Thursday, November 28, 2013

Another Online Tool for the Traveler

About a year ago, I posted an article about online tools I use when traveling. (See "Online Tools for RVers"). I've recently discovered something new I want to share.

While using Google Maps a week or so ago, I noticed a little feature I had not seen before. There's no telling how long it has been available, but I had never seen it. I was measuring the distance from two locations when I happened to see it.

One of my favorite features of Google Maps is that it allows you to get directions from Point A to Point B. When you first pull the program up, you will see this feature available in the upper-left corner of the screen. Simply click on the "Get Directions" button. You can then enter your starting point and your destination. When you do so, the new feature I discovered becomes available.

In the example below, I've entered San Angelo as my starting point and Austin as my destination. The program has returned 3 possible routes, each showing the distance and calculated time to travel that route. As you hover over each choice, that route will highlight in the right part of the screen, on the actual map. Just below the 3 options is a little button, which I have circled in red, that allows you to enter the 3D option. If you click this button, then Google Earth will load and will move you through your route from the starting point to the end point. In other words, you will get an aerial view of your route from start to finish.

For longer trips, it would take quite a while to watch the route play out, but for shorter routes, you can get a good visual of your trip before taking off. Yesterday, I put in a 99 mile route, and it took close to 10 minutes to follow that route, so this is not something you want to use with longer trips. But for shorter trips, it can be quite useful.

Another step forward in armchair travel. Onward!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Old Man Winter Has Arrived

There's an old saying that if you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes. That has certainly proved true in my part of the country the last few days.

I write this early on a Saturday morning. On Thursday, the temperature reached a balmy 78. A front moved through West Texas later that day, reaching our area (known locally as the "Concho Valley") about midnight. Our high temp for Friday was actually recorded in the early hours of that day in the 40s. Once daylight arrived, the temp hovered in the low 30s throughout the day, a difference of about 45 degrees from the previous day.

Now early on this Saturday morning, it is still cold, with the temp hovering around the freezing mark. It will remain here throughout the day. Yesterday, we had a little moisture, even a few small specks of snow. It's still dark out, but I can see partially white rooftops in the neighborhood. We expect more wintry weather today (Saturday), tomorrow, and into Monday.

Donna made a big pot of soup yesterday. Mmmm! We have no place we need to be, so we are staying home for the weekend. It's nice to be in a warm house during cold weather as opposed to a travel trailer as we were last winter.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Going to the Dogs

Donna and I try to stay active. We like doing things, so I'm always combing the paper looking for something that might interest us. And we always enjoy doing something new to us, something we've never done before.

A week or so ago, the Concho Kennel Dog Club of San Angelo sponsored an AKC sanctioned dog show at Foster Coliseum. We love dogs and were looking for something to do, so it seemed a natural for us. We had never been to a dog show before but had watched several on television. So even though we had a rough idea of what goes on at a dog show, we really weren't too sure what to expect.

Foster Communications Coliseum is the main events venue in San Angelo.
The show began Friday and continued through Sunday. We drove out to Foster Communications Coliseum in north San Angelo, site of the show, on Friday afternoon and watched the obedience trials. This was a pretty intimate affair off in a side room. We were able to get up close to the dogs and mingle with some of them.

We returned to the show on Saturday morning. The main coliseum floor was partitioned into several areas where best of breed competitions were being held. Vendors were also located on the main floor. Although we spent most of the morning in the bleachers watching the individual breed competitions, we did wander through the floor area to get a close-up look at several dogs. There was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that we had seen from our seats that was being groomed, and we wanted to get a close look at her. She was, indeed, a beautiful dog.

East end of the coliseum, main floor. Fence in the front is edge of show arena, while vendor booths are visible in the background. You can also see a couple of cocker spaniels being groomed in front of the photography booth.

Woman waiting to show her cocker. If you look closely, you will see various dogs in the background being groomed.

