Nevada


Although I love living in Denver, a recent trip back to Sin City has forced me to admit that there are a cultural adjustments I haven’t even started to make yet. Here are a few:

The food:

Everywhere I go in Denver I am surrounded by people who don’t eat meat, cheese, milk, wheat, gluten products, butter, or anything else good. People apparently live off of produce from their gardens and endless trips to City O’ City (the “BBQ” there is dry rubbed tofu. Can someone from Kansas City come beat up the chef please?). To each his own and all that, but I love baking! It sucks to bring a batch of cookies to an event and have them go untouched. This would NEVER happen in Las Vegas. My friend just threw me a baby shower in Vegas and people gobbled up her cupcakes, artichoke dip, mozzarella/arugula/tomato skewers, cream cheese filled strawberries, and ice cream punch that looked like a baby bath.

There is no way that menu would fly in Denver. If she would have been limited to locally grown swiss chard “shakes” and mushroom “burgers,” she would have quit on the spot.

I should love that I live in the healthiest state in the union, and sometimes I do. The peer pressure here makes me eat better, which is technically a good thing, but sometimes I miss my Las Vegas friends who un-ironically ask me if I’m trying to lose weight because I only ordered one hamburger at the McDonald’s Drive-Thur (true story). The other problem is that I’m surrounded by skinny people and I therefore look fat in comparison. (Granted I’m nearly 8 months pregnant now, but this problem existed 8 months ago and will again be a problem in a few short weeks). In Vegas I had a backside that I loved. In Denver, I just have a fat ass.

The marijuana:

Seriously, I was driving ON THE FREEWAY and I got a whiff of weed. I can’t go on a run around the block without fearing a contact high. Do medical dispensaries really need to be on every corner? It’s not like nobody smokes in Vegas, but Denver is really excessive. I guess Coloradans have to make up for their lack of butter and meat somehow.

The music:

Everyone here is into really cool and edgy music. I like Taylor Swift and top 40 hits. This is a problem.

Proximity to lots of cool places:

If you are into weekend road trips, Las Vegas is a great place to live. You are less than six hours away from L.A., San Diego, Phoenix, Lake Tahoe, some of Utah’s best national parks (Bryce and Zion), and the Grand Canyon. Denver has a lot of great mountain towns to explore, and heading up north to South Dakota is pretty cool. However, a drive east will bring you twelve hours of nothing but corn and soybean fields.

The slightly trashy element:

People in Denver aren’t trashy. Gals in my workout class have color coordinated Lucy workout gear. Moms shopping in the Highlands near my house all are pushing their toddlers in top-of-the-line jogging strollers. I haven’t seen anyone grocery shopping in their pajama pants. Everyone wears Tom’s shoes in the summer and cute no-heel boots in the winter.

People in Las Vegas probably don’t even know about Tom’s shoes. (Can you buy them at Wal-Mart?) Trashy clothes are not only on the Strip, but everywhere in Las Vegas. I miss raising my eyebrows at people’s outfits, spending entertaining hours simply people watching, and talking trash about the trashy things people wear. Also, I’m sad that I can never wear pajama pants to the store here (not like I ever did it in Vegas, but it was good to know it was a viable option. Also, I can’t afford Lucy workout gear or Tom’s shoes.

Luckily Denver more than makes up for its shortcomings. With four sports teams, a different running club to train with every day of the week, tons of cute mountain towns, a (relatively) well-funded education system, and a vibrant downtown (with museums! The most popular museum in Vegas is the Mob Museum), I’m totally in love with Denver. However, sometimes I miss my trashy, gluttonous, pop music loving self that I could comfortably be in Las Vegas.

