Hoover Dam & Laughlin: Week 222

Polaroid of the Hoover Dam taken from the bypass bridge: Nevada

When the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936, it was the world’s largest dam.

It was due to the scale of this project that Barret’s hometown of Boulder City was born. At the peak of construction, Boulder City had the highest population in the state of Nevada- 7,000 residents.

Most of the dam is closed off now to tourists as a result of the September 11th attacks. However, this isn’t the first time that security has been tightened. During WW2 sharpshooters were stationed above Hoover Dam and tour groups required military escorts.

Inside one of the tunnels at the Hoover Dam: Nevada

There are currently two types of tours available- the Powerplant Tour and the Dam Tour. The Dam Tour has significantly fewer tickets available and was already sold out by the time Barret and I arrived (can’t make reservations), so we went on the Powerplant Tour.

Hoover Dam Powerplant: Nevada

Our tour guide had the enthusiasm of someone who had been repeating herself for the last ten years. Because of that, I channeled my focus elsewhere: on the dimly lit and roughly hewn passageways, on the corrugated plastic sheets that lined the roof to redirect the dripping groundwater, and on the powerplant viewing platform which resembled an art deco waiting room.

Viewing platform at the Hoover Dam Powerplant: Nevada

While it was interesting to see the inner workings for the first time, the best part of the visit was actually looking over the edge of the dam. That is when you are truly able to sense the incredible scale of the project.

View looking down the Hoover Dam: Nevada

It was also my first time at the dam since the completion of the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge back in 2010. At 1,900 feet in length, the bridge has the longest arch in the Western hemisphere and it is also the seventh highest bridge in the world. It’s sleek, minimalistic, and a perfect concrete compliment to the Hoover Dam.

The gift shop of course celebrated these architectural wonders with some dam fine products, Native American inspired knickknacks, and alien sunglasses.

Alien glasses at the giftshop: Hoover Dam, Nevada

From the Hoover Dam, the Colorado River courses south. The first blooms of civilization around the river are Laughlin and Bullhead City. On the Nevada side of the river, in Laughlin, casino resorts greet the lifeblood of the desert. Opposite the casinos, in Bullhead City, Arizona, is a Sam’s Club, McDonald’s, and Chili’s Bar and Grill.

Barret and I began our morning in Laughlin at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Theoretically the process should have been faster in a small town, but we quickly realized that was not necessarily true. A small town just means there is only one employee that knows all the locals by name.

“Braden, how’d you do?” The woman behind the counter asked a scruffy teen in sagging pants.

He scowled as he stood up from his seat. “I failed.”

“Well, you don’t have to wait in line. Just give me your card and come back tomorrow. Don’t worry, it’s a hard test.”

“It’s bullshit,” Braden mumbled on his way out. “I failed by one point. Bullshit.”

Riverside Resort matchbook: Laughlin, Nevada

After our long morning, Barret and I stopped for lunch at the Riverside Resort. It must have been grasshopper season because hundreds of the papery insects were trampled into the welcome mats.

Just past the entrance was a stand selling frozen margaritas for $1.25. Beyond that, yellow and black signs hung from low ceilings and directed visitors toward Sunglasses and Bargain City (where all items are $7.77 and the seventh item is free).

As its names suggested, the Riverview Restaurant overlooked the Colorado River. The restaurant smelled faintly of cigarettes and the reverse side of everything had the history/philosophy of Don Laughlin- the founder of the town. “The customer, regardless of his or her pocketbook, is king here.”

Every five minutes a woman walked past selling Keno cards. The way she pronounced ‘Keno’ made it sound like she was saying ‘hello’.

On the way out of the casino, I noticed a TV in a display box outside the men’s bathroom. It was an interview with Don Laughlin. The whole place was beginning to feel a bit like Laughlin’s mausoleum.

Desert landscape: Christmas Tree Pass, Nevada

After lunch we spent a few hours at Barret’s storage unit sweeping rat shit off of everything before heading back to Boulder City. Instead of taking the I95 the whole time, Barret made a detour through Christmas Tree Pass. The landscape was gorgeous and the smell of rain lingered amongst the creosote bushes. The bumpy dirt road put me to sleep, but Barret nudged me awake just before we passed the namesake ‘Christmas Trees’.

Desert Christmas Trees: Christmas Tree Pass, Nevada

My friend once sent me a postcard from Laughlin back in 1992. She had gone on vacation with her family. After reading her perfectly rounded letters and evenly spaced greeting, I had wished that my family would also go there on vacation.

Twenty plus years later I feel a bit differently, however one thing has grown in certainty- the desert is a beautiful place and I love passing through it.

Cross-shaped cactus: Christmas Tree Pass, Nevada

About: The Hover Dam

One of the offices at Hoover Dam: Nevada

About: The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

How to get to the Riverside Resort: 1650 South Casino Drive, Laughlin NV 89029

About: Laughlin

About: Christmas Tree Pass

Sign outside the Colorado Belle: Laughlin, Nevada

Las Vegas: Week 77

While I sipped a designer cocktail, a naked couple shrouded in fog peered out from a row of columns. Their delicate movements were so mesmerizing that I almost forgot I was waiting for my friends. I’m sure that was the reaction the designers anticipated when creating a check-in lobby for the newest and arguably coolest addition to Las Vegas Boulevard. Everything about the Cosmopolitan oozed contemporary chic- from the mood lighting to the sensual video art to the figures on the restroom signs with their catwalk swagger.

