Christmas With the Cacti

Ah, Christmas.  A time of lights, worship, gifts, family, and friends.

My Christmas was a bit different this year.  I have three brothers and we’re spread all over the map and the other 3 have spouses/families that also need a little togetherness time, so getting everyone in one place for the holidays can be a little difficult.

This year we had an early Christmas which meant that, for the first time ever, I had no plans for Christmas Eve and Day.  Then it hit me.  I could go to Arizona to visit Mat and Carolyn.

Mat and Carolyn have been through some wonderful changes since I had last seen them in March.  The two are set to become the parents of twin girls in February.  As such, this seemed like an ideal time to spend the holidays with friends and have one more traditional round of shenanigans before the twins arrive.

While Mat and Carolyn were glad to have me come for a visit, their home would be a bit snug as they had already converted one of the guest rooms into a nursery and Mat’s dad, Barry, would be staying with them for Christmas plus Carolyn’s brother, Alan, would also be visiting for Christmas.  Mat also was slightly concerned that the twins might decide to come early and didn’t want to leave me at the house alone if he and Carolyn had to dash to the hospital.  As such, he recommended that I find a hotel for the duration.

When our mutual friend, David Sundberg, announced that he, too, wanted to visit Mat and Carolyn for the holidays, we began to make plans.

Like in March, the plans came about after the sweet spot of air fare had passed.  Dave also had to wait for his time off to be approved so I went ahead and booked a flight and would help Dave rendezvous with me in Arizona.

Then I began a search for hotels.  For kicks and giggles, I did a search on Embassy Suites, fully expecting to see a $200 or more per night rate.  Imagine my surprise when I found an Embassy Suites about ten minutes from Mat and Carolyn’s home advertising an $87 a night rate.  During my recent trip to Scotland, I had become a Hilton Honors member which meant that the rate would be about $81 a night after tax.

Hot diggety!!  A comfy suite with a free cooked to order breakfast every day.  Can we say jackpot?

Dave had decided to stay in Arizona for two weeks so opted to find his own accommodations as he didn’t want to change hotels after I left, so I would be on my own.  I ended up booking a 2 room king bed suite and I was ready to go on a Christmas adventure.

Day 1

I flew Southwest out of Omaha, nabbing a window seat close to the front of the plane.  I made some good time and even got to Phoenix a little early which started this adventure off on a much better note than the previous one where my initial flight got canceled.

Mat greeted me at the gate and we collected my bag and headed off to the homestead.

Shortly after my arrival, Carolyn and Mat wanted brunch so we headed off to a NY deli called Chompie’s.  I decided to have a corned beef half sandwich with some fries and lemonade.  The menu called it a jumbo half and they weren’t whistling Dixie.  Nobody without the name of Pac-Man was going to be able to fit this thing into her or his mouth.  I took one of the slices of bread and made a much smaller sandwich out of it and ate the rest of the fixings with a knife and fork.

With a tasty meal digesting, we headed back home and enjoyed some conversation while Mat and Carolyn’s cat, Tuna, continually swatted and climbed the Christmas tree.  Barry arrived a bit later in the afternoon and about 4pm, Mat took me to Embassy Suites to get my keys and drop off my bag.

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Embassy Suites Tempe

The Embassy Suites Tempe is a three story adobe style hotel.  Thanks to my Hilton Honors membership, I had checked in the day before and was able to pick my own room.  On the rare occasions I stay at hotels, I prefer rooms on the highest floor possible so I had picked Room 310.  The clerk checking me in told me there was a problem with the room so I moved to the more secluded Room 338.

As I walked to my room, I noted that Room 310 had a stellar view of the courtyard where the heated pool and hot tub were located.  But 338 would give me a bit more solitude.

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I was impressed when I entered the room.  The living room had an easy chair and couch sleeper plus an office area with a plasma TV mounted on the wall.  The bedroom was spacious with a king-sized bed with a pillowtop mattress and another plasma TV set up in the room.  I put my bag into the closet and rejoined Mat.

We returned to the house where more conversation ensued.  Early evening we went out to Venezia’s Pizzeria where I had a slice of pepperoni pizza.  We returned to the house for more conversation, got the word that Dave made it to town.  Due the delay of getting his time off, Dave was reluctant to pay last minute prices for air fare and a car rental.  So he had decided to make the loooong drive to Phoenix and back (40 hours round trip).  Understandably, he was a bit exhausted and would not meet up with us until Monday.

Mat and I took an “old man walk” as he called it where we talked and I took pictures of Christmas lights.  Afterwards, Mat drove me to Embassy Suites where I unpacked my suitcase, put away my clothes, and went to bed.

Day 2

I had a fantastic night of sleep.  Limbs splayed out.  Slack jawed.  And out all night.  I opened the curtains and noticed an overcast day.  I decided to go exercise in the gym and followed the signs and went around in a circle a few times before stopping at the front desk and asking where the heck was the gym.  Turns out it was actually inside the pool area.

I did 30 minutes on the elliptical, pleased at how much stronger I had become since using the HasFit regimen as I didn’t even start to breathe heavy until the brutal final few minutes and recovered my wind pretty quickly when I was done.

I took a hot bath and shaved and then went to breakfast.

Embassy Suites is known for a free cooked to order breakfast and it has a pretty good spread.  Breads, cereals, juices, milk, oatmeal (with fixings), bacon, sausage, eggs any style you want, homemade omelets, French toast, breakfast potatoes, and an amazing homemade salsa are available every day.

After a small meal, I returned to my room.  Mat and Dave came to collect me about 10am and made a stop at Hurts Donut where Mat picked up an apple fritter for Carolyn and we each got a donut of our own.  I went with Mint Oreo this time.

We dropped off the fritter and then went to Castles N Coasters for a day of mini-golf.  For the first time ever, we played all 4 courses which took over five hours, including a lunch break at In N Out Burger.

I played a pretty pitiful game to start.  One front 9 didn’t have me shooting anything lower than a 3.  Mat started off red hot as he made 4 aces in the first six holes.  He ended up running away with the win and it became a battle for second place and I had fallen 15 strokes behind Dave.  Miraculously I managed to slice his lead down to 5 by the final round, but could get no closer.

We returned to the homestead where more conversation ensued before a quick meal at Panda Express where I had a small order of black pepper chicken and mixed vegetables.  Shortly afterwards, Dave drove me back to the hotel for the night.

Days 3-4

Ah, Christmas Eve Day.

Mat picked me up about 9:30am and we met Dave at the homestead.  We made a stop at Safeway to pick up the pre-made Christmas dinner Mat and Carolyn had ordered.

Most of the day was just conversation.  Mat drove me over to Our Lady of Mt Carmel so I could attend Christmas service at 4pm.

I had never seen a church so packed.  I arrived at 3:30pm and the church was nearly full.  By the time mass started, the pews were full, people were standing at the back of the church and I noted people streaming in from the narthex during Communion.

I had also never seen a church so beautifully decorated for Christmas.  A large Nativity scene was set to the left of the altar, two Christmas trees were set at either side of the altar, and old-fashioned lampposts adorned the edges of the pews.

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This was easily the best Christmas service I had ever attended.  There was just something heavenly about it.  The chattering before service told me people were happy to be there.  The choir played some stellar jazzed up hymns.  Father had a simple sermon about what Jesus means to us.  After the service, I decided to walk back to Mat and Carolyn’s just so I could process the mass and looked forward to going again on Saturday.  This time I would bring my camera so I could get some snaps of the Christmas decorations.

When I arrived at the house, Carolyn’s father, Joe, and her brother, Alan, had arrived.  Alan has some special needs due to cerebral palsy, but is a very sweet guy.  Joe is fun and a master of dad humor.  We sat down to dinner and enjoyed a sumptuous meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, rolls, and pie.

Afterwards a few gifts were opened while a fire crackled in the fireplace.  Then Mat, Dave, and I entertained the guests by badly playing a cooking game called Overcooked.  Most of Dave’s food was seasoned by the floor as he kept dropping it while I kept tossing food into the abyss.  Very entertaining and a great deal of fun for the night.

On Christmas Day, Dave picked me up so Mat and Carolyn could better care for Alan.  Mat prepared breakfast for those who hadn’t eaten and we opened up the rest of the gifts.  Mat and Carolyn got me a card game called Doctor Who Fluxx while Dave gave me $20.

Early afternoon we headed to Joe’s house for Christmas dinner.  At Joe’s, we met the family of his girlfriend, Fran.  Fran’s son’s (Elliott) fiancée, Ellen, made an epic Filipino Christmas dinner with spicy beef and cheese, egg rolls, stuffed eggplant, pork belly, and other delicacies.  Wonderful!  Simply wonderful!

