Las Vegas and Arizona
A trip log by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 2003 Evelyn C. Leeper

Table of Contents:

This is going to be a short trip log--I promise! For one thing, I'm not writing about all the family stuff, which was a large part of the trip. (The entire family, including my niece from London, made it to Scottsdale to see Mark's parents' new apartment and celebrate Christmas with Mark's brother's family.)

December 22, 2003: Check-in for our 9:15 AM Newark to Las Vegas flight was fast. In fact, it was forty minutes from the time we parked our car in the remote lot to when we arrived at the gate. E-tickets and only carry-on luggage played a large part in that--the regular check-in line was huge.

We arrived in Las Vegas, got our (brand-new) rental car, and discovered that 1) the clock was off by three hours, and 2) we couldn't figure out how to reset it. Why do rental car companies remove the instruction books? (They said it was because people stole them, but frankly, this doesn't seem like much of an answer. If they left it in the car, at least some people would be able to use it.)

We immediately drove to Fremont Street for our traditional 99-cent shrimp cocktails at the Golden Gate Casino. (We each had one and split a third.)

We then went to the Luxor and checked in. It is nice, but missing a lot of amenities: there is no coffee maker, no HBO, and the television cables have doohickies on them such that you cannot detach them to hook anything else into the system (like a DVD player). The idea is to get you out of the room, but it just seems annoying to us.

We walked up the Strip a ways. It seems that the Strip is getting sleazier, with disputable-looking guys handing out flyers and cards advertising "escorts." It's possible it was always like this and we hadn't noticed, but I don't think so.

We had heard about something in the CBS television research center where you could watch a television pilot and give your opinions, so we walked over there and signed up. We saw about two-thirds of the show when the fire alarm went off and we had to leave. Typical "Luck of Leeper"! (Then again, the show was terrible.)

We drove out to Michael's Used Books, which had been closed last time we went because it was too late. We went earlier this time; it was closed again, because they shortened their hours. We ate at Ilopongo, a Salvadorean restaurant. I had fried bananas in honey (which were not at all like platanos), something like a potato pancake, some sort of white soup with a strange taste, and a chicken tamal.

December 23, 2003: We drove to Phoenix. First we stopped in Henderson at Sunset Station for their breakfast buffet. We arrived early (they start at 8AM), and it was so dim that I had to use the light from their Christmas tree to write by!

As we were driving, I got to thinking that driving down US 93 with western film music playing on the CD player was one of life's joys. (When I said how much I enjoyed driving through the desert to Mark's family, however, his sister said, "You're the only person who would find driving through the desert fun." Mark immediately responded that he did too, but I don't think she counted us as two full people.)

The Comfort Inn in Scottsdale is actually more comfortable than the Luxor (and includes breakfast), at only three dollars a night more. It even had a table with complimentary gift wrap, scissors, tape, and ribbons, so that people who couldn't wrap their gifts before flying (because of security) could wrap them after arriving.

We hit a couple of used bookstores and did some last-minute shopping at Borders (where we finally found Mark's mother's favorite movie on DVD!), then drove over to Mark's brother's for a birthday dinner for his mother.

Afterwards we watched some of a special about "Cold Mountain" on the Discovery Channel, but stopped because it seemed to be giving too much away.

December 24, 2003: Lunch was with Mark's parents at their retirement community: shrimp cocktail, lobster bisque, mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette, Beef Wellington or pan-seared halibut, pan-roasted potatoes, vegetables, and cream puff swans with raspberry sauce. Not bad!

The weather is very un-Christmas-like to us; it's warm enough that everyone leaves their patio doors open.

For dinner we found a Chinese restaurant that was open on Christmas Eve, the Jasmine Garden. The buffet was okay, but not as good as non-buffet Chinese food. (I think the steam makes all the sauces watery.) Then we hooked up our portable DVD player and watched "Godzilla" (the 1998 version).

December 25, 2003: "Giant from the Unknown", more family stuff, and "Godzilla"'s special effects commentary.

December 26, 2003: We spent about four hours at the Desert Botanical Garden, where I worked at learning all the different types of cactus: ocotillo (which looks like walking sticks), saguaro (the classic pitchfork-shaped one), reindeer antlers (apparently that's its real name, prickley-pear or opuntia (which I nicknamed "Mickey Mouse ears" cactus), octopus cactus (which I called that even before I saw the name, Teddy Bear cholla, barrel cactus, and so on.

