Tuesday, July 3, 2012

To Vegas and Jacksonville

I’m in the midst of some ambitious travel this week. Among the exciting experiences the trip is bringing: 1) an overnight drive from the Bay Area to Las Vegas to catch an early morning flight from McCarren Airport; 2) my first visit to Jacksonville (although not my first to its airport, where I once connected between United Express flights); 3) several hours at my Chicago home; and 4) a drive back to the Bay Area from Las Vegas along US-95, a scenic route that’s more Bonneville Salt Flats than megahighway.

All of the above is being squeezed into a 72 hour stretch of time: the three days surrounding the July 4th holiday.

The adventure began yesterday with an overnight, 547-mile drive from Oakland's airport to that in Las Vegas. Yes, the trip seems hellish, even reckless, when appraised theoretically; to drive all night after a full day of work may seem like an invitation for trouble. Yet my experience was anything but horrid.

I took delivery of my craft for the trip, a rental car from Advantage at Oakland Airport, at around 7:30p on Monday, just about an hour before sunset. Luck was on my side: I scored a spiffy German hottie, the VW Golf. Its odometer read about 5400 miles, meaning that I’ll add about 20 percent to its lifetime mileage by the time my three days are up.

The lovely Golf
The drive was all go-go-go. I was budgeting up to 10 hours for the drive, meaning that a 7:30p push-back (forgive the aviation terminology!) would have translated into a 5:30a arrival at the McCarren economy lot, still a shuttle bus + security check + monorail ride away from gate D53, where boarding of my Boeing 757 to Dulles was to start at 6:05a. There was no time to waste.

Fortunately, traffic out of the Bay Area was nonexistent (thank you, holiday week!), and a generous speed limit of 70 mph permitted cruise at a speed that would have me traverse the entire 547 miles within about seven hours.

My first stop was in Bakersfield a bit before midnight. I’d hoped that Yelp would yield an interesting local taqueria or, at the very least, a fine In-N-Out; the latter conjures up memories of the eponymous burger house near LAX that’s prime real estate for spotting a melange of international heavies (i.e. large aircraft). Instead, the best I managed to find in that barren city was a McDonalds, from which I bought the most innocuous sandwich that I could identify on the drive-through menu: a grilled chicken burger than nonetheless harbored globs of artery-clogging mayo. My taste buds were stimulated as though I’d eaten from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden (thank you salt), but my intellectual aversion to all things Golden Arches, still as intact as ever, means I’ll likely not be visiting for another midnight snack, unless pressed by circumstances.

From there it was three more hours of nearly nonstop driving; the only short break was for fuel from a remote gas station outside the town of Boron that was also the hangout for a local wolf (it was roaming across the highway a few hundred yards away). The only moderately lengthy rest came about 62 miles southwest of McCarren airport, where I pulled into a rest area and pulled down some United Airlines eyeshades. My first thought after reclining the seat all the way and donning my sleep paraphernalia (which also consisted of earplugs) – it’s much quieter in the parked Volkswagen than on a redeye flight.

I naturally made sure to set my iPhone alarm (for 4am, permitting some 1h15m of sleep), and I somehow refrained from getting tangled into a game of interminable 9-minute snoozes after the alarm first went off. Groggily at first, I pulled back onto I-15 and motored on, periodically appraising the increasing light on the eastern horizon.

The texture of southern Nevada's terrain; picture snapped a few minutes after takeoff from McCarren airport
And suddenly, I arrived; the barrenness of vast desert rapidly morphed into cookie-cutter houses lining the sides of a monstrously jumbo-sized interstate highway. No suburbs foretold the arrival of Las Vegas; it just appeared, ever the mirage. In short order I parked in the McCarren economy lot (snapping a picture of the Golf before dashing off; see above), navigated airport formalities, and ascended into the heavens. 

An expansive feeling at McCarren's Concourse D

Moments after takeoff, a view of Las Vegas sprawl starkly ending at unbroken desert (and punctuated by a slight mountain)
UA 236 descending over northern Virginia before arrival at Dulles

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