“Go-in’ to the chap-el, and they’re gon-na get ma-a-a-ried…” For my third wedding of the year, I would be heading up to fabulous Las Vegas in October. The location was appropriate since that’s where he proposed to her, and it was as good a place as any to get married.
Booking a room was more of a challenge than usual – all of the rates that weekend were sky high! It was not until later that I learned of the Vegoose Music Festival, the rodeo, and the SEMA Auto Show were all going on that same weekend. In my search for cheap lodging, I booked my first night at The Riviera and the second directly across the street at the Circus Circus. Having never stayed at either one, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
DAY ONE – Friday, October 26th
Like so many of my road trips, I started out by getting up early and packing the car. The suitcase, the cooler with drinks, the camera, the tripod, and the spare tire all went into the trunk. I figured the most direct route was to take US60 from Phoenix to Wickenburg and then US93 from Wickenburg to Interstate 40.
The junction of the 93 and the 40 is about 25 miles from Kingman, where US93 heads north again across the Hoover Dam and on to Boulder City and where it also becomes US95 and I-515 to Las Vegas. Confused yet? I didn’t even need the map I brought, having driven this route a few times now. I stopped by Mickey D’s for some breakfast and filled up the car before heading out of town.
I took my time getting up there, stopping frequently along the way to take photos. First it was the Burro Creek bridge, a beautiful old steel truss arch bridge from 1966. Then it was the famous roadside rocket in Wikieup with the Peanuts gang.
After stopping in Wikieup, it was only about an hour’s drive to Kingman. I exited the Interstate and took a detour to photograph some of the old motels and gas stations along Route 66. The Amtrak station was closed for restoration but I stopped anyway to capture the mural on the water tower next door.
Not far down the road you’ll find the Route 66 Museum in the old Powerhouse building. You wouldn’t believe how much memorabilia they have on display, five bucks is a bargain to see it all! Historic photos and maps explain what life was like during the Great Depression. An old truck illustrates the hardships that the Okies of the Dust Bowl had to endure as they traveled west on the Mother Road. John Steinbeck would certainly approve.
In the back are the usual old license plates and road signs, but they are trinkets compared to the beautiful 1950 Studebaker on display. Its creamy white paint really accentuates the streamlined curves of the era, with the front bearing resemblance to a jet engine. In the corner sits a delightful old gravity-fed gas pump, which looked cleaned up but not over-restored. The old pump stood a few feet above my head – a real giant!
Across the street was a nifty looking diner and the Kingman Railroad Park with a huge, old locomotive on display. Heading back to the Interstate, I spied an awesome Route 66 mural on the side of a building. Anxious to keep moving, I grabbed a spicy chicken sandwich from Carl’s Jr and kept going. Grabbing a Sprite from the cooler was a risky maneuver at 75mph but I managed it with no spillage.
Just north of Kingman is the town of Santa Claus, Arizona. This roadside stand dates back to the 1930’s and was operated as a sort of Santa’s Village for about fifty years. Now abandoned, the place has taken on a creepy vibe as the candy-cane striped poles and Christmas decorations have fallen victim to vandals and taggers. One can guess they used to sell snacks, drinks, and ice cream to travelers, and perhaps an assortment of rocks and desert souvenirs.
The sign that says “Santa’s Land Office” offers some insight into the building’s final days. There’s not much to see except a couple of decrepit buildings and a lot of trash, but it’s a small part of the weirdness that makes Arizona unique. “Who would be crazy enough to build a Santa’s Village in the harsh and unforgiving desert long before air conditioning?” Well, someone was.
Continuing on, the traffic becomes heavier as one approaches the Arizona/Nevada border. All cars have to stop at a security checkpoint so that a uniformed man in a ranger hat can tell you to “Have a nice day.” Actually, they are checking to make sure no trucks and commercial vehicles are trying to cross the dam, but it still seems excessive. Cuts through the landscape and some old looking bridges offered clues to the historic alignment of the highway as I descended into the Colorado River Valley.
Parking is always crowded near the dam, and I lucked out and found a spot near the bottom. It was a short walk to the overflow tunnel, which seems too large to have been built by humans. Walking across the dam provided many great photo opportunities, and if you didn’t take at least one photo for a stranger then you have not done your duty.
