RTW2007: Phoenix to Las Vegas, the long way, wherein our notorious navigator counts cacti, lumbers over lava, quaffs a beaver, teeters on the edge of a crevice, get kitschy kicks on Route 66 and drinks away his gambling earnings.

The following week was one of those classic all-American road trips. It was my first visit to the American Southwest, and the saguaro cact, rounded rocks, parched desert and Wild West kitsch in the Old Town of Phoenix fit my preconceptions of Arizona, but as we headed north on the I-17 the cacti disappeared and were replaced by a stunning array of entirely different landscapes. From the Navajo reservation of Tuba City to the soaring cliffs of Monument Valley, some Beaver brews and black volcanoes at Flagstaff, bizarre New Age crystal healing energy vortex weirdness at Sedona, volcanoes at Sunset Crater, Indian ruins at Wupatki… and a really, really, really big hole in the ground at Grand Canyon, which we spent an entire day looking at, and I still left wishing I had the time (and the advance planning) to do the two-day hike in and out.

Cacti aplenty Three towers, Monument Valley

Tree in lava, Sunset Crater National Monument, Arizona Watchtower at Desert View, Grand Canyon

Then the 1950s time-warp of Williams and a nostalgic cruise down a particularly empty bit of Route 66, which these days seems to scrape a living solely by being Route 66, and then a stop at the self-proclaimed “semi-ghost town” of Chloride (pop. 352), home to an inn, a restaurant and, well, not very much else. After slicing through the nothingness of the Sonora Desert we almost drove past the Hoover Dam before realizing we’d done so, and then arrived in surreal Las Vegas.

Riviera Casino Cheesecake Factory in Caesar's Palace

Vegas is deeply, deeply weird. We stayed in a super-cheap room in Circus Circus, which pretty much fit my preconceptions of what Vegas is (fat people punching slot machines, kids running around tired-looking shops, vomit-proof carpet, listless circus acts), but a stroll down the Strip later in the evening pretty much blasted that out of the water. Places like the Wynn and the Venetian positively oozed with swank, hipness, expensive boutiques and gorgeous women. It was where the rules of capitalism were simultaneously suspended, yet red in tooth and claw: with a pull of a one-eyed bandit’s handle, anybody could suddenly be rich, but the town was expressly designed to make you spend every cent of your winnings in celebration and all those exploding volcanous, living statues and roaring lions were built with the money of the majority who gambled with dollar signs in their eyes, and whom the casinos with mathematical certainty slowly bled dry. I’ve always been an advocate of “do what thou wilt” at its most extreme, but at least now I understand why some — including many in my own Singapore — are so opposed to gambling.

And for the record: after cumulative losses of around $20, Pops hit a couple of flushes in video poker and walked away $40 richer, the winnings almost (but not quite) sufficing for coffee and pastries in Bellagio’s fancy Italian cafe.

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UA1540 SFO-PHX A320 seat 4A

We were in SFO almost an hour ahead of scheduled time. Immigration was painless, and the officer even managed to make me laugh by asking why I never smile. (‘Coz you aren’t allowed to in Finnish passport photos.) After its NRT adventure, my bag was unsurprisingly among the first to come out, and I embarked on a semi-circular quest to find my check-in counter — I thought I had an America West flight codeshared as UA, a double mistake at that as “America West” turned into US Airways some time ago, but no, it turned out to be the real thing. Or at least almost: this was my first encounter with the faceless, amorphous, omnipresent entity known only as Ted. There were no earlier UA flights, although I could, theoretically, have gotten onto an HP flight that left 30 minutes earlier, in exchange for spending umpty-ump minutes trying to endorse my RTW over to them — no thanks. But with grandmotherly kindness, Ted gave me an Economy Plus seat.

It was my first visit to SFO, and while it’s heads and shoulders above LAX (which is why I routed this way), seeing signs proclaim it the best airport in the US was a little depressing: surely you could do a little better? The TSA security carnival seemed positively painless compared to LHR last year (although that bit with the shoes was still ludicrous). Only one problem now: I was dog-tired and in severe danger of falling asleep, but I had no watch, my cellphone’s battery was dead and my charger doesn’t like 110V, so I couldn’t set an alarm. The Red Carpet Club was packed to the rafters, but I managed to snag a seat and, through a minor miracle, even get free wireless thanks to some bizarre T-Mobile/Vista crosspromotion thingy, valid until the end of the month to boot — just long enough to cover the US portion of my trip, and just the distraction device I needed to keep me awake. Spiffy.

Dodging somebody else’s projectile vomit all over the men’s bathroom, I eventually headed out of the lounge to find a refugee camp assembling at the gates. Both had Ted flights, and both were late, mine by 20 minutes — but the one to Vancouver, scheduled to leave half an hour before me, was still there as we pulled back.

As expected, the plane was a museum piece, but I was again a little surprised to find an Airbus in this land of Boeings. Oppressively chirpy video announcements told me that Ted wants me to do all kinds of things, including following instructions and fasten my seatbelt. As soon as we were airborne and in the impenetrable fog, I stuck in my earbuds, put on my eyeshades, closed the windowshades and drifted off into a twilight zone of fitful, unfulfilling sleep.