Viva Las Vegas!

2017 was a hard year.

One moment I had my life in perfect order, the next, it is in utter chaos. After losing my Mom in September and being faced with a divorce, I was heartsick and full of grief. I went to counseling only to hear that there’s no solution to grief except time. Not what my heart nor my mind wanted to hear.

I made plans to meet with Sue, a good friend who worked with me for a short time at Pellissippi State. During dinner, we talked about the loss of her husband Mac (a sweet man & sports trivia guru) along with the drama and trauma surrounding my life. As we talked, I felt like we had an understanding. We both were looking for something to ease the pain and provide a needed distraction. Sue had a perfect solution.

“Erin, we should take a trip together. Where do you want to go?”

We examined the timeframe, weather, and other logistics, then settled on a plan. I had never been out West. In fact, I’d never been out further than Texas. I pored through some great books that Sue let me borrow highlighting places you should visit before you die. I was certain we needed desert air and beauty. We were flying to Vegas.

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Day 1 – What Happens in Vegas…

As I set out with Sue on this journey, I loaded up for the long travels. I packed a book I was reading, a fully charged and updated iPod, my iPad Mini with a couple of downloaded podcast episodes, and earbuds. I fully expected to be reading the whole time, but I was actually further along in the book than I thought. That said, please read Maybe Now I’ll Get The Respect I So Richly Deserve by Wayne White because his artwork is fun and he’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever seen. Plus, he’s from Tennessee and someone I deeply admire.

The moment I switched to the iPod, some Pink Floyd began to play as I flew over the mountains and canyons. It was quite appropriate, I think. Finally, I pulled out my iPad Mini and started playing the Heaven’s Gate podcast that the Skimm had suggested a couple weeks prior. I’m not much of a podcast listener, but I was enthralled with this series and highly recommend you check it out.

You’ve Only Just Arrived

After landing, we made our way to the car rental shuttle outside. We passed by billboards for a plethora of shows and bundles of slot machines. I’m pretty sure Vegas is where celebrities you thought had died or never hear about anymore wind up earning a living. I saw advertisements for so many magicians like David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, Criss Angel, and one of my favorites of all time, Mac King (yes, I thought he had died).

At the Thrifty car rental, we chatted it up with the gentleman behind the counter. I think I asked everyone I encountered on this trip their recommendations in Vegas. He asked about our preferences and budgets, then pointed us to a place called Ocean One Bar and Grille in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. He gave us a map, which I tucked in the travel book that I got for my birthday (thank you, Alisha), then we went outside to select our car — a sleek black Nissan.

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The first time Sue drove us down the Las Vegas Strip, I was absolutely in awe. Neon lights filled the evening sky. Hotels of all shapes and sizes seemed to squeeze in every nook and cranny along the road. We drove by the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and rejoiced together. We made it!

Two By Two, Promenade

We arrived at The Flamingo, one of the flashiest hotels on the block. If the name didn’t give it away, this place was full of pink patterns and flamingo decor. Walking towards the lobby, we were pounced on by Wyndham Vacation people looking for single ladies. I was pretty safe because, at the time, I was technically not divorced yet. Sue, however, took one for the team. After 30 minutes of wheeling and dealing, we decided we could sit through a two-hour schmoozy sales-enriched breakfast for two tickets to KA by Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand and an all you can eat buffet dinner for two.

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We unloaded our bags in the room and went out to grab some grub. I guarantee I would have driven other friends batty by talking about all the Gordon Ramsay restaurants in the area, but Sue was pretty excited about it visiting one his places too. It meant a lot to me that we could share a mutual admiration for a pretty talented and darn handsome chef. That said, I knew Gordon Ramsay’s Fish & Chips was next to our hotel in the Promenade area between the Flamingo and the Linq hotels.

I ordered the traditional fish and chips combo with Mango Curry sauce and Gordon’s Tartar sauce. I’m not much of a Tartar sauce fan, but I gave it a shot. This was honestly the best fish & chips I’ve ever had. The batter on the fish was flavorful and the Tartar sauce tasted a lot like a garlic aioli. It was well worth the price.

Afterward, we strolled along the Strip, crossing over to Caesar’s Palace. While wandering around, we happened across the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant! Interestingly enough, I had planned our Las Vegas trip one Saturday while binging the latest season of Hell’s Kitchen so I knew this restaurant was the winner’s prize. Inside the restaurant, they had a video wall with Gordon talking and welcoming guests. They also had merchandise with phrases like “That’s [email protected]&ing delicious!” I was in heaven in Hell’s Kitchen!

Day 2 – They Don’t Call it Grand For Nothin’

We were up at the crack of dawn and ready to get this Wyndham breakfast thing out of the way. I was so mentally preoccupied with getting to our destination on time that I completely forgot my pajamas in the room. I sort of wish I had a little more glamorous and scandalous story, but I lost my sleepwear innocently in Vegas.

At the breakfast, we had no access to soft drinks. Not a huge deal, initially. We sat through the song and dance of the wonderful world of Wyndham. Exciting, but not for us. We tried to cut to the chase with Sue emphasizing that she wasn’t ready to invest in something right now. And yet, FOUR HOURS LATER, we finally got to leave. It was horrible because, at this point, we were both dying for some caffeine and on the verge of turning into Godzilla. I was ready to smash up the entire village.

