Thursday, December 02, 2010

From Low to High

There is nothing more rewarding to us than going away for a short bit. Unplugging from the everyday and putting things into perspective. And the end of the year, the beginning of the Holiday Season, seems to be the perfect time to do it, really.

Our Thanksgiving week was framed by two great trips, one to the South, in the relatively low flats of Nevada, and one to the North of us, atop the peaks of the Wasatch Front. Two very different trips, in landscape, weather, and activities, but similar, too, in more ways than one.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, some friends of ours suggested we should go to Mesquite, NV (closer to us than Vegas) and try our luck at Bingo. Sounded like fun, but no one won anything. At least not in Bingo.

Mesquite, NV

Mesquite is nestled in the Virgin River Valley, almost right on the border with Arizona. It reminded me somewhat of Myrtle Beach, SC, without the beach of course: lots of palm trees, retirees and golf courses! Our friends almost exclusively played bingo or some other games during the weekend, but we took some time to visit some of the local landmarks: the local museum, the art gallery, The General Store and this beautiful arts and crafts store called Baja Imports.

It’s a small, tranquil, sleepy town, a strange mixture of “cheese” and picturesque. Everybody seems to know everyone’s name and if they don’t recognize you, they’ll ask who you are and what you are about. Although set along the Spanish Trail established in 1820’s, the town itself is relatively young (the very small museum of history was the hospital till 1974), with an establishment date of 1880.

The architecture is typical of what you imagine South Western, desert architecture to be: straight lines, not a lot of windows, very much in the adobe style. Pretty much the entire town is monochromatic: various shades of yellow- brown. The streets are quiet and the traffic is slow. It was nice to kick back and just slow down a little, taking in the sleepy streets and the vacation-like lifestyle that exudes from everyone in town.

The gambling crowd was somewhat of a rude awakening to me. No movie I have ever seen about gambling could have depicted the reality that I saw. People at the tables and mostly at the slot machines look like they are in a trance. Despite the millions of bright lights, the casinos are not luxurious and don’t look rich. OK, maybe this was a “lower class” casino compared to Vegas, but still: they reek of cigarette smoke (we SO take for granted the smoke free public places so common in so many states till we enter an establishment that is not abiding by those rules yet! Man, what a difference!!), they are noisy, dark (I know! With all the lights, still!) and people look like drug addicts, hooked on these machines.

They don’t look happy: paying no attention to what’s going on around them, smoking, barely eating, unhealthy looking and somewhat skinny, maybe with a drink in hand (alcohol is free “if you gamble”), eye bloodshot and pushing the button. Repeatedly. Obsessively. Hopelessly. Hopefully, I should say. It was quite a sad picture of humanity for sure.

There was a handful of folks who were there just for fun. In groups of friends, smiling, enjoying the drinks, the conversation, the cheap popcorn, having fun winning or losing. But the majority of the crowd was made up of gambling “veterans” that you kind of knew lost everything at least once in their lives, for the greed of the game. Those folks looked like lonely ghosts who had one relationship: it’s them and the machine. No friends. No bonding. Becoming machines themselves, maybe.

Between the Utah and the Nevada borders, there is a short distance that takes you on I-15 through Arizona. Back in the day, when America was just a dream for me, I have always wanted to see two states: Arizona and Montana. The apparent emptiness of one and the lush richness of the other fascinated me. The very little North Western corner that I have seen of Arizona on this trip was much like I imagined Arizona to be: arid, red, wide open and filled with cacti.

I love any type of cactus plants, but in Arizona they make up entire forests almost – free from the pots I usually have seen them in, they look like they tower over the open lands, owning it – alone, unperturbed and at home. The soil is either sandy or rocky and extremely barren. The cacti are fragile yet painfully thorny – you touch them with the most care and respect. It’s a beautiful live painting of desolation and solitude, which, at the same time, breathes life and mystery.

Just standing in the middle of the Virgin River Camping Grounds and feeling small in the midst of the tall rocky mountains was my favorite part of the trip; it also gave me once again the feeling that “I have arrived”. It’s a funny feeling seeing your dreams alive – you know you’ve made it, and yet you’re empty again, looking for the next goal to reach.

