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

An Engagement in Hawaii: Week 221

Polaroid of a church in Lahaina: Maui, Hawaii

Lahaina is lush but also arid- red dirt and hibiscus.

Front Street, the epicenter of the town, runs parallel to the coast. It is filled with tourists, restaurants, and shops. From Front Street the land makes a parabolic rise up into the shrouded West Maui Mountains.

It was around 2:30 in the afternoon when a troop of yellow school buses honked their way through Lahaina. The kids from Kamehameha III Elementary were celebrating their last day of school by sliding out of view and waving their hands out the windows.

At the south end of town, near the school, a massive banyan tree canopied a public square. Families sat in the shade and a backpacker rubbed ointment onto his tanned foot. Barret and I strolled down the street, past a stand of parrots that squawked aloha, and had lunch overlooking the waterfront.

Boys bodyboarding at Kaanapali: Maui, Hawaii

To the south and north of Lahaina, all along Honoapiilani Highway, the coastal side of the road was filled with cars. The charcoal grills were hot and the ocean was filled with people and boards. Everyone knows Hawaii is famous for surfing, but it is still surprising to see so many people out in the water at all times of the day. It makes you wonder when and if they ever work.

Barret eating a popsicle at the Twin Falls Farmstand: Maui, Hawaii

The Twin Falls Farmstand is on the eastern end of Maui, which is the side that receives all the rain. The little stand sells smoothies, drinking coconuts, and popsicles on sugarcane sticks. Just beyond the stand is a trail that crosses a small river twice before ending at a waterfall.

Large puffy white clouds floated out of the woods and hung over the clearing. A mother of three studied the dissipating clouds with a large frown. Her husband, a man with thinning hair and an armband tattoo, enthusiastically watched stoned teenagers jump off a precipice and into the cool water below. “I’ve jumped off higher,” he mouthed in her direction. Her frown deepened.

North of the falls, Barret and I stopped at a lookout point. I bought a drinking coconut from a brightly painted van that was manned by a woman with voluminous hair, a voluminous bust, and big jewelry.

At the lookout point Barret distracted me with sea turtles while he pulled out an engagement ring. Although I had selected the ring, I was completely caught off guard.

Polaroid of the proposal in Maui, Hawaii

“Look at what I am wearing!” I exclaimed as I surveyed my wrinkled pants and Teva sandals. My arms were caked in sunblock.

“This is who we are,” Barret replied. “This is what we look like most of the time.”

I had always thought that the proposal would make me cry a lot, but looking back I just remember laughing with joy. Although if you ask Barret, I cried for five minutes behind my sunglasses.

I couldn’t wait to share the news, so before we left I returned to the coconut stand. The vendor squealed in excitement before proclaiming, “isn’t that a cute little promise ring.” Not exactly the response I was expecting, but I think our tastes were a bit different.

Polaroid of a van selling drinking coconuts: Maui, Hawaii

After living in Sydney, I knew Honolulu was a popular destination for Aussie shoppers. However, it wasn’t till I was there that I realized the scale of the development- it was a tropical Las Vegas minus the casinos. Older vestiges of the Waikiki beach culture remained, but massive hotels, shopping centers, and restaurant chains dwarfed those two-story bungalow apartments. The main thoroughfare was filled with people in neon green shirts advertising shooting ranges.

Flyer for a gun range in Waikiki: Honolulu, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor was just north of the airport. Barret and I showed up on an empty stomach and we laughed when we discovered that the food court only sold hotdogs and nacho chips- both covered in liquid cheese. Every where else in the world the food cart is a culinary treasure, in the US it is most often a form of torture.

Photo of the boat which transports visitors to the USS Arizona War Memorial: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

It cost nothing to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, which could only be accessed by boat, but we had to collect a ticket for a specific time. Because there were so many people, we had a few hours to explore the museums beforehand. One of the things that stood out most for me was how well the collection explained the events leading up to the bombing without reducing everything to: USA good, Japan evil.