There are some serious mistakes that people can make when booking hotels in Las Vegas. Since hotels have hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of rooms which fill up on weekends and go empty during the week, some awesome deals can be found the closer to Wednesday you travel. However, if you are looking for a weekend getaway, Vegas still has some of the best deals around, you just have to know in advance what you are booking. Hotels (particularly on cheap-o websites) are advertised as being in better areas than they are, prices are quoted pre-hotel tax, and even the dingiest casino looks like a luxury suite online. Here are a few tips to help out a Vegas-bound tourist:

Location, Location, Location:

If you are planning on partying on the Strip, location is key in Vegas. Avoid The Saraha, Circus Circus, The Stratosphere, and anything downtown or on Fremont Street. You’ll be spending a fortune on cabs, and they are generally not nice hotels. (Especially Circus Circus. That place is hell on Earth). Also know that Rio and The Palm’s are not on the Strip (although they are nice places to stay). The best hotels are Bellagio, Aria/Vdara, Caesar’s Palace, Planet Hollywood, MGM, New York-New York, Paris, Treasure Island, The Mirage, The Venetian/Plazzo, and The Wynn/Encore. Luxor and Mandalay Bay are at the far end of the Strip, but still good options.  If you are looking for a cheap hotel that is still in the middle of all the action, check out Harrah’s, Imperial Palace, Tropicana, and Excalibur. They aren’t fancy hotels, but you can’t beat the right-on-the-Strip convience. Flamingo’s also has a nice location, but it’s generally a little pricer. Hooter’s is often the cheapest hotel in Vegas (especially on weekdays, wherein $19 room rates are common on Expedia), and it’s just one block off the Strip. It’s a great budget choice, but you may be taking some cabs. Anywhere else, double check a map first. Even if a hotel is one block off the Strip, be aware that blocks are LOOOONG in Las Vegas. Particularly if you are wearing stilettos. It’s not worth saving five or ten dollars to stay one block of the Strip. You’ll spend that in cab fares. Or last minute flip-flops.

There are several hotels in Las Vegas that are not on the Strip at all. The M resort south of town in nice, as are the JW Marriott and the Suncoast out in Summerlin. Red Rock Casino is the most famous non-Strip hotel, but a word of caution: It’s often billed as a “canyon getaway” on the edge of gorgeous scenery. In reality, it’s off a freeway and next to a strip mall. It’s a fancy hotel, but it’s not exactly in the middle of Red Rock Canyon.

Pools:

For families traveling with children of any age, Mandalay Bay has the best setup. With a sandy beach, wave pool, lazy river, and several different palm-tree lined pools, this one is a sure hit for kids. If it’s a nice summer day get to the pool early to claim the best seats. Pool side lounge chairs are hard to come by if it’s past 11am on a Saturday. Cabana rentals are a pricy option (they usually start at over $100 a day), but nice if you want a shady reserved spot all day long. Even if you don’t have a cabana, be prepared to shell out tons of money if you are planning on renting inner tubes for lazy river floating. Flamingo’s has a great pool too, and room rates that are cheaper than Mandalay Bay. No wave pool, sandy beach or lazy river though.  

For the 21 and over crowd, the best pool is MGM. I LOVE this place is the summertime. I used to be able to sneak in with an old room card, but last summer they started scanning cards to make sure they are still active. Bummer. At MGM there is a pretty good party vibe, but you don’t have to feel as though you are the only person around that doesn’t have fake boobs, a million dollar bikini, and an impecable hard-to-tell-it’s-fake tan (but if that atmosphere is what you are after, head to The Palm’s, especially during Ditch Friday’s). MGM’s lazy river is far superior to Mandalay Bay’s. Although there is no wave pool, the sheer number of pools and the sheer lack of small children more than make up for that fact. Like Mandalay Bay, get here early if you want good seats and be ready to spend a fortune on inner tubes. They are worth it though – the lazy river is where it is at!

Although there are a few exceptions, most pools in Las Vegas close pretty early, around 6 or 7 at night. This is an effort to get you inside and gambling. Plan accordingly.

Price:

Something to be aware of in Las Vegas is that room tax is added to ALL Vegas hotel rooms (on or off the Strip). If you book a room through Expedia or other discount website, be prepared to pay at least an extra 10% when you check in. The only way to avoid this is to stay waaaaaay out of town. Boulder is the closest town that doesn’t have a room tax, and it’s a thirty minute drive away (towards Hoover Dam though, so it’s a good option for a night if you are planning to check out the New Deal wonder).  

