Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Lights in San Angelo

This past Friday night, Donna and I decided to go out and view Christmas lights in San Angelo. We really had a good time.

We began our evening at one of our favorite local Mexican restaurants, Mejor Que Nada on South Bryant. On Friday nights, a local mariachi band strolls from room to room in the restaurant, playing traditional tunes. The food was good and plentiful, and we left the place stuffed and contented.

We took the local Christmas light tour, which begins at 1st and Abe at the northwestern edge of the downtown area. The first part of the tour is on River Drive, which parallels the North Concho River from near Central High School to Irving Street. Lights were placed along the roadway as well as across the river on the south bank. It was interesting to see the reflections of the light in the water of the river. One feature I especially enjoyed was the 12 days of Christmas theme, with displays depicting presents given on each of the 12 days of Christmas. There was also a tunnel of lights in the area near the golf course. The tour is coordinated with local radio station 95.7, so you can listen to traditional Christmas songs as you drive along.

After the section along the river, the tour detours through the southern edge of downtown along historic Concho Avenue. All the store fronts are lit up, and all the trees along the street are decorated. The tour then turns south on South Oakes, crosses the river, and detours through the area occupied by the Farmers Market across from Fort Concho, where a living nativity scene was in place as well as numerous lights.

We also drove through part of Santa Rita (Paseo de Vaca), where local residents had decorated both their yards and the common areas.

I'm sure there are other areas of the city that have wonderful decorations, but this was enough for us for one night.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trip Report: Return to Laughlin, Day #8

We slept in a bit later than normal since it was Sunday morning and traffic would be light for a while. We also had a fairly short day since we were only 350 miles or so from home. After taking advantage of the complimentary breakfast, we loaded the truck and stopped at a nearby station to fill up the tank ($2.99 gallon). Then we were back on the road. Donna wanted to drive the first leg, so we headed south with the Rio Grande valley and the mountains of Mexico on our right. After 60 miles or so, we began veering east away from the river and the border and passed through Sierra Blanca and then stopped at a port of entry to answer a few questions for the inquisitive border patrol agents there.

After satisfying the agents that we were Americans (they thought Donna looked a bit suspicious, especially with her accent and swarthy appearance), we continued to Van Horn where we stopped at McDonald's for more coffee and a snack. I took over here and took us the rest of the way home.

The day started off sunny, but by the time we reached Pecos, the cloud cover was moving in. We stopped briefly in Midland for gas ($3.21 gallon) and a snack, then took Highway 158 through Garden City to Sterling City, where we picked up Highway 87 to San Angelo. As we entered San Angelo, we stopped for a few groceries so we would not have to get out again. It was now cold and misty.

We arrived home, turned up the heat in the house (I had turned the thermostat way down before we left a week earlier), and unloaded the truck. Before dark, it began snowing a bit. The next couple of days would continue to be cold and wet, and we stayed home and did nothing. We really had no desire to get back in the truck to go anywhere, even someplace in town. It was Thursday before we finally ventured out.

Yes, Dorothy, there is no place like home.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Trip Report: Return to Laughlin, Day #7

We awoke early on Saturday, December 3, and had our baggage loaded in the car shortly before 6:00 AM. We went back inside the Aquarius and used the last of our comps at the Starbucks for coffee and morning pastries for the road. Shortly after 6, we were back in the truck and ready to head out. It was just getting light in Laughlin. We wanted to make as much use of the light as possible for neither of us enjoy driving in the dark, especially on unfamiliar roads.

This time, we took what is known locally as the Needles Highway due south out of Laughlin along the western bank of the Colorado River. The first 15  or so miles was a smooth roadway with 4 lanes -- and then we entered California. Immediately our good highway turned into a 2 lane bumpy road. The strip of pavement resembling a shoulder quickly dissolved into sand on both sides. But it was only a short distance to Needles, California, and we were sure the road would improve there.

It didn't.

