After I dropped the kids off at the airport on Sunday, July 8, we had a very pleasant and quiet packing day in Lincoln, with lunch and some t-shirt shopping for Mark at the mall, a nap for me, some very low-stress packing, a silly movie (Magic Mike), dinner at Noodle’s and gelato at NuVibe’s (two of Mark’s favorite hangouts), a couple of walks, and early bedtime. So that was already a vacation day for me, especially since we had missed each other ridiculously for the 9 days since we came back from Germany.
We got off on an early start around 8 am from Lincoln and made very good progress, with a stop in Ogallallah for McDonald’s (without dessert! we are trying to discipline ourselves) and a brief stop in Julesburg just to stop. It was very pleasant travel weather–never got about 82/83F and then dropped later as we gained altitude in the Rockies. Lots of pleasant conversations (a serious one about the circumstances under which we’d get married [financial/health reasons; unsentimental things like that] and how this trip feels like a honeymoon without the marriage bit, and a dreamy one about the perfect camper van to rent next summer for an extended trip East), and just general happiness. For about three hours, we also listened to a Carl Hiaasen novel, which was fun and is to be continued), but when we got into the mountains, we stopped to just enjoy the fabulous landscape up Thompson Canyon.
We got to Estes at about 4 pm and checked into the Discovery Lodge, where Mark had stayed on his own last June. And although he’d driven all day, we still went up to Rocky Mountain National Park and took the Old Fall River Road, a 9-mile one-way dirt road with switchbacks that got us from 8200 to over 12,000 feet, above the treeline. The 9 miles took about an hour (more because of our stops), and was gorgeous. We stopped along the way to take pictures and little walks, boh at the place were a huge dam built in 1902 up in the mountains broke in 1982 and created a huge fan of boulders as it flooded Estes and came to a stop further down the canyon. It looked really cool both from close by and further away. The longest hike we took was about a mile up a little peak (across from Marmot Peak) where we found someone’s (recently placed) time capsule, and we could both feel the altitude a lot! But we got out multiple times to photograph everything from these incredible surroundings to the little tiny wildflowers and the wildlife we saw–a couple of elk and several marmots frolicking about.
At the end of Old Fall River Road, we meet up with Trail Ridge Road again and went back down (a little faster on a paved road with few switchbacks!) to Estes, parked downtown and found ourselves some very nice pizza and some ice cream for dessert. Estes had been just packed with people earlier in the day and even at this time, almost 9 pm, there were still lots of families milling about. I think it’s a bit over the top with the stores and the tourism, but not so crowded that it’s totally unpleasant, and of course we thoroughly enjoyed not having to mill around in the little craft stores and what not–especially NOT having to go into the full-blown, five-display window Cornhusker/Go Big Red store that we walked by on the main drag! We couldn’t imagine that the store would make any money, even with the many Nebraskans who come to Colorado to be tourists–they tend to have their Husker gear already! So we decided it must be a tax write-off. We got back to the hotel around 9:30, took showers and went to bed after a long, busy, happy day of driving.
We got up pretty early and packed up pretty much right away; we still had leftover cooler food for breakfast, so we had that and then got on the road before 8 am. We took a slightly different entrance into Rocky Mountain National Park and went back up towards Trail Ridge Road, this time going the other direction, and stopping quite a lot for photo ops (beautiful misty light of the early morning) and for a couple of mini hikes, one just to look into a valley from up top, and one to see the Colorado River really close to its spring just past the Continental Divide, where it’s still very small. We had gorgeous blue skies for all of that and stopped for lunch once we got out of the park, and before we took another incredibly scenic route, a dirt road (Country Road One/Trough Road) before we hit I-70 and went along that all the way to Utah. We stopped at a very cool rest stop along the I-70, where it’s still going through deep canyons, right along the Colorado river, and watched big rafts and a massive freight train. The formations in the canyon are just amazing, and that stretch of the freeway (which was only started to be constructed in its current form in 1975) justifies the rest stop brag about it being one of the most scenic stretches of freeway in the U.S.
