Sunday, September 7, 2014

Dam it, leave Las Vegas

The following appeared in the September, 2014 issue of Destinations Travel Magazine

Tell people you ventured off the Strip during your trip to Las Vegas, and you’ll more than likely be met with a guffaw, a wry, unbelieving smile or a downright nasty rebuttal. Sure, there are advertisements all around the city for helicopter rides and day-trips, and nearby “Old Vegas,” where the original casinos hawk penny slots and a more rugged, smoky version of Sin City. But for most, the glitz, glamour and round-the-clock sensory stimulation that is modern Las Vegas envelopes visitors, providing no reasonable need to stray from its sparkling casinos, dazzling dance floors and bountiful buffet lines.

Vegas, an oasis in the desert, is hard to escape because it has been constructed in such an over-the-top, larger than life way. It is a showcase of man-made wonders, even if they’re hard to recognize behind a thick veil of neon lights. There are engineering and architectural marvels up and down the Strip, from the sultry golden curves of the Wynn and Encore resorts, to the booming Bellagio water fountains. While you are staring at the Luxor’s pyramid-shaped hotel, it can be hard to remember you are staring at a pyramid-shaped hotel.   

So much of Las Vegas is impressive. From the sheer size of the resort hotels, to the level of creativity, planning and engineering that goes into their operation, and success.

But for all the awesome sights on the Strip, none of them can compare to the man-made edifice looming just outside the city. More impressive than a pyramid, an Eiffel Tower, or a giant golden lion, is an awe-inspiring, over-the top, larger-than-life manmade marvel that dwarfs them all, and also enables them to exist: the Hoover Dam.

About a forty-five minute drive from the Strip, the Hoover Dam is an easy side trip for anyone looking to get outdoors and away from the stale air inside the casinos. Most resorts either have rental car options or can point you to one nearby. The short drive through the dusty city outskirts in a convertible is a treat in itself. 

But the whoa moment comes after you park that rental car and stroll down past the visitors center. Like so many sights back in Las Vegas, the sheer size is what hits you first – only here, there are no flashing lights and colorful signs to detract from the impression. There is only enormity: the craggy, plunging rock walls of Black Canyon; the swooping bypass bridge soaring high above it in the distance; and ultimately, the dam.

Wedged into the gorge, it cascades like a massive concrete waterfall – like if Niagara Falls was solidified in alabaster.

One of the benefits of a visit here is that it costs nothing to walk across the dam (although you pay to park), which happens to be the most exciting aspect of this National Historic Landmark. Statues and memorial honor those who sacrificed to construct the behemoth, but a stroll out onto the dam does more justice to their memory.

Standing atop, looking up the mighty Colorado River, you see long arms reach out into the ether, ending in cylindrical turbine towers. There are two sets of two, standing like sentinels at the gates of some medieval fortress. The dam is so big it actually defies time – with one side sitting in Nevada and the other in the adjacent state of Arizona. One set of towers has a clock marking the time in the Pacific Time Zone, while the other has a clock marking the Mountain Time Zone.

Cross to the other side of the road atop the dam and gaze over the railing from one of the protrusions. The view down is iconic. It is a pale white, smooth curving slide, plunging to the facility and river far below. It is dizzying, and if your stomach doesn’t lurch you need to clean your glasses.

Steel towers jut from the rockface, wires crisscross through the air, and a steel cable traverses the gorge, used in its heyday to carry supplies from side to side.

The question is inevitable: how did they do this? The visitors center is the place for answers. Multiple options are available for you to delve further into the Hoover Dam’s history and relevance.

The hands-on powerplant tours take you deep in the bowels of the facility and put you face to face with the beating heart of the Dam – the gargantuan generators. Each year the plant generates enough power to serve 1.3 million people and is still one of the largest hydropower plants in the U.S. Besides power, the water control brings domestic water to more than 20 million people from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

But if you don’t have time for the tour, or the interest, the cheaper option of walking the visitor’s center affords just as much information. The self-guided stroll past exhibits describes the construction process from start to finish. Lest you think learning about rocks, water tables and river currents are antithetical to your Vegas vacation, think again.

The tidbits and facts swirling like eddies around the dam’s history and construction are almost as impressive as the dam itself. From 1931 to completion in 1935, high-wire acrobatics and daredevil workers made the building possible, with death a constant threat. And the particulars are equally inspiring. The dam’s namesake, President Herbert Hoover, urged the dam be self-sustaining, and today the facility is supported financially solely from the money it brings in through selling the power it creates. And perhaps most impressive of all, the dam was completed under budget and ahead of schedule.

The Hoover Dam also provides tangential recreation, if a multi-day trip away from Vegas is more your style. Lake Mead, north of the dam on the Colorado River, is one of America’s most popular recreation destinations. Any and every form of water sport and water vehicle populate the lake year-round, since it has a 12-month season.

But the Hoover Dam is the gatekeeper of it all, and a simple, worthwhile day trip from Las Vegas. You can see how the Dam and Sin City share many of the same traits. Both were built with the same American ingenuity, unflagging tenacity and overwhelming creativity. Both remain larger-than-life testaments to human innovation and potential. The difference is that the Hoover Dam’s finishing coat is a dull gray, while Las Vegas is continuously painting itself with multicolored swatches.

The Hoover Dam may not sound like the most exciting site in Sin City and a lot of Vegas goers will question your sanity if you suggest a side trip. But dam them – if you want a real rush, go peer over the edge of the Hoover Dam.