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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Middlerun Does America, Days 30-32: Nashville

I've finally decided to finish these damn blogs. It's well over a year since my America trip, so I'm piecing this together from memory, photos, my twitter feed and the plot of Vanishing Point.

Saturday

On Saturday I left Memphis for the bright lights and honky-tonks of Nashville. Before I checked out of my accommodation, I was eating breakfast of pancakes made from the hostel's endless supply of pancake mix when I overheard a couple of people talking. One of them, a Scottish girl, mentioned she was getting a Greyhound bus at 1:40. My bus to Nashville was scheduled to leave at 1:40, so I asked her if she was going to Nashville too. It turned out we were getting the same bus, so we agreed to leave together.

For some reason, in the whole time since I've been back home I haven't been able to remember what that girl's name was. Maybe we never told each other our names. I'm just going to call her Merida. Once we were both ready, we checked out and left to catch one of those dreadful Memphis buses to the Greyhound terminal.

Waiting for the bus, we got talking to an old English guy who had been staying at the same hostel. He was headed downtown as well, so he came with us. I can't remember his name either. I think it might have been Colin. He seemed like a Colin, at least. Let's assume he was. After waiting for half an hour for a bus, I double checked the bus timetable and realised that since it was a Saturday they were only running every 90 minutes. Memphis public transport, ladies and gentlemen. In the end we got a taxi.

Merida and I got lunch at the Greyhound terminal. The fast food for sale there was pretty trashy, but a million times better than the nauseating not-quite-food I'd been forced to endure at the Baton Rouge terminal. Our food took so long to prepare that we ended up having to smuggle it onto the crowded bus and eat it there. The bus trip wasn't as bad as the Austin-to-New Orleans one, but still not particularly fun.

We arrived in Nashville, and found our way to Music City Hostel, where we were both staying. My room at the hostel was tiny, with barely enough room for two people let alone the four people staying in it. The floor was constantly covered in people's bags because there was nowhere else to put anything. It also had zero ventilation. Probably the worst hostel room I've stayed in, though not the worst hostel overall (that would come later).

That night we got talking to some other people at the hostel, and the lot of us went out to hit the town. You can probably guess the rest: significant amounts of beer and country music. Nashville is a fun town.

Sunday

The next day Merida and I set out to explore Nash Vegas a bit more. We wanted to go to the Adventure Science Center, which sounded cool, but the lady at the visitor centre said it was too far to walk (which turned out to be bollocks, it was only about two kilometres), and getting a bus was too much hassle (Nashville buses are about as hopeless as the ones in Memphis), so we didn't bother.

We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame. We didn't actually see any of the exhibits because the entry fee was a bit more than either of us felt like paying, but we did get to see a great performance by a university bluegrass band.

After that we went to they countryest looking honky-tonk we could find, a place called Robert's, for lunch and a couple of beers. This was a place where you could buy a pair of cowboy boots along with your Budweiser. Merida had to go do something after lunch, leaving me to continue meander around Nashville on my own.

I went and had a look at the replica of Fort Nashborough, the small log cabin settlement that became Nashville. Then I wandered north from there and ended up at the Davidson Country Public Building and Town Hall. Not far from there is the Tennessee State Capitol, though sadly I couldn't go in and have a look around like I did in Austin.

Later I returned to the hostel and met up with Merida again. I also ran into another familiar face: Colin, the English guy. The three of us hung out and played Yahtzee. At one point I ducked up the road to get dinner from Arby's. Arby's has burgers with layers of sliced beef instead of a patty. It was pretty decent.

Later we went out again, with the same people from the previous night. We went to some horrible crowded place that smelled like vomit.

Monday

On Monday, Merida and I parted ways. She was continuing on somewhere or other, while I still had another day in Nashville. I think Colin left that day too.

I went to Centennial Park, mainly to see the Parthenon. The full-scale Parthenon replica was originally built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, and was meant to be a temporary exhibit, but it was soon rebuilt as a permanent fixture because America. Normally you can go inside and have a look around, but like the Chinese restaurant across from my house, the Nashville Parthenon is closed on Mondays. Which is kind of annoying, because sometimes you want Chinese food on a Monday night, you know?