If you don’t care about location, Fremont Street and downtown usually have the best prices. Fremont Street is old Las Vegas, and it can be a fun experience, espeically if you’ve already “done” The Strip and are looking for something different. Don’t stay here on your first trip to Sin City or you will be sorely disappointed. Rooms are pretty disgusting, lobbies smokey, and clientele can be a little shabby or shady (I’ve stayed downtown, for example. Haha). The exception here is Golden Nugget. They’ve totally revamped themselves, with good restaurants and a pool worth hanging out at – it has a water slide and a shark tank!

Holidays

Las Vegas hotel prices vary wildly depending on whether there is a big football game in Miami, a big fight at MGM, or a big convention in town. If you are flexible, check several different weekends (or better yet, weekdays) to find a good price for a hotel. Beware of holidays. Spring Break is a very popular time to come to Las Vegas, so things tend to be more expensive. The weather can also be pretty iffy in March and April – don’t count on pool time or sundress weather. It may be 80 degrees and sunny, it may be 60 degrees and windy. Memorial weekend is always a great time to come to Las Vegas weather-wise, but horrible price wise. Everything (hotel rooms, nightclub cover charges, drinks, table minumums) are about triple what they usually are. I normally leave Las Vegas during Memorial weekend, with one very expensive exception. Some alcohol was consumed that night, so my clearest memory was yelling at a bouncer that the $20 cover charge he was insisting on was ridiculous because the establishment in question wasn’t even a nightclub and besides, I was a girl in a very short dress. We didn’t get in.

Wherever you end up, as always, it’s the people you are with and the things you do that make a trip. Some of my favorite Vegas nights have been spend at the cheapy Fremont Street, Hooters and Imperial Palace, and some other favorite nights were spent at Mandalay Bay and The Wynn. My favorite? Even during non-pool season, it’ll always be MGM.

Anytime I get to drive east from Las Vegas and don’t have to dip down into Phoenix, it’s going to be a good drive. I don’t know how half of one state can be so gorgeous while the other half is basically hell on earth. Of course anywhere in New Mexico is sure to be awesome. If you are ever taking the twelve hour Las Vegas, Nevada to Las Vegas, New Mexico drive, make sure you stop a lot along the way.

It used to be that you’d get 40 minutes out of Vegas and you’d find yourself in a two hour Hoover Dam traffic jam. Not anymore, as the new bridge whisks you over the top. Of course, you are missing driving across the New Deal Monument (sorry…teaching American history now – we are just getting past the Depression), but if you’ve seen it a million times, be happy for the bridge. Before you get to the Arizona-Nevada state line, be sure to pull over and check out Lake Mead. It’s not much to swim in, but the surrounding mountains always look cool. There is plenty of space to pull over, read plaques, and take pictures. The Lake Mead Visitors Center is closed for some pretty major renovations, so snap your picture and move onward.

Flagstaff is a next good stop. This pine-tree and university town is lucky enough to get great weather in the summer and enough snow for skiing in the winter. Drive down the historic Route 66 and do some shopping and/or drinking in the streets just east of N Humphreys and north of E Santa Fe. If it’s summer and you are doing things leisurely (which I hope you are!), dip down highway 89A and check out Slide Rock State Park and Sedona.

Forty five minutes down I-40 is Winslow, Arizona. Pull out your “Hell Freezes Over” CD and drive down to E. 2nd street to check out the Standin’ on the Corner Park. If you are in the mood for gourmet southwestern cuisine, The Turquoise Room at La Posada Hotel is a rare shining spot in this depressed little town.

I crossed the Arizona-New Mexico border at nighttime, which is sad. The slabs of red rock are an appropriate welcome to the state, even though they are decorated with statues of Native warriors and teepees. The whole scene is about as authentic as a dreamcatcher (um, that would be not very), but the scenery is so striking, I usually don’t care.

When you hit Gallup stop at Blake’s Lotaburger for a green chile cheeseburger. Or anywhere really, they are deliciously addicting. If you will be in this corner of New Mexico for more than a day or two, give The Blue Desert Guide Company a call for an authentic New Mexico experience. Amanda and Vino (former Navajo Reservation teachers) LOVE to show off their favorite part of the world. If you are only here for a few hours, make sure the sun is either going up or down. Southwest sunsets and rises are the best here.

