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Vineyards in Vegas

We started in Venice on a travelator. Later, we were flung about, stomachs dropping out as we hurtled downhill on a rollercoaster in New York and then ate lunch in the dimly lit streets of Paris, the Eiffel Tower above us, its legs stuck through the painted sky. We take in the Bellagio, Luxor, Treasure Island and Caesars Palace, watching in horrid fascination as candy floss haired women tuck lines of coins in to blinking machines and jab at buttons. Grim faced men crowd around poker tables occasionally jumping up and shouting in exultation then sit back down and feed the winnings back in to the city. This is, of course, Las Vegas. We drive in on a dusty, hot desert road to the sight of palm trees and flash cars. Everywhere are people sucking down big pots of frozen cocktails. There is a concentration of astoundingly bizarre looking and unattractive people here mixing in the crowds with tight faced women tottering on heels, golden hair bouncing unnaturally. We have booked two nights at The Flamingo, the oldest hotel on the strip , it mysteriously costs us the same as a dorm bed each in Europe. We choose between an Excalibur castle, a blue and neon green high rise and a circus. The Flamingo wins because it has real flamingoes living in the gardens and a pool full of waterfalls. We never make it to the pool, the squirming millions have also found it and are busy flirting, drinking and hooting like some ill defined zoo.

Leaving the plump pillowed  comforts of our snazzy room, we hit the streets to gawp at the hallucinogenic scene surrounding us. The air is ringing with heat and each casino pours a champagne stream of cold air on to us as we walk past. Inside the casinos, the lighting is kept dusky. The restrooms are buried deep inside the buildings and there are restaurant outlets, shops and bars everywhere. It all conspires to disorient the gamblers making it feel like a perpetual evening with no reason to step out in to the big bad world again. Stay a while, gamble a weeks budget in one go, eat some. Bedtime? There’s no such thing as bedtime. Feed the machines, feed the machines.

The contrast couldn’t be more stark or shocking. Two days previously we are biking down a winding road where deer are ranging on the open grassland either side of us. Sometimes they take fright as Jamie revs the bike when we pass them and scatter in to the forests beyond. One individual with less smarts than the rest pricks up his ears and runs and runs away but fails to understand that he is running in the same direction that we are driving. He follows us for a few minutes all a panic before we overtake him and leave him to try and make sense of the situation. We have driven from a little town called Panguitch which sounds delicious to me. It is a Sunday and every shop is closed except for the gas stations which sell queasy smelling burgers and contain an absolute dearth of fresh fruit or vegetables. We bicker and argue in the empty streets and back at our hotel room. We are tired out and fraying around the edges but we have bought tickets for Woman In Gold at the tiny, local cinema so we have to kiss and make up by 6pm.

The cinema seems to be run entirely by one slightly deaf but cheerful man. He sells the tickets, serves the sodas, acts as the projectionist and serves the icecream. You can order a trough of icecream containing $25 worth of different flavours including birthday cake flavour. If you successfully finish the trough, you get your photo taken and go on the ‘hip cats wall of fame’. There are only three pictures of dairy surmounting winners. One is a child. Jamie squints at the photo.

 

I could do that.

 

He says dismissively.

We go in to the nearly empty auditorium. The screen is rippling in the wind that comes in through the open fire exit and we take the best seats in the house. The owner comes in, closes the door and the film begins. No adverts. No trailers.

It is all about Helen Mirren being Austrian and Ryan Reynolds getting repeatedly teary. Though slightly pro Amuricah! and sentimental, it decently and rather sadly tells the story of the attempt by an Austrian jew and her friendly neighbourhood lawyer to have Gustav Klimt’s ‘Woman In Gold’ painting returned to her by the Austrian art gallery it resides in. A true story, the painting was stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War from Maria Altmann’s family who met an unpleasant end whilst Maria escaped to the USA. The story had us in deep conversation about Austria’s role in the Holocaust and what we have learnt about Jewishness whilst being here. Jamie is particularly fascinated because he has family connections with Austria and had never previously considered any ill will towards the country.

We leave Panguitch the next day still talking about the film as we swoop through green valleys and pleasant towns to arrive a few hours later at the North Rim visitor centre which is surrounded by cutesy log cabins with rocking chairs on the porches. The carpark is full but there are no crowds, just the odd couple milling about, shambling down to the edge. We follow them and the little wooden signs until we reach the lodge which has a sense of twenty years ago about it. We choose Bright Angel trail to begin with which is very short but straight to the point. It leads is to a rocky overlook which Jamie climbs straight up unhesitatingly and I follow shuffling crablike to avoid the gusts of wind which threaten to blow me off the edge to a jammy death at the bottom.  When I have regain my balance I look up at Jamie who is standing staring out at the view. I follow his gaze and we are rendered silent for a moment gazing in to the distance.

 

Shit

 

I say,

 

It’s absolutely massive.

