Chicago

I have some Marriott points to use so I booked 3 days at the Cancun  airport Marriott Courtyard, 2 days before flying to Chicago and 1 day on the way back. If you stay there they provide parking in their secure lot for a reasonable fee, so I can leave the Land Cruiser behind in Mexico with no worries. The amount of resorts along the way is amazing, pretty much from Tulum up to Cancun is one beach resort after another. Cancun itself is very modern, almost like an American suburb. I go out to the local mall to pick up some snacks and eat dinner and it’s full of parents in BMWs and Mercedes dropping their kids off to hang out.

There is a huge snow storm scheduled to hit the Midwest on the day I’m flying so I’ve been keeping an eye on the weather. My first flight is from Cancun to Houston so no problems there, but when I change planes in Houston it looks like about half the flights going into Chicago are delayed or cancelled. Not mine, luckily. By the time I get into O’Hare nothing is flying out…this is one board of 3 or 4, all the same story:

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When I make it down to the Blue Line station I’m quite excited to see not one but two Christmas trains in the station. Mrs Claus and an elf welcome me back to Chicago.

It’s great to spend time with family and friends but holy cow is it cold. These past months traveling the southwest and Mexico have really thinned my blood. It doesn’t help that a couple of days after the big snow storm the temperature drops to -6.

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The time passes all too quickly and before I know it I’m back on a plane to Mexico.

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Southern California

I spent the weekend at Joshua Tree National Park. I am really getting my money’s worth out of this annual Park Pass. It’s a great park, in addition to the Joshua trees everywhere it is full of these weird rock formations. There are several campgrounds in the park, the largest is Jumbo Rocks. There are 140 or so campsites, but each one is nestled in among the jumbo rocks. I saw in the news that September is mating season for the giant hairy tarantulas here in Joshua Tree, but I can’t find any. There is, however,  a large rattlesnake basking in the sun the next campsite over. They didn’t spot it until after they had set up their tent about fifteen feet away. The Park Rangers were called, came out and said “Yep that’s a rattlesnake.” They declined to move it and suggested that the people move their tent elsewhere, and to be sure to take a flashlight when heading to the bathroom after dark. The two main ways people are bitten by rattlesnakes are 1) they just can’t resist poking it with a stick and it bites 2) they don’t see it, step on the snake, and it bites.

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My driver’s side headlamp had a crack along the bottom when I bought the Land Cruiser, it never fogged up and the crack seemed stable. It got hit pretty hard by a rock on the Dalton Highway, causing a large chip right in the center. I figured its days were numbered and ordered a new one for $200 shipped. Better to just replace it now than wait until it falls completely apart and I have to track one down in Costa Rica or somewhere. It’s not hard to replace, just remove the turn signal housing and the center grille then 3 bolts on the headlamp itself. Unplug the wires, switch the bulbs, and put everything back together. I finally feel like a real overland traveler working on my truck in a campsite.

2003 was one of the last years before Toyota switched by glass headlamps to plastic on the Land Cruisers. The upside of glass is that the 13 year old headlamp on the other side matches perfectly to the new one once it is cleaned up.

Old and busted vs new and shiny

There are no warning signs about scorpions, giant hairy tarantulas, mountain lions, or rattlesnakes. Just bees. I guess since there is no water anywhere around the bees will swarm on anything wet, including a wet sweaty person.

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There are some great sandy back roads that lead to some good trails.

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One trail leads to the Lost Horse gold mine, so named because it was discovered when a prospector was searching for his lost horse when he stumbled across gold. The actual mine is closed off but the old stamp mill is still there. There are old gold mines all over the park.

On Sunday I drive to Anaheim and grab a hotel near Knott’s Berry Farm, as I have to be at the airport Monday morning to pick up Lisa. Monday morning rush hour into the airport is crazy, but once we get clear of the airport it’s an easy drive to Newport Beach. I have four nights at the Marriott’s Newport Coast Villas, which turns out to be quite a fancy place.

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The grounds are huge, 40 buildings spread out along the hills over the Pacific Coast Highway. Tons of things to do: five pools, several hot tubs, fire pits (Monday night was s’mores night), putting green, tetherball, tennis, basketball, bags, giant chess, movie theater.

I picked up Kelsey and Robert at 11pm Monday night, then we all spent the rest of the week enjoying Newport Beach.

Watched the sun set from a restaurant on the waterfront. Newport Beach is very upscale, first vacation town I have been to that features a McLaren dealership. There was also a used car store with a Ford GT in the window.

