the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected
when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing
back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My
Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or
computer issues over the years.
entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the
site, it was part of the Travel
Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange
and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Three: Las Vegas.
that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost
definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site,
and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that
piece and used for the book.
material was originally posted on December 30, 2004. It was later
published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments
may have been made while bringing the material back to the site
in this posting.
~ ~ ~
strange happened when Tigg and I went to Vegas this month. I was
planning on reviews and reports and all sorts of new and original
“best of” column? Please.
was going to do better than that. I was going to write more than
one essay about this trip.
I said though... something strange happened.
Richard is a good place to start…
of the best stories involve Ellen’s husband, Richard. (And to
be fair, having traveled often with Ellen and Richard, he seems
to be at the heart of many great stories for every trip.)
on, he was trying to convince us that he was a crazy old bastard.
Fine. At the time, we were thinking about whether or not to use
nicknames for my columns. He’s a great guy, so once in a while
we let him live the illusion and offer our support to his fantasy
world. Saves money on medication and therapy. Crazy old bastard
though? When Ellen turned $5 in nickels into about $10 on a video
poker machine one night, and he tried to get her to give the money
to him since he gave her the $5 she started with… well… a suggestion
was made to alter the name slightly, with cheap being used as
the first word.
you read this entire diary you will find that Richard is an incredibly
good sport about things. How he tolerates the three of us for
any extended periods of time I will never, ever understand.
some of those stories led to the idea of truly diving into the
trips… with diaries and opinions and all sorts of coverage.
that offered… on to the trip…
one, Friday, December 10, 2004
picked up Ellen and Richard at about 7:30am on our way to T.F.
Green airport. I hate to ruin it for any disillusioned travelers,
but Green is located in Warwick, Rhode Island… not Providence.
(I don’t know why, but it feels great to write that…
it’s not Providence… it’s not Providence… it’s… not…
Providence!) The first leg of our trip is to Cleveland. (Or… at
least what the airlines call Cleveland… I never checked to find
out if they lied about that too).
on one of those small, almost a puddle-jumper planes… the flight
itinerary calls it an “Embraer EMB-145” and I have no way to verify
that because I never checked the seat pocket for my emergency
information sheet. As a kid I used to collect those safety folders
from all the different planes I flew on. I have no clue why I
stopped, especially when today I evidently could have one for
an Embraer EMB-145.
major issue here is seat assignments. See, I’m sitting alone,
on the single-seat side of the row, two rows in front of everyone
else. Tigg is sitting alone as well, but only one row in front
of Ellen and Richard, who are across the aisle from each other.
Tigg responds to the information about single-seats by asking:
“Who is my single-seat next to?” This prompts a round of “am I
sitting alone or by myself?” comments.
there isn’t much to say about our flights. Pretty standard. But
if you’ve never been to Sin City, it is a bit of a shock to walk
off of the plane in Las Vegas and into a bank of slot machines.
A bit of a shock, which suddenly seems appropriate. No question
that you have arrived.
get to our hotel… The Fairfield Grand Desert Resort. And, I don’t
know if I’ve ever before felt so strongly about recommending to
people that they stay away from a place. But now is not the time
to discuss the fires. (Yes… fires… more than one.) Right now I
want to mention the flyswatter.
things first, it was a nice property in general. I’m being a bit
difficult by saying that if asked I would probably tell people
to avoid it. It was built as a time-share development, and I’ve
stayed in a few and experienced others over the years. And, overall,
the Not-much-better-than-averagefield is what it is… suite-type
set-ups with a small kitchen, washer and dryer, and so on. And,
they have a decent shuttle route into the center of the main Vegas
strip, which then heads over to the Rio. But if you haven’t learned
it already around the In My Backpack web site, I have
a very low-threshold for stupidity. I guess you could say don’t
suffer fools gladly. The reality is likely far more accurately
stated as I get upset at times with people that do know better
are oblivious to their own stupidity. (Not “could know better”
-- DO know better.)
this diary continues, you will find that the Fairweather Resort,
in my opinion, was a ship of fools. You’ll also see that there
were plenty of other places where I wasn’t too patient about things.
