Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Sense Of Proportion

I mentioned in my Las Vegas trip report that we had a hard time going to Mass Sunday morning because of the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Marathon (and half marathon).  From the Rio, we effectively couldn't go north, south, east, or west without running into a street blocked for the race.  That foiled our plans to go to an 8 AM Mass, so we had breakfast at the Gold Coast, returned to the Rio and checked out, and then made another attempt at Mass, this time at the Strip's Guardian Angel Cathedral.

It took us nearly an hour and a half to get there; the only street we could get onto was Frank Sinatra Drive, which paralleled the Strip and I-15.  Problem was, everyone else in Vegas was there as well.  We found a parking lot where we thought we could park, but a man there was ensuring we couldn't do so.  Eventually, I dropped Sandy off about 10 minutes before Mass was to start.  Driving around the block again, I found the Strip was finally reopened where I could actually get to the cathedral parking lot.

Upon first appearance, I was unimpressed with the cathedral.  The mural behind the altar looked like something out of the Fantastic Four, and otherwise it's a rather un-ornate sanctuary, looking like a converted ski chalet.

But all that didn't matter once the homily started, given by a visiting priest.  He was a missionary, and he told us how in Central America his order was trying to get more children in their schools so they might have a chance at getting out of poverty.  They'd even feed the kids twice a day.

This was news to the poor villager parents who would put their kids to work for 12 hours a day, as soon as they were 8 years old, picking through garbage dumps for anything recyclable so they could make a couple dollars.  The priest mentioned one boy who found something that still looked edible . . . and had to fight off vultures for it.

Needless to say, we were rather generous with the collection for his mission.  And we appreciated the reality check and its accompanying sense of proportion.  We're getting stressed about Las Vegas traffic, and elsewhere, 8-year-old kids are picking through garbage.  And I didn't feel guilt like I did when my mom would tell us, "Millions of kids are starving in Africa!" when we didn't clean off our plates.

(Our smart-alecky response: "Name two.")

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Trip Report: Las Vegas

Sandy and I hadn't really had any time away to ourselves since we moved out here, and I had some leave time I had to use before I lost it, so we decided to take a long weekend in Las Vegas, 450 miles southeast of Reno.

December 2: The flight out was nice and uneventful.  I've never seen luggage get dumped onto the carousel as quickly as it did at McCarran International; it seemed almost as if the Clampetts all arrived at once!  That's how I managed to miss my suitcase the first time around.

We made what turned out to be a smart move by getting a rental car from Enterprise, the third Chevy HHR we've had from them in just over a year.  Then before we checked into the Rio (we'd stayed there before), we had lunch at Marie Callender's just down the street.  We each had a special that included a slice of pie for dessert, and we let the way too energetic server talk us into Chocolate Satin.  Wow, was that rich!  Fighting the sugar and chocolate high, we checked into the Rio and slept for a few hours; I had been up all night until then.

That evening, we decided to go check out the Orleans casino not far away.  We'd stayed there before as well, and were actually hoping to go there this time as well, but we got a better deal at the Rio.  We dined that evening at the TGIFridays on site.

Beginning that night, we saw lots of folks in ten-gallon hats, and would see many more over the next few days.  The National Finals Rodeo was starting that weekend.  I thought I saw my co-worker's wife, who was planning to be in town on a girls' trip for the NFR, but 1) she wasn't there yet, and 2) she's not a blonde.  Didn't see her or her friends at all that weekend.

December 3: My in-laws had taken us to the Gold Coast casino across the street from the Rio for breakfast before, so we went there for a most reasonably-priced buffet.  Part of the same chain as the Orleans, the Gold Coast has many of the same amenities, including a 70-lane upstairs bowling alley.

Yes, we spent a good amount of time at the slots.  Some of the ones that were kinder to me included Mystical Mermaid, Money Storm, and Russian Treasure (you can get winning lines both left to right and right to left).  It seemed as if when Sandy was doing well, I wasn't, and vice versa.

We had hoped to swim or take advantage of the Rio's spas, but it was really too cold to do either comfortably, so we didn't.

That night, we made our way to the Venetian to see Blue Man Group.  We marveled at how they managed to communicate so much without saying one word (there were voiceovers).  Also, I had the urge to find some PVC tubing to hit.  Even the announcements before the show were quite silly.  Note: if you don't like thumping bass music or strobe lights, don't go.  You'll be sorry if you don't, however.  It's something that really has to be experienced to be believed.

December 4: Our day started early as we took a tour bus to Laughlin, near the southernmost point of Nevada.  We straggled over to the Flamingo to catch said bus, passing the Donny and Marie store, and looked for a quick bite to eat.  My "quick bite" of a bagel with egg and bacon and a bottle of water cost $12.

On the way, we stopped at the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada" sign which has a new parking area on the south end of the Strip.  Then we stopped briefly at Hoover Dam, as we had done on a previous trip with my in-laws.  Lake Mead is WAY down, something like 130 feet below normal!  A new bridge will help alleviate congestion getting across the Colorado River.  We spotted a bighorn sheep or two on the rocks above the river.

Rather irksome: Our tour bus driver, a Pennsylvania native, kept calling it "neh-VAHH-dah."  It's "neh-VAA-dah"!  But he did tell us why Boulder City and other towns out west (including Reno and Sparks) have their initial letters on the hillsides: it's because mail used to be flown in, and the letters were all they had to go by to know which town was which!  Now it's done just to keep the tradition alive, and new communities in our area like Galena and Spanish Springs do the same thing.

