Monday, August 24, 2009

Are You Planning a Trip to Las Vegas?

If you’re looking for a silver lining to the Great Recession, look no further than the fantastic travel deals sprouting up everywhere in Las Vegas. When Las Vegas decided to increase its luxury quotient, the city took some heat for the corresponding rise in room rates and restaurant tabs. Now a savvy traveler can stay in first-class hotels and enjoy fine dining and shows for very reasonable rates.

I knew Las Vegas had some great deals, but I didn’t realize how great until I researched hotels and attractions for a couple of guides I posted on The advertised rates I saw made me wish I was booking a room on the Strip. The last time I stayed at the Mandalay Bay for a stay-cation, I was aghast at the room rates—but that was a few years ago.

If you’re researching a trip to any destination, I suggest visiting NileGuide. Their site combines multiple travel-related searches. Users can simultaneously check several travel sites for flights and rental cars (Expedia, Orbitz, etc.), and then research (and book) hotels, attractions, and shows using reviews gleaned from individuals, local experts, and sources like Frommers. NileGuide users can then create a customized itinerary that breaks down a trip day-by-day, stop by stop. Most of us who love to travel also like to read the reviews of hotels and attractions, and one of the things I like about NileGuide is that it carries reviews from professional travel writers/reviewers along with comments from regular folks.

Since I believe that I’m pretty well-informed about what to do in and around Las Vegas, I had a great time writing a couple of guides. If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Las Vegas, click over to NileGuide and see my recommendations on where to stay and what to do while you’re in town. One guide is a weekend escape without the kids, and one explores the outside adventures around the city.
Photo information: My pictures of the “Sirens of TI” show at the Treasure Island.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The 40th Anniversay of the Classic Movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Okay, I admit it--I have a special fondness for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the classic movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It's the first movie I remember seeing at the theater, and I was hooked from the opening credits until the final scene.

When I started exploring back roads and ghost towns around Las Vegas, I was delighted to find that part of the movie was shot near Las Vegas, in and around Zion National Park. Some of the scenes of Etta's home were filmed in the ghost town of Grafton, Utah. I became determined to find Grafton, and although I had to dig through maps and even get a little lost while searching for it, it was worth the effort. (I also found that Butch, Sundance, and Etta weren't the only actual historical characters mentioned in the movie. I was researching Caliente, Nevada, for an article and discovered that E.H. Harriman, who is mentioned frequently in the movie as the outraged railroad magnate, was involved in a railroad dispute in Caliente in the late 1800s.)

Here are some of my pictures, taken on a visit to Grafton a couple of years ago. Grafton is just outside Springdale and Zion, about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. The turn-off is not well-marked, and private individuals own much of the land in and around the ghost town. You'll see working farms and cattle wandering around if you visit. ~Photo information, from top to bottom: The Grafton Schoolhouse, which is being restored-- watch the movie and you'll see it in the background behind Etta's house; the privately owned home that is allegedly the place where the scenes of Butch (Paul Newman) and Etta (Katharine Ross) riding a bicycle were filmed; and two other buildings around Grafton--in sepia, in honor of the movie.~

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Las Vegas Mob Museum: An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Since I grew up in Las Vegas, I learned about the Mob at an early age. After my parents went to see The Godfather, they had an intense discussion back at home about the real people they thought Mario Puzo had based the characters on. My parents came to Las Vegas in the 1950s, and since my dad was a bartender, he knew a large assortment of shady characters.

I remember the day he proudly told me one of his cop friends had informed him that he was listed as a “known associate of organized crime figures.” He was beaming like he had just won a prize. Dad knew movie stars, famous singers, and a lot of cops, but he liked his mobster buddies the best. He was one of the first people I heard say that the town was better when the Mob ran things, long before that sentiment became a Las Vegas cliché. If Dad were still alive, you can bet that he would have loved the idea of The Mob Museum. He’d probably have been planning to be the first person in line when they open. (Currently scheduled for 2011.)

