Saturday, December 29, 2007

Viva Las Vegas! (and Don't Mess With Texas)

Since last time I've mostly been mountain biking and hiking around Las Vegas. The outdoor recreation opportunities near Las Vegas are surprisingly good. Just west of town, literally a two minute drive past the last suburban neighborhood, there's Red Rocks. This is a sweeping valley bordered to the west and north by colorful 1000 ft+ cliffs. Road riding is poplar on the highway that runs through the valley. There are plenty of hiking and mountain biking opportunities on old horse trails. Then there are the cliffs themselves, which are a popular rock climbing destination. Some of the routes exceed 20 pitches and require use of big wall techniques (eg sleeping in a portaledge hung on a vertical cliff). Beyond the cliffs, washes turn into canyons which lead up into a wilderness area. This a great area for wilderness backpacking. A bit further (maybe 15 minutes drive) northwest of town there is a mountain range with 11,000 peaks along it's crest. Old mule trails offer epic level mountain biking in the same area. The peaks themselves offer winter sport opportunities. There's a ski lift for downhill skiing and snowboarding, plus trails for cross country and snowshoeing. I ran into some local climbers who showed me a photo of a three pitch WI5 ice climbing route which is located in the area.

More than anything I mountain biked. I did a couple of all day rides, one of them with local riders I met. I think I actually preferred the biking in Vegas to Moab. The surface seemed to be more uniform. It's made up of packed granules of sandstone, sometimes embedded with boulders. It doesn't beat dry coastal Oregon clay, but it's pretty good. A plus is that it doesn't get ugly when its wet, which Oregon's clay often is. Most of the trails are old mule and horse trails which head out into the desert that surrounds Las Vegas. The abandoned mines along some of the trails reminded me that Nevada was and still is a place where people go looking for fortunes, but often come back with nothing. The trails spanned the range of difficulty. Some were better suited to long travel downhill bikes, but there are plenty of epic level cross-country rides as well.

While waiting for wheel repairs (I had to hike-a-bike for three hours due to mechanical problems) the mechanic told me about Bootleg Canyon, just southeast of the city. I arrived there on an early Sunday afternoon. It was pretty packed, with maybe forty vehicles in the parking lot. Bootleg Canyon is a mountain bike park, in the same vein as Blackrock near Falls City, Oregon. The trails are on either side of a canyon bottom. A road runs up the canyon bottom to the top of a peak. The canyon was used to smuggle spirits to Hoover Dam construction workers during the prohibition era, hence the name. The county owns the land and actually pays someone to maintain the trails. Part of the parking lot is paved. There is a covered picnic area next to the lot, along with flushing toilets, water fountains, vending machines, and even a dumpster for your garbage. On the weekends there's a shuttle that will run you to the top for a small fee. For sure, in terms of facilities, Bootleg is better than Blackrock. The trail surface was similar to the other Las Vegas trails. There's an extensive "stunt park" where you can practice dirt jumping, drops, and gap jumps. The trails were pretty good, but lacked the large stunts and ramps of Blackrock. My favorites were fast, roller-coaster like trails, with the occasional boulder for use as a take-off ramp. I rode here often with a couple of bikers (Louis and Brian) who I met in the parking lot. They were more novice bikers than I am, but Brian in particular got a lot better even during the time I rode with him. Brian turned out to be a pretty good (5.11) rock climber. He told me about Red Rocks and what it was like. I hinted that I'd like to go for a climb there, but I think he was really liking mountain biking, so we mostly did that.

I spent one day hiking in the Mt Charleston area I mentioned earlier in this post. I'd hoped to reach the summit of Charleston but was turned around by increasingly deep powder snow. Great for skiing, not great for hiking in leather boots without snowshoes.

I enjoyed the Las Vegas area. Besides the outdoor activities the food and lodging is cheap. The "anything goes" character of the city appeals to me. I was surprised at how diverse the population was. It seems like a place that, more than most places I've visited, represents all of humanity. Somehow they all manage to get along and run a prosperous city despite the barren environment. The city's youth probably helps. 100 years ago downtown Las Vegas was a natural oasis with no permanent human habitation. In Las Vegas, everyone is a newcomer, and there's plenty of desert for new arrivals. The city seems to exist solely because of its ability to stand out and attract attention from the rest of the world. More than any other city it's size, Las Vegas seems to me like a city founded and sustained by a single, simple idea. There's good reason that standing out in Las Vegas is more challenging than it is in most cities.

While the van remained in Las Vegas I flew to Houston for a ten day visit of family and long time friends. I left the van at the house of one of the locals I'd met in Vegas. The flight was cheap (another nice thing about Vegas) so not driving to Houston was a no brainer. It seemed like I mostly ate, slept, and talked to people while in Texas. I went on an almost daily bike ride with my six year old nephew, which I enjoyed. After telling him a Frank story I convinced him that wearing a helmet is a good idea. I met my nephew and his sister at their school one day for lunch. Inevitably, when they introduced me to their teachers and friends, the first thing they mentioned was "He eats dog" (see the "Thit Cho" story). I don't think their teachers believed them, but their friends did. Its funny to learn what my sister's kids consider to be my crowning achievement.

I also visited with Elmo, a high school buddy who is now a detective on the local police force. We tentatively planned on getting together in Colorado in late February along with another buddy. Elmo seemed to be doing okay until his in-laws arrived. After that the only place I saw him was in his driveway next to a fire pit with a beer in one hand and, more often than not, some dead animal (as Tim would say) over the fire. As a sign on Elmo's house says: "Texas Ain't For Amateurs." Elmo's wife had given him a 40" flat screen TV for Christmas. Of course, it arrived shortly after his in-laws did. As of the day I left Elmo still hadn't sat down and watched it. To make matters worse, the visit coincided with time off which Elmo had taken from work. It gets even worse (really) but I'll spare additional details. The bottom line is that, by Texas standards, the whole thing was a tragedy. If you don't feel that way then you aren't fit to live in Texas.

I enjoyed hearing Elmo's stories about the criminals he's dealt with. After hearing them I couldn't help but think how true the sign on his house really is. If you're going to commit a crime, my advice would be to stack the odds in your favor by doing it somewhere other than Texas.

While I was in Texas my sister and I spent a lot of time planning an expansion for her bakery business. We're going to turn her garage into a dedicated bakery. I'll be back in the Houston area in the spring (this time with the van) to help with the start-up. Right now I'm on my way to Phoenix. Matt is there visiting his parents. We plan on spending a day hiking in the mountains. After that I'm heading to Palm Springs, California to pick up Chris and Al. They're flying in from Oregon. We'll be spending a week rock climbing and backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park. After that I'll be heading into Baja, Mexico.

Enjoy the New Year celebrations. Recent photos are at this link. I've included the photo my mom probably doesn't want you to see.

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