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My Return To Vegas

January 7, 2014

Christmas this year was an interesting experience, in large part because I was stuck in Huntington for it. This past year it fell on a Wednesday, and fortunately there is no Christmas morning newscast at WSAZ, something that goes back to at least my first tenure with the station in 1999 and I'm guessing well before then as well.

My hope had been to make it to Nashville by taking off the two days either before or after the holiday, but scheduling didn't allow for it. That is how it works in the television news business and I'm not complaining, but it made for a challenging scheduling situation.

My family did the best it could under the circumstances, trying Google Hangouts for Christmas morning to see my niece Evelynn open her gifts and then FaceTime two days later since it was just me connecting remotely, with my sister and her fiance having arrived by that point. It wasn't the same, but that was better than outright missing everything.

But the upside of that scheduling challenge is that it allowed me to take off New Year's Day and then the two days after, which in turn I used to book a trip to Las Vegas.

On New Year's Eve I worked my early morning shift, producing Sunrise and then getting some sleep before catching one flight to Charlotte and another from there to Las Vegas. The air travel went as planned and, after sleeping for most of the Charlotte/Vegas leg of the trip, I found myself in Nevada as 2014 chased me across the country.

About 10:30 p.m. PST I walked through McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and immediately my attention was drawn to an attractive woman wearing sharp-looking knee-high boots and a very tight, high-cut mini-skirt. I knew I had arrived: Las Vegas part two.

Unlike the trip I took in 2003, I hit up Vegas by myself this time around. I've never been afraid to roll solo, lone wolf style. Though, in this case, I knew I wouldn't be alone for long.

My friend Kristin picked me up at the airport, and it was great to finally meet her in person. We had talked for the past 3+ years after meeting by sheer chance through, which is fitting since we have very similar tastes in music. From there it was onto T-bird, a local bar not too far from where she lives. It was a bit jarring being around indoor cigarette smoke after not having to deal with it much at all in the places I go to in the Huntington area, but I predict Vegas casinos will be the ultimate last bastion of indoor smoking in the United States. I still have a bit of a cough that I suspect is part secondhand smoke inhalation and part dusty, dry air.

To her credit, Kristin knows some great local bars and restaurants in Vegas. It helps when you have a friend who is local who can point you in the right direction with these sorts of things. From there we headed to her place to celebrate the start of 2014, and I met her roommate Jimmy's girlfriend; I met Jimmy the next morning. He is a very talented musician and seems like a cool guy from the limited amount of time that I talked with him.

Architecture and home design in Vegas is very different that what you see back east. You know how you typically see grass growing in the areas between an interstate and an off-ramp? Instead of that you see rocks. It looks nice and makes sense considering how especially dry it gets there in the summer. After all, it's in the middle of a desert.

To battle the heat, the roofs in Kristin's neighborhood have a curved design. I'm not exactly sure *how* that counter-acts the heat, but apparently it does to some degree. There is a distinct look to the home designs I saw, very nice but also lots of beige and similar color types that seem to feel very "western" for lack of a better term.

On the morning on New Year's Day, Kristin and I stopped by In-N-Out Burger at my request. The only time I had eaten there before was on my San Francisco trip of 2004, and while I've really cut back on my red meat intake as of late (Tappy Tibbons approves), I made an exception and wolfed down the burger and fries I had ordered. Delicious. That company is very tightly controlled by the family that owns it, no franchising despite some big money offers that have been thrown their way, so it's mostly available only on the west coast. And, besides a recent venture into Texas, Vegas is about as far east as you'll see them.

From there it was on to the Orleans hotel, where there was a bit of a line to check in. Kristin commented that the exterior could use a paint job. But you should have seen her reaction when we reached the third floor with the long hallways. "It looked like the Golden Girls designed this," said Kristin, and she was right. But the price was right and the room was fine, albeit not high end. But it served its purpose well.

That night we met up with my friend Tali, who was one of the first people I met when I moved to Huntington the first time in 1999, and I had the chance to meet her husband, Troy, and their son, Eli. We had a very nice dinner at Simon, a high-end restaurant in the Palms Plaza.

It was at that point that one of the funniest parts of the trip happened. As we drove up the ramp at the Palms, there was some guy walking up on the side. Suddenly he took off running like a character in the Grand Theft Auto series, which was very odd considering that he had plenty of room. But it made us laugh long and loud.

Simon isn't cheap, but the food is delicious there and the atmosphere is tremendous. It was really cool to catch up on things with Tali, who I hadn't seen I years save for the one night when she was in Nashville on business and we had dinner at Applebee's.

Check out the vintage pinball machines!

