In Travels with Charley: A Search of America John Steinbeck writes, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” And he could not have said it better. To remind you of part one of this saga my kids and I had just had a very hot adventure within Death Valley, California and we were heading into Sin City, Nevada for a night’s rest.
As night enveloped us while driving through the desert we took the back way to Las Vegas. I was happy to fill up the car with the lowest priced gas I had seen in ages: $1.39 compared to the near $4.00 a gallon before we left home. Prior to leaving I had made only one hotel reservation and that was for Las Vegas. I went online using a discount card purchased with one of those coupon savings books that Johanna got roped into buying but it did have hotel discounts. I booked a cheap room knowing we would only be sleeping and showering in what I thought was some small hotel-casino on the outskirts of Vegas on the way to Henderson. I don’t even think you can book a hotel-only place in Nevada. I had an image in my head of some mom and pop place, maybe akin to a Motel 6 but with a few one-arm bandits in the lobby. For $30 a room it couldn’t be that great, could it? To be honest, I’ve only traveled through Las Vegas in a car once and stuck to the interstate and the other times were simply stopovers in the airport so I didn’t really have a feel for the place. I only knew it through TV and movies.
We entered the city by a Northwest route and made our way to our destination passing by the Strip. The kids were fascinated by all the tall themed hotels, such as the one with the Eiffel Tower, the circus one and the place with the Statue of Liberty, which Avery pointed out with glee. I told them we weren’t staying in any of those fancy places – just some small joint outside of town. Avery was notably excited because he had never spent a night in a hotel or motel before in his five years of life. Olivia was an old pro but Avery had expectations so I tried to temper those so he wouldn’t be disappointed. We kept driving and as the Strip faded and the hotels turned to strip malls and fast food joints my conclusions about our night’s stay seemed to be correct…or so I thought. As we drove I couldn’t help but glimpse at a rather large sign in the distance, with flashy Broadway type lights encircling an electronic display as gaudy as anything on the Strip. As we got closer I saw the name on the sign: Sam’s Hotel & Gambling Hall. Ooops! Seems I didn’t book some out of the way place after all, to the thrill of the two hooligans in the back seat.
As we came up to the huge monument to all things unnatural it was clear we weren’t on the outskirts of town in some mom and pop type place. It was like one of those mega churches you see in the South but with lights flashing and blinking everywhere and a congregation of gamblers. I thought to myself I’d hate to be the guy in charge of changing light bulbs, though you’d always have a job, I guess.
Being on a budget we parked in the garage the large arrow pointed to by ourselves and had to hike it with the luggage for what seemed like a few blocks over to the hotel and gambling hall. Olivia didn’t know what a gambling hall was and thought it read “climbing hall”. I thought that was funny. In her mind there was a large room with one of those rock climbing walls in it. Anyway, here’s a nerdy Dad dragging luggage and two kids at 9:00 at night walking through rows and rows and rows and rows of slot machines trying to figure out where the front desk was hiding all the while hating the cigarette stench that was pervasive throughout the casino. It would drive me crazy if I had to smell it for more than a few minutes. I’m glad I don’t gamble, aside from the occasional lottery ticket and screenplay submission.
We finally made it through the slot maze designed to keep one dropping quarters in machines and stumbled upon the front desk. The hotel portion of Sam’s was amazing and reminded me of a small Opryland Hotel: Tall glass ceiling made to seem like you’re in some small town. The place had a very Southern country feel to it with an inside potted forest, animatronic animals, a real waterfall where twice a night they had a light show (we just missed it so I can’t report on how good it was). Check-in was easy and we quickly made it to our very comfortable accommodations. Avery was beyond ecstatic and demonstrated this enthusiasm by jumping up and down on the bed until corralled by the strong arm of Sheriff Dad. But now the bar was set so high he was only headed for disappointment further into the trip when we’d most likely stay at a “real” cheap hotel and not one with rooms subsidized by gamblers. I did meet a nice couple from Ventura while waiting in line to check in who visit there several times a year with much pleasure. Small world.