We took a little walk after dinner before taking Alan back to his group home.  Then we went back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we played Super Mario Party (won 1, lost 1) and Mat introduced me to Luigi’s Mansion 3.  After a long day, Dave returned me to the hotel where I had a lovely night’s sleep.

Day 5

Today Mat took Dave and I to downtown Tempe where we walked around the downtown area and Tempe Town Lake before going to the movies to watch Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker.  I thought it was an OK movie.  It was definitely the weakest of the new trilogy with some serious pacing issues in the first third of the film, a somewhat tepid story, but all storylines are tied up, and the action scenes are great.

After the film, Dave bought an R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder and then Mat took us to The Chuckbox for the best hamburger in town.

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An R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder.

The Chuckbox is a Tempe institution.  It’s small and cash only, but specializes in cooked to order charbroiled burgers that you can fix up yourself.  Mat and Dave ate bacon cheeseburgers while I enjoyed a Big One (1/3 pound patty) with Swiss cheese on a whole wheat bun.  I then fixed it up with jalapenos, lettuce, onions, relish, pickles, ketchup, and mustard.  This truly was the best burger I’ve tasted and recommend a visit to any and all in the Tempe area.

From there it was back to the house where I won another round of Super Mario Party and we talked some more.  Late evening we stopped for a late dinner at Flavors of Louisiana for some Cajun cooking.  I had a 6 inch blackened chicken po’boy with a side of gumbo.  The gumbo was tasty though a bit more like soup than stew.  The sandwich was utter perfection.

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We returned to the house for another round of Super Mario Party which Dave won.  Then Dave took me back to Embassy Suites for the night.

Days 6-7

Putrid.

That word sums up Friday.

It started off decently enough.  I decided to use the pool and hot tub at 6:30am.  The heat of the hot tub merged with the cool morning air causing steam to visibly rise from the tub.  The hot, churning water felt good, but I had to skip the swim as maintenance started cleaning the pool.

Mat had to go in to work that day so I was left to my own devices until 3pm.  I didn’t need to plan too much as it started raining at 11am and it just went on for most of the afternoon.

About noon, I braved the elements to have lunch at Café Rio where I enjoyed one of their fantastic chicken quesadillas.  By that point the rain was really coming down so I speed walked back to the hotel where I remained until Dave picked me up about 3pm.

It was a pretty quiet afternoon.  We played more Super Mario Party and eventually had dinner at Lolo’s Chicken & Waffles where I ate a chicken tenders meal while keeping an eye on the Holiday Bowl where I ultimately had the satisfaction of watching Iowa demolish USC.  After dinner it was more gaming and then back to the hotel.

Here it was.  The last day.  Thankfully the sun was shining today, but it was cold.  Temps actually dipped below freezing which Mat says happens only twice a year.

Mat picked me up at 9:30am and Dave met us at the house.  After a bit of talking we headed out to an early lunch at Del Taco before heading out to another mini-golf battle at Golfland Sunsplash.

The fun park was really decked out for the holidays and I wished I would have been able to see it lit up at night.

My mini-golf slump continued, not due to bad shots, but bad breaks.  I was nailed with a slew of penalties as my ball continued to take bad bounces on many holes.  I was red hot on the final round, but it was too little, too late.

On the other hand, I did witness the impossible.  For the first time ever, Dave finally won his first mini-golf battle after 20 years of knowing him.  He sometimes placed second. . .usually third. . .occasionally fourth, but this time he took the whole enchilada with a combination of steady, smart gameplay which resulted in 8 holes in one and the most epic meltdown I had ever seen as Mat crashed and burned in the final round.

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Dave strikes a victory pose as Mat weeps after he falls to pieces in the final round of our mini-golf battle.

After the links duel, it was back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we squeezed in a quick round of Super Mario Party before I went to worship at Our Lady of Mt Carmel.

When church services ended, the four of us went to dinner at Chou’s Kitchen which serves authentic Chinese food.  The meals are meant to be served family style so there were quite a few leftovers.  My dish of choice was chicken in garlic sauce, but I also sampled potstickers and sliced beef roll.  During the meal, Carolyn picked up on my mood and wondered if I were feeling well.  Truthfully, I was feeling a bit blue as I knew that this adventure was rapidly coming to a close and I was missing my friends already.

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But there was time for one last hurrah.