Wow. Frustrating. Annoying.
Where was I? Oh yeah… the flyswatter.)
is a checklist in the room. It goes over kitchen items… pots,
pans, knives… and then on to other things in the suite. And in
the middle of the list is -- quantity 1, flyswatter.
first I was too busy making notes to think much about the flyswatter…
“no lids with mixing bowls”… “no ashtray, there are non-smoking
signs in room”… “missing remote for stereo.” I’m taking this assignment
quite seriously. But after pausing for a moment following the
scribbling of something about having a different size juice container
than what was described, I began thinking about the flyswatter.
was a resort doing with a flyswatter?
I going to need it? Were the flies a big problem?
more strangely… my thoughts weren’t because it seemed inappropriate.
Given some past experience, potentially it didn’t seem to be that
out of line as an item. When I was a kid we traveled to Florida
one year. 1979. First trip to Disney World. We went in September,
and as my faded memories recall, it was love-bug season. Screens
over the grills of the cars. Bugs all over the place. I have seen
needs beyond what a flyswatter could provide assistance for. So,
a flyswatter in Las Vegas, even if no one told me when I might
need it, didn’t seem so wrong. I was just curious. You know, in
a maybe-I-should-carry-this-around-everywhere preparedness kind
fly swatter… seemed ok. Just curious.
I went to check the view from our room’s windows.
didn’t open. At all. No screens. Just windows.
how do these flies become a checklist-priority-worthy problem
necessitating a flyswatter? Are they gathering in swarms during
some month of the year, using the resort elevators, and in such
large numbers advancing into the rooms that a flyswatter in every
location is necessary?
don’t know… never found out. But it was there -- quantity 1, flyswatter.
decide to take it easy on the first night. Our resort is a short
walk down East Harmon Avenue from the Hard Rock complex. Even
though we arrived around 2:30pm Vegas time, by the time we had
checked in and settled into our rooms it was after 5pm and we
had already been moving for about 14-hours that day. And that’s
when the first mistake took place, courtesy of yours truly.
this year the Food Network had aired a series of specials called
Iron Chef America. One of the guest judges was a chef,
Kerry Simon. I thought he did a fantastic job. While looking through
some of the materials we had in the room, I noticed that he had
a restaurant at the Hard Rock, called Simon Kitchen and Bar. I
wanted to try it. And, with a listing of two dollar signs… which
the book noted as meaning an average entrée price of $10
to $15… we all were in agreement that this sounded perfect for
a first night, we’re tired and just want to kick back meal.
arrived a few minutes before the restaurant opened, went into
the casino to waste some time, and then returned to be seated…
all without ever peeking at the menu. So, when we opened it up
and found that most of the entrees were at or well above $20,
we were a bit shocked. I’m not saying this to express the idea
that I thought it was overpriced or out of line or in any way
inappropriate or shocking on its own. Instead, understand that
on our first night in Vegas we hadn’t been looking to eat in what
I think you would be fair in calling a slightly pricey restaurant.
Clearing $100 for four people without appetizers, drinks or tip
included ranks above one or two dollar signs. However, there was
Kerry Simon mingling with some people at the bar, and I had wanted
to try it, so we stayed.
for you to consider… up until this point I have never been too
impressed when I’ve eaten in restaurants named after, run by,
or associated with some of the notable chefs in the world. It’s
probably me… perhaps I’m pretty tame or basic in my tastes (which
if you know me isn’t really that accurate, and it’s also not too
inaccurate)… but usually I find that such establishments don’t
have something on the menu for everyone. Instead, they often seem
to me to be trying to impress people with style and appearance
and using some spice or wood chips or whatever in a different
way than everyone else does. (And not because it’s good… just
because it’s different.) It’s showing how impressive it can look
or how fancy ingredients the average person doesn’t have access
to are in this chef’s kitchen, instead of just showing a clean
presentation of something that tastes good. So what normally seems
to happen is that I kick around some options, usually settle on
a fairly basic dish, and find that it’s alright but nothing that
knocks me off my chair. (I’m probably being stereotypical and
unfair, but I think you get the point. And since this trip, I
have been to some great restaurants that do show noteworthy names
can deliver outstanding meals.)