However, the most interesting site at Pearl Harbor was of course the memorial for the USS Arizona. This unfortunate vessel had been scheduled to leave the day before it was attacked but had instead been docked for an overnight repair. Because of this, it was fully manned and stocked with fuel- 1.5 million gallons.

Postcard of the USS Arizona: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

After the attack, the USS Arizona burned for three days. Despite this, about 500,000 gallons of oil remained intact and have been leaking ever since. Up to nine quarts of ‘black tears’ bubble up to the surface every day and leave a rainbow-colored residue on the water.

In total, 1,177 crewmen died and of the 37 sets of brothers assigned to the USS Arizona, only one complete set made it out alive. In 1982 a repatriation program began which offered survivors of the USS Arizona the opportunity to have their ashes laid to rest inside one of the ship’s gun turrets. More than 30 crewman have chosen to have the watery grave as their final resting place.

Photo of Waikiki Beach at sunset: Honolulu, Hawaii

Hawaii is a tropical paradise, but it was also a little bit different from what I had anticipated. The number of boxy strip malls surprised me just as much as the massive size of the sea turtles I swam with in Napili Bay.

Honolulu had a thick knot of traffic and a massive highway infrastructure, but when I met a woman in the hotel lobby who had just moved there, I could understand why she was so happy. She had just found her own little slice of heaven. I was sad to be leaving.

Polaroid of swimmers at Waikiki Beach: Honolulu, Hawaii

About: Lahaina

How to get to the Twin Falls Farmstand: East on Hana Highway past the town of Paia. Around mile marker 2 is a bridge- on the right hand side is a parking lot and the farmstand.

How to get to Pearl Harbor: Take bus #20 or #42 to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center

About: Waikiki, Oahu

Goodbye Sydney: Week 220

Bandaged foot

I knew it was the end when my foot dropped out from in front of me and I tumbled into the intersection. Not the end of my life, but the end of an era. I have this strange tendency to hurt my feet right before I leave somewhere. If I were more superstitious and less klutzy, I would probably consider it a sign that I shouldn’t leave.

My move to South Korea occurred after tripping over a cinder block at work. On the journey from Korea to New Zealand I angrily ran away from a taxi driver that was trying to add fees onto the metered rate. In my haste, I was thrown off balance by the weight of my backpack and skinned my knee and foot. Barret insisted on scrubbing the black gravel out of my wound and dousing the whole thing with hydrogen peroxide.

New Zealand was left with a flurry of blisters and Vanuatu was too. The only difference being the blisters from Vanuatu became infected and made my veins feel like glass tubes under my skin.

And so, during my last night in Sydney, I stepped right into a missing chunk of the sidewalk curb. My ankle twisted and the top of my foot scraped down the rough side of the concrete. I caught myself as I fell into the intersection and stumbled across the road just in time to catch the same train my friend was on.

By the time my friend and exited at St James Station, blood had begun pooling inside my shoe. I hobbled over to the station master’s office and took a seat while the first aid responder was called. It took about ten minutes to determine the best method for cleaning the wound. Then, while the benefits of Bandaids vs bandages were discussed, I began laughing because the situation was so ridiculous.

“It’s funny because I’m on my way to my goodbye dinner,” I explained to the employee who had won the most recent debate and was wrapping my foot with an entire bandage roll.

He smiled without knowing the recurrent connection between the two events and then asked, “Where are you going?”

“I’m moving to Colombia to teach English.”

“Oh.” He replied. “Hey, next time your back I’ll be better at this first aid thing.”

“No worries,” I smiled. “I hope someday to be back in Sydney and when I hurt my foot, I’ll know which station to go to.”

Letters Home: Week 219

WWI letter from the NSW State Library collection: Sydney, Australia

A month after the WWI armistice was signed, the NSW State Library advertised their desire to purchase the diaries of returning officers from Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. The price was determined by the quality of the entries as well as the rank of the officer. Of the 500 strong collection, many diaries came from stretcher bearers. The highest paid diary set belonged to Major General Rosenthal. He received 75 pounds.

