It’s always a plus to have a friend in town when you’re visiting a place – you get to take off your tourist hat and experience the real deal. That’s probably true of most places, but maybe a little less so when it comes to Las Vegas. Vegas is all bright lights, big city, gambling, drinking, shows, showgirls, and more gambling … and after all that, what’s there to do?
Visit the Bellagio on the Strip, that’s what. To see the huge water garden display beyond the hotel foyer, and then in the foyer itself, a Chihuly masterpiece, plus another piece in the casino. I discovered the artist Chihuly at his museum in Seattle and had heard that the Bellagio was one of the places that featured his work. I’d totally forgotten about it until Wendy and I arrived at the hotel for a sight-see around the water garden, and there it was. Beautiful stuff.
The water garden is a fairly spectacular piece of work too. Apparently they replace the display on a somewhat regular basis (maybe monthly?), and it’s a great tourist magnet – a roomful of constant camera clicking. Just a few shots to give you an idea …
Vegas is hot, except for those days when it’s scorchingly hot. The lushness of hotel lobbies gives way to dry, desert conditions everywhere else, with cactus and palm trees the order of the day. It was lovely sitting in Wendy’s back garden under the shade of the palm tree and soak up her little corner of the universe.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
This gem of a place lies about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and it’s the first stop on what would turn out to be Wendy’s and my four-week road trip through southwestern Nevada, northern California and Oregon. We took the back road out of Vegas, just so we could pass through the wonderfully named town of Pahrump. A few twists and turns in the road later, there was Ash Meadows – a desert oasis on the eastern border of Death Valley. What a sight to behold!
Its 24,000 acres include spring-fed wetlands and an alkaline desert and because of its isolated existence, it’s home to several endemic species of plants and animals. It’s also home to Devils Hole, a geothermic aquifer-fed pool within a cavern in caves that were formed 500,000 years ago. Despite the water being over 90 degrees and as salty as you can get, this pool of water is the only natural location of a what’s described as the rarest of fish, the Devils Hole pupfish. Talk about adaptation to one’s surroundings.
As we set out along one of the refuge’s boardwalks, we were warned to take plenty of water – the first, but not only, time we’d be so advised in the Mohave Desert. It’s a hard, hot, arid life out here, and I last all of an hour, which doubles the respect and awe I have for the species that do survive in this desert land.
Hugging the Nevada-California border heading north, we hit the ghost town of Rhyolite. If we look back to the 1800s and early 1900s, there are any number of towns that grew up from their rough beginnings as mining camps. Dusty camps would turn into dusty towns, and depending on which way the prevailing winds of the economy blew, towns became prospering cities or everyone pulled up stakes and moved on. The American West is dotted with abandoned towns, and each has its story to tell. Rhyolite’s is perhaps not much different than most. Gold was discovered in them thar hills and with it came thousands of gold seekers, miners and developers. By 1908 it was a thriving community – electric lights, telephones, newspapers, even an opera house, and undoubtedly saloons and brothels – with upwards of 5,000 residents. Then oops, a few years later, the mining dried up, the mining company that pretty much owned the town picked up stakes and left, and within a decade, so had everyone else.
After 1920, Rhyolite became something of a tourist attraction and was the setting for a few Hollywood movies – but since then most of the buildings were moved to the local town of Beatty, either in whole or as scrap, and what’s left is mostly the crumbling remains.
In a curious twist, the ruins of the town attracted the Belgian artist, Albert Szukalski, who in 1984 set about creating some ghostly life-sized sculptures near the site of Rhyolite’s abandoned railway station. The ghosts of Rhyolite!
There’s now a museum on the site and an art center used by artists … the phoenix does rise.
From here, it’s five miles to the entrance of Death Valley National Park, and the ghostly remains of Rhyolite have set the stage for our drive through the valley of death.