Once we got out of the Rockies, the landscape started changing to desert mesas and cliffs, first with and then without sage brush, and the colorations and dimensions were still really impressive–but we didn’t take any more stops or pictures, but kept going past Grand Junction about 60 miles into Utah, to find ourselves a hotel room and some dinner in the first available town with motels, Green River. The restaurant, Tamarisk, was right on the river, so we could see that it is actually quite green, and it’s understandable that it was the first town we could find, since there was only a vast stretch of desert along the interstate until this classic “we’ll settle where there’s a drop of water” town of 2,000. It’s hard to describe this bizarrely arid and hostile but beautiful and enormous landscape, and it will be interesting to see just a little more of it tomorrow. We’ll be back for a closer look at Utah after Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, so we’re not stopping for any specific sights at this point.
This was mostly a driving day, but since we were only 7 hours or so out from Las Vegas, we could take our time. On the first 100 miles or so of the I-70, there are five or six “view point” rest stops, and we stopped at all of them to take pictures and to take in this amazing, alien landscape, with its red, orange, and grey-green bluffs, cliffs, mounds (where the erosion is advanced a bit further) and its amazing pile-ups. Pictures don’t usually do it justice, because the scale of the bluffs is so outsized, and because it often surrounds you on all sides as far as the eye can see, the landscape just cut through by those two bands of road that are the interstate snaking through. The San Rafael Swell was especially impressive, but there were some really cool canyons and formations all over. Later, there were fewer viewpoints, and we just looked at the landscape in passing, including slightly moister areas with vegetation where we could see the remnants of the Utah fires this year, sometimes going right up to the freeway.
We stopped in St. George, which is pretty sizeable, but almost at the border to Arizona/Nevada, for lunch at a Chili’s, and continued to Las Vegas. We hit the South Point Casino (really outside of town, away from both the old and the new Strip) around 3 pm and settled into our room. We registered for the TAM conference, which starts tomorrow, and although we didn’t nap, we got a little rest. It was freaking HOT, 110 degrees, and when we ventured back outside, it felt like we opened an oven door. But venture out we did–first, we found one of Mark’s favorite stores, an electronics store called Fry’s (to be known henceforth as “Mark’s Sephora store” because it is to him what cosmetics stores are to Kati 🙂 ), and looked at all the many things people buy at electronics stores. (I actually bought something, one of those U-shaped travel neck pillows, but it really didn’t belong in the store.) Then we explored the mall next door a bit in search of swimming trunks for Mark, and got him some for $ 14.00 at Old Navy, plus a Pride t-shirt on clearance for Kati (score!).
By that time it was after 7 (not much cooling down, though–106 F), and we headed toward the old Las Vegas strip on Fremont Street. We milled around and saw the full “Fremont Street Experience”: live bands in three spots playing bad 80s rock, the 8 pm and 9 pm display of the gigantic LED screen that goes like a dome over the length of the two blocks of casinos, with graphics designed to go with terrible but popular songs (“American Pie” was the one, the other was a Bon Jovi medley), street musicians and street artists, plus a number of people who were celebrity look-alikes and attracted tourists for photo ops; the zip line going over a block above our heads, the bored go-go dancers standing in front of various casinos and the Chippendale’s guys for more photo ops; the beggars and the homeless people …. and people of all ages and ethnicities and dress styles taking photos of everything. It was a lot of fun; we found ourselves some cheap, bad Chinese food and some excellent gelato, and milled around watching people and moving between the competing bands. We called it a night shortly before 10, found our way home pretty quickly thanks to the GPS, and went to bed early and rightfully tired!
This was the first day of the conference, which featured mostly “workshops” (not easily distinguished from talks) that were so-so and of varying interest. “Science and Skepticism 101” was very basic, and didn’t teach us much we didn’t already know about distinguishing valid scientific research and claims from pseudoscience. One of the workshops, on Astronomy, was so poorly organized that we actually walked out, but a panel on investigations of the paranormal by “non-believers” in such things was fun to listen to. We did try out the pool and had lunch at one of the hotel delis, and then walked in half-way through a live recording of “Penn’s Sunday School,” the podcast that Penn Gillette of Penn & Teller, the magicians, puts together. It was a long ramble but a lot of fun. He’s a good storyteller. Things kicked up a bit after dinner (we went to the buffet downstairs and chatted with two other TAM participants), with a welcome reception and then the evening show, a parody of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” with very silly stuff. I was too tired for finding out what the late night showing of Penn’s film about an off-broadway show he is doing, but Mark went for about an hour and looked at it.