I ordered a curry chicken that was served with white rice and
almonds. The plate arrived, with the rice in one of those containers
for Chinese take-out food. The chicken was in a separate bowl.
Nice plating. Looked really different and impressive. But I had
no clue what to do next. Would I be breaking all sorts of table
manners by pouring out the rice and then placing the chicken over
it? Would people laugh at me? Would Kerry come running out of
the kitchen and take my plate away from me? Overall the food was
fine. It wasn’t a bad meal, but it wasn’t even close to one of
the best we had either.
never managed to meet Kerry Simon. I didn’t want to just shout
to him, and it seemed just a tad bit wishy-washy to ask the waiter
if he’d call him over. Oh well… someday. I still think he did
a great job on Iron Chef America and would like to try
his creations again.
to the casino and a tremendous find for the time-wasting segments
of the trip… 25-cent video blackjack. Ah yes… not quite the investment
needed to actually sit at a table and play for $5, $10 or more
a hand. More fun to me than video poker. Tigg and I managed to
get about $20 ahead on the machines and headed back to the Fairview
feeling pretty good.
the way, Richard… I think it was Richard… pointed to a fence at
the side of the road. I am notorious for my scrapbook efforts.
I’m not one of those scrapbooking-people with special scissors,
little stickers with quotes in balloons or stuff like that. However,
if it’s a matchbook, ticket stub, property map, coaster or anything
else that might someday bring back interesting memories or start
a good conversation while flipping through a book, I’m all over
had spotted some cards, stuck in the chain-link fence like playing
cards in the spokes of a bicycle. They were just about the size
of a baseball card too. Ah, but these were cards featuring women…
these were dirty cards! He wanted to know if I’d be collecting
them for my scrapbook from Vegas.
the time I shook my head, looked at Tigg for a response she didn’t
provide and said no. (Ah, but this is Vegas… so remember this
two, Saturday, December 11, 2004
Ellen and Richard had an interesting night. The phone in their
room rang at about 3am. It was someone from the resort calling
to tell them that the door to their room was open. When the phone
first rang, they thought there was something wrong with one of
us and we were calling them. Evidently they got up, closed the
door, and didn’t sleep much the rest of the night.
and Richard have been to Vegas before, but have never really looked
completely around at a lot of the properties. I earned the nickname
“Tour Guide Bob” back in 1999 when we traveled off to Orlando
as a group. For this journey, we made a decision to stay in Las
Vegas and not rent a car or head off to such sites as the Hoover
Reasonablefield Grand Desert Resort runs a shuttle service to
Harrah’s and on to the Rio. This morning we get ready and head
off to Harrah’s to start our first full day of exploration. Two
quick things about the Vegas casino properties…
one: They aren’t even remotely located where I thought they
were. Having read about the mega-resorts being added all the
time, I figured that the area was expanding and expanding and
expanding. You know... back and out, back and out, like a sprawling
city. It may very well be expanding, but many properties have
been placed right in the middle of it all. Duh... right along
the strip. Probably should have seen that coming all along.
But in my defense, when you’ve never been there and see a map,
enough properties are labeled off the main roads that until
you actually see the properties it isn’t all that crazy to think
they have grass and golf courses and such. Nope. Concrete, buildings,
and main entrances. (Wander the back roads at your own peril.)
two: A friend had warned me about walking. He said that distances
could be deceiving, and to keep that in mind before venturing
the shuttle and into Harrah’s we went… and out of Harrah’s we
came. We registered for the player’s club there, and quickly turned
our attention to breakfast. After deciding Harrah’s wasn’t where
we wanted to eat, we went outside and saw the entrances to the
Forum Shop at Caesars Palace and The Mirage. Thinking about it
more completely, and realizing that it would probably be close
to time for a restaurant to open for lunch once we really settled
in, over to The Mirage we went.
think it was about ten to fifteen years ago. I was driving down
to Atlantic City in New Jersey with a friend of mine. Just outside
of the casino area, along the expressway, there are a ton of billboards.