I wandered around the park a bit, looked at a steam train and an F-86L Sabre jet that are both on display in the park, took a bunch of photos of squirrels, and then found a bus stop. Through zen-like patience I managed to catch a bus, headed in the direction of the Adventure Science Center.

I got some lunch and then checked out Fort Negley, a Civil War fortification built by slaves and basically anyone else on hand who happened to be black. The fort's not particularly well maintained these days, and there wasn't much in the way of informative signs or displays but it was still interesting. After that I continued on to the Adventure Science Center.

The ASC was actually kind of lame, to be honest. I was expecting something similar to the California Academy of Sciences, but as it turns out the ASC is aimed mainly at kids, and as an adult I didn't find much to be excited by. Even the planetarium was a disappointment, a load of goofy primary-school-level CGI stuff outlining the history of astronomy, most of which I already knew.

That night I spent a lot of time trying to figure out my accommodation for New York. It turns out that hostels in New York fill up weeks to months in advance, which I probably should have foreseen but didn't. I ended up booking a hostel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for most of the nights I'd be there, but there were a few nights when they had no vacancies. I decided to leave that problem for another day.

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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Middlerun Does America, Days 26-29: Memphis

Tuesday

On Tuesday I went to Memphis. Luckily there's an Amtrak line that goes from New Orleans through Memphis (and finishes in Chicago), so I didn't have to take the dreaded Greyhound again. I was pretty impressed by how much nicer the Amtrak trains are than the shitty CountryLink trains used in Australia. The amount of legroom is huge compared to any train, plane or bus I've been on and the chairs tilt back enough that you could comfortably sleep. There's an observation car where you can hang out and watch the scenery, and a dining car with actual tables like a restaurant (albeit an overpriced one), not like the take-away dining cars on the CountryLink. Overall a pretty nice way to travel.

The train got to Memphis at 10pm. I had to get to the hostel by 11pm or I wouldn't be able to check in because there's nobody on staff after 11. I stepped off the train having no idea where I was, and not able to look up a map on my phone because the battery was dead and the charger was missing. It took me a confusing couple of minutes just to figure out how to get out of the station. Once I got onto the street and got my bearings I headed toward the street where I thought I could get a bus to the hostel. I found where the bus stop was supposed to be, in an empty and desolate area surrounded by boarded up or demolished buildings, not entirely sure that a bus would even be stopping there at that time of night. I was hoping there would be a timetable posted. A reasonable thing to expect at a bus stop, right? Well, as it turns out, Memphis bus stops give you nothing but the words "bus stop", a phone number and a URL, which I guess is technically better than nothing, but not by much.

So I stood there alone under a street light, in a part of Memphis resembling an apocalyptic wasteland, carrying my huge backpack, considering the equally likely possibilities of catching a bus or being murdered. At a time like this, one sentence naturally floats to the forefront of one's mind: "Fuck this, I'm getting a taxi." I started walking towards what seemed to be the more active part of downtown Memphis and eventually ended up at Beale Street. I got a taxi and headed off to the hostel.

The taxi dropped me off in the carpark behind the building, which is actually a church, but the hostel is in the same building for some reason. The door of the hostel was locked, so I tried the buzzer. No response. I couldn't call them either since my phone battery was dead. As my brain processed this I started imagining having to sleep outside in the carpark until I could check in the next morning. Luckily I spotted some people who'd just come out of a different part of the church so I went over to talk to them. One of them called the hostel for me and it was all sorted out.

Wednesday

I spent most of Wednesday just wandering around downtown Memphis exploring. Getting there was my first actual experience with the epitome of terribleness that is Memphis's bus system. The bus I needed was scheduled to come every hour and a half, which I guess I didn't bother to check before I went to the bus stop, and I ended up waiting for maybe 45 minutes before one came. I probably could have walked downtown in that time. While I was waiting I met an old Irish guy who was catching the same bus. He was carrying a golf club, which he explained was necessary for self-defence in Memphis. After we got on the bus he pulled out a harmonica and entertained all the other passengers for a while.

