We arrived in Needles, California, driving down close to the famous Route 66. I had no idea we would be near the route, but it made me excited to see all the road signs for it.
I planned for us to go through the Mojave National Preserve, but I had no idea what to do there. I had only researched a slight bit before we set out and had come up short. Aside from hiking, caving, and four-wheeling, the visit was looking pretty lame. We tried to stop by the visitor’s center on our way into Needles, but it was closed. I decided to research some more on Google for at least a map to follow.
The Best Western we landed at was decent but without an elevator. We hauled our suitcases up the stairs to the second floor without breaking a sweat. After freshening up, we went to a restaurant down the road called the Wagon Wheel. This place was an original Route 66 dining establishment (or so it claimed) and turned out to be a fun little diner that made a tasty roast beef and mashed potatoes plate. It was a hidden gem in the middle of nowhere.
While walking back from our meal, Sue mentioned a time when she fell, broke her arm, and Mac had to take her to the hospital. She said the hospital staff kept giving him the eye like they thought Mac might have caused the accident. We both laughed at the idea, but I silently shifted to high alert because I didn’t want her to have a repeat of the event here.
Day 4 – Where the Streets Have No Name
The next morning, we ate a restaurant next to the Best Western called the Giggling Cactus. Saying the name brought smiles to our faces. We were served by a cheerful, chatty waitress who brought us Hershey kisses so that we wouldn’t go through the new year without kisses. Sue had mentioned that pancakes were her “I’m on vacation” breakfast food so I was excited to see her enjoy a stack.
While eating, I told Sue my plan to take us through the Mojave National Preserve via Kelbaker Road to the Kelso Depot Museum. From there, we would take Cima Road to Interstate 15 and on to our next destination. In my research, I discovered that Cima Road would give us a view of the world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees. This U2 fan was not about to miss her chance to see at least one Joshua tree!
As we neared the entrance of the preserve, we decided to fill up on gas before driving through the desert. Taking a slight detour on Route 66, we passed some interesting and potentially creepy things along the way. We saw a small tree with shoes hanging from it, memorials to people spelled out in tiny stones and debris, and two golden lions on marble columns. It was highly bizarre to see in a barren desert. The lions, we later discovered, were markers for a section of land that a real estate guy was attempting to sell, which explains the vandalized signs protesting the desecration of Native American land.
We eventually came to Roy’s gas station. It was the only sign of civilization for miles and looked like it fell from the sky and landed in this remote place in the desert. Roy’s place was a historic Route 66 destination with an original soda shop-styled counter inside the store. Roy came out of his store to pump the gas in a huff. I wasn’t sure how to respond initially. I can only speculate that he gets a bunch of morons, hoodlums, or spaced out individuals around this area and he’s a no-nonsense kind of guy. Sue, however, slapped on the charm as we explained our trip to Roy. By the end, we were all friends and on our way to our next adventure.
Roadways in the Wilderness
Along the drive, we came across glimmers of stones and odd-looking plants. Of particular interest was something that looked like a dried, fragile tennis ball. They were bundled together like a cluster of grapes by the Kelbaker Road. We had never seen anything like it.
The Kelso Depot Museum was a lot bigger than I expected and also in the middle of obscurity. There were flowers and palm trees planted around the building and a well-kept landscaped yard. It was almost like a tropical oasis. Inside, the two-story building housed a museum about the railroad town as well as a gallery with featured local artists.
We were immediately greeted by a knowledgeable parks service employee. After he finished his overview of the museum, we asked him about those mysterious hollowed out plants on the road.
“Coyote gourds,” he said, without missing a beat. Apparently, these coyote gourds (or melons) are everywhere in the California desert, foul-smelling when ripe, and inedible to humans. Coyotes, however, do eat them. Poor beasts.
The Mojave National Preserve was beautiful in a completely different way from the Grand Canyon. The vegetation and wildlife have adapted to the climate and terrain for years. Looking around, it called up thoughts of survival and hope.
Do not call to mind the former things, Or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, Rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:18-19 (New American Standard Bible)
My church’s pastor, Dr. Chris Stephens, wrote a devotional with other ministry leaders called New Rivers, New Roads, which emphasized this particular scripture as our message of hope for 2018. Honestly, I cried as I read through most of the devotional. I had been feeling as though I was wandering in the wilderness or thirsting in the wasteland. The desert with all its beauty and desolation heightened my awareness of some new things springing forth in my life.
In God’s Country
As we began driving on Cima Road, we started to see a sporadic sampling of Joshua trees. I was thrilled! Sue pulled off the road and took some photos of me posing by a few. I wrapped my hand around Mom’s cross hanging from my neck, lifted it to my lips and gently kissed it. I could only think of a lyric from U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
And when I go there, I go there with you.
