travelog 124

Las Vegas - more than gambling

Where and how do the Kretters (our nickname, a combination of Kristen & Etter) preferrably spend their holidays? Of course somewhere in the field looking for succulent plants. As we were invited as speakers to the 2015 convention of the American Cactus and Succulent Society in Claremont, in the greater Los Angeles area, it was a good opportunity to make this long trip not only to attend the convention but also to visit with friends and go see plants. Kelly Griffin, our friend in Carlsbad, who had visited us in Mexico many times, and with whom we had stayed a few times too, suggested a little outing that was impossible to turn down: Las Vegas! It is hard to believe, but in the immediate vicinity of Sin City, a nickname for Vegas, one can find beautiful agaves: species we had not seen before, but of which many people had told us about, and of which we had seen the most incredible photos - Agave utahensis var. eborispina; although according to the actually valid taxonomy, only a synonym of A. utahensis. Believe it or not, gambling was definitely never on the agenda.

Kelly had planned this short trip very well. Hotel rooms and rental car were already booked, but at the last moment everything got mixed up. Denise, Kelly's wife, was unable to join us because her foot was still in a cast and it would have been absolute nonsense to have her waiting in the car for us with summery temperatures around 40C (104F). The case of Andry Petignat, Manager of the Antsokay Arboretum in Madagascar and a friend of Kelly's, who was also invited as a speaker, was a little bit more complicated. The master plan had Andry flying to Las Vegas where we would pick him up at the airport to spend a few days together in the field. To make a long story short, Andry missed his connecting flight in Paris and arrived in Vegas at midnight one day late. But let us tell you about our trip in the order it happened.

Late in the afternoon we left Carlsbad in our shiny black rental car and reached Barstow without problems. We remembered Barstow vaguely, not only from Unimog times but also from an earlier trip in 1990 with a rental motorhome. Not much had changed since then, a fact that the Barstowians (or however they call themselves) probably would vehemently deny. Barstow was a little bigger, with a few modern hotels and the usual fast food restaurants. But there were also Chipotle Grill and Panera Bread, two chain restaurants that also serve fast food but a healthier and environmentally more responsible version than MacDonalds & Co. Other than that, it still looked like any other nondescript American town at a big highway crossing, a town that, as soon as you have driven through, you will not remember anymore.

The next morning we drove on towards Las Vegas. Our first stop was in the area of Mountain Pass. We drove off the highway and on a dirt road to Kokoweef, a ghost town. The place looked like a hideout for anti-government people. It certainly seemed deserted, but we were pretty sure that somebody was watching us from one of the ratty mobile homes. Behind the settlement we drove up a small hill and saw the first Agave utahensis var. nevadensis (this, too, just a form of A. utahensis if you're following the current taxonomy), though not in Nevada but still in California. Some of the plants were still flowering. The landscape all around us looked fantastic with spectacular golden-colored, round boulders, dark blue sky to the horizon, and, of course many different plants. The variation nevadensis differs from the plain Agave utahensis mainly by the twice as long terminal spine, so we were thrilled to see all these different specimens on our discovering tour on this hill. Because it was so beautiful, we decided to drive up another hill opposite the ghost town where Kelly hadn't been yet. The plants were growing up here too and they were as beautiful as at our earlier place. Then we drove back to the freeway and soon after crossed the border to Nevada where we saw the first casinos in the middle of nowhere. Then followed Las Vegas, where we had camped in the Unimog behind the Circus Circus casino in the year dot. The city had grown considerably in the meantime; new glass towers could be admired, but we were glad to be able to do this without having to leave the freeway. At the north end of town, we took I-95 and were soon in the open desert again. We didn't have to drive far until Kelly turned off onto a side road and drove up into the mountains a short distance. We parked on the side of the road and walked to the yellow cliffs where we admired Agave utahensis var. eborispina. The variation eborispina differs from plain utahensis basically by the extremely long, up to 20 cm (8 inches), terminal spines. We were already thrilled by the plants at the Mountain Pass locality, but these here beat everything that we had seen before. Incredibly long terminal spines, the teeth oftentimes grown together forming a strange looking, papery leaf edge, and extremely compact and symmetrically grown rosettes. In short, a paradise for every agave freak! It is difficult to describe the beauty of these plants in their natural environment with words, that's why we took way too many photos, which unfortunately we can't all publish here. Apart from the plants we were enjoying the spectacular landscape and the complete silence on this very warm June afternoon. How marvellous what you can see just a few miles outside of the metropolis Las Vegas.

