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Friday, September 30, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Day 15: Hoover Dam and Flagstaff

On Friday morning I went to the Rent-A-Car Center at the airport to pick up a car to drive to the Grand Canyon. The process of renting the car opened my eyes to a whole new world of mathematics, as I watched $33.49 per day turn into $280 for two days, as various fees, taxes and insurance were added up. The guy at the rental agency convinced me to get a Prius for an extra ten dollars a day on the pretense that I would save more than that much in fuel. It later occurred to met that this was bullshit, as Priuses only really save fuel during stop-start city driving and are about the same as any economy car on the highway.

I was worried about adapting to driving on the right-hand side of the road and sitting on the left-hand side of the car, but this turned out to be easy. The real difficulty was adapting to the Prius's weird controls. The GPS was also a bit unreliable, and failed to tell me when to turn off to visit the Hoover Dam.

The Hoover Dam is one of the highlights of the trip so far. Marking the border between Nevada and Arizona, you can drive right across the top of the dam wall, which is in fact what people had to do to cross the lake before they put in the new bridge last year. After parking the car and stepping out into the billion degree heat, I quickly realised that my choice of long pants was a foolish wardrobe decision and quickly changed into a pair shorts in the car, before drenching myself with sunscreen.

I walked back from the carpark to the dam, past the Arizona spillway, one of two spillways which protect the dam from damage by letting excess water spill safely to the river below. The Nevada spillway is on the other side.

Snapping a few photos of the dam wall, intake towers and electrical stuff, I made my way to the visitor centre to do the tour. There are two tours, an $11, half hour tour of the power plant, and a $30 hour-long tour which also takes you right into the tunnels in the dam wall. Needless to say, I did the full tour.

The Hoover Dam is really a thing of beauty, and deliberately so. One of the things they explained on the tour was that when the dam was being designed, they wanted it to be not only functional, but an example of human achievement to inspire future generations. To this end the dam is full of intricate terrazzo tiling, brass doors and fixtures, statues and so on. One copper door had been polished every day since the dam was built, to the point where the finish had worn through to the base metal in one spot. Maybe at that point it's time to re-evaluate the polishing policy?

The tour started with a trip down a giant lift which took us all the way from the top of the dam to one of the diversion tunnels, which were built to divert the river while the dam was being built. The tour guide gave a talk about the diversion tunnels and how they started building the dam. From there we rode the lift back up to one of the power plants. The tour guide explained about how the water is drawn from the intake towers and drives the turbines, creating electricity which is mostly used in LA. Then the tightwads who didn't spring for the full tour had to leave, and the elite few of us continued on into the tunnels of the dam wall.

After walking through some tunnels and the tour guide explaining some things, we got another lift up to the tunnels about halfway up the dam wall. Eventually we came to a ventilation tunnel which ended at a grate at the surface of the dam. It was possible to stick a hand out through this grate and take a photo of the dam from below. The results were pretty cool. We also saw some steep stairs which led up and down to different levels, which the tour guide referred to at the Stairway to Heaven and the Stairway to Hell. In some spots on the tunnel walls there were crayon marks with numbers. The tour guide explained that these markings indicated cracks that had been found. She pointed out one that was marked in 1948. It was so thin I couldn't even see it. That's how meticulous they are.

Finally we got another lift back up to the top of the dam. After the tour I went and saw the large model of the Colorado River that is there, including a model of the dam. By then I was starving so I went to get lunch. Pro tip: if you're visiting the Hoover Dam, bring your own lunch. I paid $9 plus tax for what amounted to a Big Mac. I guess they need to make as much money as they can since the new visitor centre apparently cost more than the dam itself (though I'm pretty sure that's not adjusted for inflation).

Then it was time to hit the road again and I set off down the I-93. The plan was to drive to Flagstaff, Arizona, spend the night there, and see the Grand Canyon in the morning. Over the next few hours the landscape gradually changed from barren desert to a much more green, tree covered affair, which was a nice change. I kept seeing signs along the highway indicating turnoffs to parts of the famous Route 66 but I didn't really feel like changing my course to drive on it, even for the bragging rights. Though it turned out that driving into Flagstaff takes you along Route 66, so I did get to drive on it after all.

The GPS unit dutifully led me to the hostel in Flagstaff, a nice wooden building across the road from some lively looking pubs. I checked in, dumped my bags and had a look around the hostel. It was pretty reasonable except for not having any basins in the bathrooms to wash your hands, just a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Eww. After settling in a bit I got ready to go downtown for some dinner and a few beers. The main downtown area of Flagstaff was only a couple of blocks away which was a nice change from the epic bus treks in LA and Vegas.

I didn't know what to expect from Flagstaff but it's actually really cool. Flagstaff has cool looking bars full of college students like Las Vegas has casinos full of poker machines. I found a decent looking restaurant and ordered the most vegetable-filled thing I could find in a vain attempt to compensate for two weeks of burgers and pizza. After that I found an Irish bar, had a couple of beers and observed the American college students. The stereotypes are true. I felt like David Attenborough.

Before long I figured it was time to get some sleep since it was going to be a long day tomorrow. I finished my beer, went outside, chatted with a few people for a while then went back to the hostel and went to bed. Anyway, it turns out that on a Friday night when thousands of students all leave bars at the same time, things get kind of noisy. Who knew?

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