February 19 2013 by Jason Fogelson
It's 28 degrees in Las Vegas when I wake up. My bike is covered with frost, and the parking lot is decorated with patches of ice. I go to the breakfast room of the BEST WESTERN PLUS Las Vegas West Hotel and have some food as I consider my options. The current temperature in Ely, Nevada is 17 degrees, and there are snow flurries.
I make a decision. I check with the front desk, and there's no problem with extending my stay here for another night. I call the BEST WESTERN Park Vue Motel in Ely and cancel my reservation for the night. I could have used the Best Western to Go app on my iPhone, but I wanted to double check the weather. The operator in Ely confirms the conditions -- and tells me that I'm making the right decision. Ely is no place for motorcycles today.
Luckily, I'm in Las Vegas, and there will be plenty to do.
I've got a few hours before it will be safe (and warm enough) to ride around, so I spend my time planning. I use the brochure rack in the lobby to help out. I pick up a stack of interesting options, then head to my room to do some mapping.
I'm bundled up and on my bike by 9:00 am. The frost has melted, and the icy patches in the parking lot have reverted to liquid form, as the temperature has soared to a balmy 35 degrees. I ride through Las Vegas and pick up US-93 toward Boulder City. I'm going to visit one of America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders and a National Historic Landmark, Hoover Dam.
The construction of Hoover Dam began on April 20, 1931, and was completed by March 1, 1936. Boulder City was built in order to house the workers who worked on the dam, and thrives today in its shadow. The dam controls the flow of the Colorado River at Black Canyon on the border of Nevada and Arizona, and generates 4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year.
I ride up to the dam, and it's impossible not to be awestruck by the gigantic scale of it all. The dam is 726.4 feet tall, and made of poured concrete -- three and one-quarter million cubic yards of concrete, in fact. That's enough concrete to pave a standard 16-foot wide highway from San Francisco to New York City, and it was poured truckload by truckload into this canyon.
I pay the $7 parking fee, and go in to the Hoover Dam Visitor Center to buy my $11 ticket for the Powerplant Tour. After watching a short film about the construction of the dam, I join a group of international tourists for a short tour of the facilities. We take an elevator deep down into the dam, and our guide takes us into several passageways that reveal just how massive the scale is here. We wind up in one of the galleries overlooking seven gigantic power generating turbines below. It takes a minute to realize how large everything is down here -- workers and trucks on the turbine floor below look like miniatures beside the machinery. Art deco flourishes are on display throughout the clean, neat facility. Beautiful terrazzo floors are inlaid with commemorative artwork, and there's a raw, industrial beauty to the entire facility. I find myself marveling at the audacity of the accomplishment. I wonder if we will ever undertake an engineering feat on this scale again.
After the tour is over, I take a stroll along the top of the dam, amusing myself by standing with one foot in Nevada and one in Arizona. At this time of year, it is one hour earlier in Arizona than it is in Nevada. I wonder if I'm causing a ripple in the time/space continuum by doing this?
I climb back on the Electra Glide and ride off to the north again. Even though it's still cold outside, it doesn't feel brutal right now. I decide to ride through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the way back to the city. Lake Mead is the largest manmade lake in the United States. It is 110 miles long and up to eight miles wide, and holds enough water to cover the State of Pennsylvania with a foot deep of water. I like facts like that. I ride along the shores of Lake Mead, and even on a frigid day like this, people are riding bicycles, fishing and enjoying nature. In nicer weather, Lake Mead is flooded with campers and hikers, and its waters are crowded with pleasure boats. The roads around the lake, while burdened with low speed limits, are curvy and smooth. It's a really nice cruise.
I glide back toward Las Vegas, but I decide to detour to the north a bit to visit a special museum. The Shelby Museum houses a small collection of cars and artifacts from the life and career of recently deceased automotive legend Carroll Shelby. Some of Shelby's most famous cars, including the first Cobra CSX2000, are on display in a space adjacent to the headquarters of Shelby American, Inc., near Las Vegas Motor Speedway in North Las Vegas. I get to see a few cars I've only ever seen in photos, and a few I didn't even know existed, like a Shelby Dodge Omni prototype from the 1980s. Admission to the museum is free, and there's even a tour of the Shelby American shops at 10:30 am every weekday.
I saddle up and ride back in to Las Vegas again for more adventures. Just east of the Strip on Flamingo Road, I park at the National Atomic Testing Museum. My $20 admission ticket gets me in to the permanent collection as well as the special exhibit about Area 51. The National Atomic Testing Museum may seem like a kitschy attraction, but it is a serious museum, created by an act of Congress and is associated with the Smithsonian Institution. The layout is compact, all on one floor in the corner of a large building. It's a thoroughly modern, multimedia museum, with lots of video and audio displays. It is fairly objective about our country's history with nuclear weapons, but it is very chilling to stand in the same room as a nuclear device, even if it's not armed. Southern Nevada was crucial in the development and testing of nuclear weaponry, and this museum is an important step in reminding people about the risks and discoveries that were made here.
After nuclear testing, I need to lighten it up a bit. I just have time to ride up Las Vegas Boulevard to catch the last tour of the day at the Neon Museum. An $18 ticket buys me access to a guided tour of the Neon Boneyard, which houses a huge collection of rescued neon signs from 1930 to the present day. The beautiful, weathered signs are displayed in an artful jumble that tells the story of Las Vegas in a fascinating way. I join a group of 10 for the 3:30 pm tour, and learn that the collection began when a neon sign company, the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) donated their retired signs to a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring Las Vegas' history. Turns out that the casinos and restaurants didn't own the signs; they leased them from sign companies like YESCO, who took them back to refurbish and repurpose when the businesses wanted a new look (or went under). The Neon Museum raises money to restore and display signs for the public to see, and they have seven on permanent display along Las Vegas Boulevard. The beauty of these signs, and the elegance of the boneyard, is a wonderful attraction, and worth a visit to Las Vegas all by itself. This place is a must for photographers, though you have to sign a release upon entry that you will only take photos for personal use -- so I can only share my pictures of the outside of the museum and of the public displays. You'll have to come by my house to see pictures of the boneyard, or make the trip to Vegas yourself.
On the way back to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Las Vegas West Hotel, I decide to stop for dinner at the Big Dog Cafe and Casino right on Sahara Avenue a mile away from the hotel. Perhaps I missed my own dogs a little, but the place looks really inviting. Hardly a Strip-style mega-casino, the modest Big Dog is a cozy brew pub -- I don't even try to see the "casino" part of the building. A long, U-shaped bar is surrounded by comfy high booths, and the restaurant is decorated with dog paintings, dog photos and dog sculptures. My kind of place. The food is good. I wish I could sample the beers, but I still have to ride back to the hotel.
I make one more stop on Sahara Avenue before returning to my room. Sheplers, the world's largest Western wear store, has two stores in Las Vegas, and I can't resist the opportunity to do some fantasy shopping. It's so much fun to try on a bunch of cowboy hats and boots. I used to get all my clothes from Sheplers when I was a kid living in Wichita, Kansas, and I still order from their catalog. I don't buy anything tonight -- but I add a few items to my mental shopping list.
Back at the BEST WESTERN now, I'm trying to figure out what to do tomorrow. It's still below freezing in Ely, so I can't go there. I think I'll reverse course, and head for Carson City instead. It's a long ride, but it's worth a try. We'll see what tomorrow brings.
Miles ridden: 138
NEXT UP: Chilling In Nevada, Day Three: Las Vegas to ?