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Posts Tagged ‘Nevada’


In 1999, after a decade skiing in Austria, Italy and France, my wife and I decided to switch from Europe to the United States for our winter sports “fix”. We chose the beautiful resort of Heavenly on the south shore of Lake Tahoe – and had skied there ever since.

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Aside from the size of the skiing area (it is the fifth largest on the North American continent), it had the added bonus of being only a three hour drive to San Francisco. Our skiing holidays therefore became a twin break affair – up to a week in Tahoe, followed by a week or more in the City by the Bay.  On some occasions we even threw in Las Vegas, San Diego or Los Angeles.

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Over the course of those two decades we had discussed the possibility of skiing elsewhere. We had always wanted to visit Vancouver in British Columbia, which again could be combined with a trip to San Francisco, so Banff and Whistler became strong candidates. We also researched Vail and Breckenridge in Colorado.

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But every time it came to the final decision, we stuck with Heavenly for a number of reasons – the scenic beauty, snowfall records, size and accessibility of skiing area and the proximity to the Californian coast. We usually stayed on or very close to Stateline, the physical border between California and Nevada, where playing in the casinos (admittedly only the penny slots) became an integral part of our apres-ski experience.

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But this year we finally took the plunge and abandoned Heavenly for Whistler, not least because it had become prohibitive to stay for any length of time in San Francisco (which we would still visit in the autumn). The decision had been made easier by the recent relocation of English friends, who had originally emigrated from North Kent in 2007, from Ontario to British Columbia. If we were to visit them, which we were keen to do, it made sense to find a ski resort in the “neighbourhood”.

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We didn’t make this decision lightly. We knew virtually every inch of the Heavenly ski area and were very comfortable with the environment, whereas Whistler, the largest resort on the continent by some margin, was an unknown quantity. Both the village and terrain were completely unfamiliar to us. Furthermore, the weather forecast for our week’s stay was discouraging, including a fair amount of rain, our least favourite skiing conditions.

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So it was with a degree of trepidation that we stepped off the Skylinx shuttle bus after an overnight stop in Vancouver on the third day of April and settled in our Airbnb on the edge of the village centre.  We had already determined that we would use the first day to acclimatise ourselves with the place, collect our pre-ordered lift passes, skis and boots and stock our apartment with provisions from the local grocery.

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We had purchased a four day lift pass to span the six days we were staying in the resort. So it was the second of those days before we queued up at the base of the Whistler Village Gondola shortly before 10 o’clock on Friday morning.

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Unfortunately, the weather lived up to the forecast – cloudy and misty with alternate rain and snow showers. As a result, we did not venture too far from the area at the top of the mountain on that first day. Poor visibility, unfamiliarity with the terrain and first day nerves contributed to my falling twice on the first run, though after an early morning tantrum, things improved before the persistent wet snow drove us back down the mountain.

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The day took a turn for the better when we wandered into the araxi restaurant for ten Reid Island oysters, prepared by Nigel, and a cool glass of Okanagan Pinos Gris. Technically, this was a happy Hour deal, though the resulting bill argued otherwise.

As much as we loved eating out, the cost of doing so had increasingly forced us to eat in our apartment on recent trips. But on this occasion, we had an excellent meal at the Beacon Pub and Eatery in the village square.

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With three days left on our lift pass, we had to make a decision as to which days to ski. Our final two days in Whistler had consistently promised the best weather, so we were committed to those. The forecast for both Saturday and Sunday was horrible, with the latter day marginally better. Our original plan of two days on, one off and then two days on needed revision, leaving us skiing for the final three days straight.

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Our judgement was vindicated as, even in the village, it rained all day. It did not, however,  deter us strolling around all afternoon, hopping in and out of the attractive coffee houses and gift shops.

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Although, in part due to the inclement weather, we had been unadventurous on our first two days on the mountain, we did not want to leave Whistler without taking the awesome and, some might claim, frightening, PEAK 2 PEAK gondola, which had been invisible on our first few days, over to the Blackcomb skiing area.

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After a few runs around the top of Whistler, we took the tram on our outward journey between the two largest lift terminals in the world. Although we were not deterred by the prospect of travelling in one of the glass-bottomed cabins, we eschewed the wait and took the first available one.

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At this point, I could bore you with lengthy statistics about the PEAK  2 PEAK Gondola, but I will confine it to a few:

  • the “longest unsupported span between two cable car towers” 3.024 kilometres (1.88 miles);
  • the “highest cable car above ground” 436 metres (1430.45 feet); and
  • completes the longest continuous lift system in the world.

Inspired by the ski lifts in Switzerland, at its highest point, it soars 5,280 vertical feet from the valley bottom.

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After lunch in the Roundhouse Lodge at the top of the Whistler Village Gondola on the first two days, we ate at the Rendezvous restaurant alongside the top of the Blackcomb Gondola on the last two, whilst exploring several trails around the peak.