We drove past a massive solar array south of Boulder City, and then through Searchlight, the small town that inflicted Harry Reid upon us.  Blink and you miss it.

Riding through the desert is a wild experience.  From miles away, I can see where we have to turn, or what town we're driving toward . . . but it still takes time to get there!  It really changes my sense of perspective.  The mountains on either side of the valley were quite impressive.  Wile E. Coyote would have been at home.

The bus then turned east and went downhill to the Colorado River and the gaming town of Laughlin.  It's a smaller version of Vegas, with its casinos drawing folks like the Kingston Trio and the Smothers Brothers.  It's also a lot quieter and less congested, and the Colorado River makes a great setting for it.  We strolled along the Riverwalk in the afternoon, following a lunch buffet at the Edgewater Casino.

On the other side of the Colorado is Bullhead City, Arizona.  We were amazed by how quickly water taxis skip across the river despite an extremely swift current!  Most river rides weren't operating because of the cold weather that day; some go downstream all the way to Lake Havasu City, AZ to take in the London Bridge.  In the summertime, Laughlin and Bullhead City, like Vegas, can get extremely hot.

During the return trip, we watched the movie Radio with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ed Harris.  That was impressive, and quite a story.

That night, we partook of the Rio's seafood buffet, a little pricey, but we got our money's worth.  We were disappointed that the Rio had scuttled its famous, albeit campy, "Mardi Gras In The Sky" show for racier stuff.  Also at the Rio, girls will get up and dance at the drop of a hat, and guys will effectively sing Karaoke.  I guess patrons enjoy that.

December 5: We didn't want to eat in the hotel, so we drove out to the Strip and had breakfast at Denny's.  Then we headed over to the Orleans for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert.

Apparently, the Las Vegas TSO concert was a late addition to their schedule; as a result, the Orleans Arena was far from sold out, although I'm glad we got our tickets from will call before everyone else jumped in line.  We had lunch with a lady who said the casino workers should file a grievance to prevent smoking in the casinos.  (Ummmm . . . yeah.)

When TSO stuck to their bread and butter of classical-based metal tunes, they were spot on, and the special effects were quite impressive; I've never seen rigging move that much.  But when they chose to tell a Meaningful Christmas Story Through Music, the concert dragged to a halt, although the narrator was quite good.  Still, I forgot just about everything they did in that whole middle section.  The kids behind us didn't help any by yakking through that whole segment; the glares I shot them went unheeded.

By the end, however, TSO kicked back up to high energy and finished strong.  I found it interesting that all their female musicians were young blondes. In retrospect, we probably should have gone to their later concert; we were unable to go to Mass that night, a decision that would come back to haunt us later.

That night, we headed to Las Vegas' old downtown on Fremont Street, getting dinner at the Golden Nugget across from its aquarium complete with a water slide through the middle of it.  We then visited a small old casino that still dealt in nickels (just about all others print out receipts).  In it was a couple that obviously had a few (dozen?) too many.  She appeared extremely amorous at the time, perhaps not wanting to wait to get a room!

We caught the Fremont Street Experience's sound and video show of Don McLean's "American Pie".  The rest of the schedule is on the above link.  Unfortunately, we didn't get any video because our camera's battery was low (sounds almost like an "American Pie" lyric!).  We then searched the souvenir stores for a sweatshirt for Sandy, but sweatshirts without hoods were in short supply.

December 6: We knew this was the day of Las Vegas' Rock and Roll Marathon and Half Marathon, but we didn't realize how much it was going to impact our attempt to get to early Mass.  We were effectively blocked from leaving the Rio to the north, south, east, and west!  So we checked out of the Rio, went to breakfast at the Gold Coast, and tried again to get to Mass.  It took us an hour and a half to get to the cathedral downtown . . . only about three miles away.  But what happened that morning was so profound and sublime, I'm saving a separate post for that.

After Mass, we headed down toward the airport.  We checked out the Town Square Las Vegas shopping center on the south end of the Strip, which featured a Fry's Electronics.  It's an enormous store that puts Best Buy to shame, and we'd never been in one before.  Why isn't there one in Reno or Sparks?  It would clean up!

Then we drove around looking for someplace for lunch.  I overindulged a bit at Claim Jumper, having a large platter of chicken carbonara when a small one would have sufficed.  While waiting to be seated, we met a family from Maryland who were also Ravens fans, although one of the girls was showing a lot more of her pelvic area than necessary.  Turns out the general manager of the Claim Jumper is a Ravens fan too.

We dropped off the rental car and awaited our flight home.  At the airport, Sandy met one of her co-workers who had competed in the half-marathon.  Only when we were airborne did we learn it was snowing in Reno; we knew it was going to be cold, but we hadn't heard about snow.

The pilot told us repeatedly to expect a rough descent into Reno.  I felt like I was awaiting an elementary school fire drill.  The beverage service consisted of water only.  And then we began the descent with the plane bucking back and forth through the winds aloft in the clouds.  I wish I could have been listening to my MP3 player as a distraction.  But we landed safely, albeit not that smoothly because of the snow.  Good job.

So that was our long weekend.  When getting home, I quickly unpacked my suitcase and grabbed a little sleep before heading to work that night in half a foot of snow.