As the night before, Kelly had everything organized and had a nice hotel booked in Las Vegas. Now the navigation system came to use. The restaurants in the area of our hotel were basically Mexican places, and for obvious reasons we didn't want to eat Mexican food in the US. Thai was our choice, but when we got to the restaurant it looked a lot like fast food and the place was completely empty. For the second try we googled the best Thai restaurant in Las Vegas, but unfortunately this place was on the other side of downtown Vegas. Kelly understood perfectly well that we ate enough Mexican food in Mexico; therefore, he drove us willingly through downtown. When we finally found the correct address, it was a pretty run-down looking shopping mall where only a few stores had survived, and where exotic restaurants were lined up one next to the other. Our Thai place looked a little strange but since everybody had written rave reviews about it, we tried it anyways. Unfortunately, we could not order everything on the huge menu, yet what we were served tasted great. The restaurant really seemed to be a popular meeting spot not only for Thai people but also for modern hippies in the fanciest clothes, most adventurous hair cuts, and oversized ear rings. For dessert we found, again thanks to Mr. Google, an ice cream place where we tasted rocky road ice cream of which Kelly had talked so much about. Rocky road brownies were also one of our favorite treats, but the ice cream with chocolate chips, marshmallows, and walnuts was a little bit too American in taste for us. Poor Kelly had to get through until midnight to pick up Andry from the airport, while we retreated to our room for a well-deserved night's rest.

In the morning we met Andry who has a connection to Switzerland. His late father was from Porrentruy in the French speaking canton Jura, and Andry still has family there that he planned to visit later on his trip. It also turned out that he knew one of our friends from the Zurich cactus club who regularly travels to Madagascar. Once more it is proven true that the world is indeed a very small place! On a relatively new bypass, we drove along the western edge of Las Vegas, but it was still close enough that Andry was able to get a glimpse of Las Vegas by daylight. Incredible how many mansions were still built, how much the city spread into the desert like a cancer tumor. Just as incredible, how many of these mansions were built right next to this much-travelled road with a view of that same road. Even more incredible how many areas were still planted with green grass and flowers, although Las Vegas sits in the middle of a desert and plantings with drought resistant plants are advertised everywhere. Soon we reached US 160 and drove west. The background were the red cliffs of Red Rock State Park. Our first stop this morning was in the Spring Mountain National Forest, where we now took pictures of Agave utahensis var. nevadensis in Nevada. The hill was pretty steep and covered with thousands of agaves. We were already spoiled by the fantastic var. eborispina from yesterday, though, that's why we didn't really feel completely animated to climb all the way to the top. Then we drove on to Pahrump through a barren landscape. We felt pretty good in the air-conditioned vehicle and were hoping that the temperatures at the next stop would not be unbearable. Kelly found the entrance to a small track into the Nopah Range without a problem. We parked at the base of the mountains, at the mouth of a small canyon and shouldered our backpacks. The temperature was surprisingly pleasant, or better tolerable. In any case it did not have the feared 42C (108F). We followed the dry creek bed and then climbed up the steep mountain side over huge sloping rocks until we finally got to the plants that are also known under the name 'Superman'. In any case, it is a huge form of Agave utahensis var. eborispina. Kelly took our picture sitting next to 'Superman', though it turned out later that the clone was not THE 'Superman'. We stood far above the highway and had a fantastic view to the east almost to Las Vegas in the distance and into California to the west. The agaves were extremely beautiful; again, very compact and symmetrical rosettes with incredibly long, terminal spines. Against the blue sky and with our new super wide angle lens, we took some great shots.

In Pahrump we turned southwest to Shoshone and then on to Tecopa where we turned into a side road. Soon the asphalt changed into a nice gravel road, and the vegetation was getting more and more interesting the closer we got to the mountains. On the slopes we saw huge stands of Nolina parryi. Purple rocks were interesting too, but unfortunately we would have had to smuggle them back into Mexico. We stopped again in the area of the Excelsior Mine, this time for a bog-common Agave utahensis. We were completely alone in this fantastic landscape, only a thunderstorm with huge black clouds was threatening on the horizon. We continued on Excelsior Mine Road where we stopped a couple of times more, either for yuccas or for rocks. Kelly even drove us to one of his favorite places for rocks where we found beautiful pieces he called 'desert patina'. Of course we couldn't help it and filled the car with the best desert patina rocks. The drive home and through Mexican customs was still far away! Now the thunderstorm caught up with us. Heavy rain drummed on the car and the craziest lightning flashed from the sky. After that everything smelled lovely from the wet earth and humid creosote bush. Finally we reached Interstate 15 and turned towards Barstow. The colossal thermometer next to the freeway in Baker still showed 42C (108F) at 6:30PM! We already knew our way around Barstow and decided to have dinner at Panera Bread.

The drive back to Carlsbad the next day was easy. On the way we saw flowering Hesperoyucca whippleyi near San Bernardino and later Dudleya pulverulenta, all from the driving car. Unfortunately, and as usual, this trip was far too short and there would have been many more corners to explore, but our program was crammed and we all needed to be in Claremont to register for the CSSA convention the next day. Our collected rocks made a big pile in Kelly's driveway and when it was time to pick the best, some of Kelly's finds ended up in our truck. Sorry! Kelly, you just need to come down to our place to admire your rocks! Andry, we'll see you again in Madagascar!

May 2015

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen