In the old mining town of...
In the old mining town of Tonopah, a few hours north of Las Vegas, this statue pays tribute to its founders, Jim and Belle Butler, who discovered rich deposits of silver there in 1900. Jim reportedly married Belle after killing her previous husband in a gunfight.
Yet visitors from all over the world go just to experience the blast-furnace heat and utter bleakness. They don't always encounter that, however. A friend of ours from Germany went home disappointed. Anticipating a vast, bone-dry vista, he instead stumbled across colorful fields of desert wildflowers that occasionally pop up for a few days after a rainstorm. That's a rarity, though, since Pacific storm clouds are depleted of their life-giving moisture while crossing two mountain ranges before drifting over the area.
Each of the ranges—the Panamints and the Amagosa—hides a valley, the starkest of which is the area's namesake Death Valley, a narrow, 150-mile long swath of desert, most of which is below sea level. Places of interest in the valley have colorful and descriptive names, such as Dante's View, the Devil's Golf Course, Deadman Pass, the Last Chance Range, Dry Bone Canyon, Devil's Hole, and the Racetrack (not to be confused with Spring Mountain's, though—this is the home of those mysterious sliding rocks).
If Death Valley isn't your cup of hemlock, then stay on Highway 95 toward the old mining areas. There's not much to see on the way to Tonopah, except for some abandoned boomtowns and odd "art cars" built for Burning Man (an addled celebration of radically creative excess held in northern Nevada). And don't stay at the cheapie Clown Motel in Tonopah, unless you absolutely have to (or just want to see the seemingly mummified founder sitting in the lobby in full circus garb). It's a fast and pleasant drive, but the local police have speed traps, so use your judgment and a radar detector.
Red Rock Canyon provides awe-inspiring...
Red Rock Canyon provides awe-inspiring views you wouldn't expect to see near a major city. In contrast to the bright lights and hype of the Strip, Red Rock offers spectacular desert beauty, towering red cliffs, and abundant wildlife. The sandstone rocks get their vibrant, crimson color from iron oxide.
Head east from Tonopah on Route 6, and you'll intersect with the Extraterrestial Highway (SR 375). Alternatively, you can take I-15 northeast from Las Vegas, then head northwest via Route 93 to this fabled corridor that travels through mostly unoccupied desert terrain and parallels the northern edges of Nellis Air Force Base. It's the location of the much ballyhooed, super-secret Area 51 (which actually fits the Vegas slogan better, since what happens there really does stay there). At the center is the minuscule burg of Rachel, which caters to tourists and UFO seekers with its alien-themed businesses, such as the Little A'Le'Inn (pronounced "alien"). It's the focal point of the town, providing a small motel, an alien-themed restaurant/bar, and extraterrestrial souvenirs.
But getting back to Vegas, no visit there would be complete without a photo opp in front of the famous—albeit cheesy—welcome sign. It's on the south end of the Strip, just past the Mandalay Bay resort. There's even a parking area in the center median that makes it easy to take a few snaps. (Showgirls are not included, but some of the scantily clad tourists are reasonable facsimiles.)
Cruising up the Strip can be an exercise in exasperation, especially on a prize-fight night or a holiday weekend. But driving a Corvette with the top down on a warm night is ideal for taking in the sights. The heat in the summer can be suffocating, though, so watch your temperature gauge.
To experience a different side of Vegas from the row of resorts on the Strip, take note of all the wedding chapels on the north side of town, near the Stratosphere. Besides the inevitable Elvis impersonators conducting the ceremony (actual quote: "Love her tender, or you ain't nuthin' but a hound dog"), we've heard of even more unusual themes that involve Star Trek or S&M outfits. (You'll have to use your imagination here, as Editor Heath decided to keep the photos in his personal files).
Eureka Dunes in Death Valley...
Eureka Dunes in Death Valley is something to shout about—if you're into a sandy desert moonscape.
Farther north in the downtown area of Las Vegas, Fremont Street offers a non-stop light show. Even with this illuminating experience, after a while all the casinos lose their luster and are exposed for what they are: big rooms full of slot machines and craps tables, wrapped with different décor themes.
Given our jaded perspective, we've come across a few good suggestions for a new city slogan, such as "We've Got What It Takes to Take What You've Got," or "You're Broke, Hungover, and PO'd. Now Go Home." (Attendees of the SEMA show can relate.) And our favorite choice: "Las Vegas—Taking Advantage of Human Weakness Since 1905."
Not that we're discouraging a visit to Vegas. After all, if you don't go there, then this totally absurd city, perched on a place where humans are not meant to dwell, built on gluttony, the lure of unearned riches and irresponsible behavior will vanish from the face of the earth. And we can't have that, can we?
You can probably tell from our friendly jibes that we're not big fans of gaming, since we figure life is a gamble all by itself. But don't get us wrong. We really dig driving around Vegas, because we know we've hit the jackpot once we're behind the wheel of a Corvette.