After I had some lunch (a huge plate of nachos) and took some photos, I went to Beale Street, where the concentration of bars with music exceeds reasonable levels, and spent most of the afternoon/evening there listening to bands.

The last buses in Memphis leave at 11:15pm, so I couldn't stay out as long as I wanted to. I got on the trolley (one charming thing about Memphis is the trolleys that run up and down Main Street. Some of the stops are pretty impressive, considering how little purpose they actually serve) and went up the the terminal, where people wait for the bus and wish they had cars.

Thursday

I had lunch at IHOP. Then I regretted having lunch at IHOP.

I forget what else I did on Thursday, but it was probably pretty cool.

Friday

On Friday morning I went to Mud Island, which as far as I could tell is neither muddy nor an island. Mud Island is accessible by a monorail from downtown Memphis and is home to a half-mile-long scale model of the Mississippi River and a museum about said river. The museum was pretty extensive and interesting. Mud Island also provides a great view of Hernando de Soto Bridge.

After that I got the bus over to Elvis Presley Boulevard to visit Graceland. I'm not even really an Elvis fan but it would be ridiculous to go to Memphis and not see Graceland. It was a bit confusing because you have to go to the visitor centre across the road to buy a ticket, and then you get on a bus and they drive you across the road into Graceland itself. They give you a headset which gives you an audio-tour as you walk through the house, which works pretty well. My camera battery went flat towards the end but I managed to turn it back on for long enough to get a photo of Elvis' grave. There are more photos in my Flickr stream. The tour ticket also included access to a bunch of other exhibits back at the visitor centre, including Elvis' cars and his two private jets.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Days 24-25

Sunday

I woke up rested and ready to explore New Orleans. The hostel I stayed at is really close to the Canal St. streetcar line that goes to the French Quarter which made things pretty easy. I got on a streetcar and went down to Decatur Street. The girl behind the desk at the hostel had given me a map and suggested some places to check out so I looked around in shops and peeked into interesting-looking bars and restaurants. I checked out stalls at Jackson Square and another place that had some markets on.

I stopped for lunch at a cafe with live music, and ordered a beer and a muffuletta, which was pretty good, but a little too salty. After that I checked out Bourbon Street, which true to its reputation was seedy but seemed like fun. There were plenty of people there drinking and having a good time even on a Sunday afternoon.

That night I hung out with some people at the hostel and drank from the 12-pack of Budweiser I'd bought. Eventually we all got a couple of taxis and went out to Frenchman Street, which is Bourbon Street's quieter, gentler counterpart. We went to a couple of bars there with good music. I met a girl there who had lived in Armidale, where I used to live.

Then we got another taxi to Bourbon Street and went to a few more bars. The night gets a bit hazy from here. I ended up getting separated from my group and had to get back to the hostel on my own. I thought the streetcars ran all night so I waited for about half an hour, on my own at about 1 am, the whole time feeling like I was about to get mugged. Eventually I realised they weren't running and got a taxi.

Monday

On Monday I did a swamp tour. This was pretty cool. The company that runs the tours sent a bus to the hostel to pick up me and a couple of other people from the hostel. The bus then picked other people up from several million hotels around the French Quarter. "I didn't realise this was also a tour of the city," I joked to the other hostel people. Eventually we set off for the swamp, while the driver talked about the damage done to the city by Hurricane Katrina.

We arrived at a wooden building in the middle of nowhere, where the swamp tours departed from. I got a rubber wristband which served as a ticket, and the tour guide led my group to one of several boats tied up at a jetty. For the next hour and a half the guide took us around the swamp talking about its ecosystem, pointing out various animals including a bunch of alligators, and making lots of jokes, mostly about yankees. He'd brought a bag of marshmallows to throw to the alligators. It turns out alligators are big into marshmallows, so they got nice and close to the boat.

