Summer ’86: Part XVI

I checked in at The Dunes in one of their cabanas out back facing an enormous swimming pool.  It was the only hotel/casino on The Strip that offered such an amenity.  It was like I had a ground floor motel room instead of having to haul my gear through a hotel lobby going up and down on an elevator.

I took a tour of The Strip kind of wishing I still had my bicycle for a better view of things.  Vegas was a garish world of architecture based on the concept that “form follows fantasy”. What a stark contrast to having just seen the Supreme Architect’s creations in California.  It was so flat in Vegas (how flat was it?) that I could shift into neutral at any stop light and not roll an inch.  Here’s a little bit of trivia: Las Vegas was Spanish for “the meadows”, kind of ironic since the town was originally just a dust-blown outpost of a whistle-stop on a rail line between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.  Of course, Hoover Dam with all its hydroelectric power and the advent of air conditioning changed all that and the future of Las Vegas became boundless.

I was somewhat jaded with gambling, but I still wanted to roam around the casino floor observing people, in particular, the patrons hunched over the crap tables in dire need of a lucky roll.  At one table, I heard a man holler, “Give me an eighta’ from Decatur, county seat of Wise.”  I‘d bet the farm if that wasn’t a good ol’ boy from Texas.  I did try my luck at the blackjack table for about an hour and actually came out ahead by $40.

I retired to my room and decided to uncharacteristically call ahead to Carefree, Arizona, a tiny town 20 miles north of Phoenix where my old architect buddy Gene Watson resided.  We had worked for the same firm in Dallas back in the 1960s.  A house guest told me the Watsons were in Dallas for a week.  Well, that settled that – no roundabout excursion to the Valley of the Sun – Ce sera, sera.  As I reclined in the queen-size bed, I thought, “Oh yeah, I could have called Gene from Dallas back in June to find out what his itinerary was, but I would have felt somewhat obligated to plan a specific time to visit him”.  It just ran contradictory to my modus operandi, which meant traveling at my own speed, stopping when and where I wanted, and not having someone waiting for me down the road.  I simply liked the element of surprise, preferring to call my journeys “roaming by happenstance.”

The next morning, I was more than eager to vacate Vegas.  I filled up the tank for 87 cents a gallon and noticed on the odometer that I driven 7,400 miles so far.  I also calculated that I had driven about 2,500 miles throughout California in a span of almost a month, crisscrossing the state like a discombobulated migratory bird. I drove east on U.S. 93 through Boulder City that was originally erected as an encampment town back in the 1930s for the thousands of laborers toiling on the construction of the Hoover Dam.  Now it was just a suburb swallowed up by the tentacles of a voracious Las Vegas.

As I approached the dam site, the highway started slowly descending into several hairpin turns until finally the magnificent concrete structure exploded into view.  What a dam sight! I had some time to kill, so I opted to take a tour of the granddaddy of all dams.  The tour took us down into the bowels of the dam where we could see a dozen giant generators whirling out thousands of megawatts of electricity for most of the southwestern corner of the U.S. of A.

The generators were awesome in size and sound, measuring about 25 feet in diameter and emitting a constant din that was almost deafening.  The atmosphere was one of immense power.  There was one added attraction – the 1930s art deco influence of terrazzo floors, stainless steel handrails, and many other details of a bygone era.  One bit of trivia: the concrete poured in Hoover Dam would pave a four-lane highway from Los Angeles to New York City!  It was a fun and informative tour, well worth the admission fee of $5.00. And I got to meet a number of fellow tourists from all across the country.

Once I crossed the Hoover dam, I was in Arizona driving through more desert country to Kingman where I merged with eastbound I-40. About 20 miles down the pike I came to an exit sign reading: U.S. 93 South – Phoenix 160 miles.  In a split-second decision I turned south, thinking, “What the heck. I haven’t been in Phoenix since 1981 on my maiden voyage in Ol’ Blue.  Besides, I hadn’t driven this stretch of U.S. 93, so there might be a new adventure waiting for me down the road.”

Well, wouldn’t you know, about halfway to Phoenix I came upon the Joshua Tree National Monument.  I had heard of just such an appointed area in the Mojave Desert, so I figured the unique trees had spilled over into Arizona.  There was a faint resemblance to the cactus family, but in actuality they’re a tall branched arborescent yucca with short leaves and clusters of greenish white flowers. They were quite extraordinary, and made my diversion all the more gratifying. Roamin’ by happenstance, if you please.

I stopped for petrol in the outpost of Wickenburg (pop. 3538) and mentioned to the attendant about seeing the Joshua trees for the first time.  He said, “Those trees don’t grow anywhere else in the world.  People around here feel kinda special living near those trees.”  I pulled into Phoenix with the temperature well over 100 degrees and checked in at the St. Francis motel on Van Buren St. in the heart of downtown.  I drove around the center city (sort of wishing I had my bike), noticing a dearth of pedestrian and vehicular traffic and figured half the city had probably evacuated to cooler climates for the summer. I couldn’t blame ‘em one bit.  The skyline had proliferated dramatically and it was obvious the city was still in a flux of extended growth as it had been since the early 1970s.  I was betting that Phoenix would have a NFL franchise and a MLB team within a decade.

I cruised around town for a little bit constantly making right angle turns on streets laid out on a perfect north-south, east-west grid in the flat Valley of the Sun. The only relief from all the bland cityscape was the view of the distant Camel Back Mountains to the north. On the way back to the motel I stopped at a downtown Super Market for a few comestibles.  As I toured the aisles, I noticed a plethora of empty shelves and a sparse produce section.  At the checkout counter, I asked the lady, “Is this store about to close down?” She replied, “Yep, there’s no grocery business left downtown.  Used to be lots of people livin’ ‘round here, but all the new office buildings have chased ‘em all out.”  I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen the same thing happen in my home town Denver.”  I retired to my motel room for a good night’s sleep in air-conditioned comfort.