One of them back then was rather plain and mysterious, with a
heading that I recall reading “everything you’ve heard is true.”
It was for The Mirage. At first we thought they were building
The Mirage in Atlantic City. Nope. Seems like it was an ad for
the Vegas property.
can now officially tell you that everything you’ve heard is in
fact true. The trick is, you might not know it at first glance.
The property grows on you, and only once you become familiar with
it does it truly blossom.
the surface, when compared to some of the properties around it,
The Mirage actually seems pretty straightforward. Nice. Clean.
And it has a volcano. But it really isn’t the architecture at
Paris, or the fountains at Bellagio.
me, it was something very specific that triggered the thought
of what The Mirage offered that others don’t… and on this trip
also was the source of a weird feeling I experienced while there.
of the casino-resort properties have what I’ll call a major in-house
performance. Penn & Teller… Lance Burton… Cirque du Soleil.
The Mirage was, to my knowledge, the only property hosting two
major shows on long-term runs: Danny Gans and Siegfried &
Roy. Both here at The Mirage.
we make this visit, just about everyone is aware of the fate of
the Siegfried & Roy show. But the reminders of what had been
are everywhere. The white tiger habitat… the secret garden…
the gift shops. The pair is still everyplace you look, almost
completely intertwined into the fabric of the resort. And it created
a very strange setting, where thoughts drifted to what had happened
to them and their show just over a year ago.
ate lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen at The Mirage, and it
was fantastic. One of the most satisfying meals we had on the
trip… a menu that offered everybody something they would like,
and just a little bit different than you would ever find at home.
The staff was good, with people constantly circulating and refilling
lost a few dollars playing the slots and video poker/blackjack
machines, but left feeling pretty good overall. On to Caesars…
up front, two things about Caesars Palace... First, I don’t know
why, but Caesars is one of my least favorite casinos in Atlantic
City. It just doesn’t feel comfortable to me. A funny thing about
that… I’ve actually won money in AC at the Palace. Generally,
most people I know tend to favor the first casinos they won money
in as the places they love and return to. But Caesars feels stuffy
to me. Bear in mind… it is one of the few old-time properties
that has not only survived the transition to the new, gigantic-entertainment
complexes that have invaded Las Vegas, but it has also grown into
a significantly dominant presence as well. A whiff of arrogance
wouldn’t be surprising. Second, we were there in part because
of a friend. Tigg and I had received several recommendations for
this trip… places to see, people to find… stuff like that. One
of those people had told us that we had to meet a casino host
that he knew at Caesars. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce
you to Cheryl, the most incompetent and rude person we encountered
in Vegas. She’s a casino host at Caesars, and we’ll be visiting
with her a few times as the trip diary continues.
entered the property through the Forum Shops, and I can tell you
they are every bit as stunning and impressive as people build
them up to be. The latest section has three levels of stores.
The sculptures and statues are gorgeous. The paintings and décor
are incredible. Simply beautiful.
found a house phone when we reached the casino area and tried
to contact Cheryl. Turned out it was her day off. She left a message,
and we left Caesars Palace.
this point our thoughts for the day went totally haywire. We had
plans for Treasure Island later in the week, so we didn’t want
to head that way up the strip. And, we weren’t sure which casinos
we wanted to see down the strip.
time to mention the rodeo.