Needles is the entry point into California for Route 66, that old highway traveled by Okies and others escaping the dust bowl decades ago. How many of you remember the old Route 66  TV series of the early 1960s starring Martin Milner and George Maharis?

At Needles, we picked up US Highway 95 south for almost 60 miles to Vidal Junction. This was a 2 lane highway as before with only the barest of shoulders. Immediately out of Needles, we got behind a motorhome, and with no safe place to pass, 60 miles later we were still behind looking at the rear of that motorhome when we came to Vidal Junction, where we picked up Highway 62 and headed east into Arizona.

After a 15 or so mile drive, we crossed the Colorado River for the last time and entered Parker, Arizona. Immediately, the road improved. Although it was not a 4-lane highway, it did have good shoulders and had a smooth surface. We worked our way south and west along highways 95 and 72 until we picked up Interstate 10 south of a small community called Vicksburg. Now we had a good highway, with a speed limit of 75. Although I normally prefer to drive between 60 and 65 for safety and improved gas mileage, I drove the speed limit on this day because we had so far to go.

West of Phoenix, I took Highway 85 due south and intersected with Interstate 8 at Gila Bend. This allowed us to bypass the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and heavy traffic. At Gila Bend, we stopped for gas ($3.49 gallon) and Donna began driving. Up until this time, we had enjoyed sunny skies, but once we turned onto Highway 85, we began approaching overcast areas where the current storm was still moving south. Once Donna began driving, she encountered patches of rain, some heavy. South of Phoenix, we intersected with Interstate 10 and began heading south again.

It was about this time that we began seeing mountains around us with snow covered peaks. It wasn't a heavy and deep snow cover, just a good dusting, but more bad weather was on the way. By taking the route we were on, we had avoided some bad weather north of us. Had we returned the same we had gone to Laughlin, we probably would have picked up some winter weather. Interstate 40 around Albuquerque had snow on the roadway, so we are certainly thankful we had not gone that way.

From this point on, we were seeing territory we had seen only days before. We quickly passed through Tucson and the cloud cover continued to move south. The mountains along I-10 as we passed through Benson and Wilcox heading to New Mexico had snow on their peaks.

Donna continued driving into New Mexico and stopped at Lordsburg for gas ($2.99 gallon). We were running out of daylight, so I bought a cup of coffee and hopped into the driver's seat. Just east of Demming, darkness began to fall. By the time we reached the Las Cruces/Mesilla area, it was completely dark. We continued on to El Paso and stopped at another Hyatt Place for the night.

We ventured next door to an IHOP and had a light supper, then returned to the hotel to shower and crawl in bed. We had come two-thirds of the way and we were spending the night in Texas. We felt pretty good. We were ahead of the storm.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Trip Report: Return to Laughlin, Days #5 - #7

Our room at the Aquarius was on the 8th floor of the south, or California, tower. Since we had previously been in rooms in Laughlin overlooking the river, we wanted some different scenery this time and we requested a "street" view, which would look west.

The Aquarius is a much more "upscale" establishment than the Riverside. It is newer, has a more spacious casino floor, has much nicer rooms, and the eateries are of better quality. It was a nice change from the Riverside.

One thing both casinos do is track your comps as you play, so we were able to watch as our food comps grew. We had comps left over from our previous trip, so we were able to begin eating "free" immediately.

As with the Riverside, I would venture to the slot floor early in the morning. The video poker selection at Aquarius is superior to that at Riverside. In fact, the Aquarius has 2 games with an expected value over 100%. The 2 games I prefer to play, deuces wild and jacks or better, were also available at the Aquarius with expected values of 99.73% and 99.99% respectively, so I was happy. With the comps and cash back the casino provided, that increased their value to over 100% as well. Although the Aquarius also has a no-smoking section, the better games are located in smoking areas, so that is where I played. The casino is so roomy, though, that smoking is not the problem it could be in a smaller casino.

Initially we ate using comps from my account and we saved Donna's comps for a nice steak dinner at the Outback, which we thoroughly enjoyed just steps away form our favorite machines.