A judge is looking over a group of schnauzers.
Poodles being groomed for their upcoming competition.
This is a good shot to show all the activity that goes on at a dog show. People in front center, by the trash can, are waiting to show their dogs. Notice their number arm bands. To the right of them are cages on a rolling platform. Grooming is going on everywhere. The little Cavalier we liked is just beneath the EZGO sign; you can see her standing on a table with her head turned. It's a busy place!

The main floor was a busy place. People were getting their dogs ready and moving them to the area outside where they were to show them. Others were doing last minute grooming on their dogs. Other dogs were in cages; either they had already participated, or their show time was a long way off.

It was an enjoyable outing, and it afforded us the opportunity to see lots of dogs of various breeds.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Review: Last Vegas

If you're an old geezer, then you might want to check out Last Vegas. Donna and I recently saw this movie, and we enjoyed it. Now, it's probably not going to earn any academy awards, and the actors probably won't win anything, either, but it's a solid movie, with many clever scenes and well-scripted lines.

If you watch television at all, then you know the premise of the movie. Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert DeNiro), Archie (Morgan Freeman), and Sam (Kevin Kline) have been friends since childhood. Known as the "Flatbush Four," they are now approaching 70, and Billy has decided to marry for the first time and invites his friends to the wedding in Las Vegas.

Archie and Sam provide most of the humor in the movie while the core plot revolves around Billy and Paddy. The usual age-related jokes are prevalent, but many have an original twist to them. The swimming pool scene with Sam near the beginning of the movie is a good example of such a twist.

On a serious note, the movie deals with emotions and subjects that most of us face as we age. How do we deal with loss? How do we take care of ourselves as we age without shutting ourselves off from life? How do we deal with those who care about us, yet don't understand what we are dealing with?

It's a fun movie, and a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Aquarius: Laughlin, Nevada

We spent the final two days of our trip at the Aquarius in Laughlin, Nevada.

It was really good to get to Laughlin. We feel very comfortable there. After the hubbub and traffic of massive Las Vegas, I welcomed the slower pace and small town feel of Laughlin. And I can't tell you how nice it was to get out along the river and enjoy the "natural" feel of the place.

The Aquarius is our "go to" place in Laughlin. It is located near the north end of Casino Drive along the Colorado River. The rooms are nice, the eateries are very decent, and the video poker offerings are the best overall in Laughlin. By this time, though, I was becoming tired of gambling, so I really did not spend much time at the machines. In fact, I was really ready to hit the road and get home.

But we had a couple of nice meals while in Laughlin. The first was the Friday night seafood buffet at the Aquarius. I'm not a buffet guy. To me, a buffet is just an excuse to overeat, an excuse I really don't need. In most buffets, I find the food to be poorly prepared and rather bland. But I've always liked the buffet at the Aquarius, for a number of reasons. First, it has a great view overlooking the Colorado River. I just love looking out east over the river and at the stark mountains rising over in Arizona. Second, the buffet at the Aquarius is usually not that busy. In many buffets, you seem to have to jostle for your food, but not at the Aquarius. Finally, I always find some dishes at the Aquarius buffet that are new or different, and the food is generally well-prepared. For example, at the seafood buffet, I tried the Oysters Rockefeller, a dish I had never tasted before.

Our second good meal came at Daniel's Restaurant on the River at the tiny Regency Casino next-door to the Aquarius. Normally we wait until Wednesday to eat at the Regency, where they serve 2-for-1 hamburgers. But since we weren't going to be there on Wednesday, we went over on Saturday. We really like their cheeseburgers. They cook the meat to order (Donna likes medium rare, I like well done), and the cheese is properly melted. There is a good char-grilled flavor to the meat. I had fries with my order while Donna tried the sweet potato fries. Wow, these were good; I wish I had ordered them. Service is good and friendly at Daniel's, and we always look forward to returning. They offer several dining specials throughout the week that are worth checking out.

