Valley of Fire

Las Vegas will eat you alive with crowds and noise. After spending 10 days working on an event at one of the giant Las Vegas casino hotels on the Strip, my coworkers and I were ready to get the hell away. After we got all of our gear packed and shipped to the next venue, we had half the day left with nothing to do so we piled into two rental cars and headed north to the Valley of Fire State Park. The park is about 50 miles north of Vegas and abuts Lake Meade but it feels like a completely different planet. No lights, few people, no slot machines or liquor stores, and none of those damned bush speakers (every bush on the Strip seems to have a speaker buried in it playing a "hip" music mix because, you know, God forbid there should ever be any silence anywhere.) This state park is genuine desert wilderness. And it's awesome!

The day we were there was the second day in a row of very high winds in the Las Vegas area. Flights were being diverted to Los Angeles to land, or if they were cleared to land in Vegas, looked like those "scariest landing" YouTube videos. Seriously windy. 

For the first part of our excursion, we had blue skies and sunshine, and the wind had little impact on us beyond making driving the rental minivan a bit interesting. As the afternoon wore on, though, the dust storm began and changed the blue sky to a weird, dull grayish brown. (Here's a noisy YouTube video of the dust blowing into Vegas that day.) It never got to where we couldn't see where we were going but the look of the park definitely changed, giving it an even more Mars-like feeling. 

We spent the day hiking and climbing around on the rocks, and looking at petroglyphs left by the Anasazi. For a bunch of Midwesterners and Easterners like us, this was totally different outdoors than we're accustomed to. 

We watched the sun go down (not a great sunset; too much dust made it look post apocalyptic) and then finished the evening sitting in one of the park's tiny stone cabins, on the dirt floor, eating prepackaged cookies left over from lunch and drinking a room-gift bottle of wine. It was great.

THE GAS CHAMBER

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The last stop on the Missouri State Prison tour is the gas chamber where 39 men and one woman were put to death. Inside the building is a big white metal tank with a submarine-like door and two chairs inside. Prisoners entered via the door on the right, the crime victim's witnesses entered through the door on the left. Around the right side of the building is another door for family of the prisoner. And up on the roof is a tall, white smokestack to vent the gas when the execution was complete. Guards would bring the prisoner over ahead of time and put him or her into one of two tiny holding cells inside. This gave the witnesses time to enter without bumping into the prisoner outside, and gave the prisoner time to stare at the big white tank, just outside the holding cell.

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MISSOURI STATE PENITENTIARY

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The old Missouri State Pen in Jefferson City is billed as "the bloodiest 47 acres in America." That may or may not be true but it's certainly one of the creepiest places I've visited in a quite a while. The prison opened for business in 1836, when Missouri was the western edge of the United States. Beyond Missouri, it was all frontier territory. If you committed a crime out in the territories, you were usually hung for your efforts. Occasionally, though, somebody would commit a crime that didn't quite warrant hanging but yet was too serious to just be ignored. That's where this place came in: they'd ship you back here to serve out your sentence. The prison opened with 40 one-man cells but within a few months there were 43 prisoners and it remained overcrowded until it closed in 2004. And that, by the way, that date — that's what I find most disturbing. This hell-hole was open until 10 years ago! And calling it a hell-hole is being nice.

The prison is open for tours now, at least parts of it are: history tours, ghost tours, ghost hunting overnight adventures. Being too close to Halloween, we couldn't get tickets for a night-time tour or ghost tour so we settled for a 10 am Saturday morning tour. The weather cooperated by being windy, grey, and cool.

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MOStatePen2014-3658-2It's ironic: now people line up to get in to the prison.

MOStatePen2014-3656Mike, our tour guide, giving us an intro to the history of the place. He did a great job, btw. If you take the tour, hope to join one of his tours.

 

MOStatePen2014-3695The cells go up four levels.

 

MOStatePen2014-3694MOStatePen2014-3697-3MOStatePen2014-3699Two great big movie projectors were bolted to the floor of the main hallway of Building 4, for showing weekend entertainment.

 

MOStatePen2014-3725-2MOStatePen2014-3727 Such a nice place to call home.