When we got back to the house, I broke out a portable escape room (a gift from another friend).  It was pretty interesting.  The game replicates the escape room experience as you and your team time yourselves and track how many clues you truly needed to use to solve the puzzles and escape.  The downside is that the game can only be played once as once you’ve solved it, you know how to win and you may need to tear up pieces of the game and booklet to solve puzzles.

It was a fun game as we tried to escape the abandoned cabin.  Mat and Carolyn are serious escape room players and Dave and I learned we had to really pipe up to present our theories and solutions.  We did pretty well.  We did escape in about 90 minutes and needed 5 clues.  We’ll do better next time now that we know how the portable game works.

And for me, that was the end.  I said my good-byes to Mat and Carolyn, knowing that it would be a while before I would get to see them again.

Dave took me back to Embassy Suites and I wished him a safe drive home before heading off to one final sleep in Arizona.

Thus ends my Christmas with the Cacti.  Until I see you again, my friends.  Be well.  Be happy.

Beware the Ides of Smarch, Days 1-2: Every Which Way, But There

“Oooh!  Lousy Smarch weather.”—Homer Simpson

“AAUUUGHHHH!!!!!”-Chris Elston

Boy, it felt good to get that one out of my system.

I intended the title of this series to be simply inspired by The Simpsons, but I truly have had need to be wary of the Ides of Smarch for the start of this trip.

Together with my compadre, David Sundberg, I was returning to Phoenix, AZ to visit my old friend, Mat O’Donnell, and his wife, Carolyn.  Relatively speaking, we threw this trip together on the fly and only about two months out.  We also decided to make it an extra long trip and go out on a Friday and come back 10 days later on a Sunday.

With the multiple whammies of leaving on popular travel days, being out of the statistical sweet spot, leaving during the start of the spring break month for many colleges, and heading to a warm locale, I was unable, for the first time in over 20 years of travel, to find a good deal.  Even my old stalwart, Southwest Airlines, wanted over $700 for a round trip ticket.

I managed to score a passable deal through Orbitz, but even had a challenge with that as I had to go through different airlines coming and going to score any type of a deal.  Still, it was all worth it for another period of adventures with Mat & Carolyn.

Omaha had been blasted by its first real winter in nearly 11 years with over 59 inches of snow dumped on us to date.  But we seemed to have found a respite with a week of clear, if cold, weather.

I awoke to a beautiful day on Friday with nary a cloud in the sky.  It looked like ideal traveling weather so I spent the morning getting in a hard workout, getting my new car registered, picking up Dave and making certain I had all of my gear in order.

My friend, Craig Ristow, had graciously offered to give us a lift to the airport and, as he left to go put air in his spare tire, I happened to check my e-mail and found a message from American Airlines with the subject line “Your flight has been changed.”

“Oh, goody,” mused I.  “We’re delayed.”

I opened the letter and found to my horror and shock that our flight had been canceled.

IMPOSSIBLE!!!

It was a beautiful. . . nay, a perfect day.  How could the flight be canceled?

American Airlines tried to rebook us on Saturday with a flight leaving at 5:33pm and would get us to Phoenix slightly after midnight.  No way, Jose.

They had a list of alternative flights, but none of them were good flights.  Most required 8+ hours of travel.  The best of the worst was a flight leaving at 6:31am which would take us to Charlotte, NC and then back west to Phoenix.

Yep, you read that right.  We had to go east to go west.  However, it would also get us to Phoenix at 2pm so we booked it.

And maybe it worked out for the best as Craig’s spare tire could not hold air and he would have not made it to the airport.  Instead, I guarded the rear of his van as I watched his spare fall to pieces on the road as we drove to Tires Plus for him to get a replacement.

Afterwards the three of us went to lunch at Burger King and had some wonderful conversation while waiting for a new tire to be mounted on Craig’s van.  Dave and I dropped Craig off at the tire store and returned to my home where I called American Airlines to find out why the flight had been canceled and to see if they would endorse our tickets for a direct flight through Southwest on Saturday.

The message suggested that severe weather had canceled the flight, but I have doubts about that as Mat later informed me that ours was the only flight canceled and the plane was coming from Phoenix.  The agent, while friendly, told me airlines no longer endorse tickets for other airlines so Dave and I were set for a convoluted day of flying.

We made a run to the grocery store to get supplies for a late dinner and turned in early as we had to get up at the crack of doom to get to the airport.