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Once more, the weather forecast had lived up to expectations, and the conditions on Monday and Tuesday, especially Tuesday, were benign with sunshine replacing the periodic precipitation that had blighted our first couple of days. My skiing improved proportionately, though I still wasn’t wholly comfortable with the unfamiliar surroundings.

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Skiing is an expensive pursuit, and I think it is not unreasonable to claim that we might not have had the full value for our outlay, certainly during the first two days when we were still acclimatising ourselves to the vast terrain under wet, gloomy skies. But by Tuesday afternoon, with a deep blue sky and warm sun beaming down upon us, life was good.

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So what was our overall verdict? We liked the village of Whistler – it had a lively, friendly atmosphere and boasted some good bars and restaurants. It was likely to be even more boisterous over the coming weekend as preparations were underway for the hosting of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. We were a little disappointed, however, that its relatively low elevation meant that it rarely saw snow on the ground.

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It was clear too that the village was extremely proud of its performance as host to the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics Games, with impressive monuments dotted around town and on the mountain.

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And we would certainly ski there again – there are still large parts of the terrain we have still to explore – provided the weather plays ball!

But we missed Heavenly – the lake views, the familiar trails, the mountain restaurants, even the casino bars and the drive up from San Francisco.

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The major lesson we learnt, however, from this adventure was that we had to get fit before skiing in future – irrespective of whether we were in Heavenly, Whistler or Avoriaz or La Thuile in Europe. Although we never caught our breath as we had often done in the much higher resort of Heavenly, we ached more each morning and found it generally more tiring than it had been before. Age may have been a factor, but weight was a greater one. In the past, we had always spent the first couple of months of a new year aiming to lose weight and get relatively fit. We hadn’t this year – and it showed.

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Ageing and aching are an unavoidable fact of life, but at least we can do our best to minimise their impact if we shed a stone or two and exercise more in those crucial months before we set foot on the slopes again.

 

 

 

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We had not skied Heavenly since 2011, although we had visited in both of the intervening years.

In 2012, a planned three day break slotted between visits to San Francisco coincided with both of us contracting flu and being physically too weak to ski. And last June, logs, pipes and assorted wooden debris were all that lay on the mountain.

And for much of this winter the signs were ominous.

The guaranteed snow levels normally associated with Tahoe, and Heavenly in particular, had failed to materialise. Every day since Christmas, we scoured the webcams and weather forecasts, only to discover that many of the lifts and trails remained closed and the famed snow making operation was being pressed into overdrive.

We have always skied late in the season in the expectation that a) the snow would be plentiful and b) spring sunshine would dominate. So when we heard when we arrived in San Francisco at the beginning of the week that the long awaited snowfall would be pulling into town at the same time as us, and staying for the duration, we had mixed feelings.

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But we have been incredibly lucky.

We had purchased a four day lift pass, taking the Saturday off when the worst (or best depending upon your point of view) of the storms was projected to arrive.

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And it worked to perfection.

Although, with the exception of our final day, sun was in short supply, the wind that often affects resort operations, closing the higher lifts and restricting the capacity of skiers and riders to travel between the Nevada and California sides, was equally ineffective.

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The intermittent gloom and smattering of snow flurries of the first couple of days enabled just to take some satisfyingly moody photographs.

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We were able to ski virtually the entire mountain over the four days. Only on the first day were we prevented from cruising both states, being confined to the California side due to the closure of the Tamarack chair. This was welcome, however, as we tend to spend more time on the longer trails in Nevada. With the Sky Express chair leading to the highest point in the resort open, we were allowed to spend time on our favourite trail, Ridge, which arguably provides the best views of the lake, and the High Five trail that we had not skied before.

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We also managed morning hot chocolate stops and lunch breaks at all the major mountain lodges – California, Tamarack (pictured), East Peak, Sky Deck and Stagecoach – that were open.

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My only regret?

Not having the presence of mind to reach for the camera as Janet struggled to get to her feet, having fallen on the Galaxy trail only minutes after she had joyfully proclaimed ONE NIL when I had suffered a similar indignity.

Ah well, you can’t have it all.

We may not have seen the last of the snow as we look set to grapple with the next big storm on our return to San Francisco tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our last day on the road and one on which we hoped to catch more vintage Route 66 sights before we said a fond farewell to The Mother Road. We had nearly 300 miles in front of us before we reached Las Vegas, where we had tickets for the Dark Star Orchestra concert in the House of Blues in Mandalay Bay at 8pm. With that in mind, we left the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff at 8.35am, our earliest start of the trip.

Before we joined the I-40 west we needed to fill up the car. As we had contracted to return it with an empty tank, we did not want to put in any more than was necessary. We estimated $30 should do the trick.