Albuquerque gets a bad rap, which is good for cheap hotel rooms (usually less than $50 by the airport. I mean “Sunport”), but the Sandia Mountains are nice, as is the area around the University. Luckily, Santa Fe is on the way to Las Vegas. Santa Fe is not as cool as most people say it is, but the central plaza is pretty cute. Do some window shopping, (but if you are serious about buying Native goods, head back to Gallup where they are half the price), take a picture of the missions and the adobde buildings. Just don’t lose you pictures when your computer crashes (it’s been a fun week).

The quick drive between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, NM is really nice. I did it when the sun was rising in the morning, which I highly recommend. The Santa Fe National Forest, the low mountain passes, the mountian homes in the hills and the tiny little towns make for a nice drive.

As you coast off the exit and head down into Las Vegas, you won’t find any half-naked dancers, Elvi, or screaming blackjack tables. This Las Vegas is a great place to spend a couple hours though. Grab some posole and poke around the parks, shops, and museum on Grand Ave. Revel in the quiet and be glad you aren’t down $500.    

 

 

Since I’ve been reading Ruth Riechl’s “Garlic and Sapphires,” I’m inspired to write about food this week. If you’ve never read anything by this former New York Times Restaurant critic/Gourmet editor, you must pick up one of her books immediately. She will make you want to EAT. New Year’s Resolution Dieters, you actually may want to wait until February to read her, once the diet has already gone awry.  

One of my top-ten all time favorite dishes is Eggs Benedict. Of all the countless places I’ve consumed Eggs Benedict, here are a few of the highs and lows.

The Waterfront Hotel: Baltimore, MD: This has been my best Eggs Benedict restaurant experience to date. My friend’s cousin’s wife had recommended this brick Fells Point restaurant for brunch and it was fabulous. Instead of Canadian bacon (which I typically remove) between the poached egg and the English muffin, The Waterfront Hotel opted to go with regular bacon instead. This substitution had never occurred to me, but I’ve been ordering Eggs Benedict with regular bacon ever since.

But it was the cheese grits that really made this dish. I’d had my first “cheese grits” at a Waffle House in Savannah a few weeks previously. Not surprisingly, The Waterfront Hotel’s were oh-just-a-bit better. Eggs Benedict is a dish meant to be consumed with cheese.

My Parent’s House: Snohomish, WA: I used to hate eggs Benedict. That is because every Sunday my parents would make their far superior version of the dish, adorably named “Eggs Bennie.” Eggs Bennie featured the English muffin and poached eggs, but instead of hollandaise sauce, my mom would make a cheese sauce to pour over the top of the dish. I was the pickiest eater in the world during my adolescence, but I would eat just about anything as long as it was smothered in that cheese sauce.  It took me a long time to appreciate real Eggs Benedict without that sauce. My brother is anti-egg and just has “Bennie” on Sunday afternoons: an English muffin and the sauce.

Late Night Eggs Benedict: Tom’s Diner in Denver, CO and Blueberry Hill in Las Vegas, NV: I like bad food. I’m seriously just as happy at Chili’s as I am at Jaleo in Washington D.C. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but still). But the “Eggs Benedict” at Blueberry Hill is pretty bad, even by my *ahem* “late-night” standards. The hollandaise sauce is literally bright orange. I don’t know how this colorful feat is accomplished at three in the morning, but it is not good.

On the other side of the mountains, Tom’s Diner in Denver has got things figured out. I was there last weekend after a concert at the Ogden (Me! At a concert! It was weird. I’m definitely going to have to step up my music appreciation skills here in Denver. My Taylor Swift and Jason Durillo fandom is just not going to cut it.) The fine people at Tom’s fulfilled my inebriated demands for “good bacon” and their sauce was an acceptable color of pale yellow. Success.

Eggs Benedict on a Buffet Line: Mandalay Bay Buffet in Las Vegas, NV: When I lived in Las Vegas, I would usually opt for a breakfast buffet instead of a diner type place, (Guess how much weight that preference cost me?!?) but Eggs Benedict was usually a problem. Some chefs would try, but most understood that this dish was just not meant to sit under a heat lamp for longer than two minutes. Therefore, omelet stations were all the rage at buffets. I hate omelets unless they are equal parts egg and cheddar with lots of Nacho Cheesier Dorito crumbs thrown in at the last minute (don’t knock it ‘til you try it!). Chefs were exceedingly unwilling to add my favorite chip to their omelets, so I would boycott the egg section of buffet lines and stick to apple crumble, breakfast pizza and mimosas.  