For the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, the NSW State Library hosted an event called Letters Home. Since most of the material in the collection is one-sided, three panelists were asked to craft their own response to a WWI letter of their choice.

The fourth and youngest member of the panel was an actor named Brandon McClelland from a show called Anzac Girls. I’ve never seen the show, but with his gorgeous voice I imagined his character cradling a dying nurse in his arms while whispering you’re going to make it- just hold on! He administers the last bit of medicine available, but it is the sound of his voice that guides her back to her senses.

Even the men were moved. Peter FitzSimons, a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, asked the audience of predominantly retired women, “who thinks Brandon had the best voice ever?” As people cheered Peter joked, “he could sell fly spray to housewives and they’d think they got sex.”

Peter is also a non-fiction author and he was just in the process of finishing up a book about WWI. When it was time for his response it felt both memorized and off-the-cuff at the same time. He leaned into the podium with an aggressive stance and tore into his monologue with white-hot rage.

Peter apologized to Langford Colley-Priest, the stretcher barer from Neutral Bay whom he was replying to, for the unnecessary carnage. The men who ordered the pointless military maneuvers that kept Priest’s stretchers filled round the clock were never held accountable. Five and a half thousand men died in one battle alone and not one yard was gained.

The last panelist to read her response was Jackie French, an award-winning children’s book author. She was a firecracker of a woman in a red poppy shirt and red lipstick and wasn’t afraid to cut to the chase. “Has anyone ever killed someone?” Jackie asked the crowd. “Has anyone ever had someone try to kill them?”

Many years ago she had been taken hostage by a Basque terrorist organization and had been in a very difficult situation in which she had not been able to save a three-year-old child. From this experience Jackie emphasized that these letters and diaries should not be read voyeuristically. The reader should enter the piece after having thought about what they would do in that situation. Would they be willing to make the same sacrifices that the soldiers did?

At the end of the evening we left with a taste of what it had been like to be a soldier on the frontlines and also with a piece of fruitcake burning our tongues and warming our bellies. Because it was prohibited to send bottles of alcohol, soldiers were often sent sticky soft fruitcakes laced with rum and brandy. You could smell the alcohol from a few feet away.

Jackie was the 6th generation in her family to have sent this cake to an overseas soldier. “Only have a small piece if you are driving!” Jackie called out from the podium.

In an ideal world, she would also be the last generation to have that opportunity and the cake would instead become what it was that evening- a little piece of history enjoyed in the comfort of a library.

About: The NSW State Library WWI letter collection

Laneway Learning: Week 218

Making sock puppets at Laneway Learning: Sydney, Australia

Laneway Learning is a series of informal classes that usually take place in bars. The one-off classes cover a variety of topics from floral arrangements to playing the ukulele. On Monday evening my friend and I slipped into the Duck Inn, the subject of the night was sock puppets.

We arrived early and took a seat at the bar to order dinner. I realized I was really going to enjoy the evening when I noticed that the customer to our right was a dark grey cat named Neko. He was daintily perched on the bar stool and coolly indifferent to the goings on around him.

By the time we finished dinner, the sock puppet hosts had set up all the materials- fabric, scissors, googly eyes, yarn, embroidery thread, and glue guns. When the lesson began, there were about 20 attendees. The cool autumnal weather permeated the windows next to the work tables, so Emma and I bought two glasses of hot mulled wine and got down to work.

My purple and black striped sock slowly took on a masculine persona that was something between a pirate and a librarian. Emma’s pink and white striped sock was definitely female and had a fluffy pink mane.

Towards the end of the night the room smelled like glue guns and burnt hair. Neko had roused out of his stupor to investigate the activity and in doing so had brushed his tail against a lit candle. Luckily he had emerged unscathed and everyone else left that night with an interesting Tuesday morning conversation starter for the office.

About: Laneway Learning

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