This day was probably the most interesting of the conference, especially the afternoon. During breakfast, we listened to a live podcast recording of “Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” which is one of the podcasts that are hugely popular among this audience, so that the host, Steve Novella, and his team are some of the celebrities here. I had never heard of them, of course, but the podcast was entertaining and addressed the most recent important developments in science and skepticism. Then we had the opening remarks, with James Randi being the top celebrity, the president of his foundation giving the obligatory thank-you speech, and a podcaster / singer-songwriter named George Hrab (another insider celebrity, who is incredibly funny) starting in his role as overall MC.
The first talk, by Michael Shermer, was so-so; well-presented but so overoptimistic about where humanity is headed that it reminded me of the old positivists; he had some big holes in his argument, but people didn’t seem to care, which surprised me. An education activist talked engagingly about the problems with keeping creationism and creationist teachers from teaching their stuff instead of evolution, and then there was an interesting panel on “Techno-Optimism” and what the experts thought about various big trends about extending human life, nanotechnology and the idea of being able to construct computers that worked like or were even capable of “downloading” human brains. Everyone was pretty cautious about what was possible.
The early afternoon talks were not very exciting, and after lunch, we took a little rest and until another panel discussion at 2:45; it was so-so but the half-hour talks that followed it, and then the keynote, were really really good–partly, I think, because they were given by some really credibly academics. Stuart Firestein talked about the role of ignorance and of recognizing what you don’t know in the sciences. Bruce Hood talked about neurological evidence that we create our selves — old ideas, new evidence that I found very gratifying. And Carol Tavris, who is a psychologist with some interesting popular books (“Mistakes Were Made”) talked very insightfully about “pseudoneuroscience,” which most people cannot distinguish from actual meaningful studies and results. That was probably the best talk of the day. We went to find dinner outside of the hotel (wow) and just had Mexican fast food from the strip mall across the street (that’s pretty much all that’s out here except for this giant hotel for 2,500 people). We came back for a so-so comedy show, at times very funny and at times not only beyond good taste (being beyond good taste was the hallmark of the story) but downright stupid. Especially reference to a very important recent conflict that has flared up about gender and harassment / the treatment of women at the TAM last year was treated in a completely inappropriate way. We then checked in on the conference’s party, which is actually Penn Gillette’s private party for all participants, memorable for serving everyone bacon and donuts and featuring a loud and rather terrible band in which Penn plays bass and sings (badly), sustained by some good backup singers and musicians and the eye candy provided by (male and female) strippers–it is Las Vegas after all. Mark had wisely brought ear plugs for us, so it was manageable, but we only lasted about an hour and were back in our room at about midnight.
Today, the TAM started out with some not-so-successful talks over & after breakfast. I was especially disappointed because both a manga artist who talked about the impact of skepticism on her art and a panel of English professors and artists (a singer, a visual artists) were talking rather lamely about “Skepticism and the Humanities” and didn’t really address the important questions that I would have liked to see discussed. It didn’t help that the host was throwing them really lame questions. We took a break after that but came back for a talk on “Your Deceptive Mind” by Steven Novella (very good) and another by Pamela Gay, a popularizer of astronomy who was a great speaker but didn’t have a lot of content (topic: activism/community, basically) until she addressed the sexual harassment issue again (message: do something if it happens to you / if you see it happen), and I was grateful for that. We had another “herd buffet” lunch, but good food–and two conference celebrities sat down with us (president of American Atheist society and Michael Shermer, the speaker that did not impress me on Thursday), which was interesting. But they also got a 2-minute earful from me about the importance of language learning when Shermer said that he got “out of” grad school language requirements through arguing that his statistics background made for a “language of science.” After lunch I tried to take a nap but instead just read for a while. We came back midway through a talk by a physicist, Lawrence Krauss, who was quite impressive, and then got to listen to Penn and Teller, the magicians, being interviewed by one of their cronies (a writer for their show “Bullshit!” I think). That was very interesting, but we also were getting a bit of information overload. So it was a nice change of pace that we got to meet up with Mark’s nephew Nick for a buffet dinner and a bit of chit chat in the hotel room. I went to bed right after Nick left around 10 pm, but Mark had signed up for the TAM poker tournament and didn’t get kicked out until 3 am in the morning. 🙂
This was our last day at TAM, and we did not attend a lot more sessions, sleeping in a bit in the morning and listening to one more talk by Steven Novella and one session on “alternative medicine” — and later a very audience-participation-oriented presentation on the many flaws in the working of our brain by another podcaster, Brian Dunning. That was very revealing and went far beyond the usual optical illusions etc. In between events, we packed and checked out, had another very simple lunch–salad & sandwich–so that when we were ready to leave in the afternoon, it was just a very simple process. We got over to the Rio in less than half an hour, and had plenty of time to settle into our room (this one, on the 25th floor, had quite the impressive view), check on the World Series of Poker, and take a longish walk over to the strip, where we had some salad in Caesar’s palace, and saw the silly fountain animatronics before we went back to the Rio. This was our night to go to the Penn & Teller show (after having seen them talk and having seen Penn all over TAM, that was especially fun), and we had a blast. I personally preferred Teller’s rather quiet (well, mime!) style to Penn’s loud and crazy stuff, but I guess the two really go together. They certainly never ceased to surprise us all evening–there was always a twist to each trick that was completely unexpected. The show lasted until about 10:45 and then we went to bed.