One of the interesting things the guide told us was about the effects of Katrina on the swamp. When the storm (as people there call it) hit, huge amounts of water entered the swamp. The river ended up overflowing, spilling over the river banks into a different area which created a new part of the swamp. This new area ended up being a great place for wildlife to thrive. It also happened to contain a house which was washed away by the flooding.

We visited another part of the swamp, where the water was covered in some kind of duckweed. As the guide explained, this was introduced to the area, which you'd think would be a bad thing, but it turned out to be a benefit to the ecosystem by protecting underwater organisms from the sun.

At the end of the tour the guide showed us a baby alligator which he was looking after. We all got to have a turn holding it.

After the swamp tour I got off the bus in the French Quarter to look around a bit more. After seeing some more shops and sights, I had lunch at a nice looking bar. They had an item on the menu called "Taste of New Orleans", with samples of traditional N'awlins dishes like gumbo, jumbalaya, and red beans and rice. This was nice, though overpriced and not very substantial.

Craving some music, I went to a bar on Bourbon Street. The music was cool but it was a bit of a ghost town - there were literally more people on stage than in the audience. I ordered a Budweiser, which seemed expensive at $5.50, until they started pouring three of them. I said I only wanted one but they told me it was three-for-one. Well, I thought, no sense in wasting all these beers.

The day slid into evening as I soaked up the music and drinks. I decanted my last beer into a plastic "go-cup" (a particularly cool part of New Orleans culture, where people are allowed to take alcohol out onto the street, and often do), and went to find a more lively bar. The night was still young and I'd just slammed three beers, so I reluctantly switched to light beer for the next couple of drinks while I listened to a sort of indie jazz group.

After that I went into a place that seemed cool and had a pretty good jazz band playing. It wasn't until I got a beer and looked around a bit more that I realised I'd been there just the night before with the people from the hostel. The previous night they were playing shitty dance music and it was full of douchebags, and now there was a jazz band and it was full of chilled out cool people. I barely recognised it. At one point a girl came over to me trying to sell me jell-o shots, which I'd seen people doing the night before. I told here I wasn't interested, which didn't seem to compute in her tiny brain. I literally had to use physical force to stop her from shoving two little plastic test tubes of jell-o shots into my mouth.

After a couple more bars with more cool music I ended up at a duelling piano bar, a bit like the one in Austin. I hung out there for a bit, but it was getting a bit late and I had to be up early in the morning to get the train to Memphis, so I got the streetcar back to the hostel and hit the hay.

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Middlerun Does America, Day 23: New Orleans

Note: As I write this, it's been more than a month since I got back from my trip, so I've probably forgotten a few details.

The entirety of Saturday was taken up by the bus trip from Austin to New Orleans. The first bus left Austin at quarter to eight in the morning, arriving in Houston three hours later. When we got there I assumed my checked bag would be automatically transferred to the next bus, so I just got off and hung around in the terminal a bit, waiting for the New Orleans bus. Then I noticed something on my ticket that said I needed to transfer the bag myself. So I spent fifteen minutes trying to figure out what had happened to the bag, finally being told that in fact it would be transferred for me. I got on the bus, not entirely confident that my bag was on board.

Unlike my first couple of Greyhound trips, this one was crowded and noisy and generally awful. The ten hour trip from Houston to New Orleans were about as bad as the plane trip from Sydney to San Francisco. For most of the trip there was a huge fat guy sitting next to me with his legs intruding on my legroom, who watched a football game on his phone without headphones so everyone on the bus could hear it. I can't even imagine how someone can be so inconsiderate as to subject a busload of people to that. To make matters worse, the air conditioning was on full blast most of the way, the temperature hovering somewhere around absolute zero. When the driver finally turned it off everyone on the bus breathed a sigh of relief.