We didn’t get escorted out or even pointed to the exit. No purchase, no help, I guess. I wandered around the Wyndham property trying to locate a stupid Coca-Cola vending machine while Sue secured our tickets. I returned to Sue empty-handed, but we did find a cafe while searching for an exit to the parking lot. Let me just say, those Diet Cokes never tasted so good!

We headed over to the MGM Grand to get our seats for KA before zipping off to the Grand Canyon. I ran into this massive hotel not realizing that the Consumer Electronics Show is happening in town. I weaved through guys in suits palming their electronic devices and adjusting their earbuds until I found the ticket gate. The female in customer service informed me rather coldly that I couldn’t get the tickets even though I had Sue’s driver’s license. I’m downright cranky at this point. So I called Sue, explained the situation, and she navigated her way to the tickets. After that, we got the heck out of Vegas.

Country Roads, Take Me Home

I was grouchy for a time, but the more caffeine I ingested and the more miles between us and Vegas, the better I felt. In fact, as we drove through the mountains and stopped at a spot to look at the Colorado River, I got overwhelmed. I teared up at all the beauty. I felt God calm my spirit and remind me that this is what life is about. Living.

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We continued to drive past mountains and long stretches without gas, food, or lodging options. It was refreshing to not have a CVS or a McDonald’s around every corner. As we climbed in altitude, it was amazing to see snow nearby in such a dry place.

The sun was beginning to set, so we pushed to make it to the Grand Canyon to see the last glimpse of sunlight there. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it. We did, however, go ahead and drive a bit through the park. As we crept along, an elk crossed our path. Then, a coyote slinked across the road. The wildlife was so active!

We turned down another road and saw a few people trying to get an elk out of the road. It happened so fast that it felt like some sort of surreal simulation game. I’ve never seen an elk that huge! In our retelling of what happened, we kept exaggerating the animal until it was the size of a wooly mammoth. I mean, it looked that big while we darted around it!

After a while, we were lost. Google Maps tried to put us down a sketchy dirt road. We attempted a small bit of it before we turned back to the paved main road. Dirt, snow, and ice in the Grand Canyon is probably not the safest combination of conditions for travel.

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Finally, we made it out of the park and off to The Grand Hotel. Of all the places we lodged, this was my favorite. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace and pieces of taxidermy everywhere in the lobby. The room had a ton of extras including a loofa scrubber, bath salts, mending kit, shaving kit, free water bottles, and a rubber ducky. It might be silly, but those are details I’ll never forget.

Famished, we went to the Canyon Star Steakhouse in the hotel. We enjoyed our pasta dinners while being entertained by a man dressed as a cowboy, singing on stage. He was exactly what we needed to end the day.

Day 3  – Even Grander in the Daytime

Since we missed the sunset, we opted for sunrise at the Grand Canyon. As the car defrosted, we enjoyed some tea around the fire in the lobby of the Grand.

In the car, I’m feeling giddy the closer we get to the canyon. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was cold. Either way, when we parked and stepped out of the car, I caught a glimpse of this grand masterpiece and was high as a kite.

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We chose Yavapai Point to see the sunrise and it was perfect. The sun peeked over a ridge and the canyon began to explode with color. I was overwhelmed again. This canyon was so massive and complex, it dwarfed me and all my problems. I wish I could describe it, but all the words I try to use don’t even come close to really being there. Seeing the Grand Canyon reminded me that there’s more out there. More life. More love. More of God’s amazing work. Just like there’s more inside of me.

After 5 minutes outside, my tea was ice cold. It was frigid, so we walked towards the patches of warm sun, stopping by each overlook and being completely moved every time. It was breathtaking and I never got tired of seeing the Grand Canyon from all its beautiful angles.

All Along the Watchtower

We stopped for breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge’s Harvey House Cafe where I savored an Arizonian version of Huevos Rancheros (black olives and green chilis). Bellies full, we drove up to the Desert View Watchtower.

The Desert View Watchtower was designed by Mary Colter, one of the early female architects. This watchtower was amazing and full of Native American history. My mom would have loved this visit as she always mentioned how much she adored Native American culture and wanted to go work on a reservation. I felt her with me there as I climbed the tower and looked over the Grand Canyon from up on high.

We went to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to ride the shuttle to a few points and overlooks. While waiting, ravens appeared everywhere. Even though ravens tend to be associated with death and bad luck, these ravens were, for me, a good omen. I did read that ravens were like mediators between the living and the dead. They were messengers reminding me to look skyward and soar. A message, I felt, from Mom.

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

The Beatles – Blackbird

Go Ahead and Jump!

We visited the Park Store for some supplies before making our trek to California. I grabbed some water, peppered beef jerky, and a bag of chips when suddenly, Van Halen’s “Jump” starts playing on the radio. The workers and I started rocking out! It was a fun moment that reinforced my belief in music bringing people together.

With our car full of snacks, we set our sights on Needles, California.

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