The next day Kristin took me to a place that I didn't know existed: the Pinball Hall of Fame. It's a museum of sorts, only you can actually play the vintage stand-up style arcade games and pinball machines, many of which were at the old-school price of a quarter to play. I earned the high school in Ms. Pac-Man since that's how I roll, but my favorite part might have been a Simpsons pinball game I had never seen before.

The museum runs on a tight budget and isn't a glitzy place *at all* but in some ways that added to the atmosphere and charm of the place. If you like classic arcade games or pinball machines and you're in Vegas, give it a shot. It was really fun.

I made two sports bets during my trip: Alabama -17 against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State -3 against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Not only did neither cover, they both lost outright. At least they didn't tease me like the Chiefs did for the Steelers' playoff hopes the Sunday before last in their overtime loss to the Chargers.

Kristin is not a football fan, but she put up with me watching the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day night. The time zone difference with sports really threw me for a loop. An 8:30 p.m. kickoff time in the Eastern Time Zone is 5:30 p.m. in the Pacific Time Zone. This is obvious, but to experience it in person was disorienting.

With Alabama doing so poorly in the first half, I wasn't even disappointed when they didn't have a TV in the area where we went for dinner, the TGI Friday's in the hotel. Yes, we went to a chain restaurant, but it was convenient and where we were both in the mood for going to for dinner.

As we were being seated I quickly surveyed the situation, obviously without any subtlety since a guy at the table next to mine asked if I was looking for a TV. I mentioned my lament about the Bama game and he managed to top me by saying he took the under, which by halftime it was obvious there was no chance of happening.

The Orleans has several restaurants inside, along with a movie theater and a bowling alley (!), but they also have a package liquor store -- and Fireball was our drink of choice. Between that and the 12 pack of Coke Vanilla Zero that Kristin picked up for me, I was set. That ended up saving us some time later when we learned we didn't have to go to a grocery store to pick up another bottle. The price was reasonable, no gouging, and for the convenience factor it was great.

Friday was my last full day in Vegas and I bought tickets for us to see Jersey Boys that night. Kristin isn't much for gambling, so while she ran some errands I spent a little bit of time in the casino, breaking even on a Deal or No Deal slots game and roulette. Yes, I know roulette has one of the worst player margins, and I had no luck finding a single zero table this time around, but it's one of my favorites to play.

Before the show we went to another local favorite of Kristin's, the Crown and Anchor pub. She told me the fish and chips were excellent, and wow she was right. Harp on draft and authentic British-style food: very nice. Kristin knew the bartender/waitress, an amiable girl who also had a "Don't mess with me" vibe. She told us a crazy story about punching some guy who had called her a whore after a pool game had ended poorly for him.

Overall, the Crown and Anchor is a great place, and while we went to the smaller version of it (there are two of them in Vegas) it was perfect for us, a very chill atmosphere with interesting people in the mix. An older guy sitting on the other side from Kristin at the bar heard us mention Jersey Boys and started raving about it, just like everyone else had.

We had ninth row seats for Jersey Boys.

We made it to Paris with perfect timing, taking our seats about 15 minutes before start time. The tickets ended up being tremendous, with us being in the fourth row. I've been a fan of Frankie Valli for a long time. When my classmates in school were listening to some the mostly really horrid pop music circa 1988, I was calling up the old WRMX in Nashville requesting "My Eyes Adored You" from time to time.

Even back then I wasn't afraid to listen to music that I liked regardless of what other people thought about it. Later, in my college radio days, that attitude led to me playing all sorts of artists before they hit it big, from Jay-Z to Ben Folds. If the radio industry hadn't cannibalized itself, I might have ended up as a music director for a modern rock station. Alas, that never happened.

As for the show, it managed to live up to the hype and then some. I worry sometimes that something that is oversold to me will end up being a letdown, but Jersey Boys was anything but disappointing. Great acting and amazing singing, with some spot-on renditions of classic Four Seasons songs. The highlight for me was hearing "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" which was spectacular. The show managed to blend music and a great story into a compelling performance, and even if you're not a theater person normally, I strongly recommend it.

All good things eventually come to an end, and when Saturday hit it my time to go had arrived. Kristin and I had one more meal, and I enjoyed a delicious sandwich called The Bobbie from Capriotti's Sandwich Shop. Kristin had described it as a Thanksgiving meal on a sandwich, and she wasn't far off from that at all. Stuffing, cranberry sauce and turkey. And, wow, it was really really good.

Since I had checked out of the Orleans and Kristin had to get to work (in the Beatles show "LOVE" at The Mirage), she dropped me off at the Vegas airport several hours before my scheduled flight. I thought the adventure portion of my trip had ended. Wow, was I wrong about that.