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Another night we packed up a full barbecue in the villa’s laundry basket and went up to the south end of the grounds for the best sunset view. In between buildings they have gas grills and patio furniture, a great place to grill burgers and watch the sun set.

We did one hike up El Moro canyon and across the hills, about 5 miles. It was pretty hot and sweaty going up the canyon once you get away from the water. The sweeping coastal views from the top were well worth the hike, picture below is looking south to Laguna Beach.

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Then down to the ocean to cool off a little. The water is pretty cold, about 63, but it feels good to go in at least knee deep.

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On the drive back we stopped at Ruby’s Shake Shack, right on the PCH. A beautiful place to sip something cold and look out over the ocean. By all reports the shakes were delicious.

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On Friday we eked out the vacation as long as we could, hanging out at the pool after checkout until it was time to head to the airport. A quick stop at In n Out for lunch then dropped Lisa at the airport, Kelsey and Robert in Venice Beach then off to San Diego.

It was late by the time I arrived so I got a hotel for the night, then next morning drove downtown to see the sights. Walked along the harbor and visited the USS Midway aircraft carrier. It was built during WW II but not finished until 1945 just as the war ended. It saw combat in Vietnam and the Gulf War and was decommissioned in 1992.

It’s a great feeling to stand on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, one more thing off the bucket list.

They had a couple of presentations on the flight deck about carrier takeoffs and landings. The sessions were given by a retired Navy pilot who has over 1,000 carrier takeoffs and landings with 300 combat missions over Vietnam. Very entertaining, lots of good stories and tons of detail on how a carrier operates.

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You can tour quite a bit belowdecks, it is indeed a floating city of 4,100 people. It’s a weird mix of technology from the 1940’s to the 1990’s.

Not much camping available near San Diego but I found a county park about 15 minutes away for the next couple of nights. The first morning I woke up and found a line of ants marching up the tent ladder, across the front of the tent, and down the other side. A few ants got lost and started coming inside but after a good five minutes of ant swatting everything was pretty well cleared off.

Sunday I visited the San Diego Zoo. First time I have spent $50 on the zoo but it was well worth it.

This year is their 100th anniversary and today is the exact day it opened 100 years ago. They have cake and cupcakes everywhere.

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It’s very well laid out, you walk through most of it on little paths through trees and bamboo with the enclosures worked in so you get the feeling of walking through the woods and seeing the animals in a more natural setting.

One of the big attractions are the giant pandas. I didn’t realize just how giant they are until seeing this one in person.

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Giant Panda video

Tons of koalas, which sleep 20 hours a day.

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After staying all day at the zoo it’s back to the ant hill campground. I parked a little further down, hoping to avoid the ant army but next morning I woke up to another line of ants coming up the ladder, around the front, back down the other side with a few stragglers sneaking inside the tent again.

Today is the big day, leaving the US and entering Mexico. I decide to go a few miles east to the new Otay Mesa border crossing; it’s supposed to be quicker and much easier to get around. Pulled off on the last US exit before the border, filled up on gas, changed some dollars for pesos, grabbed breakfast at McDonald’s then off to the border.

Arizona part II

I don’t have too long before I have to be in LA so I kind of breezed through southern New Mexico on the way west. Stayed one night at a KOA in Las Cruces then on to Arizona.

I have wanted to hike up Picacho Peak for some time, but every time we go past it I haven’t been able to talk anybody else into going.  Spent the night in the state park at the base of the peak then started off on the hike next morning while it was still somewhat cool.

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It’s only about 2 miles each way but the trail is very steep and rocky. In places there are cables anchored into the cliff to help you get up and back down

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or here to keep from falling off

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Once you get to the top the view is great. I sat up here for awhile enjoying the scenery, despite the I-10 interstate below it is very quiet. I only met two other people on the trail. With all of the rocks, cables, and general steepness it took me just as long to hike down as up, so by the time I arrived back at the trailhead it was up to 95.

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Drove up to Phoenix and treated myself to a night in the Marriott Canyon Villas, in a “studio villa.” Compact but very nice after all the camping. I have been pining for some real Chicago pizza and made a stop at the new Lou Malnati’s Phoenix location, got the Chicago Classic which really hit the spot.

Next day it was actually rainy all day, due to some tropical storm down south. Visited the Martin Auto Museum, a very cool place with beautifully preserved cars from the early 1900s up to today. This Shelby Cobra was part of Carroll Shelby’s private collection for awhile then sold to Mr. Martin.It’s an amazing car, they estimate its worth at around $2 million. They wouldn’t let me sit in it.

