Phenomena (continued)

Week 17 (27May – 2 June 2014) – Part II

Picking up from where we left off in the last post, we said our goodbyes to the little green men and departed from Roswell for the Grand Canyon via Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we stopped for lunch in the historic downtown. We briefly explored the town square and the old convent and stopped for our mid-day nosh before heading out.

Commentary on “historic” Albuquerque? Though this was the first time in my life that I have eaten blue corn tortillas as part of an enchilada, and the complementary sopapillas with honey were a welcome treat, finding peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Budweiser on the menu of our “Mexican” restaurant took me aback, as did other signs of inauthenticity and efforts to pander to tourists who value low monetary cost over genuineness and quality. Southwestern Native American styled weavings made in India and artificial, laboratory-contrived opals in the “hand made Native” jewelry sold throughout the downtown told a story so common today across the land: we are nothing, if not the Walmart nation…

Quest for the Really Big Hole

On we pushed down the historic Route 66 through increasingly arid terrain until we reached Flagstaff, no more than a waypoint for travelers going to more interesting places. We overnighted at the Luxury Inn, easily the best 1-star motel we have ever seen in any country (brand new carpet, paint, and furniture). (We remain puzzled as to why this ranks as a 1-star facility.) The following day, we proceeded north to see the biggest hole in the ground you could possibly imagine, and we encountered snow….in the Arizona dessert…in June (look at the white stuff on the mountain behind the two hippies):

Only a few miles further up the road, we saw the full, bleach-white skeleton of an elk laying in the sand–a quick reminder that, despite fluffy white precipitation nearby–we were in a desert. And only a few miles further, we found it:

Until you have stood on the precipice, it is easy to dismiss this place as “just a big hole in the ground” and it is very hard to appreciate the grandeur of this geologic feature through film; you have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate the full effect.

Burdened by the possessions typically juggled by individuals who are in the middle of a household move, we were sad to not be able to enjoy a mule ride into the canyon, a campout in the bottom, or a white water adventure along the Colorado River, but we vowed to come back sometime…maybe a month-long family reunion down in the canyon in another decade or so.

What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas

Have you ever seen National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation? How about Ocean’s 11? The Hangover? Well…as the mob founders of Sin City are fond of saying, “fuhgeddaboudit.” Visiting The Strip with four kids and lodging with relatives was a Vegas experience of a wholly different nature–highly enjoyable, nonetheless.

Sure, we stayed up until 3:00 a.m. in the City That Never Sleeps, but it was to catch up with family or join the retired relatives, our most gracious hosts, in viewing classics (The Wild Bunch, for one). Of course, like most players of note, we lined our pockets with crisp new bills acquired through luck at a casino, but it was because five of us–while passing through said establishment–were each handed $50 in cash in exchange for testing out a pre-market consumer product. (I’d tell you more, but even the kids had to sign non-disclosure agreements and the desert around here is littered with bodies, if you know what I’m saying.)

At the M&M Store

Like the players we are known to be, we dined at the Bellagio and watched the fountain show, but not quite in the style of Daniel Ocean, and the boy indulged in a little card counting, but in the safety of our family mini-van. I walked around with a gorgeous woman on my arm, and even took her home with me, but I didn’t have to pay (at least not in the sense of most Johns running around the town).

As it turns out, homeschooling opportunties abound in the Marriage Capital of the World. For instance, the casinos offer a stroll through the history of the classical ancient world. Caesar’s Palace has fantastic stone-carved reproductions of da Vinci’s David, busts of emperors of old, and other notable sculptures and bas reliefs, while the Egyptian-themed Luxor gives one the sense of strolling through the ruins of the outskirts of Cairo as Anubis and other pantheon stalwarts greet you and hieroglyphics dance above your head.

Cultural glimpses of more modern Europe are to be had watching the gondolas paddle along at the Venetian or observing the evening lighting of the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas. Let’s not forget the inherent lessons in probability, economics, and dynamics of prohibition that jump forth from discussions of gambling, profit margins of the hotel industry, and vices ranging from prostitution to the smuggling and local availability of Cuban cigars. (I doubt that Vegas promoters have yet to consider the potential of the homeschool market, but I expect to get my share of the take if this idea is “borrowed.”)

Teaching Points in a Desert Oasis

Seriously, as we did in New Orleans, we turned Las Vegas (known to locals as “Lost Wages”) into a field trip for our kids and there will be essays due at trip’s end. (Perhaps we shall post a few of these one day.) The educational highlights of our visits to the famous Las Vegas Boulevard and the more historical downtown were two paid exhibits. First was “Bodies: The Exhibition,” a remarkable collection of posed real cadavers and internal organs that visually and graphically educate one on systems ranging from the cardiovascular to the lymphatic and beyond. They provide educators with an official teacher’s guide and Scouts can earn a merit badge through the exhibit. Out of respect for the dead, no photographs were allowed, but here is an image from the official website (www.luxor.com/Bodies‎) to give you a glimpse of what we spent several hours examining.

(Side Note: Walking away from this exhibit, having been faced with the almost inconceivable complexity of the human body, it would (in my humble estimation) take more faith than that held by a devoted theologian to believe that this organic machine is the result of random chance in disregard of Newton’s second law of thermodynamics.)

Next, there was The Mob Museum (National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement), where we spent three hours learning about Vegas during the railroad days, the Mafia era, the Howard Hughes period, and the more current businessman phase driven by the likes of Steve Wynn. Famous U.S. gangsters, infamous hits, cheating methods used in casinos, and FBI methods of surveillance were also heavily featured.

Housed in a former federal building where some of the the 1950s mob-focused Kefauver Committee hearings took place, the museum also includes the reassembled, bullet ridden wall against which the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred in Chicago’s North Side in 1929, the pinnacle of the the Al Capone-Bugs Moran conflict.

Concealments for smuggling, tommy guns, and other artifacts rounded out the collection. (And I’ll note here that the bride and I both got into the museum at the discounted rate offered to teachers when we produced our homeschooling paperwork.) We were also afforded the opportunity to exercise some school discipline, homeschool style:

Only time and money prevented us from further indulging in the educational offerings of Vegas–exhibits on Leonardo da Vinci and the Titanic, to name a few.

The kids enjoyed visiting the famous local establishments and features that they had only seen in movies, witnessing real roulette and baccarat tables they had only previously glimpsed behind James Bond in Casino Royale, and people watching–from the horridly dressed, to the inebriated, to the “obviously more well off than most.” Here are some of their observations:

“It is much cleaner than I thought it would be.” (The 14-year-old boy)

“Why do people sin so much? I hate humanity!” (The 9-year-old girl)

“My lungs feel assaulted.” (The 16-year-old girl)

“I don’t think I will come back here.” (The 17-year-old)

The bride and I, who have been here before for work and a short vacation together, enjoyed watching the wee one’s reaction to this iconic and representative piece of our country’s identity–an exemplar extraordinaire of unsustainable practices driven by profit and pandering to the basest elements of man. And, though our world travels have made it difficult for anything to shock us these days, we were still a bit jolted by the discovery of a recent addition to Vegas that hints of society reaching yet a new low: intravenous bars, staffed with stylishly uniformed and latex-gloved phlebotomists, who will rehydrate and renourish those recovering from hangovers, for a fee. In other words, people on vacation now pay to have a needle stuck in their vein, while sitting in a doctor-office-styled blood-drawing chair, to counteract the effects of their poor decisions regarding recreational activities the night before.

That’s A Wrap

With our vehicles set to accumulate many more miles and windshield-splattered bugs, we set our coordinates for the City of Angels, one step closer to our new Hawaiian home…

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