Thomas & Mack center at UNLV was hosting the Wrangler National
Finals Rodeo while we were there. We had been warned by a couple
of people that Saturday and Sunday were the last days of the rodeo,
and that some places would be a bit busy until it ended. And they
were right… cowboy hats and boots and themed special events all
over the place. But, once it was over, we were told that we would
find ourselves in Vegas during one of the slowest weeks of the
knew we had a lot of gambling planned for the week. Because of
that, even though we wanted to place a bet or two in every casino
we visited, we had decided to try and stick to low-limit tables
as a way of stretching out the money for an hour or two or more
in any single place. So… between the rodeo and it being a weekend…
we were finding that almost all of the places were pretty crowded
and had more expensive table limits. We decided to walk through
the Barbary Coast and head toward the Flamingo.
first… the Bellagio Fountains were going off. We saw two shows,
and they were quite impressive. Wrong time though, since the sun
was just perfectly placed over the side of the building and blinding
tell you more about the Barbary Coast, but we walked in and out
of it in less than four minutes. Looked fine, but it was packed.
to the Flamingo.
a property, the Flamingo is what it is… an aging casino (but still
with a decent and recognizable name) in a fabulous location. It’s
across the street from Caesars Palace, and very close to The Mirage,
Treasure Island, Bellagio and Paris. The Flamingo was good to
Richard, who had some fun there, but the rest of us lost money.
was no other casino-resort property in Las Vegas that unexpectedly
impressed me as much as Paris did. Just a tremendous job incorporating
the Eiffel Tower motif into the entire facility. Sure, other elements
of Paris and France, such as a replica of the Arc de Triomphe,
are part of the facility. But it is the Eiffel Tower that dominates,
and rightly so.
50 stories in height… about 460 feet… the Vegas tower is roughly
half the size of the actual Eiffel Tower. Evidently there were
plans to create a full-size version, but the location of McCarran
Airport made that impossible. If you travel to Las Vegas, do whatever
you can to get to Paris and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
The view is spectacular… day or night. Paris is directly across
the street from Bellagio, making the tower a wonderful place to
watch the water fountains from. Tigg and I went up there around
sunset, and over the course of about twenty to thirty minutes,
watching Vegas go from day to night was breathtaking.
note about Paris… the waitresses as a whole are the best in Vegas.
I didn’t get a single drink at Paris. I was just… umm… looking.
to Aladdin! About the best thing I can say about it was the discovery
of a 5-cent video blackjack machine. We found nickel machines
all over the place in Las Vegas, but this was a first for blackjack
during our travels. We also got two coffee mugs for joining the
player’s club. And... well... that’s enough. (Actually, it’s significantly
more than enough about the Aladdin.)
a day of tremendous casual food, we decided to eat at the Harley
Davidson Café. Great menu. Great meal. Just about every
casino property in several ways is exactly like the others… different
types of restaurants, gaming, and shows... but if one place has
something successful, everyone else has something similar. On
the other hand... the Harley Davidson Café stands on its
own, at 3725 Las Vegas Boulevard South. Adam took care of us here,
and he was pretty good. Motorcycles hang from the ceiling, circling
the restaurant on a track. Very impressive.
night continued with a trip over to the Monte Carlo. We were supposed
to have tickets to a show here, but the reservations were messed
up. Tigg chalked it up to a misunderstanding, and we decided it
was probably for the best. Ellen took off for the video poker
machines that had become her game of choice while Richard, Tigg
and I sat down at a blackjack table.
and Simon were our dealers at the table. Biljana was fantastic…
pleasant overall and a good conversationalist. She was knowledgeable
about the game, but in a way that frequent players will understand
and appreciate, didn’t force her understanding of the game onto
the players. She hails from Yugoslavia. We also managed to have
a great table, with a couple from Illinois joining us for almost
all of the time we played. Tigg and I both won, combining to leave
with enough to put us up about $100 for the day.
was about midnight now, and we were ready to call it a night.
But I had one last thing to take care of… a sports book. Once
we left for the night I wasn’t certain if I would make it back
again in time for the start of Sunday’s football games. I needed
to place a couple of bets before we went back to our rooms. We
crossed the street and finished the day at the MGM Grand… just
long enough to place some wagers and not for a true visit.
night wraps up with us stopping at a grocery store to pick up
some juice and such for our hotel room. We’ve pretty much decided
that we plan on eating a quick breakfast in our rooms… English
muffins, donuts… before heading out each day. And it’s time to
get back to the room close to 1am and watch television for about
an hour before heading to bed. With my NFL bets placed and no
plans until the evening, we’ve decided to just call whenever we
feel like getting started.