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Still raining so I watched Suicide Squad at the theater, pretty entertaining.

Stopped in to visit Gina Matt and Mia. Got a few barks from Mia before she recognized me then she was quite excited to see me again.

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Off towards LA, stayed at an RV park in Quartzsite AZ. In the morning I watched this huge scorpion creeping past the campsite. It’s the biggest one I’ve seen, about the size of my hand.

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Texas

So, Texas is a really big state. Looking back through my log I see that I’ve spent 12 days circling around the state. I’m trying to avoid driving on the major interstate highways so I stay on the two lane roads towards Lubbock and stop for the first night at Buffalo Springs Lake. It’s an odd place, you are driving across west Texas with desert scrub and cotton fields, suddenly there is a sort of canyon with a lake and tons of wildlife. IMG_20160907_192414.jpg

In Abilene I visited the 12th Armored Division museum, small but lots of great exhibits. The 12th AD trained here before shipping off to Europe at the end of WWII. They were involved in some battles in late 1944 after the Battle of the Bulge, some of the first into Germany, liberated concentration camps. and were the American troops who captured Dr. Werner von Braun who would become one of the fathers of the American space program.

I’m talking to the guy who maintains the vehicles, I remark on how simple the Jeep engine seems and he tells me yes, with a screwdriver and a couple of wrenches you can tear down and rebuild the whole thing. The story behind the ‘Cooked Rat’ is that he was rebuilding it for a parade, had pulled out the radiator to flush it then reinstalled the radiator but left the hoses disconnected. A couple of weeks later he plugged in the hoses, added coolant, fired it up and it immediately started overheating. Suspecting a blockage in the hoses, he disconnected them and soon pulled out a fully boiled rat with a pair of pliers.

On the two lane highways you go through a lot of small towns. Here is one, I don’t remember the name but they are all similar. The county building and the square around it. Many of the smaller towns are mostly dead, all of the old mom and pop businesses are closed and boarded up. This town is doing pretty well.

Oil wells everywhere, still pumping.

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Every town has its claim to fame

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Spent a night at Possum Kingdom Lake State Park. At the entrance. the ranger said “Just go on down and pick out a campsite, leave a cooler or something to save it, then come back up and register with me.”  Chicago people will know there’s only one way to save your spot.

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It’s very nice, right on the lake. I can hear the tiny waves lapping at the shore all night.

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From Possum Kingdom I drive to Allen TX north of Dallas. I’m visiting my friend Jim, recently of IBM.  It’s strange as we have worked together probably 15 years but have only met maybe once in person. Jim immediately makes me feel at home, and we make an attempt at installing some 30mm spacers on the Land Cruiser rear springs. After loading all of my gear the truck sits mostly level, I would like to get an extra inch of clearance in the rear. I’m having trouble getting the rear up high enough to drop out the springs so in the interest of safety we call it a day and go inside to the AC and cold beer and watch some baseball. Jim and his lovely wife Liz make me feel right at home and it’s great to relax in their home as Jim cooks some excellent steaks on the grill. Next day, after a great omelet for breakfast, I am off to Waco.

There are a ton of Monarch butterflies around, it must be the winter migration

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Morning on the Brazos River outside Waco

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I mentioned to Kelsey I was on Waco, she said I had to visit Magnolia Farms, the store of the HGTV Fixer Upper people (and buy her something). This place is crazy, on a Monday morning I have to park three blocks away. It’s filled with women looking for knickknacks, the few men in attendance have the same look as guys accompanying their wives/girlfriends to a big sale at the shoe store. The place is huge and they are adding on to it even as we speak. There is also conveniently a cupcake/muffin bakery in the complex.

I went with a blueberry crumble muffin, it was very good.

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The other thing that Waco is famous for is Dr Pepper, it was invented here in the early 1900s and now hosts the Dr Pepper museum.  They have uncovered the original well which supplied the water to make Dr Pepper as well as all the bottle washing (they switched to city water in the 1930s)

On my way out of Waco, I’m going around a corner and see a huge smoky barbecue with a tiny old man tending it. The smell is incredible so I whip right into the 1.5 car parking lot of Ma and Pa’s BBQ Shack and go inside for the lunch special. Chopped beef with a cold Dr Pepper, it doesn’t get much better than this. My only complaint is the bread, they serve it up with a plain slice of white bread. I’m missing  Sheffield’s jalapeno corn bread.

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Visited Austin and the state capitol. Very nice with a big park all around with statues and monuments.

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On to San Antonio. I visit a couple of the famous missions, Mission San Jose and Mission Concepcion.