Recent newspaper articles have pointed out that here in Las Vegas, we’re rather proud of our Mob heritage. Our mayor played himself in the movie Casino. We have a street named after Bugsy Siegel. Although our mobsters arrived here from back East, you aren’t likely to see a Mob museum in Chicago or New York because they’re not so crazy about embracing their organized crime histories. Not so in Las Vegas, a place pleased to be known as the city founded by the Mob. (Technically that’s not true, but we’ve also got a reputation for playing with the facts just a little bit.)

I plan on visiting the Mob Museum when it opens. I think the redaction in the museum’s name is funny, probably owing to the years I spent working for Metro. I was never able to find any information on Dad being a “known associate,” but I did find his record for bookmaking in Los Angeles. He told me L.A. was a “wide open” town, not run by one specific family, unlike Kansas City, Detroit, or Tucson. His best friend in L.A. was a lieutenant with the LAPD, but according to Dad, they had an agreement that he would keep his business out of Uncle Willy’s precinct.

When Dad went to work as the bar manager at the Aladdin in the 1970s, I was too young to know that it was a clue about his connections. Not until after he passed away did I discover the Aladdin’s ties to the Mob. I just knew that I liked hanging out with the girls in harem costumes that he frequently assigned to baby-sit me while he went about his business. One of Dad’s friend owned a villa behind the Aladdin. The villas, as they were known, were a string of bungalows east of the hotel, and we got to visit his buddy’s villa and use the pool. And Dad mysteriously wound up driving a brand new Lincoln Mark V, right up until the day when the FBI showed up at our house to talk to him about his villa-owning pal, who also owned the Lincoln. After his friend wound up in a federal prison somewhere, the Lincoln disappeared.

In the late 1970s, Dad worked at a local bar allegedly run by a Chicago mobster. I remember my parents talking about one of the owner’s brothers having to disappear for a while, but I never got the details on whether it was because of law enforcement or a run-in with other mobsters. In the mid-1980s, after Dad no longer worked there, I was working at Metro when a couple of my friends and I stopped in that bar one night. One of my friends was an undercover cop. I made sure to say hello to the bar’s owner. “I’m Walt’s daughter,” I said, and he immediately recognized me. He stopped to chat for a minute and comp our drinks, and after he walked away, my cop friend looked at me incredulously. “You know him?” he asked. I explained that he was one of my Dad’s friends, and we left it at that.

My dad wasn’t circumspect about his “friends,” but my mom kept all her secrets to herself. Maybe that FBI visit did it. I was working on a story a couple of years ago, and I was trying to remember some of the famous mobsters Dad had known. Since Dad had passed away, I asked Mom. “Why don’t you just leave that part out,” she said.

“Mom, those people are dead,” I said.

“I know. I still don’t think you need to mention it,” she insisted. Mom was still alive when the idea for the Mob Museum surfaced, but I don’t remember her giving me an opinion about it. I’m pretty sure that if she were still around, she’d want to be in the front of the line on opening day just as much as Dad.
Photo information: My parents at Hoover Dam, circa 1959

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Tragedy in Death Valley

I cried this morning when I read the RJ’s front page story about Alicia Sanchez and her 6-year-old son, Carlos. According to the article, Alicia and Carlos were stranded in a remote section of Death Valley National Park on Saturday, August 1, after she took a wrong turn and her vehicle got stuck in a hole. On Wednesday, her little boy died. Alicia was rescued in time to save her own life, but according to the article, “she was just barely hanging on.” Speaking as a mother, I imagine that she probably didn’t care at that point if she came home or not. The mental images in my mind of what this poor woman and her little boy went through broke my heart.

The desert is a brutal place in summer. Death Valley got its name because of the deaths of pioneers (members of the ill-fated 49ers) attempting to traverse it—in December. It’s one of the hottest places on earth, and its wilderness is vast and lightly traveled, especially at this time of year. This tragic incident proves that it can still claim a life, and Carlos is the third person to die in Death Valley this year.

Alicia had food and water with her, knew to stay with her vehicle, and even hiked to a higher point in an attempt to get cell phone service. All those actions are just what you should do. Prior to getting stuck, she had changed a flat tire on her Jeep, so I have to think she is a capable woman—heck, she’s a nurse. Had it not been 119 degrees, I think she and her son would have survived their ordeal.