Virgin River Campgrounds, AZ - click on the picture to see the entire Mesquite album

Park City, UT

After a short week, where we stopped home for a bit of food and friendly gathering for Thanksgiving, we headed North to Park City, to spend the following weekend in The Stein Eriksen Lodge , a ski resort.

If Mesquite sits low, at an elevation of 1608 ft, The Lodge is perched up on many a slopes at 8200 ft above sea level. It was a quick and steep climb from the weekend before – my heart and brain (ears) definitely felt it!

Although the stay at The Lodge was scattered with various snags, results of miscommunication and poor judgment on the parts of some of the staff, the overall feel after the weekend was of a time well spent, in a high end establishment, with great décor, amazing food and friendly folks.

If you can afford it (ours was a gift), I would definitely recommend staying there, ski season or not! The resort was named after a famous Norwegian skier of the 50’s who later immigrated to the US and made Utah his home. Needless to say, the rates go up during skiing, which starts on December 1st. But skier or low key traveler, the stay here would be worth it in any season – you’ll get to enjoy the beautiful Utah landscape and many trails and bike routes, as well as the proximity to Park City and Deer Valley. And as in any “high class” resort nowadays, let’s not forget the spa and the wine cellar they have, as well.

They don’t skimp much on anything in here. Down comforters and pillows, expensive soaps and lotions in the bathroom, leather couches in lobbies and living rooms, tons of natural wood and stone, real wood fireplaces in every room, fully furnished condos (not just hotel rooms), experienced and innovative executive chefs make the stay in this hotel elegant and cozy.

The views from anywhere in the hotel are amazing – just endless amounts of mountains, with winding roads leading to the bottom of the valley, pine trees and rocky peaks.

After a short drive of about 10 minutes, you can be in Downtown Park City, close to anything and everything this beautiful mountain town has to offer: eating, shopping, art, strolling along historic Main Street. We had dinner at Squatters Brewery, a local favorite in this part of Utah (we usually go to the one in Salt Lake), brunch on Saturday at our old friend, The Eating Establishment, which is another famous, historic restaurant in The City, breakfast at Wasatch Bagel Café, which we discovered for the first time, quite by chance, just googling a place to have bagels in, and with which we fell in love, because the coffee is amazing, the portions are generous ,and the taste is even better!

And when you say “historic” in Utah … you will have to remember you’re measuring time by American history, not European. As an example: the oldest restaurant in Park City is The Red Banjo, and it was established in 1962. The Eating Establishment is the oldest “full service” restaurant, with a birthday of 1972.

On Saturday night, we dined at the The Glitretind Restaurant inside of our resort. It was part of our “weekend getaway package”. Just like in some of the restaurants of California, we once again felt like we were witnesses of higher culinary arts, not just of “food”. The presentation of all the dishes, and the combinations we had were something you’d not quite find at your local diner. We had a corn and shrimp soup with popped corn, a duck breast cooked to perfection, parsnip puree that was smooth and silky like a mousse, grilled shrimp on watermelon appetizers and the best caramel apple martini, too.
We ate things like “watermelon radish” and “hen of the woods mushrooms” which I am sure will not be as easy to come by as going into our local grocery store and pulling them out of a bin.

The slopes were not open yet, which made for the resort to be less busy, much to our enjoyment, as we typically hate crowds. We don’t ski, either, but even without winter sports, we enjoyed a beautiful and relaxing stay in a close to a magical place – the fires, the foods, the winter outside, the smell of wood made it all fairytale - like for us. We will definitely keep this place in mind for future anniversaries and special occasions.

Both of the weekends were a great way to kick off the (always busy) season to come. We learned a lot of new things about Western history, saw new landscapes, enjoyed new foods, had fun gambling and chatting with friends, we disconnected from the everyday and recharged for what it is to come.

As my dad always says: always make time to celebrate and savor life, and not just work-routine-work all the time. With the help of friends and family, to whom we say a big “thank you”, I like to think we did just that.

View from our balcony, at Stein Eriksen Lodge - Park City, UT
Click on the picture for the entire album

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