Because I had already taken the Dam Tour on my January trip, I decided to save my money and take some free pictures. Numerous monuments, displays, and memorials adorn the dam and the workers who toiled there.
My favorite is the “Winged Figures of the Republic” by Oskar J.W. Hansen. These two statues contain approximately four tons of bronze, and feature powerful looking men with winged arms extending towards the heavens. The power of man is the idea, and it’s crystal clear in these two sentries resting gracefully atop their black diorite pedestals. The toes are polished by the hands of the thousands of tourists who rub them for good luck.
I also enjoyed the terrazzo floor with the star chart, the compass surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, and the American eagle designs near the monuments. The old visitor’s center is now a gift shop where you can get all the dam souvenirs you want.
After my photographic binge I headed back to the car and continued on my journey. Traffic was slow until Boulder City where the road widened to two lanes, and I kept to the right as I made “the climb” out of Henderson. Once that turned into the 515, things really got moving. My goodness, I thought Phoenix drivers were bad, but I was cut off several times in just as many minutes by cars sweeping across four lanes of traffic without so much as a signal! Navigating the freeway system definitely requires the full attention of the driver, and a lead foot doesn’t hurt either.
I exited the freeway at Tropicana Boulevard and headed west, passing by the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the Hooters hotel and casino before turning on to Las Vegas Boulevard. If you plan to drive there, note that mid-afternoon on a Friday is a terrible time to be driving on the Strip. The cars were inching forward in total gridlock and I spent close to two hours trying to go the two miles to my hotel. The worst part was the stupid billboard truck drivers who look right at you and don’t let you in when the lanes merge together. Thanks, but I don’t want any “Hot girls direct” to my room today.
Parking at The Riviera was an ordeal in itself. The underground garage is valet only, and the free self-parking is behind the hotel and past the convention center. Yeah, and the bottom five floors are already full. So I got my bag and the cooler and set off in search of the front desk.
Let me tell you something about walking around in Las Vegas: no matter where you’re trying to get to, the answer is always “through the casino.” The front desk, the bar, the buffet, the pool, the gift shop, and the monorail station are all “through the casino that way.” Good, now we are clear on that. Eventually I found the front desk, only to discover that all of the non-smoking rooms were gone. Check in begins at 4pm and I was checking in at 5pm. “That was pretty fast to have them go in an hour” I remarked to the desk clerk. “Actually, VIP check-in begins at noon” she said cheerfully. Ah – that explains it.
Every review I had read about The Riviera on various Internet travel sites included the words “going downhill” and “popular with old people.” I was prepared for the worst, but was delighted to discover a nice, modern room with clean sheets and everything in working order. My room was on the second floor overlooking the pool. I had a great view of the “Pool Closed” sign and I could see there was no hot tub. Guess I didn’t need to bring the bathing suit after all.
After getting settled I called up the bride and went to meet up with the rest of the wedding party. I walked two blocks north to the Sahara and caught the monorail down to the Harrah’s/Imperial Palace station. A one-day pass costs $9 for unlimited rides in a 24-hour period, or a three-day pass was available for $40. Why wouldn’t you just buy three one-day passes for a total of $27? I guess casinos are not the only way to throw away money in Vegas.
I met up with the group at the Geisha Bar and we set off looking for a place to eat. Not far down The Strip at The Flamingo was Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. We got on the waiting list and had about an hour before we could be seated. Next door to The Flamingo was O’Shea’s casino, which featured “BEER PONG TABLES INSIDE” in addition to their cheap slots. I watched the girls play some slots while the guys set off in search of the bar.
Returning to the restaurant, we passed by a showgirl in the company of a midget and a man on stilts, and I felt like we had just walked into some kind of a bad joke. Soon we were seated and were rocking out to a live DVD of Jimmy Buffet that was on the TV in our booth. Yes, our table had its own TV in the wall. The waiter came around and everyone ordered drinks. When he got to me, he asked everyone to show their IDs. I ordered something with vanilla and coconut rum that was very smooth and sweet, and did not taste of alcohol at all. The others got some blue drinks that were much stronger. The hamburger was good for a ten-dollar burger and the fries were hot and plentiful. For the second round I tried an “Incommunicado,” probably named for its ability to impair your speech. It had a long list of ingredients such as vodka, triple sec, rum, and juice that read like an A-list of every frat boy’s dreams. I could smell the thing as soon as they brought it out. The taste was somewhere between mouthwash and gasoline – I mean it burned on the way down! Call me a lightweight if you must, but I finished it with the help of a glass of water.