We took a tour with one of the docents (Larry) and learned all sorts of stuff, which I will include here more to keep a record of it than to edify you. :-)

Desert is defined as an area that gets less than ten inches of rain a year, and is characterized by daily temperature shifts and low humidity. There are four deserts in the United States: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan. (I guess the Desert of Maine doesn't count.) Of these, the Sonoran (which includes the Phoenix area) is the most lush.

Cochineal dye comes from a parasite on the prickly-pear cactus, and was used to dye the British army's red coats. Now, cochineal is used in one variety of Welch's juice.

Desert plants usually have tiny leaves, a resin coating for protection, and deep roots to reach the moisture.

Contrary to John Wayne movies, you cannot squeeze cactus for water. The Arizona Queen of the Night does have a tuberous root with water in it. (It blooms each year one night only some time in June.)

The prickly-pear grows in all but two states (he didn't say which two) and its thorns serve to break up wind to slow evaporation. It has shallow roots, and is high in calcium. It is also claimed that nopalitos made from it lower one's cholesterol.

The docent said that there is a creosote plant in the Mojave Desert that has been carbon-dated at 10,700 years old. (Doesn't carbon-dating work only on things that were alive and are now dead?)

The saguaro blooms at its tips, so the arms allow more flowers. It lives 250 to 300 years, and bears about 200 fruits for each of 200 years, each plant having about a thousand seeds, meaning it generates about forty million seeds. Of these, only about 1 in 100,000 survive, and only 1 in 100,000 of these grow into saguaros. The Joshua Tree (yucca) also blooms every year. The agave or century plant, on the other hand, flowers once and then dies.

The jojoba (of the boxwood family) has male and female plants. The male plants have clusters of little balls; the female plants have acorn-like growths. They are wind-pollinated, and their beans are a survival food.

Sisel rope is made from agave, and the sap from the soap-tree yucca foams up, and is used in root beer. Agave is used for for tequila, and Mahuey de Pulque for mescal. Aloe comes not not from the plants in the southwest, where most are *not* medicinal.

There is something really called a Boojum Tree, related to the ocotillo.

Mesquite is also called the Tree of Life. One can use the bean pods (not the seeds) and make mesquite meal, from which one can make tea, cookies, etc. The sap relieves throat tickle, and the pitch is used for dye. The roots can go down over 160 feet.

Cardon, The tallest cactus, Cardon, can reach sixty feet, and has arms closer to the ground than the saguaro, and more parallel to the trunk and identical to it. Organ Pipe Cactus arms/branches clusters at the bottom.

Ocotillo is used for natural fencing.

Succulents occur in many plant families (sunflower, cucumber, etc.). Succulents as defined as having thickened, fleshy leaves, stems, or roots to store water. They are also popular as decorative plants--my mother had sansevieria (Dracaena Family), also called snake plants. Cacti are those that have areoles (specialized buds from which spines, flowers, and new stems emerge). Epiphytic cacti (like Spanish moss) live on air, and do not grow in the earth.

One cactus named "Old Man of the Andes" was covered with fine white spines like hair and looked yeti-like.

Apparently, "periwinkle" can be both a plant and an animal. Or rather, there is a plany called a perimwinkle and an animal called a periwinkle. There is not one entity called a periwinkle that is both plant and animal.

After the Garden, we hit a couple of bookstores--Poisoned Pen (a mystery bookstore) and the main store of Bookmaster--and then El Guapo's Taco Store, next door to Bookmaster for a quick (and authentic) lunch.

We watched "Eight-Legged Freaks" (filmed in Arizona south of Tucson), and then went to a surprise birthday dinner for Mark's sister. Mark's family has lot of birthdays and anniversaries clustered in December and January, so every day was a different celebration.

December 27, 2003: We had already visited the Champlin Fighter Museum, so this trip we went to the Commemorative Air Force. This used to be called the Confederate Air Force until about a year and a half ago, but changed its name for the obvious reason, and also for the reason that although it started in the South, it has spread beyond it geographically.

On display other than the World War II airplanes that the CAF restores and maintains was "World War II: The 'Non-revisionist' View!!" (exclamation marks theirs). This was a display of newspaper pages, mostly from the Chicago Daily Tribune, with headlines such as "Hirohito Accepts Role of Puppet; Agrees to Carry Out Allied Orders". One story big enough to warrant a small item on page one was from May 6, 1942, and began "About a month ago the navy began accepting Negroes for general service in the navy, coast guard, and marine corps."

Then a few more bookstores in the Tempe and Mesa area and a big Saturday night family dinner. (Also "Godzilla vs. the Thing" afterwards, but not with the rest of the family.)