I stay a few days at an AirBnB place in the NW burbs, a relaxing break from driving and camping.

I really liked the San Antonio river walk, here on a Friday afternoon but I bet it is jumping on the weekend nights.

Visited the Alamo

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Then east to Spring TX to spend the weekend with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Another relaxing weekend, they take me out to a Brazilian steakhouse (one more thing off the bucket list) and Old Spring which is packed with quirky little stores. It looks like the Pirate/Steampunk store is having some kind of event and there are a bunch of people walking around in interesting outfits.

Heading west I jump on I-10 for the long haul west to LA. Stopped in Balmorhea TX, nice campground with roadrunners everywhere and a giant  pool fed by natural springs

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They are hard to catch on camera. here is one jumping up on my tailgate

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Caught a baby roadrunner perched on the dumpster

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New Mexico

First night in New Mexico I arrived late to Gallup NM and stayed in a motel on Historic Route 66. Got some great chiles rellenos at a little cafe in town.

Continuing on to Albuquerque, first thing is a Breaking Bad tour.

The Dog House was the site of several meetings in both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

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It’s a Wiener’s Circle type place, seems to be very popular. Their specialty is the foot long chili cheese dog, charred not boiled. It was very tasty.

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The A-1 car wash

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The White house. I feel sorry for the lady who lives here now, there are bars on all the windows and doors, big fence, security cameras and signs all over. You can see her sitting in the garage ready to chase off sightseers. I guess people are constantly trying to throw a pizza onto the garage roof.

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Hiked around Petroglyph National Monument. These images date back 400-700 years.

and toured the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, which also appeared in a Breaking Bad episode.

On the left is The Gadget, first plutonium bomb detonated at the Trinity Site in Alamogordo NM, to the right Fat Man and Little Boy which were detonated over Japan.

Atomic cannon

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You could get one of these science kits for your kid back in the 1950s

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Continuing east toward Texas, the grave of Billy the Kid at the old Fort Sumner cemetery. This headstone was added in 1931 and has been stolen and recovered several times since.

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Arizona

Sorry, I got a little ahead of myself in the last post. Kingman is actually part of Arizona not Nevada.

Continuing along in Arizona I booked two nights in the Grand Canyon campground. It’s the first National Park I’ve stayed in so far that was not almost completely full, I guess summer is over. After setting up camp and relaxing for a bit there is a huge crashing right behind me in the trees. There are two huge elk looking for food. They use their antlers to hook onto branches up over their head then pull them down to the ground where they can chew on them. These guys are really big, you can see the full size dumpster in the background for scale.

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I drive over to the Visitor Center (which conveniently closed 3 minutes before I arrived) and walk along the Rim Trail enjoying the view

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Found a nice spot on the rocks off the trail and watched the sun set over the canyon

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I’m thinking about doing the Bright Angel Trail down to the river and back up the next day. This is the one that they have signs all over the park warning you not to attempt in a single day, but the weather forecast looks good, 97 and partly cloudy at the bottom and mid 70s at the top, and I really need to work off that Sam’s Town buffet. I figure I will go down to the last water stop at Indian Gardens and see how it looks from there. Since they don’t want you to try to hike to the river they don’t show how far it is or the elevation change.  I set out bright and early at 7:00 down the trail. Early on I meet a bunch of people coming up, they came from the North Rim down to the river and back up the South Rim. Today is their fourth and final day on the trail.

A snake crossing the trail, first one I have seen so far.

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Maybe 3 miles down or so. It’s great just scooting along down hill.

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I get to Indian Gardens, 4.5 miles from the rim in about 2 hours. Finally there is a map that shows 3.1 miles from here to the river. It’s only 9:00 so I figure I have plenty of time no matter how slow it is going back up. I fill up 2 liters of water and set out for the river.

This section is the corkscrew, not a lot of switchbacks just a giant spiral down into the canyon.

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Almost there

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I reached the river at 10:00, 3 hours and 7.6 miles down from the rim. It feels great to kick off my boots and wade in the Colorado River, but you can only go out 8 feet or so because of the current.

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A rafting group pulls in and sets up lunch while I’m resting and enjoying the view. It turns out that almost all of the people walking down to the river with me are joining the rafting trip midway through. The rafts started the full trip 6 days ago and they have 8 more days to go. The biggest rapids are supposed to be downstream from here. That is definitely the way to go, walk down then raft out. One thing I didn’t realize is that only the guide has two big oars for steering, everybody else is just a passenger.