On the second day of our stay at the Aquarius, the weather turned even worse. As we looked out our west facing windows on that second day, we saw snow on the peaks of the mountains just outside of town. After watching the weather for a while, it looked as though we were in for more winter weather. This concerned us.

We had planned to return due east along Interstate 40 through Flagstaff, Arizona, and spend the night at Albuquerque, New Mexico. This was scheduled for the following Monday, December 5th. According to the weather we were watching, new storms would be moving through those areas and dumping snow. Surprisingly, more than a foot of new snow had just fallen on Mt. Charleston, just west of Las Vegas. People unfamiliar with the area around Las Vegas may be surprised to learn that just 30 miles or so from LV there is a ski slope, and it was open for business with this new snow fall.

The approaching winter storm was also expected to dip far south into Arizona and New Mexico, even extending into West Texas.

So, we had some decisions to make. We could stay in Laughlin and probably end up having to spend more days there to wait out the storm. If we did so, we would probably have to start paying for rooms after our comped rooms expired. Or, we could leave early and outrun the storm. We had enjoyed several days of gambling, so we decided we would go ahead and leave.

This meant altering our route, though, so we got busy and canceled our reservations for Albuquerque. We decided we would return along the southern route, though not travel back through Wickenburg as we did coming out as that area may have snow already on the ground.

So we enjoyed our final day in Laughlin and spent more hours than normal at the video poker machines. We took a break that afternoon and drove over to Bullhead City to fuel up($3.19 gallon) to be ready to pull out early the following morning.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Trip Report: Return to Laughlin, Days #2- #5

Upon our arrival in Laughlin, we went straight to the Riverside Casino and Resort and checked into our room in the south tower. As in September, our room overlooked the Colorado River and areas to the east, including the ridge of mountains we had just passed through and the northern portions of Bullhead City, Arizona. Again we were amazed by the clarity of the water in the Colorado River as we were able to see the bottom of the river from our 12th floor room.

The Riverside would be our home for the next 3 nights. Don Laughlin built the Riverside in the mid-1960s. This is the casino that started it all in Laughlin. Although the casino and hotel have been expanded many times over the years, it still retains its unique character.

I like the Riverside. It's a bit shabby and it shows its age, but hey, I'm a bit shabby and I show my age, too. The Riverside is a bit like the old casinos in downtown Las Vegas, like the Vegas Club and the El Cortez. What I really like about it is that it has something for everyone.

The Riverside is a maze. On the main floor, you can weave through the various areas of the casino to find numerous eateries, a gift shop, the"world's largest watch shop", at least 3 casino bars and 1 sports bar, and various little side shops. Slot machines are tucked away wherever there is room. Go upstairs and next to the sports book is another bar, a snack bar, and a full-sized bowling alley. There is also bingo, dance instruction, a cinema, and even a classic car exhibition. Outside is a river touring service, which I wrote about in September.

When I stay at a casino, I enjoy rising early and spending a couple of hours or more at my favorite video poker machine while I enjoy my morning coffee. This is usually the quietest time in a casino, and I really enjoy this time. To make it better, the Riverside has a non-smoking section in the south tower casino floor, so that is where I spend most of my time. Donna takes a little longer to get ready in the morning, so she usually joins me a bit later.

After playing a while, I often return to our room to read or watch some TV. One of the things I do not like about traveling is that I get "disconnected" from the world, so I try to allow myself some time to watch CNN news throughout the day to stay in touch. I also enjoy picking up local newspapers to try to capture some of the local color of the area I am in.

I like to eat a solid breakfast about 8:00 AM in a casino, then eat again about mid-afternoon. That usually is all I need for the day. After my mid-afternoon meal, I like to play another couple of hours before returning to my room to settle in for the evening.

One routine Donna and I got into this trip to the Riverside was venturing up to the bowling alley in the early evening and watching the local bowling leagues. We also explored the communities of Laughlin and Bullhead City to see how the locals live.