It’s all I can do.
She was here with me. I felt it as the wind enveloped me in the sun. An embrace from above.
The further we drove, the more stunned I was. We went from a few Joshua trees to a forest of them! Again, I was overwhelmed. In Mormon legend, the plant’s outstretched branches reminded settlers of Joshua raising his hands in prayer to God. I thought of all the prayers I’ve sent up lately and all those who sent them up on my behalf. A forest of Joshua trees to some, but this was a network of love, encouragement, and peace in my vision. I left feeling truly blessed.
Once on Interstate 15, we saw the shift from a desert view to the flashiness of Vegas as we drove towards the Hoover Dam. An interesting thing we drove by, however, was something called “Seven Magic Mountains.” This art project was seven towers of stacked boulders in the brightest neon colors I’ve ever seen. It was a brilliant contrast to the muted natural colors of the desert.
The Dam Tour
We headed over to the Hoover Dam for our next stop. I realize that I’m a grown adult, but I still cracked dam jokes the whole time. I couldn’t resist.
I know very little about the Hoover Dam, but the center had a very nice self-guided tour with lots of videos and visuals. Sue and I aren’t much for reading EVERY WORD on these plaques, so we moved rather quickly through the exhibits. I did notice the wages and the death toll, which left me a little more thankful that I never had to slave away on a dangerous structure for a couple of quarters an hour.
We walked across the dam and managed to snap a few photos. I’m not a fan of heights so merely looking down at this massive wall made me dizzy. I was paranoid that I was going to drop my cell phone down the dam wall the entire time.
Along the way, we came upon these giant winged, muscular statues called the “Winged Figures of the Republic,” which were bronze sculptures around the memorial to the Hoover Dam. Beautiful works of art!
We also stepped into timezones for Arizona and Nevada. This brought back so many memories of walking along downtown Bristol, straddling both the TN and VA border. Weird how time shifts, but you’re still intact.
The Dam cafe was crowded, but I grabbed Sue and I some drinks and a delicious lemon danish for the road. We said our big dam goodbyes and headed towards Red Rock Canyon.
Nature Always Wears the Colors of the Spirit
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area was a sight to behold. It blows my mind that this gorgeous piece of nature is nestled right outside of the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas. The closer we came to it, the more in awe I was.
Again, my words don’t do it justice. These gigantic rock formations with so many trails and hiding places were unlike anything I had ever seen. The vibrant red boulders and striped canyons stirred my heart. Nature is often the place where God and I meet. This was no exception.
We drove to the different scenic points along the loop, observing people hiking the trails and looking like ants crawling along dirt pathways. Just like at the Grand Canyon, it helped to put life in perspective.
And Now For Our Secret Ingredient…
After touring the canyon, we headed over to a Best Western Plus for the night. We ventured out that evening to a nice Japanese restaurant called Osaka Japanese Bistro. At first, it seemed like most Japanese hibachi places, but this one stole my heart with one special ingredient.
The server took our order and delivered salads to us and everyone surrounding the hibachi grill. The chef soon arrived and began preparing our meal. I’ve been to Wasabi several times in Knoxville, so I’ve seen the entertainment before. Normally, you get a piece of rice tossed at your face to see if you can catch it in your mouth. This guy, however, tossed meat. This place was super classy! And yes, my big mouth caught the piece tossed my way for those who were wondering. #skills
After the fun, the chef gets serious and asks, “can we add some garlic?” to the rice and some of the food he was preparing. I nodded like a freshly sprung bobblehead doll. Not going to lie. I was a puddle at his feet after that.
The food was delicious, and they offered us a couple of different sauces to use including a mustard-based one for chicken and a spicier one for steak. Both were heavenly and, for me, a welcomed break from that mayonnaise-based shrimp sauce. With our bellies full, we retreated to our place of rest.
Day 5 – Viva Las Vegas!
I woke up to the smell of bacon. We quickly dressed and headed down to the small breakfast nook for some morning grub. While we munched down, we watched some interesting characters float in and out of the room grabbing coffees and continental breakfast goods. Sue and I exchanged a lot of smiles and giggles during that meal, kidding each other on the mating potential of some of these individuals floating by.
For our day in Vegas, Sue had the brilliant idea of using the monorail system to go to each section along the strip. We grabbed passes and hopped on, stopping at the MGM Grand to see where our Cirque du Soleil show would be playing. In the hotel, I kept seeing signs for the T-Mobile Arena where the Vegas Golden Knights play hockey. We followed those signs through seemingly endless casinos. After getting our bearings outside and moving towards the arena again, we came across a beautiful, tall wire sculpture called “Bliss Dance.” Having made wire sculptures on a smaller scale, I had the utmost appreciation for this artist’s work.