I’ve lived in the desert my entire life. I’ve explored plenty of dirt roads, several of them with just my 11-year-old son in my Jeep with me. I’ve been to Death Valley in summer. I wondered if I would have turned down that rugged, little-used dirt path that Alicia mistakenly took, the one that stranded her and took her son’s life. Authorities are wondering why she took that turn. They aren’t sure if she was following her GPS, if the GPS’ information was incorrect, or if she was simply adventurous. When she recovers, I’m sure they’ll have plenty of questions for her.

The desert is a beautiful, but harsh, environment. I encourage people to explore the Mojave, but I also tell them not to venture out in the middle of summer. Let’s remember that the 49ers were traveling in winter, and they still lost enough of their party to give the park its name. People underestimate what heat can do. Sensible, outdoors-smart people who would never dream of venturing into sub-zero weather often don’t think twice about driving off into a blisteringly hot desert. It’s easy to understand why. If you have plenty of water, a functioning vehicle with air conditioning and four wheel drive, a reasonable amount of survival knowledge, and the skies are clear, what’s to worry about? Plenty, as this case illustrates.

I like a dirt road just as much as the next person, but when you are traveling with no one other than a child, extra caution is warranted. Actually, I never go on any dirt roads in Death Valley without another adult. The last time we drove Titus Canyon Road, we had a two-vehicle party. Death Valley’s expanses are too remote to tackle alone. The park covers 3.3 million acres. It’s bigger than Yellowstone. Your chances of running into a park ranger or another person are very slim in the less-traveled parts of the park, like the Owl Hole Springs Road Alicia was exploring. Park rangers and other explorers are too few to count on, and cell phone reception is iffy throughout the park and non-existent in canyons. If she’d had another adult, would that have made a difference in this case? Possibly, but I doubt it. Had another adult been with her, she might have gotten the Jeep unstuck, or one adult might have hiked out (at night) to get help. Since she was approximately 30 miles from a paved road, however, that would have been a risky tactic.

I’ve read that one mistake in the wilderness often leads to another mistake, and another, compounding the situation until tragedy strikes. Venturing deeply into the desert in 120 degree heat without another adult is certainly not the best idea, if not a mistake. Continuing on after using your spare tire is definitely a mistake. If you’ve used your spare, turn around and go back unless you’re carrying another spare. Let’s just say she hadn’t gotten stuck in the road. What if she’d gotten another flat tire?

Let’s talk about GPS systems. Personally, I’d rather have a detail map any day. I took a good look at the detail map of Owl Hole Springs Road and felt sick to my stomach. I felt positive that if Alicia had been looking at the same map I was holding, she never would have taken that wrong turn. The sharp right turn is easy to spot on a map. On a GPS, I don’t know what information you get. If you want to explore off the beaten path, I encourage you to buy a good detail map, maybe two. You can pick up one at any bookstore. Four-wheel-driving experts also advise scouting ahead on foot when roads look questionable.

The desert is unforgiving. If you are new to the desert, I encourage you to research desert survival, perhaps even take a desert survival class. Obviously, water is number one on the list of essentials. Shade is also a necessity in the desert’s heat, and learning to build a suitable shade structure, conserve your energy, and signal for help can save your life. Always tell someone exactly where you are going and when you will be back, and make sure that person will notify authorities if you don’t return. Had Alicia's relatives not alerted authorities, she would have perished also. Unfortunately, because she left conflicting information about where she was camping and exploring, rescue efforts were hampered.

My heart aches for this brave mother and her little boy. To say she has my deepest sympathies is a huge understatement. "There but for the grace of God go I" definitely flashed through my mind. The Mojave is an awe-inspiring place, and I only wish she had chosen October instead of August to explore it.

Corrections and updates: In my original post, I erroneously reported Alicia's name as Anita. On August 14, 2009, the Las Vegas Review Journal corrected Carlos' age, which they originally reported as 11. He was 6. The Fox News Report cited the GPS prominently in their headline: "...Mom Says GPS Left Them Stranded in Death Valley."
Photo information: My photograph of Titus Canyon Road.