Until we went to Mandalay Bay. This is an awesome buffet. If you go, be sure to get a seat overlooking the pool towards the back of the dining area. And don’t miss the desserts. They are way over on the other side of the restaurant. But the greatest thing about this buffet is that they have unadorned poached eggs resting atop bacon (the bad kind, but you can switch that out. The non-Canadian variety is bound to be around somewhere) and English muffins. The hollandaise sauce is sitting in its own little container and – this is the best part – you can put as much on as you want. Genius.

For all you fellow benedict fans thinking about consuming this fabulous dish in New Zealand, check out “The Best Bene,” a whole blog of bene reviews down under.

“So future Venetians fled to the marshes and built their houses on stilts. Today Venice is an aquatic city of no cars, vaporetto transportation, and hundreds of bridges.”

My 8th graders look at me blankly.

“You know The Venetian, on the Strip?” I ask.

They perk up, nodding.

“It’s like that.”

“Awww,” murmurs my class in a collective hum of understanding.

I sigh, disgusted with myself.

Venice is a glorious city with thousands of years of history, famous art museums, a decadent and sordid past, and the glittering St. Mark’s Basilica. To compare the sinking city with its casino counterpart is probably not the recommended way to teach 8th grade World Geography. On the other hand, you gotta start where your students are.

And my students are in Vegas. And Vegas apparently wants to be in Italy. The Venetian is one of THREE Italian themed Vegas hotels, not to mention the whole wanna-be Italian village northeast of the city.

The Venetian: This gorgeous hotel and its twin The Palazzo does sort of look like Venice. Besides the striped-shirt wearing gondoliers, this hotel has a Venetian plaza façade, a replica of St. Mark’s Campanile, and a fake Grand Rialto. The casino canals are just a tad cleaner than I remember the actual Venetian canals being.

This winter The Venetian has pulled out all the stops, making it THE place to experience fake winter in Las Vegas. Chefs are selling hot roasted chestnuts, there is an ice skating rink over the canal outside, and the biggest white tree on the Strip stands next to that tower. No Christmas markets or rows of food stalls though, which was my favorite part of Venice – real Venice.

The Bellagio: Inspired by Italy’s Lake Como, the Bellagio is (in my opinion) the most elegant hotel on the Strip. Unlike Venice, I’ve never been to Lake Como, so I can’t really compare the two, but I’m guessing that Lake Como does not feature dancing fountains like The Bellagio does. Watching the fountain shows are my favorite Las Vegas activity, and a must for any tourist. Hopefully you’ll see “Time to Say Goodbye,” sung by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. It is the hotel’s theme song. The fountains dance daily from 3pm – 7pm every half hour, and run every fifteen minutes from 7pm until midnight. On Saturdays the shows start at noon, and the fountains start dancing on Sundays at 11am. Inside the hotel, make sure you check out the world tallest chocolate fountain and the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which change seasonally.

Caesar’s Palace: This place keeps getting bigger and bigger, taking up a ginormous Las Vegas block. Caesar’s is the home of Celine Dion’s famous show (which is coming back to Las Vegas, by the way), a huge mall (the forum shops), and the nightclub PURE (which I can’t say much about because my PURE memories are very sketchy for some reason. I remember a lot of white couches I wasn’t allowed to sit on). Romanesque statues are ALL OVER Caesars. Much like counting the fountains of Kansas City, to get an actual statue count would take some serious mapping skills.

Lake Las Vegas: Famous for housing Celine Dion, this fake little Italian village is about 30 minutes outsides of Vegas. Take Highway 215 east until it becomes E Lake Mead Drive. Turn left at the big sign announcing you’ve arrived at Lake Las Vegas. The super swanky mansions plus the ongoing housing bust equals a depressingly quiet and empty Lake Las Vegas. The community here tries hard to keep things afloat with outside movie nights and concert in the summer and ice skating and caroling in the winter. There are a few restaurants and shops open along Strada Di Villaggio, and Monte Lago is a nice casino to gamble at if you want to get away from the screaming hordes of the Las Vegas Strip (but who really wants to get away from that? Have a few tequila shots and join in!) With its cluster of shops on the lake and hills rising from behind, the village does look a tad Italian.   

