RTW2007: Charlotte in transit, wherein our rowdy redneck escapes from the rain and cracks open a barrel of turnip greens.

This was the second stop in the US where I cursed my limited time — I earlier passed through San Francisco for the first time in 25 years without seeing much more than tarmac and a terminal, and now my return to Charlotte after the better part of 15 would be equally stunted.

It was pissing rain from dark clouds as we landed an hour and a half behind schedule, black US Airways planes lurking ominously in the drizzle like birds of bad weather (to quote a Finnish expression). But while others cursed and moaned about their missed connections, I was not in a hurry tonight, and the miserable weather just meant that I wasn’t kicking myself for missing this sightseeing chance. After waiting another hour for first my bag and then the shuttle bus to show up, it was closer to nine by the time I was checked into my hotel and could head out to grab a long-delayed dinner. I wanted something Southern, something filling, and something cheap, and the Cracker Barrel a block away — the only restaurant within walking distance from the otherwise fine Fairfield Inn Charlotte Airport — filled all three counts perfectly. They were out of turkey, alas, but I substituted meatloaf (badly microwaved), battered fried okra (which proved that everything tastes good deep-fried, except okra), turnip greens (an interesting new acquaintance), mashed potatoes with gravy (yum) and cornbread with butter (sweet enough to be my dessert). I paid my $8.57 at the cashier as directed (was I supposed to tip the waitress? Probably, but when and how?) — and, sated, rolled downhill to sleep.

 

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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.