After dinner we were quite stuffed and decided to walk it off. With a quick visit to the bride and groom’s hotel, I discovered their room had a group-sized hot tub with a mirrored ceiling above it! Ben said it looked straight out of a funky 70’s porno movie and being a little bit tipsy, we all had a good laugh.
Not long after that we split up and they headed back to their hotel rooms. I walked down to The Bellagio to do some sightseeing. Besides the fountain show, I also saw the conservatory, the Fiori Di Como by Dale Chihuly (glass flowers on the lobby ceiling), and the world’s largest fountain of liquid chocolate. A plaque proudly touts the specs of the contraption: 95 degrees F, 27 feet tall, and 2 years to build. Willy Wonka would certainly have approved.
I rode the monorail back to the Las Vegas Hilton and endured another marathon walk from the monorail station to The Riviera. The hallway of the San Remo Tower at The Riviera has a kink in it where the ice machine is located. Coming back to the room around midnight, I turned the corner and saw a couple of guys loitering in the hallway in front of my room. With my keycard in hand, I swiftly opened the door and went inside, locking the deadbolt behind me. Peering through the eyepiece I was shocked to see one of the guys quietly approach my door and try to open it. What would he have done if he’d gotten into my room? They left quickly and I really should have called the front desk, but the eighteen-hour day was catching up with me and my body was demanding sleep. Well, at least I made it this far.
DAY TWO – Saturday, October 27th
Morning came much too soon for my liking. I had forgotten to set any kind of alarm and for a moment I worried that I had overslept and would be charged for a second day at the hotel. Thankfully, it was only 9am and check out was not until 11am. There were plenty of blessings to count this morning: not getting robbed the previous night, not having a headache, and a hot shower to start my day. I hauled my bags down to the car and checked out of The Riviera.
There were still about two hours to go until the wedding, so I decided to walk down and explore the Wynn hotel and casino – the newest and most exclusive casino that I had never visited before. Outside was the Ferrari dealer, which only admits patrons by special reservation. No more than 35 persons are allowed on the showroom at a time, and the cars are kept indoors behind privacy glass. No strollers are allowed in the shopping part of the hotel. Talk about snooty!
One thing I liked was the map directly inside of the entrance to the hotel. A cheerful lady struck up a conversation about the waterfall outside and I decided to go see it. It was large but not very fancy, no boulders or anything. Just a flat waterfall that probably looks nicer at night than it does in the mid-morning sun. The lobby was classy but without any particular theme. It wasn’t modern, it wasn’t French or Italian or Roman or anything, just elegant and nondenominational at the same time. In front of the shops was a bar called Parasol Up, where beautiful fabric parasols gently ascend and descend from the ceiling. The movement was so slow and gradual that you really had to stop and watch for a moment to realize what was happening. I rode the unique curved/spiral escalators and spent a little time looking at the high end luxury shops before heading back to the car.
After leaving the Wynn, I headed back to the car and drove north towards the wedding venue. The wedding was not going to begin for another hour yet, so I walked down the road a little bit and took some pictures of the vintage motel signs that offered amenities like “hourly rates” and “adult movies.”
Back at the chapel, the guests were starting to arrive and I was ready with the camera when the bride and groom arrived in their limousine. The bride and groom emerged from opposite sides of the car, followed by the rest of the wedding party. In order to get to the car on time, two of them had to run from the Circus Circus to the Imperial Palace – a little over a mile in a very short time. They looked very glad to sit down and catch their breath while the wedding party got ready.
I got the camera ready while we listened to some Elvis Presley and made small talk in the chapel. It was much nicer than I expected inside, and the white wooden benches were comfortable. The ceremony was brief and the first dance was very cute. This is what people mean when they say small and intimate weddings; there weren’t more than 40 people in the whole place. After some photos, we proceeded into the reception room for the cake cutting and for the toast. Everything was delicious and the wedding couldn’t have gone more smoothly.
