So, by a process of (mostly) straight-line driving, we have arrive in that most surreal of recreational locations.
My relationship with Las Vegas could fairly be described as ambivalent. For me, in terms of cities, Las Vegas is the equivalent of the major motorway accident that you come across, where you know you should not be looking at the mess, but part of you takes over and you start rubber-necking. I find Vegas to be equal parts fascinating, bizarre and kitschy. When I first arrived here in 1999 to see a Long-EZ at North Las Vegas airport, I found myself driving along the Strip in broad daylight, then North. The city seemed to be a collection of butt-ugly concrete jungles, interspersed with ersatz scale model clones of most of the Wonders Of The World. The effect was…jarring. That, plus the fact that I found a slot machine in a restoom at McCarran Airport.
It is difficult, at least some of the time, to fathom how a low desert basin became home to one of the great monuments to excess and self-indulgence. I suspect that what really enabled Las Vegas to grow into a major resort was the creation of the Hoover Dam, which created Lake Mead, a source of year-round fresh water, and generated electricity for the many high-consumption light arrays that would slowly appear on what is now known as “The Strip”.
So, thanks partly to government building programs (a lesson to all of the laissez-fair pseudo libertarians who persist in asserting that All Government Is Bad), I am sitting on the 27th Floor of Treasure Island Resort, looking out across the world’s largest mall-cum-hotel-cum-casino-cum-all-you-can-eat-watch-and-imbibe center.
Mary and Catherine have gone off to walk the Strip and then watch Cirque de Soleil, which leaves me time to reflect on the vacation thus far, and summarize some salient points.
1. The Grand Canyon is an example of the simple rendered impressive by sheer size
All young rivers, given enough time, wear holes in the bedrock on which they sit. However, it takes a special set of circumstances for a single river to relentless carve its way through thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks, finally reaching much older (Archaen) rocks, which it is now also carving down through, albeit much more slowly. This, in geographical or geological terms, is not in the slightest bit remarkable. However, the results are visually spectacular.
The Grand Canyon was probably formed in the last 6 million years by an at-times-very-large Colorado River, swollen by different palaeoclimates and the water run-off from the Pleistocene ice ages.
The youngest currently visible rocks that form the surrounding plateau are 270 million years old, but there were probably much younger rocks above those top layers that have already been removed by earlier erosion events.
The sheer size of the Grand Canyon (nearly 300 miles long) gives it a special place in the world’s great natural features. The size is only apparent when you actually stand on one side and look across to the other side. Below, there are numerous deeply dissected channels, some only flowing with water once every few years, some dry today. In the middle, the Colorado River looks insignificant from above, even though it is an impressive-sized river. The river is very slowly carving down through the much older bedrocks of the North American continent, rocks that have been altered over billions of years in a way that makes them very tough, unlike the much softer sandstones and limestones that form the variously colored layered walls of the canyon.
Like all large structures, one needs to hike down into the depths and explore. We had no time to do that, but I certainly want to do that.
2. Railway lines are friends, and information sources
For a large percentage of this trip, we have been driving in parallel with the main BNSF railroad across the United States. This is a busy freight line, with dozens of trains a day in both directions. It is partly double track, and partly single track with numerous passing loops. There are lots of trains stopped in loops awaiting other train arrivals at the loop so that the train can get back on the single track and start moving again.
These trains are like a microcosm of the transportation of goods and raw materials. We see commercial and private shipping containers, truck trailers of various types, raw materials carriers, petroleum carriers, ore and coal hopper wagons, all being pulled and pushed by multiple BNSF diesel locomotives. These locos are rates at between 4000 and 4400 hp each, and many trains have up to 6 locos, pushing out 24000+ hp to propel the trains.
Some of the trains are ludicrously long. We came across one train that comprised two separate rakes of mixed container wagons, heading west, but coupled in the middle. At the front were three diesel locomotives, in the middle were 2 more diesel locomotives, and two more diesel locomotives at the rear. The whole train was probably close to 2 miles long, rolling steadily west at around 50 miles an hour, presumably using LocoTrol to sync up and operate all of the remote locomotives from the front locos. It was so long that none of our camera lenses could cover its entire length.
3. Navigation style differences between men and women can be intractable
Mary and I have different approaches to navigation. I am adopting the careful interpretation that this is more to do with the difference between how the sexes tend to view driving.
Many men (myself included) regard driving as a skill to be practiced and refined. The art of keeping a car well balanced while negotiating curves, hills and bends, is one that I personally find to be fun.
However, when it comes to navigation input, I consistently and persistently struggle with both electronic navigation aids like GPS, and with humans.
GPS devices have a tendency to lag, informing you some of the time that you should have taken the exit that you just passed. I think we can all guess how welcome that message is likely to be. They also sometimes provide bizarre routes to a destination, which a local expert would burst out laughing at. I learned, via a couple of unpleasant incidents where a GPS device sent me in totally the wrong direction to an important event, to have a healthy skepticism for the accuracy and fidelity of GPS devices. I sometimes ignore the GPS if I know or suspect that it is giving me a bum steer.
This is going to be the subject of a much longer posting…but the main challenge for me when driving in a higher-intensity zone is that Mary does not consistently provide navigation directions in a way that I can rapidly incorporate into driving actions. (For the hold-the-wheel-straight straight-line parts of journeys, there is no navigation to speak of).
Here’s the underlying issue.
If I am focussing to a large extent on Driving The Car, I need short, concise and non-ambiguous directions that I can immediate translate to a car driving action. A direction like “Take Exit 12A, stay right” is instantly processable, provided it is timely. (Saying that instruction when I am passing the exit is a cardinal navigational sin, on a par with a cricket bowler chucking, or a baseball pitcher tampering with the ball).
By contrast, an instruction that comprises “You should have gone the opposite way” fails the usefulness test on just about every level. It tells me I just made a mistake. OK. But it provides no clear, unambiguous instruction about what I should do NOW. If I am on a road with a junction that I turned left onto, I could infer that I should perform a u-turn. However, that might not be allowed, or it might not be the best answer. What I need is another navigation instruction that is clear, concise and actionable. If it comprises “do u turn when able”, then so be it. We all make mistakes. But a lengthy silence or a string of “I dunno” responses is the sort of thing that rapidly causes me to want to stop the car and start screaming.
All of this has led to some…friction on this trip.
This issue is not exactly new. Many people have commented on the difference in navigation approaches between the sexes. The issue is sort of understood in the worlds of biology and science. I might be better at navigation (who knows? My spouse probably differs), but I sure as hell am lousy at remembering where I put my damn keys. (If there is one personal failing that is likely to drive me to a mini-meltdown, it is being unable to find valuable and/or important small stuff).
In the meantime, an uneasy tension always fills the air whenever the topic of navigation comes up. I have to admit that my patience is fairly miniscule on this topic. Probably not a good admission.