I didn’t sleep much and gave up trying to find slumber at 3am.  At 3:30am, Dave woke up and I checked my e-mail to make sure we weren’t delayed or canceled again.  Mercifully, we weren’t.

I drove us down to the airport where we parked at the Budget lot.  The parking spots, understandably, were still laden with snow.  I drove up onto a little patch, uttering a quick prayer that the weather would warm up enough over the next 9 days to melt the patch down to size.

Dave and I checked in and waded through a moderately long security line, but got to our gate in plenty of time for our flight to North Carolina.

This was the smallest plane I had ever flown on.  Not only was the plane small, but each row was only 4 seats across.  We were slightly delayed due to deicing, but a powerful tail wind got us to Charlotte on time.

So there we were in Charlotte, WOO!, North Carolina:  stomping grounds of the famed professional wrestler, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.  Dave and I were hungry, but we had missed the breakfast run and lunch was being served in the restaurants.  I didn’t want a burger that early in the day, so I bought a piece of string cheese while Dave ordered a Double Whopper combo.

Well, that was the idea, anyway.  We had to rush to our concourse for our next flight and Dave found he had been shorted his fries.  For him, “the icing on the crap cake”, as he said was that he was able to purchase a shot glass at a nearby store.

We boarded our flight and I caught my first break of the trip.  The third person in my row on the sold out flight did not show up, so I moved to the aisle seat to enjoy a bit more space.  Also,we will be arriving on time, so there’s still time for adventure on this day.  I needed to eat so I paid $10.99 for a fairly healthy Valencia Chicken sandwich which had chicken, Havarti cheese, pickled veggies, and an almond romesco sauce on a ciabatta bun.  The bun was quite crumbly, but it tasted decent and even included a good chocolate chip cookie.  I also got a full can of Dr. Pepper to sip on while I read a book and worked on this article.

We ended up landing on time where Mat was waiting to greet us and he informed us he had booked an escape room at 4:30pm over at Escape Games AZ.  So we dashed on over to his place, got set up in our rooms, and headed over to begin our escape attempt with friends of Mat and Carolyn.

The room was called Blaine’s Basement and the plot of the room was that the FBI was holding a suspected serial killer named Blaine Everbleed who they think killed 4 people and possibly a fifth.  He could only be held for 24 hours without evidence to charge him and he was now in his 23rd hour.  Desperate, the FBI called in a group of mediums to find the evidence needed to put this psycho away.

I enjoyed this room a lot more than the previous one as it focused on different puzzles and had secret passages and red herrings.  It was another nailbiter, but we managed to escape with slightly over 7 minutes to spare, though the ending was just kind of there.

Afterwards, we all headed to dinner at The Cornish Pasty Company which essentially serves gourmet hot pockets.  So many delicious choices, but I went with a spicy asiago chicken as it sounded healthy and tasty.  Not too bad at all, though it needed more spice.

Lack of sleep and a long day began to tucker me out, but I managed to summon enough juice to battle Mat and Dave in Super Mario Party on the Nintendo Switch, though Mat managed to edge me in a pyrrhic victory.

But, now, to bed and another round of escapades tomorrow.

The Arizona Chronicles, Vol 3, Day 1: Dope Springs Eternal

It started off as such a lovely day.

The birds were singing.  The sky was sunny.  And there was nary a cloud in the sky.  Yes, it truly was a good day for travel.

Once again I was flying to Arizona.  For my regular readers, you may recall that that the last time I traveled to Arizona, I was working on a deal with the SyFy Network to produce my script, Giraffealanche, as their latest original movie.  Regrettably, I was a bit sidetracked when I was reunited with an unwelcome acquaintance.

In the ensuing months since those escapades, I had ironed out a deal and was now returning to Arizona to watch a rough cut of the film.  This time, I felt certain I would not be bumping into certain individuals who shall remain nameless.

I arrived at the airport and hopped aboard my Southwest Airlines flight.  I found myself seated to a pleasant, elderly gent named John.  He was slightly below average height, had a short crew cut of gray hair, had a stocky build, and dressed very casually.  I found him to be a likable guy and we shot the breeze on many subjects.  I found that also was heading to Arizona to visit family and would be on the same connecting flight as I.

