A Flying Visit to the Grand Canyon


It was only 275 miles to the Grand Canyon.

Back home, that would be the sort of journey you plan for months and talk about for years, but travelling, back to back, through Australia, New Zealand and the US had changed my ideas about distance irrevocably.

I was going to go by bus. I had done similar bus journeys often enough over the past few months: Port Macquarie to Byron Bay (249 miles), Airlie Beach to Cairns (385), Nelson to Christchurch (257), Franz Josef to Queenstown (219), and most recently LA to Vegas (270). But then the agent told me that the bus came at five in the morning, and that meant getting up at four, and four is a time to come in, not go out.

There was another way, though. If I gave up on the idea of a helicopter flight to the floor of the canyon and went to the South Rim instead of the West, I could go on an executive plane for the same sort of money, and get up at a sensible time.


I would never get to fly in an executive aircraft in the ordinary course of things, so it was worth doing just for that. It was essentially a miniature airliner but with the trim level of a Mercedes, and the whole experience hinted at what regular flying might be if airlines gave two shits about passenger comfort and the cabin crew were not on such power trips.

At ground level, only the intense dry heat reminds you that Las Vegas was built in the middle of the desert, but from the air you see that there is little for a hundred miles all around it but mountains and dust.

We flew east over the Hoover Dam, proud symbol of a lost Keynesian world, across the Arizona state line and on over the West Rim and the glass-bottomed Skywalk and followed the canyon round to the airport at the South Rim, where the captain pulled off a perfect landing, shaving off height as we floated down the runway, easing the nose up, and finally settling it gently on the wheels.

So did I do okay then?” he asked brightly, but did not get the applause he deserved because most passengers expect every landing to be like that and complain if it is not, even in a 20-knot crosswind.


Of course the Grand Canyon is massive; we all know that. The sort of people who fill their heads with facts and reel them off at half a chance will tell you that it is 277 miles long, a mile deep, four miles wide at its narrowest point, and eighteen at the widest.

But figures like that never mean very much until you see the thing for yourself. The vastness of it astonished me. I gazed across at the opposite rim, as you might look towards the outer suburbs from the tallest building downtown, and deep down at the floor where the Colorado River, which carved this great gash into the earth, looked a pathetic trickle.

My eyes recalibrated for the scale, and when I looked round, the people on a nearby ledge seemed for a moment the size of toy soldiers until I refocused again.

The colours in the rock constantly change as the sun makes its way across the sky, from red to orange, from violet to pink; from cream to beige to gold, from grey to blue to green. I could have stayed and looked all afternoon at the contours and folds, the stripes and shadows, the ever-changing palette.


There were warning signs everywhere exhorting people not to try hiking to the floor of the canyon and back in a day but a cheerful group of guys appeared at the rim having done just that and I would almost certainly have had a go myself if I had been there long enough. It looked eminently doable to me.

As it was, though, I only had an hour left to walk the first bit of the trail, down and round, down and round and then turn back, get back on the bus and back on the plane to Vegas.

© Richard Senior 2016

Not Such a Big Night


Sean Connery’s Bond scaled up the façade in Diamonds are Forever; he met Plenty O’ Toole at the craps table.

The hotel, called The Whyte House in the movie but in real life the Las Vegas Hilton, was in its prime then, in 1971. It was the biggest hotel in the world with its 30 floors and 3,000 rooms; to this day, it has the biggest sports book in Vegas.

Elvis performed at the Hilton year after year, eking out the last of his credibility. It was at the Hilton, too, that Muhammad Ali lost his heavyweight title in 1978, and Mike Tyson won his seven years later.

But nothing stays fresh for long in Las Vegas.

The LVH, as it was known when I stayed there, had long been overshadowed by the theme hotels. It is a block from the Strip, which in Vegas might be a hundred miles. But it had its own stop on the monorail and still looked impressive, if dated.

I was only there because I had got a mid-week deal with a double room for the price of a bed in a hostel. But as I stood in line in the cavernous lobby, with its marble floor and abundant staff, behind guests with designer luggage and look-how-rich-I-am watches, I felt out of place with my scruffy old backpack and started to worry that I had made a mistake and was going to be hit with a bill I could not afford.

There was no mistake, though: I had not overlooked a nought when I booked the room. More or less everything was extra and the extras were ambitiously priced, but they gave me a free credit line to try to entice me to the tables.


Sin City. An agglomeration of modern-day temples of Bacchus. What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas. You can – you are strongly encouraged to – leave all restraints at the city limits, do everything to unashamed excess, indulge your favourite vices, do what you like, so long as it looks somewhere near legal.

