Monday, January 26, 2015

Day 10 - All Good Things....

Sunday morning was exactly what things were supposed to be – more play time with the drapes.  Why didn’t they have those when I was a kid? 

Walking the hall to the lobby, the sound of a crying infant echoed through the hall.  At least we thought it was a child. Perhaps it was a grown man crying after he lost a fortune.  I like that version better. Who in the hell would bring kids to that town? The insanity and the debauchery?   For kids?  Come on.  Someone might argue Insanity and debauchery have their place, but with kids around?  Cripe. 

After securing an amazingly delicious, but amazingly overpriced, buffet, we had a few minutes to poke around the grounds.  It really is a beautiful property.  How ever do they pay for it……

Sadly, all good things must come to end.  Cautioned of potential airport grief as a result of the ending holiday stretch, we opted to head to the airport a tad early.  Breezing through the security, we settled in for the flight home.

Okay, here is the rundown…

Birds Species: 159
Paul’s life birds: 5
Paul’s total life list: 668
Paul’s California list (before):117
Paul’s California list (after): 198
Paul’s Nevada list (before): 0
Paul’s Nevada list (after): 29
Natalie’s lists: not known

Miles driven: 1,700 (or so…)
States visited: 2
States visited (lifetime): 45
National Park sites visited: 5
National Park sites visited (lifetime): not sure…but a lot…

Breweries visited: 4 (with a 5th brewery from New York sampled )
Beer species: 15
Beer species (lifetime): 1,535

Elvis impersonators:  none.  NONE!
Dollars spent gambling: $0.00

What will a future trip be?  Well, certainly back to the Channel Islands for the Scrub Jay.  If we did it later in the spring, we could secure more pelagic species (including some Murrelets) as well as the Elegant Tern (long gone in the winter).  Perhaps a later trip would also help us secure the Yellow-footed Gull at the Salton Sea. I understand the smell of salt and dead fish is very romantic on a brutally hot summer day......

Day 9 - Sin City

With the hotel breakfast in our bellies (a fine meal, it was!), we pressed on for Las Vegas.  Hearts were a little heavy because we knew out trip was winding down but we still had plans for a full and fun day.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is just outside of town.  While I suspect the birding there is better outside of the winter months, we didn’t let that stop us.  With a 13-mile driving loop and plenty of opportunity for pull-outs and hikes, we made the best of our morning.

We managed a flock of Mountain Bluebirds.  Let’s be clear – the stunning shade of blue on these birds against the browns, tans and reds of the desert is really quite a sight!  So was the point-blank view of the Juniper Titmouse (new for Nat). The Golden Eagle was neat, too.   

We can certainly say that we were not the first ones to take a look at the birds of the canyon.  With pictographs and other evidence of at least six different Native American cultures dating back almost 13,000 years, it looks like people have been using the canyon for a loooooooong time…..

With Vegas just a few miles away, slipping into town for lunch was easy.  McDonald’s got the call.  The closest brewery was actually the Chicago Brewing Company.


We fly across the country to experience what the west has to offer and one of the few breweries is influenced by Chicago?  Whatever.  The part that really bugged me was the policy with the sampler. They have nine beers on tap. Cool, right?  You must order all nine.  Nine or nothing. No choosing.  How stupid.

In any case, I had the All Nighter (#1529). I think it was  pretty fair beer overall.  They consider it one of their lighter beers (which was fine with me given the hiking and all).  Very grainy.  Lightly hopped.  Okay overall.

After lunch, we did what any reasonable couple would do – we returned to Red Rock.  Natalie was really itching for another hike, and the last time I looked, Detroit does not have any deserts.  I’m not sure we saw a single bird on that hike, but we experienced the same thing we did outside of Death Valley – pure silence.

That was about to change.

By late afternoon, it was time to get to the rental car back so we could get to our hotel. For 15 minutes, the only sound that could be heard was me swearing enough to make a sailor blush.  It turns out the return desk for our rental was inside the casino with no signs outside. The GPS had us in the right place, but we had no way of knowing it!  How patently stupid.  A quick taxi ride got us to our hotel.

Except it is not a hotel.  It is a palace.  A casino.   A shopping mall.  Restaurants.  A movie set.  If you can think of it, it is probably a part of the Bellagio.  As a part of our wedding gift, my parents thought it would be nice to put us in one of Las Vegas’ most amazing hotels. 

You can just ask Fran Tarkington.  I saw him.  No, really.  I did.  I swear it was him.  Every kid growing up in the late 1970’s would know him not as a Minnesota Viking,  but as one of three hosts from "That’s Incredible."  It was him. I’m certain.  Of all the people to see and recognize in Las Vegas?  That’s incredible.