This was one of the smoothest flights I had taken in quite a while.  We left early and made it to Denver, CO in almost precisely an hour.  I had an hour layover between flights so I made a quick visit to Xpress Spa inside the Denver airport for a 20 minute neck and shoulder massage to relieve the tightness in my shoulders and right arm (the unfortunate curse of working at a keyboard all day).

Soon I was flying through the air on another smooth flight and arrived in Phoenix a little early.  As I grabbed my luggage from the carousel, John told me he had a car waiting for him and offered to give me a lift to my hotel.  I readily agreed and we stepped into a waiting limo.

I continued chatting with John as we rode down the interstate.  I happened to glance out the window and I noticed that we were passing Golfland in Mesa, AZ.  I then realized that this route seemed awfully familiar.

“John?” I asked.  “Where are we going?”

Suddenly the driver pressed a button on the dashboard and some distinctive music began to play.  To my mounting horror, John began to sing lyrics with the music.

“He’s Arizona!!  Arizona Mat!!  Arizona!!!  Arizona Mat!!”

The driver removed his hat and shades and turned to look at the both of us, an impish grin playing over his face.  I slowly turned my head to glare at John.  Suppressing my urge to throttle him, I buried my face in my hands and began to weep.  It was Arizona Mat.

For those of you new to this website, I refer you to the archives section for the stories entitled The Arizona Chronicles and The Arizona Chronicles, Vol 2 where I met a supposed explorer named Arizona Mat and his Neanderthal sidekick, Tall Square.  Arizona Mat was so full of himself that I’m surprised he didn’t refer to himself in the third person.  He had a strange love-hate relationship with his lackey, Tall Square.  By that I mean they loved to hate each other.  In fact, the last time I had seen the two of them, Tall Square was chasing Arizona Mat through the Sky Harbor airport.

“There, there,” said Arizona Mat.  “It’s nice to see you again, too.  No need to shed tears of joy.”

Resigning myself to the inevitable, I asked Arizona Mat how he managed to know that I was coming into town.  He explained that Johnny V, indicating John, was an old family friend based out of Omaha, NE.  He had Johnny V keep tabs on me until he knew I would be returning to Arizona.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m about to make another epic discovery and I need my biographer to document my greatness,” replied Arizona Mat.

I rolled my eyes and asked what had happened to Tall Square.

“As you may recall, that Nordic gorilla was chasing me through the airport.  I tried to duck into a store to escape him, but plowed into some mannequins.  Applying my brilliant brain to the dilemma, I grabbed one of the mannequin arms and persuaded Tall Square to stop.  I told him that I knew he was only upset because he had lost the handshake duel.  I therefore offered him a rematch, but with the caveat that we both have our eyes closed because that allowed one to execute more force.  He agreed and I stuck the mannequin hand into his and made my daring escape.”

“Are you saying. . .” I began.

“Yep,” said Arizona Mat.  “As far as I know, that dummy is still trying to make a dummy submit.”

I rubbed my face and asked why he had “borrowed” me.

“Later, my Boswell.  Later.  Let’s enjoy ourselves for now,” said Arizona Mat.

After settling into his home, Arizona Mat, Johnny V, and myself walked the short distance to the Flaming Kebab for dinner.  I enjoyed a gyro sandwich with a cup of lentil soup and some water.  Arizona Mat feasted on Chicken Kafka, rice, Greek Salad, and iced tea.  Johnny V supped on a gyro platter with rice, Greek Salad, and raspberry tea.  Johnny V, a rather generous sort, paid for our meals.

After the meal we returned to Arizona Mat’s home where we sat around his new fire pit, drinking home brewed root beer, and listening to Arizona Mat regale us with some of his “legendary” adventures.  After finishing up the tale of his rescuing me from a homicidal ex-associate (read The Arizona Chronicles, Vol 2 to find out what really happened), Arizona Mat rubbed his hands with glee and announced it was time to get down to business.

“Have you ever heard of the Voodoo Blue (Woo woo!)?” asked Arizona Mat.

“What on earth is the Voodoo Blue Woo Woo?” I asked.

“I didn’t say the Voodoo Blue (Woo woo!) Woo woo.  I said the Voodoo Blue (Woo woo!)”

“You just did it again.  You keep making this high pitched sound after you say Voodoo Blue.”

“Woo woo!  I’m sorry.  It’s just that I get excited whenever I say or hear the words Voodoo Blue (Woo woo!)  It’s a rare blue diamond that was supposedly forged by a houngan (voodoo priest).  I’ve been researching its history and certain clues have led me to its discovery.  It’s somewhere in Las Vegas, NV.  On Friday, the three of us will drive over there, I’ll discover it, and your masterful writing will make me even more famous than I already am.”