 

The Grand Canyon stretches out in front of us vastly. It is incomprehensibly enormous. Giant strata in the rocks run red, cream, brown and, at the bottom, black. These oldest and deepest rocks are named the Vishnu Basement Rocks, a name I rather like and which gives me the chills. These rocks are 1.74 BILLION  years old but the ones at the top, a sprightly 270 million. You could lose all of time and space in here.

We have chosen to come to the North Rim of the canyon as opposed to the overcrowded but more iconic South Rim because we are antisocial and some eople told us the flowers here were nice. Well they were right, the grasslands are full of little lilac and white flowers. Delicate alpines of the sort you have to buy at National Trust garden shops back home cling on to the rocks everywhere we go. Little, fat dragon like lizards scuttle about on the forest paths and mules loaded with stiff looking tourists trundle slowly down the spaghetting paths to the Colorado River which flows at the very bottom of the canyon.

We drink iced lemonade and steal little packets of parmesan cheese from the inaptly named ‘deli’ by the lodge and follow a five mile path through the oods feeding a stableful of mules some handfuls of grass on the way. We sit on rocky ledges embedded with fossilised shells high up on the canyon side and take photos of the rainbow stripes running down the cliff faces; a product of iron ore and other minerals leaching out of the white sandstone. A little, pale blue bird flies past Jamie’s head prompting him to run to a tree shouting LOOK AT HIS HOLE! which momentarily confuses me before I see what he is pointing to. There is an empty knothole in the tree in to which the bird has vanished. As we stand quietly at the bottom staring up, the bird reappears, an insect in its beak, and gives us a whatthewhat?! look and flies away startled.

We pack up the tent with hushed voices at 6 in morning watching the sun rise above the trees. The air is cold on our faces as it slips through the gaps in our hlmets and the road is still in deep shadow. The sunlight falls in golden squares on the meadows to our left and deer look up at us as we pass them grazing at the edge of the road. Jamie brakes sharply several times as it appears that they are on urgent business at the other side of the road wherever we go and pleasant as venison steaks sound, we have a destination.

We slowly descend from the 8000 foot elevation of the North Rim back on to the over heated, dusty plateau below passing messy, sprawling little towns and  then in to the desert. The temperature rises until we are both slopping about in our motorbike gear. I slurp my glove off and hold my hand out, enjoying the warm air drying my fingers. We drink big cups of coke with ice and stand in the shade at gas stations wondering what we are doing in this bleached out, ugly corner of the world. Finally though, the city rises up in the distance shrouded in a filthy blue haze and we know the drive is nearly over.

Wearrive in Vegas at midday, follow the confusing road signs and battle with madness in the traffic before slipping in to the low ceilinged darkness of the Flamingo carpark and falling off the bike as we corner too slowly. A stylish arrival to Sin City we agree. A lady asks us if we need help and we laugh and decline gratefully. I think that we could both do with a drink. We unpack the grimy clothes and wood smokey bags from Robin Rawhide and self consciously head in to the bright, marble clad lobby to check in. Once in our room we discover that, to wash all our clothes via the hotel’s itemised laundry service would set us back $150. This is somewhat beyond what we were expecting to pay so we lie about on the bed thinking of alternatives.

We can wash them in the bath I think. Easy. We can use our feet like grape squashers making wine. So, we dump the stinking clothes in to the gleaming tub and squeeze all available shampoo in with them then fill up with lovely, hot, clean water and jump in. It is rather like we are making a nice Chablis I think enjoying the feelings of the fabric billowing around my feet. Jamie looks flushed in the heat but quite pleased too. I look down at my trampling hooves and am dismayed to find that we haven’t made a good French white at all. No, we have made a sort of soup, a gravy of clothes with a distinct socky aroma. We can’t even see our feet anymore in the pottage. Have we been wearing this?? I think, appalled and look up at Jamie who looks at me and laughs.

 

This is NOT how I imagined my first day in Vegas…..

 

He says.

And I have to agree.

 

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Noodle kugel – in honour of Maria Altmann who kicked ass ( recipe provided by Gavi)

1 pound wide egg noodles 2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened 1 pound (16 ounces) creamed cottage cheese, full fat 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 stick salted butter, melted, plus more for greasing the baking dish 8 eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 cup dried cherries

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9×13 glass baking dish.

Parboil the noodles (5 to 7 minutes) and drain them in a colander. In a very large bowl beat cream cheese until fluffy, add cottage cheese and beat for another minute. Scrape bowl down well. Add sugar and combine, then melted butter, and scrape down the bowl another time. Add the eggs one at a time, beating between additions. Add cinnamon, vanilla and mix, then stir in dried cherries. Finally, carefully mix in the drained egg noodles.

Pour into prepared baking dish and bake for one hour before checking to see if the center is set. It may need up to 30 minutes more. (Yes, I know this range is crazy, but I’ve baked kugels that took either end of the range. They refuse to be predictable.)

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