by Bob Sparrow

stregisbentley‘Road Trip’ was the simple headline in a local magazine; those words however are always a clarion call me and thus seduced me to read on.  This road trip was described as ‘one of the world’s most iconic drives’ – cruising the coast on Highway 1 between Orange County and San Francisco, taking in Big Sur and the beautiful coast line along the way.  I read on to discover that this ‘Pacific Grand Tour Aficionado Package’ was being offered by St. Regis Resorts.  As a rule Istregisoc try to stay away from packages with the word ‘Grand’ in them, as it usually refers to the price. Add words like ‘aficionado’ and St. Regis and I can almost feel my bank account wither as I’m reading.  But it gets better . . . or worse.  What makes the tour so grand is not only that it includes two nights at both ends of the trip in St. Regis Resorts in OC and SF, but it also includes a Bentley Mulsanne.  For those who think Bentley Mulsanne is a footman on Downton Abby, it is not; it is an expensive automobile – a very expensive automobile, like $300,000 expensive – if you don’t want any extras.  Undaunted . . . OK, I was somewhat daunted, but I continued reading and finally found what I was looking for . . . the price.  “Prices start at $6,900”, it said.  “Whew”, I breathed a sigh of relief, for a moment there I thought it was going to be up in the $7,000 range.   It doesn’t really say how far that ‘starting price’ will get you, but probably not out of the shadow of the St. Regis from which you are leaving, but I read on imagining myself tooling up Pacific Coast Highway in a Bentley.  I looked good.

When I finished reading the article I paused and wistfully thought to myself, I haven’t made that drive in many, many years and it is beautiful and what a thrill it would be to do it in a Bentley; I have the time and I’m not getting any younger, so . . .

zzyzxYou guessed it, I threw the magazine away and wondered what I was thinking.   But I’d been put in the mood for a road trip, so I decided to create my own package – I called it ‘The Grand Fun Bus to Barstow, Baker and Beyond’ – mostly Beyond.  It wasn’t in a bus, but it wasn’t in a Bentley either that Linda and I headed for Vegas tocdsLOVE celebrate her birthday.  Now I’m not saying that the Zzyzx Road turnoff reminded me of Big Sur or that Baker’s giant thermometer, as majestic as it is, compared favorably to the giant redwoods along the coast, but I’ll tell you this, we had $6,900 worth of fun, maybe $7,000.

The fun included a great room at the Mirage Hotel, an evening at the greatest Irish Pub (and I know my Irish Pubs) this side of Killarney, Ri Ra at Mandalay Bay, a liquid lunch (their specialty) at Margaritaville, where the bartenders put on a show that you’d pay to see, and the Cirque du Soleil LOVE show – an amazing performance that we did pay to see, AND we left town with about a thousand dollars more than we came with.

1000                                                                                                         NOW THAT’S A GRAND PACKAGE !

  I’m thinking that if I can do that 300 more time I can buy that Bentley!


Death Valley – Why?

by Bob Sparrow

    When I told people that I wanted to go to Death Valley, they asked why?   I wasn’t really sure.  I had heard that it had recently reclaimed the honor of the hottest place IN THE WORLD, wresting the title from Libya – 134 degrees!  As I prepared to make the trip I knew from watching the temperatures that it wasn’t going to be that hot, but I wondered what life in Death Valley under such extreme temperatures was like.  I thought it would be interesting to write about the extreme heat and how the flora, fauna and humans survived it.  I thought I’d be using the term ‘buzzard hot’ many times.  I was even going to bring an egg along to fry on a sidewalk.  To be honest, I thought I would mostly make fun, or at least make a number of ‘hot jokes’ about this seemingly god-forsaken place.  Those who have been there know the reality I was about to learn.

     I hit the road at 5:00 a.m. and got into Baker at 7:30.  I used to think that Baker was in the middle of nowhere, until I turned onto Highway 127 and headed north – Baker became a thriving metropolis.  After driving less than an hour, I thought I was in that giant warehouse in New Mexico where they filmed the ‘fake moon landing’.  There was nothing in the distance but Mojave Desert for as far as the eyes could see – no other cars, no road signs, not even a shoulder on the road, just a narrow two-lane road winding through the desert.  It’s a place where you really have to trust your car not to break down.

     I soon came upon Dumont Dunes (left) – real live sand dunes, just like you see in the movies, but without the camels.  My car is not an All-Terrain Vehicle, but I pretended that it was and drove off the road to get a better look at the dunes. (photo below, yes that little speck is my car).  At the junction of Highway 127 and Highway 190, I arrive at the bustling burg of Shoshone, population 31, I didn’t see one of them.  I was hoping to get gas here, but as you can see from the picture below, the car in front of me was taking quite a while to fill up, so I moved on .

     As I got closer to Death Valley the names of the towns and points of interest reminded me of just how hot it was getting outside – Furnace Creek, Hell’s Gate, Dante’s View, Stovepipe Wells, Charcoal Kilns, Burning Wagon Point.  I arrive at the Death Valley Visitor Center to get recommendations for what I should see and do.  At the top of the list was Scotty’s Castle (top photo) – another 50 miles to the north.  I got back in the car and got back on the road – it was 11:00 and the temperature just broke 100.

     The story surrounding the building of Scotty’s Castle in the middle of nowhere is a fascinating one.  Built in the 1920s, this architectural wonder featured a one million gallon swimming pool, an elaborate heating and air conditioning system which was way ahead of its time, an innovative hydro-electric power system driven by a desert spring that still delivers 300 gallons of water per minute, AND a solar panel, yes a solar panel built in the 20s!  Just as interesting as the house itself is the story of the two key characters responsible for its construction – Albert Johnson, the wealthy, Cornell educated engineer who longed to be a ‘cowboy’ and Walter Scott (Scotty), a con man who left home at the age of 11, moved to the desert as a teenager and eventually started selling shares of bogus gold mines to wealthy easterners, Johnson being one of them.  How they formed a life-long friendship is something you’ll have to read on your own.

      After Scotty’s Castle I had to get to Badwater; it’s just a field of encrusted salt, but it’s the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere – 282 feet below sea level.  Part of the reason I wanted to get to this historical location was just to breathe the air; I thought if high altitude creates thin air which is hard to breathe, then low altitudes must create ‘thick’ air – which logically would be easier to breathe.  I’m here to tell you I couldn’t tell the difference between sea level air and below sea level air.

     My most memorable drive was coming back from Badwater; a loop off the main road appropriately called Artists Palette, it is a narrow, one-way drive cut through the mountain that shows colors you’ve never seen before – it is surreal.  It underscored to me the most surprising part of my desert experience – the sheer beauty of the place, and I was told that the springtime is really beautiful.  Everywhere I drove there were beautifully colored mountains on each side of me – chocolate brown to cream-colored, cobalt blue, sage green, every shade of red and orange.  And they all changed hues from sunrise to sunset.

      I then drove out to Zabriskie Point just before sundown and my photos just don’t capture what one feels when taking in everything that nature has done to this terrain.

     Death Valley – why?  The shapes, the textures, the colors can be seen nowhere else on the planet; it should be renamed the Painted Desert – it is truly magnificent.