After cleaning up from our hikes and acting like a 10 year old by controlling the blinds with the switch on the wall, it was time to go find the beer….

…in the mall?

Yes, folks, the Sin City Brewery has an outlet in what can only be described as a shopping mall. Mind you , this is a different mall that would be across the street in the Bellagio.  This was average stuff, where the Bellagio is more high-end.  In any case, the outlet is about 8 seats at a bar.  That’s it.   They don’t even serve food (something many breweries are doing nowadays…or not doing depending on how you look at it).  So after having a nice pizza a short walk up the way, we returned to the Sin City Brewe….,er, uh, outlet , for some of the most average beers you are ever going to get.

First off, the names are boring.  If you are regular reader of this blog, you know I hate dumb names for beer.  Calling your hard effort nothing more than Amber, IPA, Light, Stout, and Weiss (#1,530-1,534) is just soooo lame.  You're in Vegas - give is something with some more pizzazz. That said, you might try and give you beer more pizzazz. I not knocking them, but they we all very very average.  Well, not the Light. That was water.  I gave that one a "2".

A brief walk around the strip showcased the insanity that Vegas.  The lights and the people. The people.   Did I mention there were people?  It was easy to see who was  a local and who was an out-of-towner.   Locals were dressed like the “tick kid” from A Christmas Story as they struggling with the cold.  Nat and I were wearing a fleece. 

After enjoying a brief water show at the Bellagio fountains, it was time to just turn in.  Nine days. Lots of hikes.  Even more driving.  Exhaustion might be a good word.  The image below is from our room. 

Day 8 - The Valley of Death

Dawn had us leaving Ridgecrest. The drive took us through some dismal remote towns that clearly stood only because of the adjacent mining operation.   The whole region was both desolate and impoverished.  We noted that the abandoned homes were difficult to separate from the occupied ones.  The Golden Eagle on the power pole probably didn’t care one way or the other.  I suspect he was looking for a jackrabbit.    

Approaching the park, we knew we just had to pull over.  The tiny Panamint Springs Resort (I’ll use “resort”  loosely here) was miles away. No traffic.  No planes.  No nothing.  That, of course, gives us nature-types the chance to appreciate something we often don’t get to hear any more – silence.  That’s right.  Just a few miles outside of Death Valley National Park, one of the most impressive features of the trip was the sound of …nothing.

While soaking it in and snapping a few pics, what do I see at my feet?

For those you who didn’t follow the history of the beer can (or for those of you that might be a bit too young (holy shit, I sound old when I say that...)), can tops that we see today have not always been that way.  Back in the day, cans had what were called pull-tabs.  If you look closely, this is a 30-year old beer can (minimum).  The old style tabs were phased out by the very early 1980’s. 

Of all the things to find in the desert…..

The early morning light at Death Valley National Park counters the otherwise dismal name.  Who would have thought that a place with such a dark name could be so neat.

If I could be anal-retentive for a moment (which is hyphenated, by the way), please understand that Death Valley is not a valley – it is a graben.  Valleys are simply low areas between hills. They are often longer than wide. A graben, on the other hand, is the result of huge tectonic forces.  When certain faults shift and adjust (known to hacks as earthquakes), some chunks of land rise while others fall.  A falling piece of land between two rising pieces of land becomes a graben.  See?  Isn’t that easy?  (Not to sound like a totally ass, I was hoping to experience some kind of earthquake in southern California.  Nope.  It never happened.)

All that said, if you are hard-core birder, tackling this place in the winter with the thought of great birds dancing in your head…well, forget it. The winter birding is basically zero.  The power of the place is the spring and fall migration when wayward birds enter the Furnace Ranch area (with its abundant vegetation) for a break. After all, it is the best place for miles. 

Beyond birds (and yes, there is a life beyond birds) numerous stops were made along the way.

Similar to the graben-valley argument, not all deserts are vast and sandy. Forget Lawrence of Arabia – It’s not all like that.   Nat and I noted that the deserts in and around Death Valley and southern California in general  were largely like vast fields of gravel…except at the Sand Dunes.  As the erosional forces chip away at the mountains surrounding the valley, all the grit piles up in this one spot. Voila!  Instant sand dunes! Okay, not instant.  It’s a long time in the making, but you get the point.

Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves interrupting Jedi training. Young padowans, they were.  Maybe 10 years old? Their master? Their mom, or course! With lightsabers in hand, they dueled their way across the dunes…

It was at that point that I realized I forgot to follow up on some research I had started months ago. Yes, scenes from Star Wars were filmed in Death Valley National Park.  Wouldn’t it be cool to visit some movie scenes? Maybe next time….