After a short get-acquainted with the hotel room time, we headed down into the lobby to get a bite to eat even though it was late. The only place to eat was Subway or TGI Fridays. Olivia chose Fridays. This was first in a series of her drinking too much Sprite before her food arrives and getting full before most of meal was eaten and infuriating her father. Avery and food is a whole other issue. Let’s just say he got a drink and that was about it. I enjoyed a rack of ribs, though.
Once a bath and shower were taken by the kiddos and I got them settled in bed with the TV blaring CNN (always a good sleep aide) they quickly fell to sleep after a long day of adventure. I was not far behind after watching the news about JamesGandolfino’s sudden passing in Rome. What a way to end a day.
With free breakfast passes we got up early and headed to the buffet. The kids were still waking up so they didn’t eat much even though there was food to feed an army at their disposal. I pigged out. We returned to the room and packed up to leave. For some reason Olivia couldn’t roll her suitcase and so I had to lug all of our stuff – which proved to be fated for trouble. We dropped the plastic room keys in a box and headed to the car…again having to trudge through the almost empty endless rows of slot machines. We exited the hotel and passed by the 18-screen movie theater adjacent to the hotel. This hotel had everything…even a talking bear.
After packing up the car we headed back on the road saying goodbye to Sam’s. Of course, the kids want to come back. We’ll see about that. Next stop was Hoover Dam, another site I’d never seen and part of that old Disney film. It was a short 40 minutes or so to the dam and after parking we made our way to the entrance right after they opened. There must have been people camping out at the door because there was a hell of a lot of people already there. I get to security and my little Swiss Army penknife was a no no in a Federal facility. Darn. Since it doubled as a USB drive I didn’t want to give it up and so without anyplace to hide it we had to walk all the way back up to the parking garage to store it. When I got to the car and was placing all my pocket items in the car so I wouldn’t have to dump it all in the tray I noticed something was wrong. Oh God! My briefcase with my MacBookPro computer was missing. I was keeping it on the passenger side floorboard but it was not there. My stomach sunk. My first thought was that I left it in the lobby of the hotel, putting it down to help the kids with something. Then I thought I might have left it outside the car as we were packing up and forgot about it. Either of those two scenarios spoke of doom. I immediately called my wife Johanna to see if she could call the hotel as we walked back to buy tickets for the tour that was about to start. Missing the tour would put us way back behind schedule so we kept going. As I talked with Johanna I realized that while we left the hotel I was pulling two suite cases and so couldn’t possibly have carried my briefcase so it had to still be in the room. I asked Johanna to call and see if I was right. She called back as we were waiting for the tour to start to tell me the front desk told her they were sending housekeeping to check and that they’d call me on my cell. I was on pins and needles waiting to hear.
We sat through the requisite film about the history of Hoover Dam, which was tainted by my nervousness but as we were exiting the theater I got a call from the hotel; they found my briefcase in the room. Relief. But…now we had to return to Las Vegas after the tour. Oh, Mr. Steinbeck, my itinerary was falling about. I had planned on getting all the way past Monument Valley that day but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. An unknown plan B had to be set in motion but that could wait. There was hours on the road before I had to worry about where to sleep that night.
We learned all about Hoover Dam and what it took to build. They make it seem like it was the savior of the Great Depression but we were all in awe of its grandeur and the hard work it took a small army of people to complete in an era without computers and modern technology. I was able to avoid the gift shop by telling the kids because we had to go back to Las Vegas and didn’t have time…which was true. A bribe to eat at McDonald’s also helped. We got back to Sam’s…this time parking practically next to where our room was…a little knowledge and some daylight helps. We had to wait a good 45 minutes before housekeeping came down with my briefcase and because it contained a computer I had to show two signs of ID, sign my life away and leave one of my kids…that last one isn’t true but if I was asked that after a long day in the car my answer may surprise you.
Finally back in the car and on the road. The next stop was The Grand Canyon but three hours behind schedule. I knew we wouldn’t make it to Monument Valley so I elicited help from home base. Johanna scored big time! She found us a cabin right inside the park and at a reasonable cost. A family decided to cancel last minute and take the presidential suite at some hotel right outside the park. Our benefit. We would sleep in the Grand Canyon that night. Pretty cool.
(Next on A Road Trip Adventure Across America: Keeping a five year old from falling over a cliff, majestic Monument Valley and trying to make the four corners before dark.)