The idea was easy enough: Vegas to Phoenix, a 90 minute layover, then catching a red-eye to Charlotte before flying to Huntington. The flight out of Vegas boarded on time, though I had the misfortune of having a seat next to a couple with a young child who, no surprise, decided to start screaming. Luckily I brought along some older MLW podcasts that I hadn't heard yet, so I was able to block out the yelling while also being entertained.

The pilot informed us that because we were on an airplane originally intended to go to Philadelphia, they had to remove fuel from the plane to get it to a legal landing weight. We were told it would be 10-15 minutes. Then 40 minutes. Then an hour. Finally we took off, but by that point it was more than 90 minutes from when it was supposed to take off.

By the time we made it to Phoenix, my first-ever visit to Arizona, the pilot requested that passengers let people trying to make connecting flights to leave the plane first. I snagged my carry-on bag and took off running through the airport in Phoenix like I was a contestant on The Amazing Race. I hadn't run that hard since my high school football days. There was a lanky guy sprinting just ahead of me who I used as a fullback of sorts, following him stride-for-stride as we tried to make it from one terminal to another. A quick glance at the big board had showed a flight from Phoenix delayed until 1 a.m. MST, and I was determined to make it there if at all possible.

I made it to the gate and saw with great happiness that the door was still open. Out of breath, I did my best to find the Phoenix-to-Charlotte boarding pass. One of the attendants at the gate scanned it... but no dice. I handed over another, but it was the Charlotte-Huntington boarding pass. I had him try the Phoenix-Charlotte one again, but again nothing. I must have seem frantic by that point as the gate agent told me to calm down. Normally I hate it when someone says that because it usually means they are trying to emotionally manipulate me, but in this case I think he was right.

Finally, a eureka moment: the red-eye I was supposed to be on had already taken off, as that was a *second* red-eye from Phoenix to Charlotte. It was sold out, but the gate agents seemed to think they could get me on board. I tried my best to catch my breath and turn on the charm; you might be surprised at what I can talk my way into when properly motivated. Finally I was escorted down to the airplane, literally right at the door to get on board.

I was told I would have to check my carry-on bag but to not to let anyone take it. And, just like something out of a predictable script, a baggage handler opened the side door and went to grab my bag and I had to immediately tell him not to take it, explaining what I had been told.

Unfortunately, the plan fell apart there. What they had thought was an open seat apparently wasn't, with a flight attendant walking out with his palms up in a "move back" kind of motion toward the agents and me. I was out of luck and told to talk to the US Airways help desk.

After a rather lengthy wait (I wasn't the only one stuck in Phoenix due to the Vegas delay), I was told that my best bet was to try to fly standby on the 6:25 a.m. PST flight to Charlotte. I inquired about a hotel room but had it pointed out to me that it would mean an almost immediate turnaround to come back to the airport, go back through security, etc. I wasn't offered any compensation for my considerable inconvenience and risk I faced at that point for potentially not being back in time for work, which I had to be back for my 11 p.m. EST, roughly 18 hours from when I talked with the help desk guy in Phoenix.

What's more, the last flight from Charlotte to Huntington was scheduled to leave at 4:15 p.m. EST. I needed to catch a break, but first I had to play the waiting game.

To its credit, the airport in Phoenix is equipped with charging stations that allowed me to juice up my electronics, most importantly my Droid, which was running dangerously low on power. I also took the opportunity to record some HD2 radio stations for, which somehow I was able to pick up in there. Typically airports are among the most difficult places to record radio signals, at least based on my previous experiences.

Drowsiness began to take over as the 4 a.m. PST hour arrived. The Dramamine I took for the earlier flight from Vegas was still in my system, but I didn't want to take any stimulants in the hope that I could catch the standby flight and sleep on the way. It was a calculated risk, but particularly since I needed to get back on a daytime sleeping schedule anyway, it's one that I opted to choose.

I camped out by the gate as the clock ticked closer to 6:25. Boarding started about five minutes before the hour. I tried my best to gauge the passenger volume, unsure if there would be a spot for me.

As it turned out, I was #2 on the standby list. After the final call came for ticketed passengers, two names were read. Mine was the second. I made the flight. No awkward phone call to work was needed, thankfully.

Another dose of Dramamine sent me to sleep for the duration of the flight, save for a bit of turbulence strong enough to jostle me temporarily. From there I was able to catch a flight to Huntington, and I managed to make it home in time to see some of both NFL games while working in some additional sleep before work.

Was the trip to Las Vegas worth the "returning to the island on Lost" level of difficulty to make it home? You'd better believe it. I had a blast, and if things work out the way I want, I'll be back out in Vegas for at least a few days in March. More on that later.

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