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After 45 minutes at the river I have to face the long slog back up. It is 2000′ back up the corkscrew to Indian Gardens and with the sun out it is slow going. A lot of rest and drinking stops, by the time I get to Indian Gardens two hours later I have gone through almost all of the 2 liters I started with. Hung out there drinking water and relaxing in the shade for awhile then continued toward the top. From here there is water every 1.5 miles. After an hour or so the clouds turn dark and it starts to rain. It’s nice to get cool but I only have a pack cover, no poncho, so I have to huddle under a rock overhang until the worst of the storm passes over.

The storm hitting the North Rim

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Finally nearing the top, I can see the railings on the overlooks. Not many people out due to the rain. Made it back to the start of the trail at 5:00, so 10 hours to go 15.2 miles round trip, 5000′ down and back up. I think I drank at least 7 liters of water along the way.

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Leaving Grand Canyon on the way to Page

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Horseshoe Bend outside Page AZ. Fun to sit on the edge of the cliff and take in the view

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A short detour into Utah, camping on the beach in Glen Canyon. I have cleverly framed this picture so you can’t see the 300 RVs, campers, and tents going all the way down the beach. It’s the weekend and this is a popular spot.

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I wanted to hike Antelope Canyon but it’s Labor Day weekend and all of the tours are booked until Tuesday. Instead I set off across Navajo country towards New Mexico.

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Nevada

Shortly after leaving Death Valley behind and entering Nevada, Google suddenly wants me to turn off the highway onto a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. Instead of just blindly following it and crashing to my death off a cliff or something I stop to check, and sure enough Google is right on the money. This road past an abandoned airstrip cuts out about 12 miles of highway driving, and after about 3 miles turns out onto the highway to Las Vegas so I continue on.

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I got a cheap hotel for the weekend at the HoJo’s on Tropicana, a couple blocks off the strip past the MGM and Hooters. First night it’s Friday night in Vegas, so of course I spend the evening in bed with the AC blasting, all of my stuff plugged into actual power outlets, a long hot shower, and catching up on some TV. After awhile I run out a grab a pizza and lie in bed eating pizza and watching the last few episodes of the Deadliest Catch season. Next day the Vegas excitement continues (at a somewhat late hour after staying up late the previous night) as I make my way to Henderson and do some shopping at REI, get a haircut, and pick up some groceries.  On the way back I stopped at the Pinball Hall of Fame, it’s just a warehouse with a bunch of pinball and video games lined up in rows. They do have a card on each giving the date it was manufactured but that’s about it.

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I visited the Neon Museum, a lot of fun. It’s a guided tour which takes over an hour; our guide knew the detailed history of all of the signs and had many stories about the history of Las Vegas. Halfway through the tour the sun set and they turned on the lights, making for a great show. Most of the signs are not in working condition, they’re just lit by spotlights.

Made one trip up the strip to the Bellagio fountain and back. No gambling, the only money the casinos got from me was through their restaurants. Instead of eating dinner I just snacked my way down the strip.

I was waiting for my forwarded mail to catch up with me and needed to spend one more day in Vegas so I went east of the strip to Sam’s Town on the Boulder Highway. I saw on some billboards that they are having a Killers extravaganza at the end of the month for the 10 year anniversary of the Sam’s Town album and figured why not. Being a Monday the room was quite inexpensive and came with two vouchers for the buffet. This place is huge, in good shape if a little tacky, and has everything: the aforementioned buffet, 8 movie theaters, bowling alley, pool, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Panda Express, Dunkin Donuts, and of course all the usual gambling stuff.

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Another relaxing day, first off to the pool to cool off, then to the movie theater to catch Jason Bourne, then the enormous buffet for dinner. Being a Monday I think I’m the youngest person here. Someone in the buffet line actually called me “young fella.” Wandered through the casino but still no gambling. I don’t get slot machines at all…they did away with money and the slot part, then the giant handle. Nowadays you just swipe a card and press a button or two and see what happens.

After picking up my mail I’m off to Kingman. A lot of old Route 66 stuff along here. Every gas station, restaurant, and store is playing Elvis music.

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I’m looking for a campground around Kingman. There are 2 right in town but checking the reviews shows a lively debate on the first whether the drug users have been chased out yet or not (consensus says yes but it’s still a pit), and the second says that the cockroaches mostly stay hidden during the day but at night they are all over everything. I end up going to a county campground outside town, 12 miles up at the top of Hualapai Mountain. A nice place with lots of big pine trees and deer and elk wandering around. The campsite across from mine is lined off with police tape but I’m pretty sure it’s because of water erosion across the middle and not that the previous occupants were murdered in their tents.