“Have you ever read any of my articles about you?” I asked.

“No.  I’m modest in that way.  But you’re writing about wonderful me, so I’m sure they’re stunning pieces of work.”

“Yes they are,” I said.

So once more I would be joining Arizona Mat on an adventure.  I knew not what the future would bring, but I knew trouble and hilarity probably were not far behind.

Last Exit To Vegas (For Now), Day 1: The Dynamic Uno

After nearly a decade of annual visits, I have begun what will be my final visit to Las Vegas for the foreseeable future.  For the first time ever, I am alone in this burg as my normal traveling companions, Mat and John, were unable to join me.  Mat is rebuilding his P.T.O. and John has simply wearied of coming here.  So my goal is to squeeze as much fun as I can out of this trip and prepare myself to explore new vistas in the future.

Now this trip started off right due to the fact that I was using Southwest Airlines.  This airline ranks at the top of my list when it comes to traveling and they routinely rank #1 in customer satisfaction each year.  Unlike nearly every other airline, Southwest still lets you check your bag for free (your first two, as a matter of fact).  You can also sit wherever you feel like on the plane without being charged an additional fee.  Even better, one can actually get a free beverage and snack on this flight instead of being nickeled and dimed to death.

Due to terrible winds, my flight out to Vegas ended up being delayed by 20 minutes. This ended up being negligible as those same winds gave the flight to Vegas a bit of an added boost and we ended up arriving at about the same time as originally promised.  The only two difficulties of the flight were that I realized I didn’t have my Kindle with me and there was a woman on the flight who sounded like she was well on her way to being three sheets to the wind.  She was quite obnoxious and spent most of the flight pestering some poor college student who was studying anatomy so she could have some time for fun while in Vegas.  I truly admired her patience.

Upon landing, my fabled luck appeared as I was able to immediately grab a shuttle for the Rio.  Though, if you haven’t driven through rush hour traffic on the Las Vegas Strip, let me assure you that it’s quite an experience.  It took nearly an hour to get from the airport to the hotel with all the stops and traffic, but I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride and have a chat with my best friend, Josh.

Once I reached the Rio, my luck remained as I was able to check in without a wait in line.  I’d also like to take a moment to thank Luis who checked me into the Rio and upgraded me to a Sambia Suite free of charge.  Because of that, I am now sitting on the 37th floor of the Rio enjoying a beautiful pool view and an amazing view of the city.

After I deposited my gear in my room, I wandered around the hotel a bit to see what had changed and what hadn’t.  The hotel still doesn’t seem as plentiful with guests as it once did, yet I must still assume that business must be up as their famed Seafood Buffet is now open every day and the Rio recently opened a Hash House a Go Go on the property.

Hash House a Go Go is known for “Farm Food done Freaky”.  The portions are humongous and will probably keep you full for a day or soon as the restaurant is known for serving one pound sandwiches, deep dish skillets, and pancakes the size of a garbage can lid.  However, one thing I did notice is that the prices are pretty high at this location, nearly double what you would pay at the restaurant’s location on Sahara.  While I would recommend a breakfast here, try to get to the Sahara restaurant to make use of the lower prices.

After wandering about a bit (and losing a couple bucks), I caught the shuttle to Bally’s so I could make the quick jaunt to Planet Hollywood and have another meal at Gordon Ramsay’s BURGR restaurant.  As a solo guest, I was able to get seated at the bar right away.  This time around, I enjoyed the American Burger (a more traditional hamburger, topped with butter lettuce, red onions, American cheese, pickles, and a thick slice of tomato).  As before, the presentation and taste were top notch.

Once I had finished my meal, I walked across the street to the Bellagio.  I had seen their fountain show on numerous occasions, but had never actually stepped inside of the casino.  It is quite elegant and I spent a while in there playing slot machines based on Clue, The Phantom of the Opera, and Back to the Future.

As of yet, my nearly mystical luck has only manifested itself in a great room, good seating, and good timing.  I couldn’t get any good runs going on any machine, though my luck did start to heat up towards the end of the night.  The day had taken it’s toll on me as I began to develop a whanging headache.  So I cut my evening short and returned to the Rio where I am getting ready to rest up for another adventurous day tomorrow.