The Cosmopolitan is owned by the art-crazy Deutsche Bank, which means there were a lot of great contemporary paintings and sculptures. However, what caught my eye the most were the Artomactics-vintage cigarette machines converted into miniature-art dispensers. It was such a novel idea and for $5 I became the owner of a handmade lino print.

The Strip wasn’t the only place that had changed. My friends had been developing their  careers and it was exciting to see them become ‘the people to watch’. The week I was there the Las Vegas Weekly published an article that included my friend Mikayla. Then the week after I left my friend Jen had an editorial about her burgeoning Fremont Street gallery- Kleven Contemporary.

Way across town, my friend Favi was preparing a mixed media exhibition inside his uncle’s convenience store- El Porvenir. It was located inside a sleepy strip mall with a largely hispanic clientele. The opening reception was approaching and not all of the artwork had been installed. That was normal though. Even in college Favi was the kind of guy who lived on short deadlines and massive amounts of work.

While I photographed the pinatas, Favi fielded interview questions from a journalist at the junction between the candy aisle and the refrigerated soft drinks.

As Favi described the artwork that was going to be ‘stocked’ on the shelves, he attached woodpecker stickers onto the crucified body of Jesus Christ. He might have felt anxious about running out of time, but it never showed. He had a carefree way about conducting business that made people like me look like nervous wrecks.

“Hey,” Favi turned round to Jen and I after the interview. “What did I say was going to be installed?”

Aside from careers, my friends were also purchasing homes. I am not sure yet if that makes me feel mature by proxy or immature because I haven’t made such an investment. Either way, while in town I got to enjoy Jen’s solid foundation for adulthood.

Her house was built in the 70s for whom I believe was an amateur pornographer with a thirst for fresh juice. Jen claims the previous owner was a solitary man with a missing leg, but I don’t see why both can’t be true. I mean legs just don’t fall off if you’re reading a book, right? Either way, the interior had been covered in mirrors. And if mirrors or wood paneling didn’t work for a cinematic backdrop then there were murals.There was a desert scene in the garage, a French pantry in the kitchen, a coastline silhouette in the garden, and a lobster shack behind the garage.

Now I knew the past owner had a penchant for wheat grass in between scenes because the kitchen counter had a built-in juicer motor. In case you were wondering about the attachments, they had their own custom storage shelf underneath. The cherry on top, however, was the large wooden carving in the front yard. It looked like Davy Crockett and had the Frontiers-y feel that every first time home owner needs.

Before I left for Las Vegas, I had read about a restaurant that intentionally makes the most unhealthy food in the US. It was the kind of place where people who weigh more than 350 lbs were rewarded with free meals. So when I learned that the infamous Heart Attack Grill had opened in Vegas I thought:

1. Of course.

2. I need to go.

Upon entering the restaurant a sullen ‘nurse’ gave us medical bracelets and hospital gowns. After we put them on, another nurse in a racy uniform led us to our table. It was a quiet afternoon and the place was mostly empty. The ‘doctor’ strolled back and forth behind the bar counter waiting for a drink order to come in.

“How are you doing?” Our waitress asked as she passed out menus.

“Good. I’m just glad we aren’t sitting by the window,” Jen replied while anxiously scanning the room. “I am embarrassed to be seen here. I work down the street.”

The waitress gave Jen a puzzled look but quickly bounced back into the role of the junk food seductress.

“Well, I think the fries are so much better cooked in lard. They have more flavor and they reheat really well.”

We ordered the Flatliner Fries and decided to try a Butter-fat Shake and a Single Bypass Burger. The shake was made with the equivalent of a stick of butter and arrived with an additional pat of butter on top. Aside from an extremely silky texture, it was so thick that you couldn’t drink it with a straw. I probably could have finished it if I hadn’t known how unhealthy it was.

The burger and fries arrived shortly thereafter. Jen and Favi decided the burger was good, but not good enough to risk their arteries or their dignity. On the other hand, we all agreed that the french fries were disgusting. Because they had been cooked in pure lard they were soft and tasted way too strongly of meat. Not even a good dollop of ketchup could mask the pork flavor.

I had convinced myself that the Heart Attack Grill would be a kitschy gem- something so bad it was good. Turns out I was wrong. It just feels sad to eat in a room with an industrial strength scale.

Despite the economic downturn, I was surprised and excited to see how well Vegas was looking. There was so much new development downtown- like the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, whose impossible shapes were designed by Frank Gehry. As Jen continued on with her architectural tour I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. It felt so natural to be cruising down the oven-baked asphalt streets again, a million hair dryers blowing in our faces. It was as if I had never left and that was the nicest feeling to have after two years abroad.

How to get to the –

Cosmopolitan: 3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, Nevada

Kleven Contemporary: 520 Fremont Street (NW corner of 6th & Fremont)

El Porvenir: 1610 E. Charleston Blvd., Suite – 140,Las Vegas, NV

Heart Attack Grill: 450 Fremont St, Las Vegas, Nevada

Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: 888 W. Bonneville Ave. Las Vegas, NV

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