A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

A tale of two ships (of sorts)

sunny 20 °C

The very end of my last post had this picture and indicated it was my destination.

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For those who don't know, this is the Queen Mary: there's a story that she was supposed to be called Queen Victoria but when her owners went to King George V for permission to name her after the "greatest Queen", he naturally thought of his own wife. Oops: awkward! She was built in Scotland in the 1930's, took to the seas as Cunard's most glamourous passenger vessel in 1936, was commandeered as a troopship during the war (and still holds the record for carrying the greatest number of people) and was then put back into service as a glamourpuss until 1967. During her war service she never came under attack (was too fast for U-boats) but did manage to run over one of her own support vessels, with fatal consequences. Her last voyage saw her fetch up at Long Beach, the passenger terminal for the Greater Los Angeles area, and when she went on the market, the City of Long Beach snapped her up for $3.5 million, just a bit more than the scrap merchants were going to pay.

The City had bigger plans than to just have her sit and be gawked at by tourists like me: they put her back into service, using her bars, restaurants and staterooms as an elegant, old skool floating hotel. I have the feeling she might not be very seaworthy - I noticed quite a sagging when I looked up one of the corridors.

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Since cruising at this level is a bit out of my league there is a Queen Mary 2, which the New York Times was kind enough to write about recently), I opted to spend a night here. I had gone for the cheapest option, an internal cabin, but they give out all spare standard staterooms on a first come first served basis, and so I had a great view of Long Beach.

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I had quite the walk around the Queen Mary, and came to the conclusion that with all the wood-panelling, it was a bit like living inside an old-fashioned radiogram.

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I thought I should take advantage of all she had to offer, so went into the Observatory Bar for a cocktail

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before going in to dine. I didn't get any photos of inside the dining room, but here are some random shots I took on the way.

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In the morning, I made a near fatal mistake. After a really good walk around all levels of the ship

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I decided to have one last coffee. Now, the poor old cheapest car in America had been dumped outside the ship's carpark, because I wasn't paying $17 when I could park for free: I carefully avoided the pavement with red paint on the kerb and parked between parallel lines. Still, I was a bit worried, so before I went in here

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for my coffee, I did look to make sure he hadn't been stolen. By the time I'd had coffee and strolled over, I was a bit disturbed to see a Police car parked beside my car, but did note the Policeman was yelling into his PA at some poor woman who had got stuck in a one way street and was trying to back out. But then I saw the towtruck, and he was coming to get the cheapest car in America: I had failed to notice the no parking sign. So he has his apparatus under the front wheels of my car and the cop is yelling at the bewildered driver going the wrong way and I'm wondering if the cop is noticing what's happening to my car but he's totally focussed on the lady and the towie is getting more ready to go. Yikes! But the cop stopped him, was really quite polite, although he (quite properly) hit me with a $49 ticket, something I couldn't pay by cash, credit card, gold, whatever: only a cheque would do. By the time I worked out how to pay by cheque, I'd lost the ticket (I think it went to Hertz when I returned the car, along with the paperwork they'd given me).

I had been blaming the Queen Mary for the ridiculous announcements, whoops, bells and other attention grabbing sounds which had started on the PA at about 7:00, but I'm pretty sure it was the Carnival boat tied up behind it which snuck in overnight which was responsible.

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I took a short walk around the beachfront of Long Beach before leaving (making very sure to put some money in the parking meter, as another Policeman seemed to be ready to pounce. Its funny - I'd popped into town the night before just to see what I could see: my main observation was how many Police seemed to be about, but I never thought I'd be leaving town in fear of them).

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I like the older lighthouse more than its replacement.

My other ship is a bit different; although it bears the name of a famous ship, it is more in the nature of a space-ship. She first flew in 1992 and after 20 years and 25 missions, she was decommissioned. After quite a contested process, the California Science Center was the lucky recipient - which is a bit odd really, as everything else there was really for kids, and most of the kids I saw there didn't really seem to care about the Endeavour. Here she is, in all her glory (except that I couldn't quite get the nose, given the size of her enclosure).

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One of the things the crew ate was tacos - the toaster has been taken out and put on display

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Engines:

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I never knew that the Endeavour was made of cardboard!