Our first planned stop was at Bellemont, location for a classic scene from Easy Rider. Early in the movie Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda pull up in front of the Pine Breeze Motel, hopeful of a room for the night. However, the owner, peering from within, spots their motorcycles and promptly switches the neon sign from VACANCY to NO VACANCY. Although the motel is now closed, the sign is still displayed at the nearby Route 66 Roadhouse Bar & Grill – which does welcome bikers. It is that we went in search of.

We left the interstate at junction 185 as directed and followed the signs to Bellemont – or so we thought. Our first attempt ended in a pothole ridden track that ran out in a forest clearing. Undaunted, we crossed back over the I-40 and took the frontage road, but after two miles we reached a similar dead end. With no access to the freeway we were forced to turn back.

We could not afford too many such fruitless detours on a day when we had so many miles to cover. At least this diversion had given us the opportunity, on an empty stomach, to witness a group of cows defying the flies to feast on a rotten deer carcase.

The other Route 66 destination that we were anxious to visit was Williams, just thirty miles from our starting point. Taking exit 165 we entered the town, whose welcome sign stated that “You are wanted in Williams”. And so we were.

After parking the car we started to walk down the main street in search of a suitable breakfast venue. We were tempted first by Goldie’s Route 66 Diner, but the sight of ten bikers roaring into the forecourt in front of us suggested we might have to wait a while!  The nearby Red Garter Bed & Bakery retained outward hints of its former notoriety as a bordello.

This town has the distressing or proud, depending on your point of view, distinction of being the last one to be bypassed by the interstate on 13th October 1984 when Bobby Troup, the writer of (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 attended the closing ceremony. That might have proved the death knell of the community, but its railroad history and proximity to the Grand Canyon enabled it not only to survive but thrive as an important major tourist location.

We were immediately attracted to Williams with its frontier feel and vibrant Route 66 connections. Nearly every establishment, whether a gift store, diner, trading post or motel, appeared to be selling a large selection of road memorabilia.

We were spoilt for choice of dining options here too. Cruisers Café 66 Bar & Grill, which would have been my original preference, was, sadly, closed, though we were still able to roam its delightful patio with its vintage gas pumps (above), murals and and quirky Halloween paraphernalia (below).

Of all the towns we had visited on our trek through New Mexico and Arizona on America’s Main Street, nowhere flaunted its Route 66 heritage more than Williams, as the restaurant sign below illustrates. And we loved it!

Eventually we decided on breakfast at the Pine Country restaurant, a classic diner with friendly staff,  family atmosphere and, of course, its own mini gift shop. Two fried eggs sunny side up, hash browns, sausage patty, lashings of ketchup, sourdough bread and, of course, unlimited coffee, was just the right fuel for the long road ahead.

Aside from its Route 66 frisson, it is Williams’ railroad history that brings the visitors flocking in today. The Santa Fe Railroad first connected it with the Grand Canyon in 1901 but it went out of business sixty seven years later.

Then in 1989 it reopened as the embarcation point for the Grand Canyon Railway which now carries tourists the 65 miles daily to the South Rim through the high plains and pine forests. An essential excursion on our next trip.

Another of the town’s nostalgic diners is Twisters, full of road memorabilia and complete with original fifties soda fountain and bar stools. The reasons for a return trip in the not too distant future mount up – only time today for a handful of photographs of the exterior.

We would have loved to have spent longer in Williams (it was now nearly 11 o’clock), not least to explore the Arizona State Railroad Museum (and sample each of the diners!), but were mindful that we needed to reach Vegas as early as possible in order to avoid a lengthy queue at hotel check-in. And there was that gig to get to.

This meant we had to remain on the interstate rather than join the Route 66 loop which included Seligman and its legendary Sno-Cap Drive-In and the equally famous Hackberry General Store. 

I am so looking forward to that next trip!

Route 66 may not have been the primary focus of the trip when we first planned it. But we had virtually lived on it since Albuquerque and fallen under its spell – even when we couldn’t find it! There is no other road in the U.S., or anywhere in the world for that matter, that carries as much resonance – not bad for a road that no longer officially exists! Tim Steel put it best in his eponymous book:

There are few things in life as alluring as a road trip, and few roads beckon as seductively as Route 66.

We may now have been concentrating on eating up the miles rather than looking for obscure Route 66 spots, but it did not dull our powers of observation. Hitchhikers dotted this stretch of the interstate, a reminder of a gentler time and one we had not seen at all on the trip heretofore. Perhaps they were Deadheads trying to get to the Dark Star Orchestra gig in Vegas! No tie-dye in evidence, so probably not. We passed a truck carrying an  unusual “oversize load” – an aircraft wing! Blown tires strewed the road and hard shoulder.