We finally made it to the arena and stopped in a few stores along the way. Naturally, Sue and I made a beeline to the Coca-Cola store for some tasty beverages while passing by a large underground Marshall’s outlet store. We saw several performers dressed as superheroes, shirtless cowboys, showgirls, Chewbacca, Dr. Evil, and more. A lady nearly had a heart attack when she suddenly noticed Chewbacca towering over her as she walked down the street. Pretty sure I found my people.
We stopped by the Bellagio hotel for a lovely outdoor fountain show. I don’t remember all the songs, but naturally, “Viva Las Vegas” was one of them. It was amazing during the day, and I’m sure it was even better at night. Vegas was starting to warm up to me again.
Around this time, we started to look for Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops to have a bite to eat at a place recommended by our car rental customer service representative. We spotted the sign and walked for what seemed like an actual miracle mile to the indoor shopping center. Inside, the ceiling was painted and lit to look like the sky. We walked up to Ocean One Grille, and I immediately thought we had made a mistake. The place looked so nice and upscale, but lo and behold, the lunch menu was all $5 meals. I couldn’t believe I got salmon and sauteed vegetables for a whopping five bucks in Vegas. It was actually tasty and well worth the walk.
While eating, the ceiling flashed with lights and thunder roared. We later discovered that the illusion of storms created a downpour of rain around fountains at various areas in the shopping center. As someone who often channels Thor, I was a fan of the lightning and thunder.
We walked around and I came across a store with all sorts of cheesy Las Vegas stuff packed wall to wall. I got a glittery magnet with the Vegas sign, a Vegas mirror compact for a friend, and a necklace with an oyster holding a pearl (a reminder that the world is my oyster). Loaded up with loot, we moved on to our next stop.
Waxing or Waning?
Madam Tussauds Wax Museum was bloody hard to locate. After getting lost in our pursuit (seriously, Vegas is really overwhelming), we eventually made it up the stairs to the museum. I have wanted to go to her wax museum for years, and this was finally my chance. Sue and I rocked out with Elvis & Beyonce then rubbed elbows with Bruno Mars & Johnny Depp. We lived like the Hollywood Stars we are!
We hustled over to the rail and zipped to the MGM Grand for my first Cirque de Soleil show. The theatre itself was a sight to see. It was built up with columns all inside with platforms. The entire thing looked industrial and gothic. As the production began, I fell in love with all the details. The costumes, characters, set, and props all displayed the creativity, ingenuity, and sheer strength of the performers and creators. KA was a breathtaking performance and, honestly, we both felt it was worth the hassle we went through with Wyndam.
After the play, we went looking for some food. The buffet dinner we were aiming to enjoy closed early, leaving us hungry and exhausted. So, we decided to head back to Gordon Ramsay’s Fish & Chips to have a Sticky Toffee Pudding Shake. In addition to my sweet treat, I also indulged in some chips dirty (because Gordon knows that’s how I like my chips) which included truffle, chives, and parmesan cheese coating all over them. I swear, it was so unbelievably good and that’s not just because I think Gordon Ramsay is brilliant. His restaurant lived up to his name.
We stayed at the Linq this time which was right next door to where we were eating. The room was so modern and I loved the designs throughout the space. Also, it was quiet and secluded at the end of a hallway despite the High Roller observation wheel right outside our window.
As I plopped on the bed, I looked at my phone’s step counter. We did over 20,000 steps which equaled out to around 14 miles. I had no doubt in my mind that Sue and I conquered Vegas!
Day 6 – Snow Place Like Home
Leaving out the next morning, I said my goodbyes to the casinos and flashiness of Vegas. Before departing, I stopped to pick up a Vegas Golden Knights shirt that I eyed all week. I support Sin City hockey.
While returning the car rental, I left my jacket in the trunk (you’re welcome for all the clothing, Vegas) and wound up buying a nice fleece jacket in the airport. Since I didn’t gamble the whole time, I thought I would attempt to try the slots while waiting for our plane. I looked at the penny slots, and they were a minimum of $5 to play. I just scowled and walked away. Ain’t got time for that.
We hung out in Atlanta for our layover but were concerned about some snow storms rolling in. While in the air, we had to circle a few times because the runway in Knoxville was iced over. After what seemed like an eternity in the air, we finally landed. We dug the car out of the snow and moved slowly and safely home. I was blessed with a snow day the following day to recover from all that traveling, and I spent it reflecting.
Throughout this trip, Sue taught me to keep exploring. Mom reminded me to hold on to hope. Vegas showed me that walking shoes are important. The Grand Canyon reminded me to keep my problems in perspective. My adventure out west was important for my growth in so many ways. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to experience it, and I look forward to many more visits. My soul needs it.