After 3 nights at Riverside, we awoke Thursday morning, December 1, to a cold front. As usual, we played downstairs for a few hours, then checked out to move next door to the Aquarius Casino, where we had reservations for the next 4 nights. Fortunately, we were parked in the parking garage, so we were able to stay dry and out of much of the cold as we loaded our luggage, but it was a dreary, overcast day.

We drove the block or 2 south along Casino Drive to the Aquarius, the next casino down, parked in the garage, and headed in to secure our room.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Trip Report: Return to Laughlin, Day #2 (11/28/2011)

Tired from our long drive of the day before, we were in no hurry to leave Tucson Tuesday morning, November 28, so we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. We had fewer than 400 miles to Laughlin, and we did not need to arrive before standard check-in time of 3:00 or so. We opted to leave after rush hour had subsided in Tucson.

The drive from Tucson to Phoenix takes about 1½ hours, and provides more of the same scenery we had seen the day before: scattered desert mountains in all directions, desert landscape, and mostly cloud free skies. As we approached Phoenix, we hopped onto Loop 101 and circled around Phoenix, which is a sprawling monster of a town of 1,445,632 people and growing (2010 Census data). The areas we saw of Phoenix were lovely: beautiful landscaping along roadways, individual businesses and strip centers located among various desert plants and trees, neat and tidy residential sections. I’m sure there are areas that are not so desirable, as all cities have, but I saw very little of this.

We stopped for gas in north Phoenix and paid $3.25 per gallon. We wanted a full tank for the next stretch of the trip. From Phoenix, we took Highway 60 northwest to Wickenburg, then picked up Highway 93 to continue on to Kingman. This stretch requires about 3 hours and was a bit of a challenge for a flat-lander like me. About half of the stretch was divided 4 lane highway, but the other half was only 2 lanes, and there was lots of traffic and a bit of construction where they are adding more 4-lane roadway. Still, everyone should venture on this highway at least once, and we were glad we did so, though we will probably never go this way again.

As we neared Wickenburg, a canyon began paralleling us on the west. Although I never had a good view into the canyon, it was filled with trees, most turning a golden yellow in the autumn sun. Then we entered Wickenburg. I was not expecting anything here, but we were pleasantly surprised. This is a quaint little town, and I wish we had more time to enjoy it. I will definitely put it on my list of places to consider visiting if we pass this way again.

As we continued north along now Highway 93, we soon entered a stretch of Joshua trees. Although Joshua trees belong to the yucca family, they also resemble trees in many ways, thus their name.

Joshua Tree
Farther on, we encountered more saguaro trees. The saguaro is a large, tree-like cactus that has become synonymous with images of the Sonoran desert. 

Saguaro cactus
The highway began a series of ups and downs as it crept down into and out of canyons. In a land of few trees, you can always spot creeks, especially in autumn, as trees become thick along these precious natural water sources.

Besides Wickenburg, the only other town along this 3 hour stretch was Wikieup, a nondescript village of only 300 people or so.

We picked up Interstate 40 just over 20 miles east of Kingman, and that freeway was a welcome site. Kingman is an important and historic city in the western part of Arizona. It is located in a north/south valley. We mostly bypassed the town, but it is another place I’d like to tour when time allows.

It is only about 40 miles from Kingman to Laughlin. The first 20 or so miles is arrow straight and stretches due west. First, it goes down a slight decline as you leave Kingman, then it begins a gradual, then a sharper, ascent as it climbs to the top of a mountain ridge. From the top of the ridge, you can catch occasional glimpses of the Colorado River as it winds through the distant expanse like a silver ribbon reflecting in the late afternoon sun. The descent takes just about all of the 20 remaining miles, as the elevation at Laughlin is very low for this part of the country. As you approach, you can catch occasional glimpses of the hotels lining the river.

The descent continues until you reach the traffic light at the east end of the Laughlin bridge over the Colorado River. After 1086 miles, our journey to Laughlin was over. Now it was time to play.