The final indignity of the bus ride was stopping at the Greyhound terminal in Baton Rouge for dinner. I was pretty hungry at that point and happy for the chance to eat, until I set my eyes on the retch-inducing offerings of the "restaurant" at the terminal. Reluctantly I bought something claiming to be a ham and cheese sandwich, though the meanings of these words has obviously changed somewhat in the hundreds of years that this "food" had been sitting in its plastic wrapper at room temperature.

The bus rolled into New Orleans at about 9 pm, driving past boarded up houses and large communities of homeless people living under elevated highways. I got off the bus and waited for my bag to be unloaded from the bus. As more and more bags were unloaded I got nervous, worried I would never see my bag again. Finally they went around to the other side, opened the other doors to the cargo hold, and there it was.

I grabbed my bag, left the terminal and got a taxi. We went to the hostel, called India House. A bunch of the people I met in Austin had stayed at India House and said it was pretty cool, and they weren't wrong. But by the time I checked in I was exhausted and not at all in the mood for socialising. At 10 pm on a Saturday night in New Orleans, I went straight to bed.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Days 18-22

I've gotten a bit behind on blogging so I can't remember everything else that happened in Austin. Here are the highlights:

Went out on 6th Street a lot. 6th Street has tons of good live music and is generally pretty awesome, though it gets pretty frat-boyish at certain times of the week.

Visited the Texas Capitol building. Its main claim to fame is being taller than the US Capitol. It's pretty cool because you can walk right into the House of Representatives and the Senate, though the Senate closed before I got there because it was late in the day. There's a number of monuments on the grounds, including a replica of the Statue of Liberty and a Civil War monument with a plaque talking about how the North are a bunch of jerks.

Found a place called Pete's Duelling Piano Bar, which is probably the greatest bar in the world. It was just like that Daffy Duck/Donald Duck duelling piano scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Two guys at grand pianos, each representing a different state, bantered with each other while playing. People would tip them, and whoever had the most tips at any given moment would sing funny stuff. It's incredibly fun to watch.

Went to the Alamo Drafthouse theatre. It's pretty cool because you can order food and drinks during the movie. I saw Drive, which is a pretty excellent movie.

Met heaps of cool people at the hostel. The hostel in Austin had the highest concentration of Australians I've seen at any hostel yet. I also met some awesome and funny Americans there. There was a duck who liked to hang around us when we were sitting outside, who the group decided was called Sam. Sam would drink beer spilled on the ground or left in a bowl.

Went to Barton Springs with some people from the hostel. Barton Springs is a cool place, there's a pool which is fed by a spring which keeps the water at 20-22 °C year round. I didn't get to swim there though, they kept closing the pool because of a thunderstorm off in the distance.

I found an Embassy Suites hotel which I assumed must be the one where Tucker Max allegedly, um, made a mess in the lobby. Though I later noticed there's more than one Embassy Suites in Austin.

Went to SoCo (South Congress Ave.), a trendy but quieter area of Austin. There's an area on Congress Avenue about a block long where food trailers congregate, offering all sorts of weird cuisine. I got some kind of spicy chicken thing served in a cone. I went to watch some band playing in an outdoor area, who did a pretty good cover of Baby Got Back. Then I went to the Continental Club, a live music venue of some note.

On my last night in Austin I went to watch the bats. The Congress Avenue Bridge is home to 1.5 million bats, where the inch-wide expansion joints inadvertently created the perfect home for them. Every night around sunset they all fly out to find food. Austin residents love them because they keep the mosquito population down, and lots of people gather by the bridge to watch them emerge. When I went, there was a few hundred people. Enough people that there was a guy selling cheap light-up toys for kids to play with.

Austin was a nice place to be. My only disappointment was that I didn't hear a lot of Texas accents. According to a guy I was talking to at the SoCo food trailers, you don't really get proper Texas accents in Austin because so many people come to Austin from elsewhere, and I can see why they would. The main downside, though, is that it's really hot. Close to 40 °C most days when I was there, and it gets even hotter in Summer. Overall I give Austin a rating of four out of five squirrels.