I would not exactly plan any class field trips to have my students study Italian culture based on these places. Likewise, if you are in the mood for gondoliers, gelato, and statues glorifying the Roman physique, I recommend that you go to Italy. But if you need a quick classroom connection, or can’t afford a ticket to Rome, I guess Las Vegas will do.

Ciao.

In Las Vegas, restaurant setting doesn’t always matter. Don’t get me wrong, I love the poolside tables at the Mandalay Bay Buffet and Simon Restaurant at Palms Place. Drinks at Top of the World Restaurant at Stratosphere are always fun, if only because you get to watch people plummet past your windows to the ground (don’t worry – I’m not that morbid. These Sky Jumpers are strapped in and paying at least $109.99 for the privilege).

Nora’s Italian Cuisine isn’t by a pool, overlooking anything, or even on the Strip. It’s actually in a strip mall. You can get a tattoo or a payday loan right across the parking lot.

And you’ll have time to do just that if you don’t make a reservation. A “hidden gem” no longer, Nora’s is well known among Las Vegas locals. It’s busy Monday thru Thursday and packed on Friday and Saturday nights when live music can be heard from the bar/lounge area from nine until midnight.

Originally opened by an Italian couple (Nora and Gino), the tiny place became so popular that they’ve had to take over the surrounding storefronts. The resulting layout is a tad odd. The bar is off to the right, with a small stage, table seating, and a private dining room in the back. The kitchen is down the middle of the restaurant and three unfortunate tables and tucked along that corridor. Off to the left is the main dining room area. One of Nora and Gino’s sons is now the general manager.

The place is cute, with the requisite paintings of wine barrels and Italian scenes, but you don’t go to Nora’s for fancy decorations, crown molding or cute tables. You go to eat. (And drink. Their bar is apparently fabulous, although all I even get is cheap white wine and Amaretto Sours.)

No matter what you do, start with the Antipasto Salad. In a strange but wonderful way, the ham/provolone/salami spirals atop the Italian salad remind me of a New Orleans muffaletta. Comparison to a muffaletta is my version of very high praise. Enjoy that with a basket of very garlic-y bread and you won’t be hungry for your dinner. Luckily Nora’s is good left over. I capitalize on this fact by taking out-of-town guests to Nora’s before dropping them off at the airport. That way I get their leftovers also. Very sneaky, I think.

I always get Fettuccine Alfredo, although I suppose I should be recommending the Crazy Alfredo with chicken, sausage, shrimp, peppers, tomatoes, jalapenos and two types of mushrooms. I’ve also had their Shrimp Scampi, Veal Parmigiana, and Gnocchi. All are great (especially the gnocchi), but I keep returning to my old calorie-ridden standby. My favorite person to go to Nora’s with refuses to even look at the menu, sticking to his order of Fettuccine Carbonara. Oh, and the pizza is really good here too. We had it for free in the bar once when our table was taking longer than expected. To go with great food is an easy-to-swallow bill at the end of the meal. I have no idea why Nora’s hasn’t raised their prices. I think it’s cheaper to eat here than at Olive Garden. My fettuccine is $9.50. Seriously.      

Nora’s is several miles west of the Strip on Flamingo and Jones. It is right behind the Arby’s. They are open Monday through Thursday from 11am – 10pm, Friday 11am – midnight, Saturday from 4pm – midnight. Nora’s is closed Sunday’s which sucks if you are hungry and have friends flying out that night, but is great if you want to rent out the restaurant for a private Sunday party. You can also reserve the bar area for private functions any day of the week. About fifty people can fit into the space, but it will be tight.         