After a 2 night stay at the Aquarius, we checked out at 4:15 AM Nevada time and headed for home. I was eager to get home, so I wanted to make the trip in a single day. Google Maps indicates our route was 1,006 miles and would require 14 hours and 59 minutes. We made it in 16 hours. I don't know how we could have made it any faster. We kept stops to a minimum (coffee at Kingman McDonald's; gas and restroom at Holbrook, AZ; gas, snacks, and restroom at Edgewood, NM; snacks at Muleshoe McDonald's; gas at Levelland; coffee at Big Spring), and we drove the posted speed limit with the exception of times when we were driving in the dark, when we reduced our speed some. It was a long drive, but we were glad to spend the next night in our own beds.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sam's Town, Las Vegas, Nevada

We spent the week of October 20 - 25 at Sam's Town on the Boulder Highway in Las Vegas. This currently is our favorite casino to visit.

First of all, Sam's Town has our favorite video poker game, Full Pay Deuces Wild, at lower denominations. This is a great game for low-rollers like us.

There is much more to do at Sam's Town than gamble, though. Like Boulder Station, there is also a movie theater at Sam's Town, Century 18; however, there was nothing showing during our stay there that we wanted to see.

We did attend the weekly Variety Toast of the Town event. I enjoyed this. Held each Thursday at 2:00 PM, this show brings in local Las Vegas talent for a pretty good variety show. The emcee of the show was Doug Starks, a local talent who has obviously been heavily influenced by Sammie Davis, Jr. Backed by a local combo, her sang a few tunes and introduced the other acts. Also in the show were Champagne and Caviar, a duo who sang standards by Sam and Dave and others. Perhaps the greatest potential talent to take the stage for this event was a 14 year-old girl whose name I did not catch. It was something like Jessica Bannon, but I've been unable to find info about her online. This young lady performed a couple of Broadway style songs and showed great range and poise. My least favorite performer of the group was comedian Derek Richards. I guess I'm a bit of a prude, but when comedians resort to foul language, they lose me. A good comedian uses wit and clever ideas and wording to produce humor, not a string of obscenities. Overall, though, I enjoyed the show, which lasted more than an hour. It started on time and moved right along. Best of all, it was free.

On the lower level, there is a bowling alley. Donna and I enjoy going down, getting an order of nachos, and watching the various leagues in action.

We enjoy the eateries at Sam's Town quite a bit. Perhaps our favorite eating place is Willy and Jose's Cantina. We've eaten there 3 times now, and we've never been disappointed. We always order the fajitas. I always get beef, while Donna enjoys the shrimp. The food is plentiful, and I find the meat to be of very good quality. My only complaint is that the fajita taste is not pronounced enough; I taste grill, but I want more fajita seasoning. Still, it's very, very good.

During our stay at Sam's Town, I finally began to tire of gambling, believe it or not. One reason for this was that many of the people playing the machines where we were playing were smokers, more so than usual. We couldn't seem to get away from them. Usually, I can hit the machines early and avoid the crowds, but people were showing up at these machines early in the morning, so we had smokers all day. I was glad when it was time to check out.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Boulder Station, Las Vegas, Nevada

We spent the week of October 15 – 20 at Boulder Station. Although we had played here once or twice in the past, we had never stayed here before. However, based on our very limited play, we had received an offer for reduced room rates so we decided to give the place a try.

Boulder Station is located just beyond Sam’s Town, our normal Las Vegas destination, on the Boulder Highway. Boulder Station is known as a “local’s casino”. Local’s casinos normally provide better gaming odds than their counterparts on the Strip. You don't normally get the glitz and glamor at these places, but then, Donna and I don't have much glitz and glamor anymore. Well, I don't, but Donna seems to be holding her own quite nicely, thank goodness.

So, what do we do when we spend a week at a casino? Well, we gamble – a lot. But we do other things as well. Boulder Station has a Regal Cinema, so we saw Captain Phillips there on Wednesday, which is “senior’s day.” Because of our senior status, we got in for $4 each. This was a great, action packed movie. If you want to know why Tom Hanks has won 2 Academy Awards, be sure to watch the final 10 minutes of this movie. Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the pirate chief, was also impressive. We will be seeing more of this gifted young Somali actor, I'm sure. The emotions conveyed in his eyes was riveting.