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Most of the engineering work was actually done in California: the engineers (I think it was Rockwell) had their own control centre to monitor the engines as she flew, apart from the NASA control. This control centre is also in the Science Centre

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Of course, we couldn't even touch her, let alone take a look inside, which would have been cool. But one thing I really liked was the video they made of getting the Endeavour from the airport to the Science Center.

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I bet Toyota is very proud that its Tundra ute was chosen as a tow vehicle

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But my favourite scenes were those featuring the Endeavour being inched very gently through suburbia

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Posted by NZBarry 04:31 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Mohave

sunny 20 °C

So, there I was, in a motel in Barstow. I decided that dammit, I'd backtrack 110 miles and have a good look at the Mohave National Preserve. It is a much more low key place than Death Valley, and the Reserve was only established in 1994. It has a lot of Joshua Trees (which made me wonder why I paid to enter Joshua Tree National Park), the land was mainly rolling and its hills are quite a bit lower, although there are a couple of mountains which hit 8000 feet. Its big, though, 1.4 million acres. I watched a really cool video in the Visitor Centre, which showed a cross-section of life here, through the day and through the seasons: there's a whole lot more wildlife than up the road in Death Valley.

Since I had plenty of time, I started at its Eastern edge and paid a brief visit to a wee town called Nipton, with its tiny hotel and trading post: as far as I could tell, its main reason for being was the railway line (and looking at the town website, I'm not all that wrong - it is on the crossroads of two major wagon trails).

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From there, it was a drive down to the centre of the reserve, through the Joshua trees (the biggest forests of them in the world are here, and apparently the biggest Joshua tree in the world, although I don't know where it is).

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In the centre of the Reserve, there is a woebegone place called Cima, which was a railway town providing supplies for miners and ranchers. By the time I got there, was no sign of present life although obviously a site of prior habitation. I found it oddly moving, and looking at the photos I took while there am still quite taken by them.

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The signs were still out advertising ice creams for this shop, but I don't think it has been open for a while

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With all the old rail sites and the quite dominant railway line, I hoped I would see a train, and finally did, although it was a little incongruous in the desert.

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The one still occupied site in the Preserve, and the one place you can still get food and drink (although not on Wednesdays, which of course was when I was there) is Kelso Depot: established because it had plentiful water for the trains and it was also where they could add another engine for the hills to come. I was particularly interested because it has what is called a Harvey House - instead of just a railway station, it is a combination station, restaurant, hotel and dormitory for the railway workers - set up along the Santa Fe etc railway lines. This one was in particularly good condition, because it has been adopted as Preserve HQ: the top floors and basement have been set up with various exhibits to give an idea of the environment and also what it was like to live in a Harvey House, particularly as a railway worker.

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The Post Office wasn't looking so good and as for the jail, well, given the temperatures they have here, I wouldn't like to be an inmate.

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Just south of Kelso, the land gave way to sand dunes

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and then further south, I encountered more rock outcrops

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Funnily enough, after an extended drive along Route 66 in the dark, I found myself back where I started, in Barstow. This time, I went for the classic Route 66 experience, and checked into an old motel, which had tiny rooms, a friendly proprietor from India who finally helped me master a cable TV remote, circular beds in the rooms and a collection of memorabilia.

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Now I really had to get a rattle on, as it was the day before the cheapest car in America had to be returned to his home. I had a cunning plan for my entry into Los Angeles: first, I'd drive along Route 66 until I found a proper diner for my last meal on the road. Molly Brown's Country Cafe filled the bill nicely and had the added bonus of a neighbour with a bottle sculpture.

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Then the plan was to take highway CA2, up through the lovely looking and sounding Angeles Forest

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but, and I do find this a bit ridiculous as I've been to all sorts of places on the trip without any hassles of this sort, but I barely got through Victorville and found that the road into Los Angeles was closed! Closed by snow! So, I backtracked, found even more interesting rocks

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had a hideous drive on a freeway for 20 miles and a fruitless search for the Huntingdon Library and then realised I had a small problem. I was in Pasadena, but had a specific destination and very precise directions to it based on coming down through the forest, and could not find any of the roads my directions referred to. So, I basically had to guess on a road going in the right direction (south to Long Beach): the one I chose seemed to have a peculiar traffic management system of ensuring every traffic light was red. Thirty two miles of Los Angeles surface roads are no fun at all and took hours to get through. But, well, my destination made it all worthwhile.