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Middlerun Does America, Day 17: Austin

At 1 am on Sunday morning my flight left Las Vegas. The flight was OK, though the only in-flight movies available had to be bought for like six bucks. Stingy bastards.

I transferred in Houston. By the time we got to Houston it was about breakfast time, so I went looking for some food. I found a Wendy's which had a long line, and next to it there was a Mexican place with nobody waiting, so I decided to give them some business. This turned out to be a mistake - the breakfast burrito I got was the most disgusting thing I've ever eaten.

After a couple of hours of waiting and feeling like the burrito was going to come out the same way it went in, I got my connecting flight and arrived in Austin. Getting the bus into town I found some kind of festival happening. I suddenly found I had an intense craving for freshly squeezed lemonade, and within a couple of minutes I was able to locate a lemonade stand. Funny how that works.

I got another bus to the hostel. The hostel in Austin is in a great spot right on the shore of Lady Bird Lake, but for some reason everything around it is a bit iffy. Walking there from the bus stop took me past all sorts of old shut-down buildings.

After checking in and dumping by bags I went back into town to have a better look at the festival. There were all sorts of stalls selling the standard stuff stalls sell, a couple of bands playing, a petting zoo, pony rides and that sort of thing. There was also a Lego thing with big lego animals, a model town, and a few building competitions in progress. That was pretty cool. I saw a sign pointing to a climbing wall, which I assumed meant indoor rock climbing, but it turned out to be a giant flat sheet-metal wall with magnetic things to strap onto your feet and hands to climb the wall. Which would be really fun if it worked properly, but the kids doing it kept slipping because the magnets couldn't quite support them. Lame.

All this was happening on 6th Street, which is the main bar scene in Austin. Even during the day there's lots of bars open playing live music. I picked one more or less at random. The band playing there was awesome. The two guitarists both played like maniacs and the woman had an great singing voice. They played loud fast country rock and they even played Another Brick in the Wall Part 2. I really wish I could remember what they were called.

At one point two parents stood by the door with a kid, maybe two or three, holding a ukulele. The kid walked up to the stage like he wanted to join in. Someone helped him onto the stage and everyone cheered. The band started maing jokes about welcoming their newest member. The kid looked like he wasn't sure what to do but when he held the ukulele up like he was about to bust out a solo the crowd went fucking nuts, cheering louder than the band was playing. Somebody tipped him a dollar. It was hilarious.

After they finished their set I got a bus back to the hostel. Remember how I said it's in an iffy area? As I walked from the bus stop to the hostel some guy asked me for money because his "car ran out of gas", which I assumed meant he wanted beer and/or cigarettes. So what I did was, I offered to walk with him to a service station and buy some petrol. He said that wouldn't work because his car was parked elsewhere. I asked him how, if I gave him money, he would get the petrol to his car and he said he'd get a jug. Notice the logical contradiction there? Like he somehow can't use a jug if I'm the one buying the petrol. I said I didn't have any cash and he said if I bought him some cigarettes he could sell them to someone for petrol money. At this point I was pretty sick of it so I suddenly "remembered" that I still had a bit of cash on me, gave him a few bucks and got out of there. It's amazing how persistent people can be.

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 16: The Grand Canyon

I got up after not quite enough sleep to give myself lots of quality Grand Canyon time. While eating breakfast I got talking to some of the other people at the hostel. There was a nice couple from Israel who were trying to get a ride out to the canyon so I offered to take them. After packing everything up we went out to the car and spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to open the boot to put their bags in. Eventually I gave up and consulted the manual.

The weird thing about the Prius is that there's no actual key, it's all wireless. After pressing the unlock button on the remote to no avail, I found in the manual that I had to press another unlock button in the car door. Finally we loaded in the bags and set off. The next challenge was to buy some petrol. At some (most?) petrol stations in America you have to pre-buy petrol to stop people doing a gas and dash. So that took some figuring out.