One day we drove across town and toured a 50+ housing community, just in case we ever decide to move to Vegas. I doubt we would ever make such a move, but it's fun looking and dreaming.

But most of the time, we gambled. After the long drive to Vegas, it took us the first 2 or 3 days just to recover, so initially we just relaxed. When in a casino, I like to get up early, have a light breakfast, then get a large cup of good coffee and play video poker for about 3 hours.

We also participated in promotions. On Wednesday, for example, we played three rounds in a slot tournament. On Thursday, we played two rounds in a video poker tournament. Neither of us had high enough scores to win anything, though.

And we ate quite a bit. Boulder Station has a number of eateries, from fast food to fine dining, as well as the obligatory buffet. We sampled several of them.

But mostly we gambled. We enjoyed playing our favorite games, but we also enjoyed the challenge of gambling smart and competing against the house. We had a good time.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim

I visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon way back in August 1974 BD (Before Donna) when I was traveling around the country with a college chum. Donna had never seen the Grand Canyon. It was high on our bucket list of places to visit. On our recent trip to Nevada (October 15, 2013), we decided to make a quick scouting trip through the south rim.

We entered the park from the east. Click here for a map of the area we covered in the park. From the East Entrance to the Visitor Center, there are a number of pull-outs where you can view the canyon. We stopped at several of these and snapped the following pictures.

East Entrance to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

The Colorado River snakes its way through the canyon. This view looks eastward from the Desert View lookout.
This picture is taken from the same spot as the one immediately above, but it looks west. The river is not visible in this picture, though its course is clearly visible by the deep gorge in the center of the picture.
This shot looks west from Lipan Point. If you look closely, you can see some of the rapids in the river. It's rough, broken country, isn't it?
As we journeyed from overlook to overlook, it became clear that the canyon basically looks the same from every vantage point. And that is the memory I took away from my first visit to the Grand Canyon way back in 1974. At the time, I said that it was simply a big ditch, and I more or less feel the same way today. Now, that does not mean that I'm not impressed with what nature has done here. But I've heard from other people who have said, "If you've seen one picture of the Grand Canyon, you've seen them all." And I think there is an element of truth there. As evidence of this, look at the picture below, which was taken from the Grandview Point lookout several miles down river. It really does not look that much different than the pictures above.

The Grand Canyon as seen from Grandview Point

Donna at Grandview Point.
One thing not often shown in pictures of the Grand Canyon is the forest along the rim. The area is indeed heavily forested with a great deal of wildlife. We saw a few elk grazing near the Visitor Center during our trip.

I snapped this picture in an attempt to show how heavily forested the rim of the canyon is. The trees on the bulge in the left center of the picture are probably at least one-half mile away.
As I said earlier, one reason for our trip here today was to scout the area for possible future trips. It may be that we want to return at another time and do more extensive sight-seeing and hiking. A number of hiking opportunities exist in the park. Most people are aware of the hikes down into the canyon itself, but there are also chances to hike along the rim, something which appeals more to me these days as my legs continue to age. After all, a hike into the Grand Canyon is a "reverse hike." On a normal hike, you go out, climb up a mountain, get tired, then come down the mountain. The Grand Canyon is exactly opposite. You hike down into the canyon while you are fresh, get tired, then have to climb out when your energy is fading. I don't know that I want to do that at my age.

There is also the Yavapai Museum of Geology near the Visitor Center. Here you can really learn about the geology of the canyon as well as experience some great views. Various lodging opportunities exist throughout the park, from the Phantom Ranch along the river to places along the rim.

One thing that caught me unexpectedly was the little community of Tusayan just outside the south entrance to the park along Highway 64. As we left the park, we were ready to pick up our speed and head towards Williams. We didn't realize there was a vibrant tourist community of eateries, hotels, and outfitter services just outside the park boundary. So, if you are planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, keep this place in mind; it may be your best option in securing lodging if the park is full.

Well, we've seen the Grand Canyon; we can mark it off our bucket list. There are so many places we want to see that I doubt we'll visit the park again, but you never know.