You can get luminous cocktails in four-foot long glasses, a family-sized bottle of Jim Bean or jeroboams and upwards of Champagne. The bars stay open all night and you can drink round the clock, if you want. I saw a woman in her fifties whom I imagined to be something like a partner in a big firm of accountants walking down the Strip with a glass of red wine in the middle of the day, and a girl in her twenties so hammered she could do nothing but slump in a doorway and sway.

You can lose your shirt, in circumstances forgotten halfway down a four-foot long cocktail or at any of the 197,000 slot machines, the 231 blackjack tables and goodness-knows-how-many roulette wheels.

You can splurge at celebrity chef restaurants – three Ramsays, two Robuchons, a Guy Savoy, a Pierre Gagnaire and half a dozen Wolfgang Pucks – or go to a buffet and pile your plate as high as the Stratosphere Tower.


But none of that appealed half as much as a big hotel room with a bath and a sumptuous bed. For the best part of six months, I had slept in a succession of Asian guesthouses, overnight trains, Australasian hostels, sailing boats, and a notorious budget hotel in LA. The LVH might as well have been the seven star Burj Al Arab, for me. I had not seen a bath since I left London, and looked forward to seeing one again.

I was in bed by nine, without so much as a beer or a symbolic $1 bet, and very happy about it.

© Richard Senior 2015

Beer and Losing in Las Vegas


Las Vegas, said Hunter S Thompson in his craziest book, “is not a good town for psychedelic drugs [because] reality itself is too twisted”. It is even worse now.

Elvis is alive and everywhere at once. He shares street space with Spider Men and Optimus Primes, and a man with a sign which reads “kick me in the nuts for $20”.

New York is a few steps from Egypt and Rome, and Paris and Venice are across the street. The Ponte Rialto joins the Campanile to the Palazzo Ducale, and gondolas slide through glacier-blue waters. The Eiffel Tower sprouts from the roof of the Louvre; and New York’s great sights are lined up in a row. It is a bit like the world, but with a lot less walking.


MGM has lions, Mirage has tigers, and all the casinos have cougars. Bellagio has an eight acre lake with hidden fountains which break the surface twice an hour (more often at night) and squirt and dance to music, then stop and retreat underwater.

Luxor is a 400 ft pyramid with a replica sphinx guarding its doorway. Excalibur is a cartoon medieval castle, which would definitely not agree with psychedelic drugs. Paris, Las Vegas (so named in case anyone thinks they have walked by mistake to Paris, France), New York, New York, and the Venetian are amalgams of landmarks in the cities they represent.

If you were as drunk as you were supposed, by tradition, to be in Vegas, you would never quite know whether you were inside or out, or what time of day it was. The shops and restaurants are behind facades which look like a street scene to continue the theme outside, and roofs are painted to look like the sky, and the lighting fools your brain into thinking it is perpetual evening. There are – famously – no clocks to contradict it.


Five per cent of visitors say that they are there to gamble. Ninety-seven per cent actually do gamble. They get through an average $250 a day. It earns the state $9 billion a year.

It is all but impossible not to go in a casino at some point. You might be unmoved by the bright, beckoning signs, uncurious about the fanciful themes, indifferent to celebrity chef restaurants and superstar DJ’s, magicians and singers and dancers, but you will still need to pass through a casino or two to get to the monorail, or just to walk the length of the Strip.

And they are so bewilderingly huge that it is hard to get out once in. You follow the signs to the street or the monorail from one room to the next; you go up and down escalators, through bars, past the tables for blackjack, baccarat, poker and craps, past a hundred slot machines and a hundred more until, finally, you get back to where you started.


It is mesmerising to gaze across a stadium-sized casino at the rows of slot machines stretching away to seeming infinity with their flashing lights and plunky music, and the tables, and the sports books with every game and ever race playing at once on the big screens and a wall full of digital statistics which mean as little to me as the company data they print in the Financial Times.

I saw hundreds of dollars robotically fed into slot machines but never saw a cent come out. I heard one shout of triumph from the tables but who knows how much the guy invested to get there. Some apparently make a living from gambling but it is hard to see how when the odds always favour the house.

There are consoles on the bars so you can carry on gambling as you drink, and plenty of bars so you can carry on drinking as you gamble. Then you can wake up in the morning without even the funds for black coffee and headache pills.

The fountains dance, the lights pulsate, the music pumps and big rigs haul in more beer. It is sleazy, it is tacky; it is overblown in every way. Yet there is something compelling about it, something you cannot help like.

© Richard Senior 2015