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Posted by NZBarry 01:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Death Valley

sunny 20 °C

Looking at the map, it seemed simple: drive up to a northern entry to Death Valley National Park, drive down through it and across the I15 Interstate into the Mohave National Preserve, then pop along the I40 to Barstow - 370 mile, which would be easy if I left early. So I booked a hotel for Barstow and did set off early, but things went awry in Death Valley: I found I liked it so much I had to explore all sorts of side roads and it was pretty much dark as I was leaving the Park. Even then, I missed about half of the park - it is huge, 3.4 million acres. A hotel in Barstow no longer seemed like a very good idea.

The drive up from Las Vegas, a bit over 100 miles, was dead boring: Vegas itself flung itself along the side of the road for about 20 miles, then there was nothing save for one or two gas stations and casinos. Finally I started to approach the park

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Death Valley is aptly named: the record high (and it has the world record) is 56.7 degrees (sounds even worse in fahrenheit - 134) at Furnace Creek, with an average mid-summer daytime temperature of 47 degrees. There is an odd story about this world record: it was set in 1913 but only recognised as the world record recently by stripping Libya of the title for a temperature set in 1922. As I overheard a ranger say to a group he was conducting, this heat bakes the land so hard that nothing lives, not even snakes (he didn't mention cockroaches). Funnily enough, this didn't stop someone setting up a marijuana plantation with about 8000 plants. Nonetheless, a hotel has been established there

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and a gas station (with incredibly expensive gas - I filled up in the morning and paid $2.90 a gallon, they were charging a bit over $6!). I was glad to be there in winter: even then the average day time temperature is around 20 degrees. But this is only one of the features that makes this place different: another is that it is the lowest point in the USA. Furnace Creek is at 180 feet below sea level, and then as you go down the valley, at Badwater Basin it is 282 feet below. As I was driving around the hills above the valley, I would have sworn I was seeing water below me, but it is actually salt encrusting the rocks, which is what makes the water that does exist (and there's very little) bad. A third feature is the tremendous variations in the rock formations I noticed as I drove in and around the Park.

The thing that really put the valley on the map was that it was found to be very rich in minerals - gold and silver as well as borax. There are something like 3000 mine openings around the place, most of them pretty dangerous.

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My first thing was to get out and clamber around on these rocks, at the entrance

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then go up Dante's View, which is about 5500 feet up, and allows a proper look into the valley

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This part (below) is called the Devil's Golf Course - the salt surface makes it so rough that only the Devil could play golf there:

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Driving along its edge to the south was where I found most variety in the rock formations

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and colours - as a result, there is one part where they've made a separate road to get you close to the rocks and called it the Artist's Drive. Unfortunately, the colours were quite a bit brighter than my photos might suggest:

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The road had some nice twists and run quite steeply downhill for quite a bit, which would have been great to cycle down: two fellows did as I drove, and they quite comfortably beat me

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Finally, I reached Badwater Basin, and there actually was a tiny bit of water there

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I didn't try drinking it. The road south out of the park was very slow - it twisted around the edge of the salt flats - and so it took a long time to get out to the semi-main road. I finally ended up in Barstow a bit after 7:00, with nothing seen of the Mohave National Preserve at all. There wasn't much going on in Barstow - the most exciting thing for me was its two 24 hour donut shops (there is a Route 66 Museum, but it opens just two days a week, and a drive in cinema, which did interest me, but it was closed for the winter).

Posted by NZBarry 04:31 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Vegas for Real

sunny 20 °C

So, Vegas. I have no idea how to use those slot machines, with all their buttons and handles. I do know the rudiments of most card games, but don't gamble. Not going to like Vegas, am I? Funnily enough, I loved it, ended up staying five nights - partly because I only had the cheapest car In America for a week or so more and had to think hard about how much more I could achieve. I examined the maps closely, looked at the prices of hotels in Vegas, and worked out that what I still really wanted to do would take just the one day (plan B would have taken about 3 days and taken me many miles north). Being in Vegas is just so easy: lots of good food, cheap hotels (I paid $18 a night for the best room of the trip for my last two nights - I did have to keep moving to follow the cheap prices) and stuff to do. I even found a really good coffee shop, right outside my hotel - it is part of some sort of community art space, with a very interesting clientele.

For me, I don't think staying "off the strip" was a very good option, which is what I did do for a couple of nights. Nor do I think being on the strip would really be me either: I did walk it for a while and had had enough. No, for me, the place to stay is in downtown:

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This is where it all started, then it turned to crap as The Strip started and so in the late 1990's they started the renaissance of downtown. My first hotel, the El Cortez, is one of the oldest, originally a mere two storeys: I was in that old part of the hotel in what they called a vintage room (but it was fine) immediately above the gaming area, which was moderately busy (it was a Friday night) with an older clientele.

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I walked through what they call the Fremont Street Experience: essentially, all the old Casinos face off against each other on Fremont Street so they've put a canopy over the street (actually a huge TV screen, biggest in the world (it runs for five blocks!), on which they play music videos.

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There are a bunch of street vendors, performers,

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a couple of stages, all very loud and over the top but great. I found it quite strange to be able to just wander in and out of the casinos, just to see what was going on or because they had a food outlet I wanted something from. In this way, I had the best pancakes in the USA (according to Esquire) which, unless Canada can beat them, probably means they are the best in the world at an old fashioned diner called Du-Pars in one of the casinos. They say they've used the same recipe since the 1930's: they certainly were good pancakes, best I've ever had, with a kind of sourdough element to the taste. Beer was $2 and you could wander around willy-nilly, with your beer, checking out the scene. Somewhere I didn't eat was the Heart Attack Grill

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This was a strange place: all the patrons (they were mostly beefy males) were dressed in what looked like hospital gowns, as if they were awaiting the heart attack. Ah - there is a good Wikipedia page about the place: it is a medically themed burger restaurants where the customers are treated as patients (I see why - the biggest burger is 32 ounces or just under a kilogram!) and served by nurses in controversially revealing uniforms.

I did get to the strip on my first night: one of the things on my bucket list for this trip was to try out the new multi-million dollar buffet at Caesar's Palace (the report I read seemed to suggest the food cost that much but now I rather think it was the refit). It was surprisingly modest in terms of the variety of food, but good quality. They've set up about 8 different stations (most were different countries, but they also had seafood, dessert and meat). Almost everyone seemed to be making a beeline for the chilled crab legs and taking away a big pile of them, but they really did nothing for me. Their oysters and mussels were both quite tasteless so I didn't pay the seafood much heed. But, oh, the roast duck from the Chinese place! And the barbecued lamb chops and the prime rib and the roasted corn and the deep fried chicken and the more roasted duck and the salmon and the other sort of fish and - you get the picture: I went up four or five times and finished off with ice cream.

Ceasars Palace is enormous, an entire block with quite a big outdoor eating area and a shopping mall (all very high class and expensive brands, of course).

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I was free to wander through with my camera, so that's what I did.

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Right next door is another grand edifice, Bellagio, which has created a large artificial lake which apparently has some fountains but although I wandered around for quite a while, I never saw them.

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They even go one step further in Vegas: the buffet of buffets - where you get card which gives you 24 hours access to about 8 different buffets (including the Caesars one if you pay a surcharge). I was tempted, but I had plenty on my plate (sorry!) already, what with the need to try out PF Changs and the restaurant in my hotel (where they served a surprisingly homely potroast) and various other places: it would be very hard to go hungry in Vegas.

Here's the Strip - I was well down, just north of the Harley Davidson Cafe, looking north

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I got lost in the middle of a mall (it went around in a big circle - all I was looking for was a sandwich shop I had seen at the entrance but didn't know how to get back to, since I was caught up in this big circle): I was intrigued to see that they attempted to recreate a sort of cityscape inside the mall.

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Something I wish I had known about when I was there (quite coincidentally, the New York Times wrote about it last week) is the Neon Museum. There are about 1.5 acres containing 450 relics of Las Vegas's neonic past. Some have been installed around Downtown, which confused the hell out of me, as I'd see a sign for an old motel, but no motel.

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What I did go see was the Mob Museum, more formally known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, which told the story of gangsters across America, and of the various efforts by law enforcement people to control them (seems a bit futile, really). It was mainly photographs and videos, which were effective in communicating a lot of information but not really something I could take photographs of. There was a sort of Courtroom set up inside the Museum, although it was more used as a venue for a Senate Inquiry into Organised Crime, led by one Estes Kefauver who had the proceedings televised across the nation, which is credited as making a huge difference to public attitudes to gangs. It is here I saw the bullet-riddled body of Bugsy Siegel, former owner of two of the hotels I stayed in. He was the Las Vegas man on the ground for some guys in California, making sure their new casino, Flamingo, got built. Silly man: he was less than honest in reporting the actual costs of construction, and skimmed a fair amount off the top for himself. Hence the bullets.

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My last day there was Martin Luther King Day: it didn't seem to make much difference to the goings on in Vegas, except that there was a march of sorts up Las Vegas Boulevard. I say of sorts, because the various groups marching seemed to go more when it suited them rather than as any sort of coherent march - people were straggling up the street for hours. Oh, and while the streets may not have been paved with gold in Vegas, they have golden buses!

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Posted by NZBarry 05:19 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Vegas Baby, Vegas!

sunny 10 °C

I could have spent a third night in Flagstaff, but I had read of a wee town just a bit West which was supposedly a perfect rendition of a Route 66 town so I spent my last night in the area in Williams. The reason for sticking around was that I had to go inspect some more rocks, this time the famous red rocks of Sedona (a town I liked even less than Santa Fe - I didn't even feel like eating there, let alone staying there). I was also interested to see what difference going from 7000 feet

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to around 4500 feet would make: answer = quite a lot. No snow and temperatures well above freezing. Here's Sedona, snuggled in its surrounding rocks

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The rocks themselves were beautiful - I drove up every side road I could see to get a different view of them and clambered about a bit. Here's a selection of what I saw

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Up one of the side roads, I even found a chapel

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Once back in Flagstaff, it was time for one last coffee at Macys and then the short (18 mile) drive to Williams, which is a small town of 3000 people. There certainly was a lot of memorabilia devoted to Route 66

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but it wasn't the only game in town, as it also claims to be the gateway to the Grand Canyon. There is a sleek and expensive train which runs up to the canyon (it had left for the day by the time I thought to get a photo) and an old Grand Canyon hotel, advertising rooms for $3.50 and up (closed for the season or that's where I'd be staying)

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and I'm not sure what was going on with these two places

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Dining choices were a bit limited, so I thought I might as well go for the best in town and had a fabulous lump of prime rib from Rod's Steak House: they're obviously not too keen on vegetables, as I could have potatoes or beans but not both. From Williams right though to LA there is still quite a lot of Route 66 available to be driven: while I didn't want to get all obsessive and fetishist about it, I thought I might as well drive it where it was going the way I was. It is pretty much just a standard road

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but I was delighted to see something I had read about: my source had told me these were long gone

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Burma Shave was a razor blade company, and it pretty much made a killing as a result of its use of these wee billboards (and was credited by my source (a book about Route 66 I picked up in the Flagstaff library while hiding from the cold) as inventing the billboard). There were at least half a dozen of these sequences - kind of banal moral messages. Other examples I took a note of include "Twould be more fun" + "To go by air" + "If we could put" + "these signs up there" + "Burma Shave" and "The one who drives" + "when he's been drinking" + "Depends on you" + "To do his thinking".

There were a couple of quite wacky places en route, such as Seligman

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and then miles from anywhere the Hackberry General Store and automotive works

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For Vegas, I had to abandon Route 66 at Kingman. Quite accidentally, as I really didn't know where it was, I was taken straight past the Hoover dam, which is hidden behind some hills, so I thought I should take a peek

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For once I arrived at my destination in broad daylight

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My hotel was chosen on the bases that it was cheap (a bit over $20) and had been owned by one Bugsy Siegel, a former gangster. I had the disconcerting experience while in Vegas of seeing photos and film footage of his dead body with multiple gunshot wounds: what happens when you skim money from colleagues who are also gangsters.

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Turns out that this post just gets me to Vegas: sorry about that. Given my reaction to Santa Fe and Sedona, I was curious as to how I would take to Vegas: all will be revealed.

Posted by NZBarry 02:23 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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