Finally we left Flagstaff and made the hour-and-a-half drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. By an amazing stroke of luck, entry to the Grand Canyon National Park was free that day (usually $25 for a car) because of National Public Lands Day, so that saved a bit of cash. We found a parking spot and I said goodbye to my passengers, who were planning to stay for the night in one of the hotels near the canyon. I hope they managed to find something.

The Grand Canyon really is a breathtaking sight. It's not something that can be fully conveyed by photos. Although, it's so staggeringly huge that your eyes can't really get any depth perception on most of it so it ends up looking a bit like a giant painting.

There was a few good lookout spots near the carpark and a trail which led along the rim of the canyon. I walked along the trail for a while getting some good photos, but trying to walk any appreciable distance along the Grand Canyon is like trying to drain the Pacific Ocean with a thimble so I ended up going back to the car to drive to some other viewing spots. Desert View Road runs through the trees near the rim, and goes by various viewing areas, each of which give a slightly different view of the canyon.

Yaki Point is on this road. Back in the day people used to take a 12-hour stagecoach ride from Flagstaff to Yaki Point to see the Grand Canyon and stay in the hotel there, which is gone now. It was near there that there used to be a silver mine. It's still possible to go into the canyon and walk right into the mines, although it's not safe. There are hiking tracks that go from Yaki Point down into the canyon, which would have been great to do but I wasn't really prepared for hiking and didn't have the time. I did go down one track just for a few minutes which gave a pretty great view, and by the time I got back up the steep trail I was already sweating and thirsty.

The last stop along the road before you leave the park is Desert View, which is home to a watchtower decorated with Native American paintings and doubling as a gift shop, and another store selling food, drinks and more souvenirs. The watchtower doesn't really give a much better view - the canyon's so big that going up by ten metres means approximately nothing.

By about four in the afternoon I'd seen what I wanted to, and figured I should get back to Vegas to return the car and catch my flight to Austin. I hit the road and kept going for four hours, which is unusual for me as I tend to stop every couple of hours for drinks and stuff. But I was in the zone. I set the air conditioning just right, found a good radio station, figured out how to use the cruise control and just sat on the speed limit the whole time. With the straight roads, the cruise control and the automatic transmission I barely had to do anything except overtake the occasional truck and turn on the windscreen wipers at one point when it started to rain a bit. Before I knew it I was driving through Boulder City, Nevada, and getting hungry. I pulled into Taco Bell and got some weird thing called a crunchwrap. That was pretty good. Then I pressed on to Vegas, filled the petrol tank and let the GPS guide me back to the rental agency.

After dropping off the car I caught the shuttle from the Rent-A-Car Center to the main part of the airport and checked in for my 1 am flight to Austin. I went through the TSA security theatre stuff, which was a bit of an ordeal as I'd been led to believe, but only took five minutes or so. When you go into that pornoscanner thing, you have to raise your hands above your head like you're being arrested. I'm not convinced that is entirely necessary. I also had to throw away some perfectly good shampoo and conditioner, but I was expecting that. After all, shampoo is a crucial ingredient in all sorts of explosive devices. After this was done and they were convinced that the empty water bottle in my bag was not, in fact, a threat to national security, I caught the tram that goes to the terminal.

Where the inner sanctum (as I like to call it) of the Sydney airport was a giant shopping centre, the inner sanctum of the Las Vegas airport is just another bloody casino. Row after row of poker machines stretch the length of the terminal. I shoved a dollar in one for old time's sake and after a few spins I hit one of the mystical combinations of cherries or whatever, and my credit went up to $2.14. I printed a ticket and took it to the cashier to claim my newly acquired fortune.

After an hour or so it was time to board. I was going to take my backpack as carry-on, but they were concerned about running out of overhead storage space so they offered to check bags for free, which usually costs $25. I hurried over to the desk and gave them my enormous bag. That's twice in one day I saved $25! Plus the couple I gave a ride to the Grand Canyon gave me $20 for petrol, so that's $70 made/saved in one day, just by sheer luck. No, wait. $71.14. Good old poker machines. Who says you can't get lucky in Vegas?

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