At exit 48 at Kingman (along with Barstow and San Bernadino, celebrated in the final line of Bobby Troup’s classic song), we finally left the I-40 (and Route 66) to join the I-68 West and, shortly afterwards, the I-93 North to Las Vegas. It was a quarter to one, eighty four degrees (twenty three degrees warmer than it had been when we left Flagstaff but still eight degrees cooler than when we arrived in Vegas). We had exactly one hundred miles to go. We took a comfort break in a gas station and discussed whether we needed to “top” the fuel up, concluding that we might just make it – which we did, endorsing the decision we had made at the beginning of the day). Billboards for the casinos in Vegas were already a regular roadside sight.

Much of the I-93 was desert with occasional shacks the only habitation. Plots of five, ten and twenty acres were on sale, though the landscape was bare and unprepossessing. Within the hour we had passed the Hoover Dam and crossed into Nevada. Having made such good time since Williams, we stopped in Henderson for an iced coffee before the final cruise into Vegas.

Nothing in the past seventeen days had prepared us for the volume of traffic that greeted us on the run in to Vegas! We approached via Flamingo Road’s three lanes that seemed to go on forever, and made the right turn onto the Strip towards our hotel.

After a tearful goodbye to “Ruxy”, who had transported us, without a hitch, 2,325 miles across five states and innumerable extraplanetary vistas, we headed for check-in at Treasure Island. And yes, it was crammed! As the receptionist explained “half of Southern California is here this weekend” and most of them had just landed!

But within the hour we were in our room overlooking the Strip. And not only did we make the gig but we arrived in sufficient time to eat in the House of Blues first – where it had all started two and a half weeks ago.

The concert was great – well I thought so! We walked the length of the Strip in the balmy early hours, and had a nightcap in the Breeze Bar in the casino before retiring.

It was already my sixtieth birthday, and we now had a long weekend in Las Vegas to look forward to.

As to what we got up to over the next four days – well, you know the phrase, don’t you?

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“Road Trip” – is there another phrase that better exemplifies the heart of the American experience? Apple pie perhaps? Have a nice day? Manifest destiny? No, none of those come close to capturing the same sense of freedom and adventure that is synonymous with the American Dream.

Well, dear reader, as you are a valued friend, I am inviting you to join my wife and I on our very own road trip of the American southwest over the next three weeks. Come with us as we criss-cross five states (Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) and three time zones.

We’ll hear the siren song  of the slots in Vegas casinos, listen to the mournful wail of country music radio as we glide the endless highways, and gasp at massive, multi-coloured incisions in the earth’s surface.

We’ll meet peoples from the rich diversity of American culture, including Mormons and Native Americans.

We’ll take juddering jeep trips with Indian guides into the heart of their reservation where we will purchase Navajo and Zuni jewellery.

We’ll stand at the only point on the North American continent where four states intersect, and have our photo taken like the dutiful tourists (I prefer the word travellers) we are.

We’ll eat at authentic cantinas and  tacquerias and sleep in beds where once slumbered the the Hollywood stars of yesteryear.

We’ll even find ourselves standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, waiting, or at least I will, for a girl in a flat bed Ford to slow down and take a look at me.

The itinerary?

I write this in our hotel (Mandalay Bay) room where we spent last night after a tortuous 15 hours on a Virgin Atlantic plane and equally frustrating wait in line for the car hire. But a fine meal and live swing band in The House of Blues, followed by a solid night’s sleep, has us ready for the road this morning.

Today we drive to Hurricane, Utah for two nights, the base for our exploration of Zion National Park. We then move on to Panguitch, Utah, close to Bryce Canyon for a further two nights. Staying at Page, Arizona for another two nights will enable us to visit Lake Powell and Glen and Antelope Canyons.

The highlight will be our trip to Monument Valley in the heart of the Navajo Nation, iconic location of so many westerns directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne.  A stay in Kayenta, Arizona that night will predate two nights in Moab, Utah, our base for Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

On the premise that we will be “red rocked out” by then, and that our hiking boots might have earned a rest, we will wind down a little at this roughly mid point. The sightseeing will become more leisurely as we move on to Durango, Colorado and then into New Mexico for stays in Santa Fe (two nights), Albuquerque and Gallup before driving Route 66 to Flagstaff, Arizona.

A two night stop there in which we will “pop over” to Sedona and the long drive back to Vegas, sixteen days after we left it, for the final four nights, the second of which will be my sixtieth birthday.

The rigours of the road will dictate whether we might take short detours to Los Alamos, New Mexico and the Mesa Verde National Monument.

Sounds fun?

So jump in the back seat of the car, tip your hat over your face, but not before grabbing a couple of Buds (or rather Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam beers), kick off your cowboy boots, sing along to Hank Williams and Toby Keith, and enjoy the ride. It’ll be a blast!

Time to head out on the highway.

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