We left Las Vegas around 9 after a very light breakfast, and drove without much of a break to the Grand Canyon. We had a rather terrible lunch in Williams, the last city before we branched off for the Canyon, and then went right into the National Park and a big parking lot near Mather Point. The view is completely mindboggling, and neither photos nor descriptions do the vastness of the Canyon any justice. We walked along the rim (with hundreds of other tourists, of course) to the next observation station, and then back to the parking lot. But as we drove over to the lodge where we had reserved a cabin, I realized that my phone was missing. It was nowhere to be found, not by backtracking to the parking lot or anything (I knew I didn’t have it on the walk, but I assumed it was in the car, which it wasn’t). I was upset enough to have a hard time staying focused on how fabulous the view was, but I am slowly getting over my frustration with losing it and refocusing on the positive. We checked into our cabin at the Bright Angel Lodge, and it is truly fantastic–only 40 feet from the canyon rim trail, so with a fabulous view and walks to the canyon within seconds of our door. We walked around a bit more that afternoon, including a few hundred yards down the Bright Angel Trail, which is breathtaking and right in front of us. We found a mediocre food court for dinner, as well as some ice cream, but we were both tired, and decided to call it a day after that.
Awesome day at the Grand Canyon! We got up pretty early and started to go down the Bright Angel Trail for a short hike at about 7:30. It was beautiful, and at first still rather cool and very pleasant. Mark had not only his camera, but also the GoPro on top of his walking stick, taking pictures every 5 seconds, so we had 1,800 random photos at the end in addition to the ones he actually took of the trail, the canyon, and the impressively large California Condors riding the thermals overhead! We went a little bit past the 1.5 mile-point, where the first restroom / water stop is–far enough ahead to overhear the guide of the mule “train” that passed us point out some Native American petroglyphs we would have otherwise missed. Then we turned back and went back up the trail, for a total of about 2 hours and a measly 3 miles, but because it is so hard to go back up, and because it was already getting hot at 8:30, we were still glad that that’s all we did. We would have loved to go further — the views are so awesome, and the trail is so much fun, with all the different formations and the entire scale of things — but I think we would have wigged out. We walked around a little bit once we were up on top, and then had a very early lunch at 11:30 at the bright angel lodge, and went for a small hike and some off-and-on bus stops on the Rim Trail. That was a lot of fun, and although the buses were crowded, they were also airconditioned and run every 15 minutes. We walked the part of the rim trail that goes to Maricopa point, from where you can see the Grand Canyon Village and the Bright Angel Trail beneath it, so we could see where we walked. We then rode to Hermits Rest at the end of the trail, and then back to check out Pima Point, but we were out of steam for more walking, so it was really just hop-on, hop-off. We then took care of some business, including doing our laundry at the campground laundromat, and getting some breakfast food at the full-size (& expensive) supermarket in the ‘Village’. We had an early dinner of pizza and salad (and a scoop of ice cream) and wandered around on the rim a little, ultimately catching the sunset over the canyon at 7:45 pm. We then went back to the cabin, checked our sunburnt spots (bad job on sun screen distribution), showered, and were both asleep by about 9 pm after a long but wonderful day.