A stop at the Furnace Creek Ranch interpretive center was well worth. The temperature was far below the all-time record of 134 degrees.  It was closer to 55 degrees.  (In fact, I believe that was the highest temperature we experienced on the entire trip.)  Sandwiches, while being watched by a Say’s Phoebe, is an experience that should be had by all. 

We did not, by the way, have roasted Chuckwalla for lunch.  Apparently, in days gone by, the people native to the valley would hunt done these chunky lizards with curved sticks.  When disturbed, they would flee and stuff themselves into cracks (the lizards, not the people).  Inflating their lungs, they become almost impossible to remove from the narrow space…..until ya pop ém with the stick.  Then, using the curve like a hook , they would fish them out.  Mmmmm.

Uneventful birding in and around the Furnace Ranch gave us a chance to see one of the oddest things of the trip.  First, recognize that some clown thought putting a golf course in the middle of the desert was a neat idea.  With golf courses, you have grass that needs mowing, right?  Mind you, 55 degrees in Death Valley is chilly indeed.  So you wear a coat, right? Maybe even a heavy one.  Let’s put it all together: in the desert, on a riding mower, we watched a man cutting grass while wearing a winter coat, hooded sweatshirt and gloves.  It was 55 degrees.

I’m sorry, that is just odd.

Keep in mind, I’m talking about the golf course at Furnace Ranch.  Not the Devil’s Golf Course. That is a short bit up the road.  Let me explain.

Historically speaking, Death Valley was basically a lake. Specifically, Lake Manly.  When it dried up, incredible salt deposits were left behind.  Recent corings show these deposits to be over 1,000 feet in places.  So where did the name come from?  Thank the National Park Service.  A brochure from 1934 (a year after they took over the property) mentions that “…only the devil could play golf…”on its surface.  After touching some of these rocks, I can tell you it was like a razor.  A simple ouchie if you fell you would likely not occur. You would have chopped your arm for sure. 

The presence of water in the Valley is not limited to days gone by.  During rain events (which are certainly not common, but they happen), water can be quite powerful.  The hike to the Natural Bridge illustrated just that.  After walked a mile up the narrow canyon, the trail takes you right under the naturally carved bridge. 

Photographically speaking, this bridge image, while poor and lacking any composition, is a product of computer shenanigans.    It is three images mushed together in Photoshop.  Given the lighting and shadows, it was the only way to do it.  If I took this image seriously, I would have done the three images with a tripod. I hand held the three bracketed images with a fast shutter speed.  Eh. It worked. Note, by the way, the people. I left them there for scale. 
Clearly, the most fascinating location in the park that we visited was Badwater.  All water seeks it’s level, right?  So where does the water in the Valley go?  The lowest spot in the North America, of course!

At 282 feet below sea level, any water from rain events will eventually get here. Historically, this location would have been the lower portion of Lake Manly.  With more crusty salts (but not as dangerous as the Devil’s Golf Course), the region looked like another planet.  (That is a very interesting thought, by the way, as every new region of Death Valley looked like another planet!)

Unfortunately, our experience at Badwater was a bit compromised.  No, it was the 100+ people.  We can manage that.

It was the drone.  Some asshat thought flying one of those damn things around the area was really bugging some people, including me.  If I had my Mossburg, I would shot that thing to pieces.  There is a time and place for those things.  Badwater in Death Valley is not.   I was happy to rat the guy out to the Park Interpreter.  Imagine my horror when the park guy put the drone flyer in a headlock, kneed him in the groin, gouged out his eyes and pushed him into moving traffic.  Okay, it didn’t happen that way.

I botched the evening photography (again) by not paying attention (again) to the finer details (again).   I did manage the pic below.  I wanted the moon lower to the mountains but we were too late.  I tried to push it back into place using Photoshop but it looked, well, like I pushed it back into place using Photoshop!  Eventually, the moon would have ruined any chance for star photography.  More importantly, it was getting cold and we were tired.  We opted to press on.

Lodging was in Pahrump, Nevada. This is not to be confused with Paaah-rump-bum-bum-bump. That is the Little Drummer Boy.  To the best of my knowledge, the song and town have nothing to do with each other…

Always seeking a new craft beer, sadly, the hotel clerk gave us a bum steer.  Directions, people, directions.  (Yeah, right, she gave us a homeless cow...)  The local sport’s bar had A BEER that could be considered “craft"  and it was from New York!  Are you kidding me?  Regardless, the Windwalker IPA was a fine way to finish the day. The food was average, the dining was less that average, but the beer was fine. Not "fine" like "way good", it was more like "fine" like....average.  You know.  Fine...

We got a chuckle out of this gift wrapping sign hanging by the front door.  Maybe their understanding of beer culture is rivaled by that of their spelling.