Because some of the other guests were staying at the Circus Circus also, I gave them a lift back to the hotel and I went to check in. The line was quite long and it took maybe 30-45 minutes to get to the desk. Although it was quite late in the afternoon, the room was not yet ready and I was told it would be a thirty-minute wait. I suspected this was a ploy to get me to visit the casino floor, so I made it a point to sit down on a chair in the lobby and take a rest for the next half-hour, instead of gambling like most other people might have done. By the time I got up to the room and settled in, I had only a few minutes to catch my breath before heading out again for dinner.
The parents of the bride had generously invited everyone to the Cravings Buffet at The Mirage for dinner at 6pm. Being short on time, I decided to drive there and take the Industrial Road to avoid the congested traffic of The Strip. The back way in to the Mirage self-parking involved more sketchy U-turns and going over some double speed bumps which were quite treacherous in my lowered car. At last I made it and caught up with the group again.
The Mirage buffet has to be one of the largest and most diverse I have ever dined at. Everything was organized into sections including Italian, Chinese, Seafood, Sushi, Barbecue, Deli, Dessert, and many more. After about three trips for food I was quite full, and so was everyone else. Ben had removed his belt and was working on his second dessert while the rest of us decided to meet up again at 10pm for some fun and adventure.
After resting up in the room for a while, I met up with the group at the Treasure Island and we soon found the others who were lost in the chaos of the Pirate Show. Everyone inside the Treasure Island was wearing costumes but of course, nobody was permitted to wear masks on the casino floor. The groom ordered up his favorite White Russian while I tried a Seven and Seven. Drinks were very pricey here so after some more cheap slot action, we moved on to the Venetian. Walking around there killed some more time until we decided to call it a night at around eleven.
Not yet ready to head back, I found myself at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace. Although the city touts its 24-hour action and excitement, everything in there closed up promptly at midnight. I didn’t even get a chance to get gouged by paying five bucks to see the Exotic Car collection!
All of the fountain shows were done for the day. The place was emptying out and I began heading back to the hotel. I stopped for a Jack and Coke which kept me warm as I rode the monorail all the way to the Hilton again. The room at the Circus Circus was on the 32nd floor and for some reason, I could hear loud music from somewhere even with the door and window closed. No time was wasted in kicking off my shoes and crashing into bed where sleep came quickly and mercifully.
DAY THREE – Sunday, October 28th
My king-sized bed was just right and I woke up feeling well rested for the second day in a row. I polished off the last of the Pop-Tarts as I packed up and headed downstairs. Somehow, I was still hungry and stopped at the McDonald’s in the casino for a “real” breakfast. Also I picked up a fresh box of Krispy Kreme donuts for Megan, as all of their Arizona stores are now gone.
The bride and groom had an evening flight out of town and a rental car to return, so we didn’t meet up again. Feeling adventurous, I drove down by the Mandalay Bay and parked my car in the middle of the street near the famous welcome sign for a quick photo shoot. Surprisingly, two other cars followed my lead and were soon parked in the turn lane on a peaceful Sunday morning. Nobody seemed to mind, though. With that taken care of, I got back on Tropicana Avenue and headed out of town.
Driving back to Phoenix, I kept the stops to a minimum. I made one stop for gas in Kingman, where the price was $3.20/gal right off the Interstate. By venturing into town I found a sad little station that only had 87 octane for $2.75/gallon. The pumps didn’t even take cards, and I had to go inside to pay.
From there it was smooth sailing until I got to Nothing, Arizona. This abandoned roadside stop was once a place for cold drinks, souvenirs, and funny pictures. It’s been mentioned in any decent book about Arizona place names I’m sure, but sadly it closed up within the past year and has fallen into disrepair. It wasn’t long until I got back to my home in Phoenix and realized how exhausted, tired, hungry, and at the same time, happy I was.
The trip was about as much fun as one person can have, I suppose. It pales in comparison to my January trip but I still had a good time. In one weekend I took 500 photos, fought the crowds, avoided getting robbed, tried some new drinks, and put no more than three dollars into the machines before giving up on them, and witnessed the union of two very good people in holy matrimony. The wedding was wonderful and I had a great time exploring.