December 28, 2003: Leaving Scottsdale, we passed a shopping center called "Zocallo" (with accents marks over both 'o's). It's supposed to sound Spanish, but the word is actually "zocalo" ('l', not 'll', and words in Spanish have at most one accent mark). The drive back to Las Vegas was over the same route, but I noticed more of the distinctions in plant life from region to region. The saguaros, for example, were all south of Wickiup, while the Joshua trees extended father north. We did take the bypass route avoiding Hoover Dam which is twenty miles longer, but you can go 75 miles per hour the whole way instead of only 15 for a long stretch near the Dam. We stopped at the Fiesta Casino in Henderson for their buffet, then returned to the Luxor where it took an hour and ten minutes to check in. (It was multi-line, multi-server, which didn't help.) After resting a bit, we went out to see "Something's Gotta Give". I couldn't figure out why we got matinee prices after 6PM until I looked at the ticket later and realized we had been given senior discounts. I guess to a twenty-year-old, we look really old. Afterwards we went to the Ginseng Bar-B-Q where we did not have barbecue, but I had my usual Korean dish, Soon Doo Bu Jinggae.

December 29, 2003: When we went to Zion National Park in 1995, there had just been a landslide that closed out the actual canyon itself. So we decided to drive there from Las Vegas and see the whole park (or at least the road part) this time. We decided not to hike any of the trails because not only was it cold, but the trails were covered with snow and ice. For that matter, some of the roads were a bit icy, though since one drives fairly slowly to appreciate the scenery it's not a big problem.

It's only a couple of hours' drive from Las Vegas to Zion, and even that is beautiful. The part through Virgin River Gulch is particularly dramatic.

In addition to the very dramatic rock formations, we also saw wild turkeys and mule deer in the Park. And observing flowering agave (or indeed even yucca), I concluded that what they most look like are triffids. The junipers were easy to spot because they were covered with berries.

We saw near the south entrance what I remember most about the Park from the last trip, Checkerboard Mesa. Mark asked a ranger about the Australians' claim that Uluru (Ayres Rock) is the largest rock in the world, and she clarified that while she didn't like to get in debates about "largest" and "tallest", what Ayres Rock was was the largest free-standing rock in the world, while the rocks in Zion are part of the surrounding substrate. As for height, some rocks here tower here 3000 feet above the valley floor.

As we were driving, Mark said we couldn't use up words like "enormous" and "gigantic" too soon, so we couldn't use anything but "big" or "large" for the first fifteen minutes.

We were lucky in that it was sunny for a couple of hours, but it was cold all day. Returning to Las Vegas, we went to the Orleans, which was having their seafood buffet. We decided to stay in spite of there being a bit of a line, and someone in front of us had an extra two-fer they gave us. (Someone behind us was selling coupons for about two-thirds price, but we were somewhat suspicious of this. However, another couple bought them and had no problem.) When we left, the line was enormous! (We arrived about 6PM, and left about 7PM, so the advice is to eat early, especially when it's all-you-can-eat crab legs.)

Back in the room, we collapsed and watched "Terror of Mechagodzilla".

December 30, 2003: We checked out of the Luxor and had breakfast at Carrow's again. We drove over to a couple of theaters near the Strip to see when "Cold Mountain" was playing, but the theaters were in in casinos and impossible to enter easily from outside or to find out when the shows are. So we gave up and returned to the Luxor to see the King Tut tomb replica and display (for which we had coupons). The tickets at the Luxor are single-line, multi-server, so they know something about queueing theory but haven't applied it to check-in.

The tomb replica and the displays were dusty, and I am reasonably sure that everything displayed was a replica, although they never actually said so. Mark and I ended up in a long discussion of where the entrance was when we saw the actual tomb, which had already had most of the stuff removed.

We wanted to visit the Nuclear Test Site History Center, but we discovered that it had moved (even though the old location still had the sign up). However, the new location at the Desert Research Institute was still "in progress" and wouldn't open until December 2004, so there was very little on display having to do with nuclear tests. It did, however, have a traveling exhibition about Gary Powers and the U-2 incident.

We had a quick lunch at Roberto's IV, part of a local chain of Mexican "hole-in-the-wall" restaurants with undistinguished food, then saw "Cold Mountain" at a theater in a shopping center in the suburbs (hence easier to find). Then back to the airport for our red-eye back to New Jersey.

See, I said it would be short!


Evelyn C. Leeper (