mass of extroverted consumers. It’s sad… and terribly paradoxical. We regularly see cars sporting stickers – it’s done well here, on the rear bumper – mentioning support for the armed forces on the front. These people, on the street, who have fought under the flags, unfortunately don’t seem to be well supported by these same drivers.

A day of contrasts

In short, it was a day full of contrasts. This morning, we woke up in an empty hotel, in the middle of nowhere. We listened to the silence in Death Valley, hiked in the wilderness, and discovered a ghost town. Tonight, we went to bed in a hotel room with all the amenities in the middle of the desert, fell asleep in a city of 650,000 inhabitants, walked along the crowded Strip with the sound of slot machines in the background, and, when we got back to the hotel, found that the night wasn’t so dark because of the many illuminated signs all around the roads.

When we came visiting Las Vegas, we knew it wasn’t for us.

When we came here, we were well aware that this was not the city for us. We were, however, close enough to want to see for ourselves what it was like. We’ve made up our minds, and tomorrow morning we’re off to our beloved Pacific! Today, we walked 15 miles.