Okay, seriously. How many times can someone drive between Seattle and Las Vegas? Since starting this blog eight months ago, I’ve done the twenty-one hour drive six times. I’ve gotten sidetracked in Utah (skiing), Yosemite (biking), and San Jose (wine and cheese-ing). I’ve driven straight through as fast as possible and I’ve been on a route so roundabout (via Wisconsin) I don’t even know if it still counts. I’ve just arrived in Sin City again (with a quick San Diego sidetrip this time) and I just stumbled upon a story about one of my earlier trips. Convenient timing, because I really didn’t have time to write a whole blog post today, as I again have lesson plans to prepare and 8th graders to ponder. (Sigh). Here goes:

I look skeptically at my Nevada/Utah road map. I typically take the well populated I-15 when traipsing back and forth between Las Vegas and Seattle.  But this time Highway 93 seems to be throbbing on my map. Not only is 93 a straight shot through Nevada, but veering slightly west would take me to Rachel, Nevada – the closest town to Area 51. A few hours later I can take highway 50 east to Great Basin National Park. Very tempting, especially when considering never ending road construction around Salt Lake City.

I ponder the fact that I don’t know how to change a tire or deal with squeaky breaks (and I should, as evidenced here and here) and decide to take the road less traveled anyway.

After one last round of video blackjack, I head north out of Vegas on 1-15 and take US 93 deeper into the desert. After 85 miles, I add my AAA bumper sticker to the famed Extraterrestrial Highway sign and head another 40 miles down the road, stopping for cows that amble freely across the road.

I pull into the first and possibly only commercial establishment in Rachel, Nevada (Human Population: 98). You can’t miss the Little A’Le’Inn Restaurant, with its UFO crane in the front and trailers that double as motel lodging in the back. I grab an A’Le’Inn burger with extra ‘secretions’ and take a quick glance around town to make sure I haven’t missed any alien sightings. Then I re-trace my steps and head north on Highway 93 again.

Two and a half hours later I cut east on Highway 50, officially titled The Loneliest Highway in America. It isn’t nearly as lonely as I’d worried about. The two lane highway is well maintained and the straight lanes between buttes and mesas make it easy to pass trucks. There are some stretches where my vehicle is the only one in sight, but there is enough traffic so I didn’t feel as if I’m alone on Mars.

I follow the signs to Baker and Great Basin National Park and pull into the visitor’s center, wondering if I’m really here. I haven’t come across a National Parks pay station in the middle of the road yet. But I had indeed arrived. The bored looking ranger informs me that this National Park is free. Well, free except for camping fees ($12) or the charge for a guided tour into the Lehman Caves ($10).

I grab an ice cream cone from the café, meander through the guided nature walk behind the ranger station and head up the mountain to find a place to camp. The ranger had suggested that I bypass the Lower Lehman Creek site, as it’s mostly an RV hangout. The Wheeler Peak campground apparently has the best sites, but requires a bumpy drive up the mountain. Since it’s getting dark and I’m afraid of mountain lions and wrecking my car, I leave Wheeler Peak alone.

That leaves me pitching my tent at Upper Lehman Creek. The site is fine: quiet, next to a stream, and near a hiking trail (the seven mile Lehman Creek trail). The 24 site campground has three pit toilets. Pay showers were available in the nearby city of Baker. Or I could take a really cold bath in the creek for free. I don’t do either of those things. Instead, I assemble my pop up tent and fall asleep before I can worry about mountain lions or wild turkeys tearing my tent to shreds and having me for a midnight snack.

I wake up at sunrise and snap pictures of Wheeler Peak. Great Basin National Park is where you can summit the 2nd highest peak in Nevada. I don’t though, as I’m way too busy fighting with my shelter. The tent, which had popped up so amiably the night before, is refusing to snap apart. After pulling on the poles, acquiring two blisters on my hands, eyeballing my car to see if I could get a mostly un-assembled tent in there (that would be a no), and exhausting my repertoire of swear words in English and Norwegian, I swallow my pride and ask the guys at a nearby camp site for help.

For all you people making fun of me, know this: The guys couldn’t get the damn tent apart either. I end up snapping a pole in half just to get the contraption in my car. Beyond frustrated, I give Great Basin a curt goodbye and head towards Boise where there would be hotel rooms, showers, and nothing that I would have to disassemble. Highway 93: Fail.

But I calm down as I get back onto the lonely road. Sure, my tent is a little broken, but my tires, brakes, and self are still in tact. I hadn’t been eaten by a mountain lion, abducted by aliens, or stranded on a lonely road. Highway 93: Success.

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